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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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.

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