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The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia
The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia

Cambridge University Press, 2009
860 pp., $221.00

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David Martin

The Handel Revolution

A great composer reconceived.

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Handel's reception raises other interesting sociological questions, one of which relates to the kind of national piety in England which, from the 1784 Handel commemorations on, increasingly raised a German composer to the status of national icon. This iconic status is well represented by Roubiliac's statue of him in Westminster Abbey, inscribed "I know that my Redeemer liveth." I have suggested elsewhere that Handel was assimilated to British nationalism in the Victorian age, and that this confident and expansive spirit found its expression partly in the world of the great choirs of the cities of northern industrial England and the mining valleys of Wales, places suffused with evangelical piety, and partly in the monster Handel celebrations regularly held at the Crystal Palace. This kind of mass choralism barely survived World War I, and the celebrations came to an end in 1926. There was a rising curve of Victorian religion that went in tandem with the rising curve of the imperial enterprise, even though it also nurtured many of its critics, and this swept Handel into its orbit. I remember very well revived expressions of British national feeling in World War II that featured northern choirs singing the Hallelujah Chorus, as well as the 1942 propaganda film The Great Mr. Handel. This film not only expressed the traditional view of Handel's "conversion" in the composition of Messiah but inserted some current social criticism of uncomprehending social and ecclesiastical élites. In 1985, John Osborne wrote a play and filmscript about Handel entitled God Rot Tunbridge Wells that put the phrase into Handel's mouth, "I gave them [the English] their religion." No doubt it would be possible to trace the role of Handel in German religion and German nationalism, though he does not fit the German approved cultural narrative as well as the genealogy that runs from Bach to Beethoven and Brahms (or Wagner). One sad oddity of Handel's German appropriation is his adoption first by National Socialism and then by the socialism of East Germany, each replacing Handel's celebration of Israel and Israel's God with rival conceptions of historical destiny and the Volk or the People.

The downward curve in English religion was also paralleled by the downward curve in Handel's reputation, as well as by the thrust of the English musical renaissance from the 1880s onward, reviving a different sense of Englishness rooted in Purcell, folk music, and the glories of Tudor England, infiltrated with a hint of Celtic revivalism and Catholic nostalgia. Evangelicalism, along with Puritanism, was now associated with the joyless and utilitarian spirit of capitalism. The new critical attitude to Handel early in the 20th century was expressed by the Balliol (Oxford) musicologist Ernest Walker and included the charge that Handel had crushed the native English spirit. If one remembers the anti-war and anti-nationalist sentiment that swept Britain in the 1930s and was expressed musically in the pacifism of Britten and Tippett, it is not surprising that the reputation of Handel reached its lowest point in that decade. Both Britten and Tippett looked back to Purcell. Handel was ignored as being adored by the wrong people in the wrong kind of provincial place in a past and discredited era. These provincial people were more interested in uplift than in music proper, which may account for the extraordinary fact that the next most popular Victorian oratorio after Messiah, Elijah, and The Creation was Gounod's Redemption. (Things had altered by the time I was an adolescent: the secondary fare was provided by Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha.)

Yet even as the downward curve was accelerating, a rising curve was emerging that went back as far as the beginnings of the English musical renaissance. It began with a movement to restore Messiah and rescue it from what Bernard Shaw in his role as brilliant music critic called the family coach tradition of performance. But the revival of Messiah as a fleet-footed masterpiece full of imaginative orchestration and brilliant arias that gave talented singers opportunity for decoration had to wait till the second half of the 20th century. Isobel Baillie, an iconic singer of the middle years of the century, seriously disapproved of this near-sacrilege. The real change came with scholarly investigations in the 1950s and performances like that of Messiah by John Tobin in 1950, which showed how the original, or rather the originals, could sound without assistance from Ebenezer Prout or even Mozart.

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