Handel (from Orchestral Splendours series)


Let me start by putting down my marker about the name of this most illustrious composer. He was born in Halle in Brandenburg in 1685 as Georg Friedrich Haendel. At age 21 he went to Italy for four years and first developed his career as a composer of Italian opera. He was then appointed kappelmeister to Prince George, Elector of Hanover but almost immediately obtained leave of absence to come to England in 1712 and then played hooky and stayed on indefinitely. In 1727 he became by Act of Parliament a naturalized British citizen and adopted the mainly English form of his name by which he was known, George Frideric Handel although the middle name is usually written as Frederick. So that is what I choose to call him from here going forward – (that’s the first time I’ve used that expression but everyone says it all the time on the Today programme). This business of the correct name can be tiresome. A person’s name is what it is, where it is and how a person chooses to be addressed. In Germany Handel would rightly be referred to under his German name. For most people in England, he is George but it is peculiar how the period music CD notes continue to refer to him as Georg Frideric as if otherwise it would not reflect the purity of authentic period music. There is another dimension to this. Not only was Handel as English almost as Elgar but dammit all he wrote the Hallelujah Chorus to which half the audience stands up, a quarter stick firmly to a bums on seat policy and the other quarter who are confused by it all and who are probably Japanese and are not quite certain whether to crouch or squat.. All of this because our German king stood up in wonderment at the first performance. And it was Handel who wrote Zadok The Priest for the coronation of George II in 1727 which has been played at every coronation since. And it was Georgy Porgy who was buried in Westminster Abbey. So he is English. He’s ours. So there!


In his series, Orchestral Splendours, Matthew has Handel sharing a platform with J S Bach who was born the same year and whom we can legitimately refer to as Johann, except his name was Sebastian. These two can be seeded as No 1 in the men’s doubles which brings me to another problem. To write of either is fine when each is the subject of a whole series. It gets tough just to touch fleetingly upon Handel when he wrote 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, and 16 organ concerti. Matthew will this time just be his putting his toe in the Water Music or rather the Music for the Royal Fireworks. One day he may decide to undertake a Handel term. So far he hasn’t, stating that it is not a problem he has with Handel so much as a problem Handel has with him. Until then this has to be a somewhat condensed biographical summary of George Frederick Handel.


He was the son of a barber-surgeon. That’s familiar. So was Monteverdi. Handel displayed a natural ability for music. His father had had in mind for him to become a lawyer, just like Rameau’s dad and Stravinky’s dad or my dad. Handel senior, who worked for the Margrave of Brandenburg forbade young Georg to play around with any musical instrument. I myself have never forgotten a picture in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia (1935) of Handel being discovered in his nightshirt at the top of the house, playing a clavichord. It was to this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep. Handel became a pupil in Halle of the composer Friedrich W. Zachow, learning from him the principles of. keyboard and composition. Handel’s father died when Handel was 11, but his education had been provided for and in 1702 he enrolled as a law student at the University of Halle and also became organist at the City’s Cathedral in Halle. A year later he moved on to Hamburg where he became a violinist in the opera orchestra and also filled in as a harpsichordist. It was there in 1705 that he wrote and presided over his first opera, Almira. 41 to go.


Handel spent the years 1706–10 travelling in Italy, where he met many of the greatest Italian musicians of the day, including Corelli and both Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti. He composed a number of works in Italy, including two operas, an oratorio and numerous cantatas written in Italian. Oratorio was a term which was not used until much later in his career but opera was banned in the Papal States and Handel switched to writing religious works for performance in Rome, and with great success. His fame spread throughout Italy, and his mastery of the Italian opera style now made him an international figure. In 1710 he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover but, before taking up these duties on his return from Italy, Handel journeyed to London where his opera Rinaldo was performed and greeted so enthusiastically that Handel sensed success by staying in England. Thinking about it, England offered an opportunity that did not exist in Germany. Publicly promoted box office opera and musical performance appeared more attractive than being a kappelmeister. Not much any way that the Elector could do about it. In 1712 Handel was given leave to return to London for the productions of further operas. On top of this, in 1713 following the Peace of Utrecht, he found his way into the Royal good books of Queen Anne with his Ode for the Queen’s Birthday and the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate. This resulted in a right royal annual allowance of £200. Handel’s dictum had been “Get a life” and here he was in London and had done so. What possible reason could there be to go back to Germany and what could the Elector do about it anyway! Ha ha.


