George F. Handel
George F. Handel; drawing by David Levine

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.

Landon writes with a generous measure of enthusiasm, and his preface, in which he denounces continental ignorance of Handel and contrasts the admirable recording by Kuijken of Partenope3 with an all-star Brucknerian version of Hercules, raises high hopes. But all too often he reveals a sad unfamiliarity with the Handelian scene. A conspicuous example is his reference to “the latest fad for superimposing cadences over the vocal parts in recitatives,” against which he cites Haydn’s instruction to his singers to do the opposite in 1768. Naturally: the practice had changed about the middle of the century. Continuo cantatas would not have been accompanied by cello and/or violone and double bass, but instead would have been performed by cello or viola da gamba (with harpsichord). Landon draws incorrect conclusions from watermarks in the autographs of Apollo and Dafne and the three versions of the Fireworks overture. In lifting material from Deutsch he has taken over many errors as well, especially on the voices of singers.4

It is odd to find Landon’s attitude to the music reflecting that of fifty or even a hundred years ago. His favorite Handel is the blockbuster of the Coronation Anthems, Israel in Egypt, the Fireworks Music and the double concertos, and of course Messiah. He is entitled to his preferences, but they distort the book. Whole chapters are allotted to the Water Music, the Coronation Anthems, and the Fireworks Music, and two to Messiah (there are only fourteen in all). We are given a thematic index of the Water Music, a complete order of service and much descriptive detail about the coronation, many press announcements on the Dublin visit, and all three lists of performers in the Foundling Hospital Messiah. Some of this material appears twice, and nearly all is easily available elsewhere. Landon is so obsessed with the ceremonial music (admittedly excellent of its kind) that he calls the Coronation Anthems “a distinct watershed in Handel’s musical life,” whereas they were clearly a sideshow, and he almost ignores the operas, though acknowledging their importance for Handel.

The long chapter on Handel’s years in Italy is justified by their seminal importance and by recent discoveries, especially about his work for Ruspoli and other Roman patrons. But here a King Charles’s head protrudes in the form of a Great Roman Vespers, “now in the process of publication by the University Press, Cardiff,” and acclaimed as one of the great musical discoveries of our age. So much hot air has been generated on this subject that it needs to be dispersed by the facts. In 1959 the late James Hall drew attention to a link between several of Handel’s Latin church settings and a festival in honor of the Carmelite order, held in July 1707 in the church of S. Maria di Monte Santo at the expense of Cardinal Colonna. That is correct as far as it goes. But there is no evidence that Handel composed a large Vespers cycle for that occasion, much less two. The undoubted Carmelite works are two short antiphons for First Vespers (the only recent discovery, though Handel was long known to have set them), two well-known psalms for Second Vespers, Laudate pueri and Nisi Dominus, and a motet, Saeviat tellus, that could have been sung in either service. A manuscript of this has been in the British Library since the nineteenth century. The Dixit Dominus, composed some months earlier, and the motet Salve Regina, written for Ruspoli in June, could have been incorporated in the Carmelite service. Even one complete Vespers cycle would have required a great deal more music than this. No doubt in 1707 the missing antiphons, psalms, and canticles (including a Magnificat) were sung to the appropriate plainchant, as they were in a recent Rome performance and a BBC broadcast. The Cardiff publication is a synthetic affair containing two orchestral movements taken from Roman works unconnected with the Carmelites.

Keates calls his book “a compilation rather than an original contribution to Handel studies,” and claims (correctly) to have used recent scholarly discoveries. Many of these (by no means all) are acknowledged in the notes, ostensibly confined to identifying material not in Deutsch’s book. This is a biography directed at the general reader, with a commentary on each major work but no music examples. It is full of exotic background information, some of it—such as the contents of the Duke of Chandos’s cellar—of questionable relevance. Keates writes in a flowery and highly colored, not to say chromatic, style colored, not to say chromatic, style that may grate on some readers. While he does not sink to Sir Newman Flower’s method of putting words into Handel’s mouth, his confident assertions about thoughts and motives sometimes come perilously close to the procedure of the novelist rather than the historian. However plausible these conjectures—and Keates is never obtuse or tendentious—it would have been wiser to leave the reader to draw his own conclusions from the facts; when subjected to embroidery and overinterpretation they lose their hard edge.

A similar approach mars some of his musical pronouncements, especially about Handel’s contemporaries. Like the late Paul Henry Lang, he tends to jump to conclusions and to state as a fact what at best is an inspired guess. He says that Handel in Rodrigo made a conscious effort to imitate Giacomo Perti and Alessandro Scarlatti, that he responded most eagerly to the music of Antonio Lotti and Francesco Gasparini, that Agostino Steffani’s “influence on Handel bit far more deeply than that of any other living Italian musician.” Handel was certainly influenced by Scarlatti (though not particularly in Rodrigo), and there may be something in the other claims; but in the absence of clinching evidence they are shots in the dark. We are given a summary dismissal of the so-called Neapolitan style of the 1720s, and it would be interesting to know on what grounds Keates detects “colourless efficiency” in Attilio Ariosti’s Coriolano, an opera of considerable merit. It is misleading to state that Handel remained loyal to the Venetian style of Agrippina throughout his subsequent career; the heroine’s “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” is flexible, but certainly not “deliberately formless”—indeed its effect depends on the manipulation of a strict form. Handel is unlikely to have suggested the tripartite plan of Muzio Scevola, the opera of which he wrote only the third act, and there is no evidence of personal animosity between him and Giovanni Bononcini, who wrote the second. There are a few errors of fact, mostly of little consequence.5

