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The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia
The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia

Cambridge University Press, 2009
860 pp., 221.0

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David Martin

The Handel Revolution

A great composer reconceived.

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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.

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