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The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia
The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia

Cambridge University Press, 2009
860 pp., $209.99

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David Martin


The Handel Revolution

A great composer reconceived.

The publication of the Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia in 2009 marked the 250th anniversary of his death in April 1759. It presents the results of recent scholarship after some forty years in which Handel's reputation and the way we hear and play his music have been radically transformed. No composer has gained more from the rather oddly named "early music" revolution and the virtual re-creation of the Baroque style in music.

In the course of this radical transformation the notion of Handel as a religious composer, once so central to his reputation, has come under fire, in particular from the doyen of Handel scholars Winton Dean. Dean blames evangelicalism for much of the distortion of Handel, representing the composer as a humanist and man of the theater hijacked by stuffy righteousness and provincial piety. If one wants a (rather touching) example of the older view of Handel, you can find it on the internet in the blog Wordwise Hymns under the name of Robert Cottrill, who includes an expression of regret about Handel's moral failings—not least, his habit of swearing in several languages, which is not what you might expect from someone divinely inspired to write Messiah. Handel's binge-eating and drinking is passed over in silence, though it made a serious contribution to the lead poisoning and neuropathy that dogged his later years. Between Winton Dean's assertion that neither true religion nor any serious engagement with Christianity is to be found in Handel and the idea that he was essentially a religious and Christian composer there is a lot of elbow room, and it properly includes the reaction of Christians who from the first until now have found Messiah to be a prayerful meditation on the mysteries of faith referred to in its epigraph from Paul's first Letter to Timothy, chapter 3 verse 16.

The situation is roughly as follows. Whereas Handel has been regarded as the supreme exponent of the English (and to some extent American) style of lay religion—above all in Messiah, treated at one time as the singular peak of his achievement—he is now represented as a master of drama and very human emotions, and a cosmopolitan whose music requires the same professional virtuosity today as it did in the first half of the 18th century. There has been another great though related change. Previously the provenance of his music was North Atlantic and Northern European, indeed virtually confined to the countries of the Reformation. Victor Schoelcher, the Alsatian abolitionist, in his Life of Handel (1857), commented on the great gulf fixed between English and French taste, particularly when it came to Handel. Significantly, when Romain Rolland commended Handel to the French, he kept away from Messiah. Today some of the most brilliant exponents of Handel's music are French, Italian, and Eastern European.

Given this breakthrough across the borders of the Reformation, it is quite interesting to find the older and more restricted provenance of Handel still reflected in the contributors to the Encyclopedia, who are overwhelmingly Anglo-American, Australian, and German. The same is true of the fifty people named as at the forefront of the Handel revival: Joan Sutherland, Charles Mackerras, Janet Baker, Emma Kirkby, Harry Christophers, Paul McCreesh, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and so on. The few French examples, which for some reason do not include Emmanuelle Haïm, all came under the influence of the great "American in Paris," William Christie, and his marvelous Les Arts Florissants. In England it was musicians and musical scholars at Cambridge University who played a major part in the Handel revival, though Birmingham University was also a major center.

The recent Handel revolution and indeed the whole history of what is now called his "reception" over three centuries raises interesting sociological questions. Most obviously, we have the odd situation whereby one of the great figures of the musical canon has been "received" as one kind of composer for two centuries but is now freshly celebrated for what had been his major sphere of activity up to 1741: Italian opera. This is a remarkable turnaround, given these works entirely disappeared from the repertory from the 1740s on, and were regularly characterized in musical texts as cast in an artificial Baroque form beyond all prospect of revival. Of course what happened to Handel's operas also happened to the operas of Monteverdi, which were virtually the first examples of the form, as well as to the operas of Vivaldi, Rameau, and Lully. Vast tracts of Baroque music of all kinds disappeared, and this reminds us that these were times when music was relentlessly a matter of the contemporary performance of works by craftsmen rather than the recapitulation of classics by geniuses. Bach unceremoniously dumped as old-fashioned some extremely fine music by his predecessors at the Thomaskirche and was in turn (mostly) dumped by his successors. Handel reused his own music, for example the Coronation Anthems, as well as the music of other people like Keiser, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Muffat, knowing that his audiences would come to them fresh, not as recycled material improperly presented as original composition. The Hallelujah Chorus reused at the end of his Foundling Hospital Anthem would still have had the shock of the new. And, of course, the amazing means of musical reproduction available to us over the past half century were not available to Handel and his contemporaries. Music traveled slowly. The vogue for Messiah in the United States was not initiated by the Boston Handel and Haydn Society until the teens of the 19th century.

