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 …

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