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A Handle on Handel

Handel

by Christopher Hogwood
Thames and Hudson, 312 pp., $19.95

Handel and his World

by H.C. Robbins Landon
Little, Brown, 256 pp., $29.95

Handel: The Man and his Music

by Jonathan Keates
St. Martin’s, 346 pp., $19.95

Essays on Handel and Italian Opera

by Reinhard Strohm
Cambridge University Press, 303 pp., $49.50

Major anniversaries of great composers are apt to agitate the pens of journalists, critics, and musicologists, often with disappointing results. Occasionally we are confronted with an important study, which has of necessity been planned long in advance. More frequently an author, stimulated perhaps by a publisher with an eye for the main chance, puts together a work based on long-known facts and anecdotes, seasoned with such fruits of recent scholarship as he has been able to gather and adorned with lavish illustrations. In any event the anniversary is likely to do part of the publisher’s work and sell more copies than would be the case in an uncanonical year, since the composer’s music will be thrust constantly before the public in festivals, concerts, radio performances, and recordings, and if his life yields enough edifying or scandalous material, television is unlikely to miss its opportunity.

Among this year’s many anniversaries—the tercentenary of the births of J.S. Bach, Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti, the quatercentenary of Schütz’s birth and Tallis’s death, the 250th anniversary of J.C. Bach’s birth and the centenary of Alban Berg’s—Handel’s has received particular attention in the English-speaking world. There are many reasons for this, quite apart from his naturalization and the status of Messiah as a British institution. He was a great cosmopolitan, who worked in Germany, Italy, and England, set texts in six languages, and enriched the whole of European culture. He was immensely prolific in virtually every field. Unlike that of his predecessors and contemporaries, his music—some of it—has never been out of the repertory. As a result, he presents to history a formidable persona, built up continuously over the generations. That this persona is fundamentally distorted does not diminish its presence, of which few persons with any pretensions to culture can be unaware.

Yet he remains the least known of the great composers, not only to the general public but to many musicians. As Bernard Shaw remarked in 1890, “We know rather less about him in England than they do in the Andaman Islands, because the Andamans are only unconscious of him, whereas we are misconscious.” To a considerable extent that still applies, in Germany and the United States as well as Britain. The principal reason is the false persona and the air of permanence it has acquired: the pompous bewigged figure, upholder of Church and State and dispenser of the moral law, still partly eclipses the great nature poet, the master of subtle irony, and the musical dramatist who most nearly approaches Mozart in penetrating the secrets of the human heart. If ever there was a candidate for reassessment by modern scholarship, it is Handel.

Much work has indeed been done, especially on the documentation of his life and works. Performances of the oratorios are no longer confined to Messiah, Israel in Egypt, and one or two other old favorites. His orchestral music has been cleaned of its heavy varnish and restored to circulation. The operas, unperformed for nearly two centuries, and traditionally despised as a species of artistic dinosaur incapable of locomotion, are no longer a rarity: all but one (out of forty) have reached the stage in modern times, many of them repeatedly and in several countries. Yet the situation is not satisfactory. Handel scholarship lags far behind that of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and other great composers, especially in the publication of accurate texts and the elucidation of performance practice. It is a long time since we had a comprehensive study of Handel’s music or any major part of it. A cynic might observe that German scholars since Chrysander have neglected him because he was the one great composer of German birth who got away. If so, that is all the more reason for the English-speaking countries to enter the breach. After all, Handel died an Englishman and wrote by far the largest proportion of his music in every field (except the cantata) for audiences in London.

This backwardness, while not affecting the demand for his music, has gravely impaired the performance, especially of the operas. However high we rank them in Handel’s output, they were unquestionably his central preoccupation for the greatest part of his creative life. Even after abandoning them he remained before all else a man of the theater. Although we know a good deal about the working of the Baroque theater, so different in many important respects from that of today, attempts to examine Handel’s music in the light of this knowledge and put the results into practice have been fitful. Handel societies and university music departments, inspired by the enthusiasm of a few scholars and performers, have tried their best to do justice to his dramatic works, only to be frustrated by limited resources. Not so the major opera companies in Britain and the United States. Slow to take up the challenge in the first place, and reluctant to trust Handel either as composer or dramatist, they have adopted all manner of shifts and compromises, cutting and reshuffling the music and reducing the drama to near-nonsense, out of a fear that neat Handel might prove too much for the queasy stomachs of a modern audience. The Germans, who led the movement for reviving the operas in the 1920s, saddled themselves with an extra problem by adopting a performance style halfway between realism and post-Wagnerian romanticism, based on ponderous recitatives, frequent drop curtains, and the transposition of all high male parts into the lower octave. This tradition, as disastrous as that which crippled the oratorios in Victorian England, has scarcely been shaken even today, though one or two hopeful signs have appeared very recently.

A new danger now threatens in all three countries in the person of the director who places himself above the composer and insists on treating every production as a stamping ground for his ego, at whatever cost to the opera. We are unlikely to appreciate Handel to the full until we come to terms with the operas: we can never achieve this until conductors and directors recognize that their greatness derives from Handel’s manipulation of the specialized and rebarbative convention of opera seria, and decide to work with that convention instead of rejecting it as unworkable or deliberately subverting it.