Handel however had taken his eye off the ball rather like an Arsenal defender. Obviously he was no royal watcher and had no idea what would happen after Queen Anne waved good bye, or that under the Act of Settlement of 1701 her successor would be Princess Sophie, Electress of Hanover. Sophie was the daughter of Elizabeth, sister of Charles I and through whom the Protestant line was traced like a pure bloodstock auction in Newmarket. Queen Anne herself had produced no successors. The poor woman had had 17 pregnancies ending in miscarriages in as many years as well as a greater number of still births. Her one son who survived infancy, William, died in 1701. Anne did not give up on it until her husband, Prince George of Denmark, died in 1708, presumably from exhaustion. It was for Prince George that Jeremiah Clarke wrote his trumpet voluntary, The Prince of Denmark’s March. Sophie was therefore the heiress in expectancy to the throne of the United Kingdom and Ireland except that she died two months before the death of Queen Anne in 1714. So you can imagine the shock and horror that Handel had on opening his newssheet to learn that the new king would be Princess Sophie’s son, George, the Elector of Hanover, his old boss, now elevated to being George I. Ha ha.


For the next few years Handel kept a low profile and in particular held back on new opera. In 1717 he had a cool reception from the King but no sign of retribution or being taken to Tyburn! In 1717 Handel composed his Water Music and it was performed more than three times on the Thames for the King and his guests. It is said the compositions spurred reconciliation between the King and Handel. The Water Music is one of the best known of Handel’s purely orchestral music alongside his Music for the Royal Fireworks thirty years later. Nowadays both are played delectably as original Handel but in my younger days the composer was always Handel-Harty, a full modern symphony version of the original as orchestrated by Sir Hamilton Harty and which in its day served as the only acceptable way to play Handel in those modern times. Actually it was tastefully arranged but now there is no reason to suppose that Handel needs Harty to come to the aid of the party. 1717 also saw Handel become the inhouse composer for the Duke of Chandos at his country seat at Cannons near Stanmore, right up at the end of the Jubilee Line to be. The Duke had built the house between 1713 and 1724 at a cost of £200,000 (equivalent to about £25,000,000 give or take today). Here Handel composed his twelve Chandos Anthems. These are said to be an important foundation for his later oratorios. They are best played at high volume in a car. It was for the Duke that Handel got back to opera with Acis and Galatea, a delightful work based on Greek myth with theatrical effects of thunder. During Handel’s lifetime it was actually his most performed work. In 1719 the Duke of Chandos became one of the main subscribers to Handel’s new opera company, the Royal Academy of Music, but his patronage declined after he lost money in the South Sea bubble, which went plop in 1720 in one of history’s greatest financial cataclysms. Fortunately Handel, who himself had invested in South Sea stock in 1716 when prices were low, sold out before the bubble burst. So Handel was not only a successful composer but could play the Footsie as well. Following the first Duke’s death in 1744, Cannons passed to his son, the second Duke, Henry. Due to the losses from the South Sea Bubble and the cost of building Cannons there was little capital in Henry’s inheritance. So in 1747 he held a twelve-day demolition sale at Cannons which saw both the contents and the very structure of the house itself sold piecemeal leaving little more than a ruin. The building which replaced it is now occupied by North London Collegiate School.


In 1723 Handel moved into a house at 25 Brook Street, which he rented for the rest of his life. This house, where he rehearsed, copied music and sold tickets, is now the Handel House Museum owned by a Trust and thankfully the Nationwide Building Society were moderate having regard to property prices in Central London. During twelve months between 1724 and 1725, Handel wrote three outstanding and successful operas, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda, the last named having received a semi staged production by Jonathan Miller at the Blackheath Halls. Handel obviously loved Brook Street but it was a little too early in time for him to be able to sample the company down the road at the Savile Club or dine at Claridges.


From May 1719 and for some ten years after, Handel was engaged with the Royal Academy of Music, not the present teaching academy, but a joint stock company run and controlled by aristocrats looking to introduce opera seria into England. Hitherto this country was rather barren as regards opera and most of them , Purcell included, were more musical theatre. The Lord Chamberlain was put in charge, indicating the interest of the King, and he commissioned Handel to look for new singers. With all the skills of a modern day football manager Handel travelled to Dresden and attended their newly built opera. Here he filched a number of members of the cast, mainly Italian, for his Royal Academy of Music. His main targets were the soprano Francesca Cuzzzoni and the castrato, Sensimo whose demands but not his voice were far too high. He followed on a year or two later. Handel was then voted to be the manager of the company. Its performances largely took place at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket built in 1705 by John Vanbrugh and was later renamed Her Majesty’s. A number of Handel’s operas were revived but the company also recruited for orchestral work the composer, Bononcini whose operas were also successful. There was certainly a personality clash between Handel and Bononcini as there would be later between Handel and Sensino after this wonder castrato arrived. But darling, isn’t that what you expect in the theatre?