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.

At the same time, a Handelian opera revival was under way, beginning in Germany in the early 1920s and picked up in England (for example) by the Handel Opera society. The problem was that Handelian opera was written for the greatest singers of its time, and it was not until great singers with a proper sense of Baroque style took up Handelian opera that it really took off. The most obvious breakthrough came with Janet Baker in the role of Julius Caesar, and today there are many singers with discs devoted entirely to Handel, including the distinguished and highly intelligent English tenors Ian Bostridge and Mark Padmore. Some of these recordings are by countertenors, among whom perhaps the most famous are Andreas Scholl, from the former East Germany, and the American David Daniels, but the revival of the countertenor voice is itself a phenomenon that dates back to the 1950s with Alfred Deller. The revival would repay attention on its own account, particularly given what was at one time the almost exclusive dominance of the Italian Verdi/Puccini tenor and the macho image that kind of singing evokes. When Deller started, he had a difficult time of it from the more routine performers on the musical circuit.

Before probing further the complicated issue of Handel as "essentially" a religious composer or a man of the theater, it is worth picking up one or two themes in the new Encyclopedia that amplify our new and rather different image of the composer. It used to be suggested that Handel's turn to oratorio not only marked a new religious seriousness but also a switch from the febrile and amoral aristocracy to the solid middle classes. But that is a myth. Handel was a businessman, indeed one of the first fully independent musicians in spite of his royal pension, and the tickets he sold from the door of his house in Brook Street (now a museum), in the posh new suburb of Mayfair, were just as expensive for the oratorios as for the operas. More than that, he was a canny investor, getting out before the South Sea Bubble burst, and eventually leaving £17,500 in 3 percent Consolidated Annuities. In spite of the financial difficulties he experienced during the 1730s due to the rivalry of the Opera of the Nobility, he built up a fine painting collection and made some of the most munificent donations of the period to the Foundling Hospital.

The Encyclopedia gives due weight to an early period in Handel's career that used to be rather passed over in the kind of account that stressed his conversion to English oratorio. It is not enough to say that Handel's style was formed during his stay in Italy; his time there included the composition of several of his greatest works. Like Bach he was a fully mature composer by the age of twenty-two, which does not fit the romantic view of genius typified by the division of Beethoven's career into early, middle, and late periods. A composer who lacked a third or "late" period was at a serious disadvantage so long as this schema prevailed.

Part of the problem here is that some of Handel's Italian works were cast in a Catholic mold very different from that of his English oratorios, emotionally as well as technically less accessible to northern Protestant audiences. Oratorio derives from Oratory, and it began in early 17th-century Italy as a new way of presenting Christian truths. La Resurrezione is a subtly cast libretto based on the struggle between Hell and the angelic powers of light, as well as appearances of Christ to his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Cleophas. It may well have had more performances in the last two decades than in the previous two centuries as audiences have become used to a "Catholic-sounding" Handel. Indeed, the Catholic theologian Hamish Swanston has written a book on Handel that sees his "late" masterpiece Theodora as a reprise of this early Italian period. The settings of Dixit Dominus and other texts may well have been made for the Carmelites, and Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno is another major work setting a spiritual allegory by Cardinal Pamphili about the contest between pleasure, time, beauty, and disillusion. Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, was written for an aristocratic wedding and has nothing in common with the later English treatment of the same theme.

