Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/664

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652
HANDEL.
 

has been, and probably never will be, rivalled by that of any other composer. He became a naturalised British subject (in 1726); but to claim him as an Englishman is as gratuitous as it would be to deny that the whole tone of his mind and genius were singularly attuned to the best features of the English character. The stubborn independence, the fearless truth and loyalty of that character, the deep, genuine feeling which, in its horror of pretence or false sentiment, hides itself behind bluntness of expression, the practicalness of mind which seeks to derive its ideas from facts, and not its facts from ideas,—these found their artistic expression in the works of Handel; beside which he was, beyond all doubt, intimately acquainted with the works of England's greatest composer, Henry Purcell: and no native composer could in these days be as truly English as he was, for in an age of rapid travelling and constant interchange of ideas, men and thought become cosmopolitan. Grandeur and simplicity, the majestic scale on which his compositions are conceived, the clear definiteness of his ideas and the directness of the means employed in carrying them out, pathetic feeling expressed with a grave seriousness equally removed from the sensuous and the abstract,—these are the distinguishing qualities of Handel's music.

Handel was a man of honour and integrity, and of an uncompromising independence of character. 'In an age when artists used to live in a sort of domesticity to the rich and powerful, he refused to be the dependent of any one, and preserved his dignity with a jealous care.' This, no doubt, irritated those great people whose vanity was gratified when men of genius lived by their patronage; but, on the other hand, it must be admitted that his temper was naturally irascible and even violent, and his fits of passion, while they lasted, quite ungovernable. Even when he was conducting concerts for the Prince of Wales, if the ladies of the Court talked instead of listening, 'his rage was uncontrollable, and sometimes carried him to the length of swearing and calling names … whereupon the gentle Princess would say to the offenders, "Hush, hush! Handel is angry."' It is to the credit of the prince and princess that they respected the real worth of the master too much to be seriously offended by his manners.

Handel never married, nor did he ever show any inclination for the cares and joys of domestic life. He was a good son and a good brother; but he lived wholly for his art, his only other taste being for pictures, of which he was a connoisseur. He seldom left his house, except to go to the theatre, or to some picture-sale. His tastes were simple, though he ate enormously; having a large, if not an unhealthy, appetite to satisfy. His charitableness and liberality were unbounded; he was one of the founders of the Society for the benefit of distressed musicians, and one of the chief benefactors of the Foundling Hospital.

He was 74 years old when he died; but, when we contemplate the amount of work he accomplished, his life seems short in comparison. Nor did he live in seclusion, where he could command all his time. Gifted with abnormal bodily strength, and with an industry truly characteristic of that nation 'which' (as says Chrysander) 'has laboured more than any other to turn into a blessing the curse of Adam, In the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat bread,' he excelled in every branch of his art; but, beside this, he was a teacher, a chapel-master, an opera-director, and an impresario. He was, with the exception of J. S. Bach, the greatest organist and harpsichordist of his age. He never devoted much time to the violin; but, when it suited him to play, his tone was such that avowed professors of the instrument might have taken him as a model. He had but little voice, yet he was an excellent singer of such songs as required an expressive delivery rather than florid execution. With his singers he was sometimes tyrannical, and amusing stories are told of his passages of arms with recalcitrant prime donne; but he knew how to conciliate them, and how to preserve their respect; he would take any trouble, and go any distance, to teach them their songs; and all the principal artists resident in London, whom he employed, remained permanently with him to the end of his life.

The rapidity with which he composed was as wonderful as his industry; he may be said to have improvised many of his works on paper. 'Rinaldo' was written in 14 days; the 'Messiah' in 24! From his earliest years he was remarkable for this great readiness in extemporising; he was always teeming with ideas, to which his perfect command of all the resources of counterpoint enabled him to give instantaneous and fluent expression. It was his custom to play organ concertos between the acts or the pieces of his oratorios; but these written compositions were only of service to him when he felt that he was not in the vein; otherwise, he gave himself up to the inspirations of his genius. This, indeed, was almost always the case after he became blind, when all that was given to the orchestra was a sort of ritornel, between the recurrences of which Handel improvised away as long as it pleased him, the band waiting until a pause or a trill gave them the signal for recommencement. His instrumental compositions have, in many respects, such as their lucid simplicity and a certain unexpectedness in the modulations and the entries of the various subjects, the character of improvisations. He seems to have regarded these works as a storehouse for his ideas, on which he often drew for his more important compositions.

It must not, however, be supposed that the speed with which he worked argues any want of care in the workmanship, nor that he was content always to leave his ideas in the form in which they first occurred to him. The shortness of time occupied in the completion of his great masterpieces is to be explained, not merely by the ever-readiness of his inspiration, but also by the laboriousness and wonderful power of