In 1727 George 1 died and was succeeded by George II. Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony which included Zadok the Priest. In 1728 John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera ran at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in theatre history up to that time. This was more musical theatre than opera but its success was its audacity, satire and that it was in English, a language the audience could understand. After nine years the Royal Academy of Music ceased to function and was wound up. Apart from the loss of popularity for Italian opera and changing fashion most of its wealthy patrons were not getting any return on their money and most of them were still suffering losses from the South Sea Bubble. Oddly enough Handel had re-invested in South Sea and sold up and made a quick return on his investment in order to finance a new company start up of his own.


Handel again travelled to engage new singers mainly from Italy and also composed seven more operas, few of which are known today. In particular he was looking to sign up Faustina to replace Cuzzoni. When the going gets tough, the tough get going and the next few years were tough going for GFH. He and John Rich had hired the Covent Garden theatre and set out each season with new and old compositions which sometimes ran only for up to seven performances. On top of this there was competition from other royal patronage.. The Opera for the Nobility was strongly backed by Frederick, Prince of Wales, whilst Handel had his support from the King. This reflected the rivalry going on in the Palace. This latter group engaged equally famous musicians such as Nicola Porpora and the famous castrato, Farinelli, who was all the rage. Castrati came mainly from Italy until the practice was banned there in 1780. Castration took place before puberty and therefore the adult voice never developed but it is not apparently a child’s voice or a female voice. It was a     powerful high male voice and can only be imagined as there are no recordings by which one can know. Most finished up as common or garden cathedral singers and were not allowed to marry. Some like Sensivo and Farinelli became the superstars of their age. Eunuchs were different. They lost their wherewithal after puberty and retained their broken voices but they were a safe bet not only about the harem but also in Government in that they could not produce dynasties of their own.


With opera production failing Handel started a move in a new direction round about 1734.. He was in the course of writing an opera called “Mordecai” which he changed to “Esther”. It was during its preparation that it was thought better to switch from dramatic stage performance to one where the singers and the main protagonists stood on the stage in their own clothes and sung the music. One good reason was that the words were in English and the audience just loved it. It was to all intents and purposes a concert performance and there were many who preferred to listen to the music without watching the melodramatics on stage. Another good reason perhaps was that there still existed in England a puritanical tradition with some who did not believe in dressed up men playing women and women playing men prancing about on the stage with painted faces. This form of opera in plain clothes, called oratorio, was more sober and at the same time musically more exciting as it allowed the choral forces to let rip and the orchestra to be heard instead of sitting in the pit below, Thus was the English oratorio born. It was not necessarily limited to stories from the bible as is generally thought although the bible has so many blood and thunder stories it remained a source of inspiration for Handel. Following Esther, there was Deborah, the first of the women judges and the charming lady Jael who gave Sisera some milk in her tent and while he was asleep hammered a tent-pin through his temple. This was followed by Athalia based on a play by Racine. It’s all about Jeraboam and Rhiaboam and Jehosaphat and….well you can read all about it in Chronicles 4 and the second book of Kings. Suddenly the oratorio was here to stay. Just like the operas before them, they came one by one. There was happy, happy Solomon who dispensed justice to the two women fighting over which of them was the mother; there is Saul which has the wonderful Dead March and how much better it sounds on original instruments than played by the massed bands of the brigade of guards as at Winston Churchill’s funeral. Then there was Joshua with fantastic trombones playing as the walls of Jericho come crashing down. From Joshua we get “See the Conquering Hero Come” which was so good that Handel used it again in Judas Maccabaeus, quite my favourite oratorio There were non biblical oratorios as well, the best known being Semele with “Wher’er you Walk” which I learned at primary school. What these oratorios brought besides their colourful orchestration were the choruses always described as rousing which they are. Oddly enough it took me a long time to get round to buying Handel discs. I was left with a prejudice from school days and a school performance of “Messiah” when I was twelve. I loved it and hated it at the same time, a Jewish boy singing about the Messiah made me uncomfortable as did the sound of the school orchestra. Messiah is different from the others. They are all action packed with rivers of blood and earthquakes and the killing of the first born. Messiah when you think about it has no action and yet it turned out to be his most popular creation. It was first performed in Fishamble Street Dublin with probably no more than 60 or so participants, a far cry from what it ultimately grew into. Handel bequeathed the score to his favourite charity, “The Foundling Hospital”. This establishment was created by Royal Charter in 1739, by Captain Thomas Coram a successful shipwright who had returned to England after a lifetime working in the New World.  London was awash with abandoned children, by upper class getting rid of them, lower class not being able to afford them, prostitutes who knew little about birth control. Coram had been appalled by sights in the streets of London. From the start the charity benefited from the patronage of the arts; Hogarth was a founder governor, donating paintings to the Hospital. Handel, also a founding governor, gave benefit concerts in the Hospital Chapel to which he donated the chapel organ.