Keates genuinely loves Handel’s music, and his picture of the man and his work will command wide assent. On some works, for example the opera Orlando and the oratorios Athalia and Saul, he writes with fine understanding, and from time to time he hits on a striking parallel, comparing the poignancy of Bajazet’s death in Tamerlano to that of King Lear, and Jephtha’s accompanied recitative “Deeper and deeper still,” in the oratorio Jephtha, to a nervous breakdown in music. It is a pity that elsewhere he overplays his hand with sweeping assertions. He will not seriously mislead readers, though he may leave their heads full of question marks. The book has a poor index and ignores Italian accents.

Strohm’s book is a collection of twelve essays written between 1972 and 1984, all but one previously published in German, Italian, or English and now brought up to date. They deal with Alessandro Scarlatti, Gasparini, Vivaldi, and Leonardo Vinci as well as handel, and are of great importance in helping to clarify the background against which Handel worked and the conventions to which he subscribed. Although Scarlatti’s name is the most familiar, at least where opera is concerned, Strohm sees him as standing apart, belonging to no school and founding none, his contrapuntal style “acting as a mirror to the past.” His only operas for Venice, then (1707) the principal center in Italy, both failed miserably; the only important composer he influenced was Handel, who likewise is untypical of his age.

Strohm finds the roots of Handel’s operatic style not so much in Venice (despite Agrippina, performed there in 1709–1710) as in the traditions of Florence and especially Rome, and also in the French-influenced German courts, rightly pointing out that German music had long been subject to Italian influence as well. He throws light on the vexed question of the “Neapolitan” style by stressing the disruptive effects of the War of the Spanish Succession, which by depriving musicians of their security in courts and cities (especially Naples) provoked about 1710 a kind of diaspora that ultimately affected the whole of Europe. The last word has not been written on this subject; we need to know more about the operas of the next decade and how the cross-fertilization worked.

The two most substantial essays, apart from one on Vivaldi as an opera producer, deal with Handel’s Italian opera texts and his pasticcios (operas consisting of old arias, often by a number of composers, linked by new recitative). The former essay in particular has already performed an invaluable service to all Handel scholars by its identification not only of the source librettos but of the particular versions chosen by Handel. (The text of every production reflected the different tastes of the composer, his singers, and his audience.) Very often they prove to be not the most recent: some date back to the beginning of the century, or even earlier. This links up significantly with what Strohm considers a problem, Handel’s preference for texts by Zeno and Metastasio in his pasticcios but avoidance of them in his own operas (he set three librettos by Metastasio, all in 1728–1731, and only one by Zeno, but all nine of his pasticcios are drawn from these two authors). While he was happy to share with his public the latest developments on the Continent, his imagination responded most readily to the elements the reforming librettists were most concerned to banish—magic, spectacle, comedy. He admired the music of Vinci and Johann Adolf Hasse—it was he who introduced Vinci to London in the Elpidia pasticcio of 1725—and adopted their “Neapolitan” style more frequently than Strohm implies, for example in the arias composed for Carestini and later Andreoni, while by some mysterious alchemy integrating it with his own.

There was another element in the Metastasian libretto that was repugnant to him. As Strohm demonstrates in two penetrating essays, Metastasio and his favored composers Vinci and Hasse regarded drama as paramount in opera, but not in the usual sense. Metastasio developed character and motivation in his long recitatives, leaving the arias to express generic states of mind (hence the numerous similes); he and Zeno treated their librettos almost as spoken plays with songs, and were happy to have them performed without any music at all. To them, and to the composers, the articulation of the text was more important than the expression of emotion. It was thus possible to adapt old arias with parodied words to new, different, and utterly opposed dramatic situations, as Hasse did without scruple in his setting of Alessandro nell’Indie (Cleofide).

Such a procedure in new compositions would have been unthinkable to Handel (he did occasionally transfer an aria with parodied words from one opera or context to another, but far less frequently than his continental contemporaries). He was not content to leave character to the recitatives, which in any case were unpopular in London, and to write neutral arias. Gifted with a profound insight into the intricacies of human character, he needed to express this in fully developed musical terms, in the arias. He incorporated undercurrents of emotional conflict which the librettist had expressed in the preceding recitative, and then sometimes omitted the recitative. This, as Strohm observes, probably accounts for the complexity and density of expression in his arias. It also represents a radically different approach to musical drama, and not only distinguishes Handel from the Italians but (aided by his wonderful inventive powers) raises him far above them and justifies revival of his operas while theirs remain interesting historical curiosities. He is a great opera composer because, not satisfied with accurately declaimed texts and detachable arias, he created memorable characters that develop in the course of the action and taut dramatic conflicts whose validity remains undimmed by time.

This Issue

December 19, 1985