Then there are the secular cantatas Handel wrote for the élites of Rome, mostly on pastoral or at any rate classical themes, for example Lucrezia. Ellen Harrison, a musicologist at MIT, wrote the first major account of these and suggested they were part of a homoerotic ethos in Roman circles, not unlike the ethos she also attributed to Lord Burlington's circle in London, with which Handel was also associated during his early London years. The main problem with this anachronistic take on Handel was the complete lack of evidence for any homosexuality. Indeed, there was sufficient smoke from what may have been an affair with the opera singer Victoria Tarquini (also lover of the Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici) for the Electress Sophia of Hanover to pick up the gossip. Handel may have been the son of a bürgerlich barber-surgeon, but he certainly moved in the highest aristocratic circles. In Il Trionfo, Cardinal Pamphili describes the delectable young virtuoso (Handel himself, of course) improvising on the organ in the gardens of Pleasure: "A light-hearted young man / arouses perfect delight in alluring sounds," and Beauty exclaims, "His hands have wings / nay, his hands perform more than mortal feats." What these feats may have been is illustrated by an organ sonata Handel interpolated, perhaps giving us some idea of how he performed before admiring listeners in St. John Lateran.

What now of Handel's religion and his reputation as a religious composer? Handel went to Halle University to study law and at the same time became organist of the Halle Dom, then used by a Calvinist congregation. Halle was arguably the first modern university with respect to its reformed curricula, and it came under the influence of the Pietism associated with Francke that virtually initiated the modern missionary movement. Handel may even have acquired some Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek, but it does not seem that he was much taken with Pietism if the rather cursory treatment he later accorded the Passion text by a fellow student, the Pietist Heinrich Brockes, is anything to go by. At any rate he was confirmed in the Lutheran faith in the Marktkirche in Halle. We have no record of whatever German church music he may have written before he left Halle to join the Hamburg opera, though you can pick up chorale references in unexpected places in much later works, for example in the magnificent anthem he wrote for Queen Caroline in 1737, perhaps remembering their common Lutheran background. The middle sections of the Hallelujah Chorus ("The kingdoms of this world" and so on) repeat parts of the Chorale tune Wachet Auf, and the same tune is also found, triggered by a shared reference to angelic choirs, in "But oh! What art can teach" in Handel's setting of Dryden's An Ode for St. Cecilia's Day.

There is also an "Anglican" Handel, quite apart from the fact that he acquired an Anglican identity on becoming a naturalized British citizen. He attended his local church at St. George's, Hanover Square, with, we are told, "gesticulations" of devotion. An early and stunning expression of Handel's capacity for cultural assimilation dates from 1713, early on in his time in England, after he had acquired some experience of the musical world of Purcell and Croft. His Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne begins with the words "Eternal Source of Light Divine," and is Purcellian in a way that prompts one to ask why we do not express an equivalent interest in whether Purcell was a "really religious" composer. After all, he too was a man of the theater. After Handel composed his music for Anne and for the Treaty of Utrecht, he was associated with the ducal chapel at Cannons, with the Chapel Royal (subject of a detailed study by Donald Burrows summarized in the new Encyclopedia), and composed four anthems for the coronation of George II in 1727. Handel even wrote settings for three hymns by Charles Wesley, whom he met at least once.

One aspect of his oratorio production we easily miss is the presence of typological references to Christ embedded in texts dealing with Old Testament heroes and even attaching to the death of Hercules (paired with Samson), immolated in an intolerable robe of flame. Eighteenth-century audiences understood typology, as well as picking up the kind of contemporary political references hiding behind the doings of biblical characters and discussed in the Encylopedia by Ruth Smith (and elsewhere, notably in her exemplary study Handel's Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought). They probably also realized that Israel in Egypt is an Easter Oratorio, because the traditional typological anticipation of Christ's triumph over death in the Israelites' passage through the Red Sea is written into the Anglican Morning Prayer liturgy for Easter Sunday.