The Messiah is standard fare for Christmas and it may therefore come as a shock to learn that it was first played at Easter. Handel did not actually write the Messiah as a piece of Christmas music. Only the first part of Charles Jennens’ text relates to the birth of Jesus. The rest is to do with death and resurrection. The first performance in Dublin took place in April at Easter and that remained the practice until someone thought what a good idea it would be to play it at Christmas as well. So here I add another idea of my own. Christmas and Chanukah (the Jewish Festival of the Lights) always come round about the same time. Judas Maccabaeus is the Chanukah story, albeit written by Handel to reflect the general stress when Bonny Prince Charlie’s forces had got as far south as Derby. I would suggest a festival, at Blackheath Halls perhaps, conducted by Matthew Taylor no less, with Messiah for Christmas and Judas Maccabeus for Chanukah.

The late 1730’s saw the dissolution of Handel’s opera company and his going into partnership for a third company at the Drury Lane Theatre. He suffered an apparent stroke from which he recovered after taking the waters in Aachen. In 1737 he wrote funeral music on the death of the Queen Caroline, wife of George II. She had been Princess Wilhelmina Charlotte Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, daughter of the Margrave of Brandenburg – you’ve heard of him. She came to England on the accession of George I and became Princess of Wales. The pub on Montpelier Row was named after her and her likeness on the pub sign opposite was to be observed until quite recently when it was replaced by that of Diana, Princess of Wales. Neither the present Polish manager nor the brewers show any concern.


Handel also wrote orchestral music to be played during the intervals of his oratorios. These took on a separate life as his six concerti grossi opus 6, superb works which stand alongside Bach or Corelli. Likewise his organ concertos were written for playing during the intervals, as in Alexander’s Feast. My first hearing of one such concerto was at the Royal Albert Hall on its great organ with full symphony orchestra under Sargent, alright for Saint Saëns but not for the Cuckoo and the Nightingale or The Harmonious Blacksmith. Handel’s are chamber concertos and the organ no larger than that of a small wardrobe. Handel took his with him to Dublin for the Messiah.


To celebrate the end of the War of the Spanish Succession Handel wrote the Music for the Royal Fireworks for a display at Vauxhall Gardens attended by 12,000 people. Handel’s last years were beset by deteriorating eyesight made worse by a cataract operation carried out by the same charlatan who treated J S Bach. Should have gone to Spec Savers.. He died, a bachelor, in Brooke Street in 1759, the year that Wolfe defeated the French at Quebec. . He left over seventy paintings in his collection. At his request he was buried in Westminster Abbey.


The Handel story ends and begins with his death, resurrection and apotheosis. From the late 18th century there was a revival with performances growing in magnitude. The Messiah became the bedrock of England’s musical greatness and expanded with the 19th century. Gargantuan performances took place at the centenary performance for Handel’s death in 1859. Thousands ascended to the Crystal Palace as late as 1926 to see Henry Wood with three and a half thousand singers and an orchestra of five hundred players . It had grown into an over bloated leviathan which Wood and the audiences accepted as the gospel. Wood always claimed that this was what Handel would have wanted had he had the resources. From Victorian times choral societies sprouted north and south of the Watford Gap and Handel united the nation. The best example of this is perhaps the town of Huddersfield. Known only otherwise as the birthplace of Harold Wilson and for a modest rugby league team it would not have been heard of had there never been the Huddersfield Choral Society famed for its singing of the Messiah. Huddersfield without the Hallelujah is like Bakewell without the Pudding.  As for George Frederick Handel, or whatever handle you wish to accord, maybe Matthew Taylor should turn on the road to Damascus but not to Huddersfield.