Three of the books under review make no attempt to grapple with such issues. Only Reinhard Strohm’s collection of essays, the work of an outstanding scholar who has made important contributions to the musical history of three different periods, honors the tercentenary by adding appreciably to our knowledge of Handel. It would however be unjust to blame the others for not achieving what they do not attempt. All three share enthusiasm for Handel’s music and are dismayed by the neglect of large tracts of it, though they are not in complete agreement about what those tracts are. They set out not to make discoveries but to draw our attention to what has been obscured or forgotten and what we may have missed. Christopher Hogwood is best known as a conductor and harpsichordist, H.C. Robbins Landon as a Haydn scholar, Jonathan Keates as a critic and writer of fiction. To some extent their normal preoccupations condition their approach.

Hogwood’s and Landon’s books are primarily documentary biographies; that is, they use contemporary documents as backbone, appending such comments on the life and the music as they think fit. This method has advantages and disadvantages. Provided the documents are not too selectively used, it keeps the narrative close to fact, inhibits the more extravagant flights of fancy, and supplies a framework of reliable evidence. But it cannot give a complete picture. Its coverage is erratic, since so many documents have been accidentally lost, and what survives may not be typical. Recorded anecdotes may reveal character or motive, but much more is likely to remain concealed. Interpretation is essential, especially on the music, about, which contemporary comment, if it survives at all, is often trivial or superficial. Unless enlivened by a particularly spirited (or outrageous) commentary, such a book may strike the nonspecialist reader as disjointed, flat, or dry. Moreover, since nearly all the available material is to be found in Otto Erich Deutsch’s documentary biography,1 and will be familiar to all Handelians and many others, the entire enterprise runs the risk of appearing barren.

Neither author adds anything of importance to the record, though their selection from the documents naturally reflects a personal slant. Both books—Landon’s especially—are sumptuously illustrated. Hogwood’s has a useful map of Europe in Handel’s day. His is the better balanced, and the more sensitive to recent research. It has the further advantage of a chronological appendix compiled by Anthony Hicks, listing in two columns the principal events in Handel’s life and the dates and details of performances of his works. Hogwood spices his account with the choicest anecdotes, some of them enclosed in boxes at random throughout the text. His comments are generally accurate and sensible, but too sparing with regard to the music. He and Landon both confuse the two Smiths: the father was Handel’s secretary, amanuensis, and principal copyist, though the son did some copying as a boy and assisted Handel in his old age. Both state incorrectly that the celebrated castrato Nicolini took Rinaldo to Dublin; it has never been performed there. Hogwood makes a few slips of his own.2

Hogwood’s most interesting chapter is the last, “Handel and Posterity.” Much of this is familiar, but he has unearthed some interesting letters from the India Office Library in which one Joseph Fowke, writing to his daughter from Calcutta, recalled Handel’s precise attitude to tempo and rhythm.

Take notice that in Handel’s C time Allegro the Crotchet may be nearly valued by the beat of an old Man’s pulse…. I have a perfect remembrance of Handel’s manner, whose greatest beauty in these movements was a very even finger; so that in the subdivisions the semiquavers were precisely of the same value.

There are unfamiliar quotations from Charles Burney, but his emphasis on the operas in his General History of Music cannot, as Hogwood claims, be owing to their availability in Arnold’s edition of Handel’s work, which included only four of them. It is good to be reminded by Hogwood that not everyone in nineteenth-century England talked nonsense about Handel. Mendelssohn in 1835 proposed to restore the original scoring of Messiah, removing the “flutes and clarinets which make me shudder,” and ten years later refused to tamper with dynamics and expression marks in his edition of Israel in Egypt for the London Handel Society. George Grove in an obituary of Sir Michael Costa (1884) damned his interpolations in Handel’s works as “shameful…brutal and monotonous,” and declared roundly that “his ignorance was astounding.”

Hogwood notes the dismal record of the gramophone companies—compounded in this of all years by a scandalously mutilated Tamerlano from CBS—but he is not always well informed about stage performances in living memory. To say of the Cambridge oratorio productions of the 1930s that “the actions of the main characters were set against a religious background, rather than the atmosphere of emotional crisis which provided the mainspring of Handel’s drama in the operas,” is to stand the truth about these productions on its head. A staged performance of Esther was not just a possible plan in 1732: it took place, though not in the opera house.

  1. 1

    Handel: A Documentary Biography (1955; reissued by Da Capo, 1974).

  2. 2

    Nero was not the only castrato part in Agrippina, nor did Berenice have the shortest run of any Handel opera (Imeneo holds that dubious distinction). Pepusch’s Venus and Adonis did not remain unstaged; it had twelve performances (not all complete) in 1717–1719 and four more in 1725. The financial position of the Royal Academy was by no means desperate from the start; for an opera company funded by subscription it lasted a suprisingly long time, and even paid a dividend in one season. The cast of Serse was hardly “prestigious,” apart from Caffarelli. Morell’s famous letter about the oratorios is given two dates, 1764 (which is impossible) on one page, 1770 on another.

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