In her work on Handel's texts, Smith has discussed the idea that there is some intrinsic link between Handelian Oratorio and the Evangelical Revival, which is often dated, at least by Methodists, to the conversion experiences of the Wesley brothers in 1738. Handel described how he saw "the great God Himself'" while composing Messiah some three years later, and so some people have inferred a shared movement of the Spirit. Smith is not impressed by this idea, and argues that the kind of personal relationship to Christ found in evangelicalism (and Pietism for that matter) is not to be found in Handel. Instead we have a collective sense of the people of God, above all Israel (as well as Israel's contemporary political analogues). In her Encyclopedia article on Messiah, Smith says, contra Winton Dean, that Handel enacts the images of Scripture and from the very beginning assures the community of believers of God's goodwill toward them. She also stresses the importance of the text of Messiah as directed against the fashionable deism of the time.

If one is to trace an evangelical connection I would think it comes later, with the appropriation of Handel by Protestant choralism, and I doubt very much whether devout Protestants would go beyond a vivid sense of Holy Scripture, set to "sublime" music (the "sublime" being the relevant category here) which would morally elevate those who heard it, to query whether Handel conveyed a strictly evangelical experience. At the time when Messiah was beginning to make its way in England, some evangelicals, John Wesley among them, were upset at the idea of the text of Scripture obscured by musical counterpoint, and John Newton at St. Mary Woolnoth Church had rather a lot to say on precisely that point in a long series of sermons.

Perhaps one can set Messiah in the broader context of religion caught rather than taught by singing rather than talking. That movement began in the psalms and hymns of Protestantism, was promoted by the Pietist and Evangelical Revivals as they stepped westward from Halle and Hernnhut to England and North America, and has ended up in global Pentecostalism. I had some inkling of this at a Pentecostal "two choirs" festival in Campinas, Brazil, when both choirs came together for a climactic rendering of the Hallelujah Chorus to jubilant shouts of "Gloria" from a mainly black congregation.

I suspect that questions about Handel as a religious composer arise by comparison with Bach. The Bach revival and its accompanying mystique of intellectual complexity was begun with Mendelssohn's version of the Matthew Passion in 1829, but the more modern Bach revival preceded the Handel revival and fed irrelevant comparisons with Handel formulated at the nadir of his critical fortunes. This deprecation, fueled by some poisonous snobbery, is well documented in Richard Luckett's Messiah: A Celebration.

One contributor to the Encyclopedia comments that the idea still lingers that Bach is the greater composer. Yet the two composers are in every sense incomparable. I have just listened to the complete cantatas of Bach and the complete operas and oratorios of Handel, and you can find extraordinary kinds of affekt in the one you cannot find in the other. Bach is Evangelische in the most profound sense of entering into the experience of Christ, and in the 1720s he set about providing a church music for the whole liturgical year (now available with appropriate commentary in the extended series by Sir John Eliot Gardiner). This is inward music that "composes" suffering, though also dramatic where appropriate, in a northern Protestant tradition that runs from Luther himself through major works by Buxtehude to Bach, before being transmuted through the works of C. P. E. Bach, J. C. Bach, and Telemann into the different world of the Vorklassik masters. The intimate and highly worked tradition that comes to a climax in Bach should not militate against enjoyment of the dramatic power and distinctive emotional coloring and unique human intensity found in Handel, for example in Alcina, Tamerlano, Ariodante, Guilio Cesare, and Rodelinda as well as in Saul, Samson, Solomon, and Theodora and the early works of youthful genius Handel produced in Italy. If I were to choose one example, it might be the final duet in Il Moderato after the affectionate evocation of Englishness in settings of Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. In a way, this duet, beginning with words from The Tempest ("As steals the Morn"), marks a transition to a Christian Enlightenment where the "fumes of fancy" are overwhelmed by "intellectual day."

David Martin is the author of On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Ashgate). He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

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