It is as a vocal and, above all, as a choral writer, that Handel is supreme. No one ever developed the resources of the chorus as he did; and his compositions of this class remain to this day unapproachable. No one, before or since, has so well understood how to extract from a body of voices such grand results by such artfully-simple means as those he used. As an example of the union of broad effect with science, the chorus 'Envy! eldest-born of hell!' in 'Saul' may be mentioned. On the unskilled hearer this produces the impression of a free composition in the rondo-form, with a strongly-contrasted second strain, and a very remarkable and telling accompaniment. Each phrase seems suggested by the words that are sung; while, in fact, the voices move, in strict canonic imitation, on a ground-bass which, itself one bar in length, recurs, at the outset, sixteen times without intermission. As specimens of descriptive choral writing, the grand chains of choruses in 'Israel' and in 'Solomon' are unmatched.
Handel's songs, though conventional in form, are so varied in idea, so melodious, and so vocally-expressive, that it is hard to believe Mattheson's statement, that in his early years, though unrivalled as a contrapuntist, he was deficient in melody. The vein must always have been present in him; but it is not unlikely that the influence of Keiser and, subsequently, of Steffani, gave a powerful and a happy impetus to his genius in this direction. It is nearly certain, too, that his experience of Italian music and singers, and his long career as an operatic composer, had the effect of influencing his subsequent treatment of sacred subjects, leading him to give to the words their natural dramatic expression, and to overstep the bounds of stiff conventional formality.
We have remarked that he often drew themes for his choruses from his instrumental pieces; beside this, he used portions of his earlier vocal compositions in writing his later works. Thus, four choruses in the 'Messiah' were taken from the 'Chamber Duets'; so was the second part of the chorus 'Wretched lovers!' in 'Acis'; the 'Magnificat,' furnished subjects for several choruses in 'Israel.' It is, however, an undeniable fact that, beside repeating himself, he drew largely and unhesitatingly on the resources of his predecessors and contemporaries. And yet his own powers of invention were such as must preclude the supposition that he was driven by lack of ideas to steal those of other people. In those days there were many forms of borrowing which were not regarded as thefts. When we find, for instance, that the chorus just mentioned, 'Wretched lovers,' has for its first theme the subject of a fugue of Bach's, that one of the most charming of the Chamber Duets was taken from a similar duet by Steffani, that the subject of the clavier-fugue in B♭ (afterwards used for the third movement of the second Hautbois-concerto) was borrowed note for note from a canon by Turini, that, among the subjects which form the groundwork of many of his choruses, themes are to be found, taken from the works of Leo, Carissimi, Pergolesi, Graun, Muffat, Caldara, and others,—it can only be urged that in an age of conventionality, when musical training consisted solely of exercise in the contrapuntal treatment of given themes, originality of idea did not hold the place it holds now. Such themes became common property; some of them might even have been given to Handel by Zachau, in the days when his weekly exercise consisted of a sacred motet, and he would have regarded them as a preacher would regard a text,—merely as a peg on which he or any other man might hang a homily. But Handel did not stop here. He seems to have looked upon his own work as the embodiment, as well as the culmination, of all existing music, and therefore to have employed without scruple all such existing material as he thought worthy to serve his purpose. 'It is certain' (to quote a distinguished writer of our own day) 'that many of the musical forms of expression which the untechnical man hears and admires in a performance of one of the works of Handel, the technical man may see in the written scores of his predecessors; and that innumerable subjects, harmonic progressions, points of imitation, sequences, etc., which the unlearned are accustomed to admire (and with reason) in Handel, are no more the invention of that master than they are of Auber or Rossini.' In some cases, passages of considerable length, and even entire movements, were appropriated more or less unaltered by Handel. Two compositions we may quote especially, as having been largely laid under contribution for some of his best-known works. One is the Te Deum by Francesco Antonio Uria or Urio. No less than nine movements in the 'Dettingen Te Deum' and six in the oratorio 'Saul' are founded wholly or in part on themes, and contain long passages, taken from this work. The other is a very curious piece by Alessandro Stradella, unpublished, and therefore inaccessible to musicians in general. It is a serenade, in the dramatic form, for three voices and a double orchestra (of strings). This has been largely used by Handel for more than one of his works, but chiefly for 'Israel in Egypt,' in which instances occur of large portions (in one instance
- It has been doubted whether this 'Magnificat' was really the original work of Handel, on the ground of a MS. copy (very incorrect) in the library of the Sacred Harmonic Society, having the words 'del Rd Sigr Erba' at the head of the first page. This MS., however, is by an English hand; 'del' does not imply necessarily the authorship of Erba, as 'dal' would have done; and the MS. is on English (Whatman) paper, and later in date than the MS. of the same work, in Handel's autograph, which is in Buckingham Palace. The latter is not, as M. Schœlcher thought, on the thick paper used by Handel in Italy, but on English paper and in the hand he wrote about the time of the composition of the 'Messiah.' It is almost inconceivable that he, having an amanuensis, should, at that time, copy entire the unknown work of an almost unknown composer, though we may admit that he would have condescended to borrow from it. The work is among a number of sketches and rough draughts of Handel's own, ideas noted and compositions projected by him, some of which have, others have not, been carried out to completion. There are but two persons of the name of Erba, Dionisio and Giorgio, mentioned by the biographers of musicians. The former, a Milanese, flourished about 1690; but few of his compositions have been thought worthy of being chronicled. The latter, a violinist of Milan, according to some writers, or of Rome, according to others, was the author of some pieces for his own instrument. It is doubtful whether either of these artists deserved, as an ecclesiastic, the title of 'Rd.'
- See Dr. Crotch's Lectures, p. 122.