Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/667

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
HANDEL.
655
 

as much as 27 bars) being transferred bodily to his score[1]. 'Israel in Egypt' contains another still more flagrant appropriation, the transfer of an Organ Canzona by Johann Caspar Kerl to the Chorus 'Egypt was glad,' the only change being that of the key, from D minor to E minor. The Canzona is printed by Sir John Hawkins (chap. 124), so that any reader may judge for himself.

That such wholesale pilfering as this should have been possible or even conceivable, is a fact which points to a very different standard of artistic morality from that of the present day. Might, in fact, was right. After acknowledging this, it is, at first, hard to see why so great an outcry should have been made against Buononcini for his theft. The difference seems to be that the latter thought it sufficient to copy another man's work, without even attempting to set it in any framework of his own. In Handel's case, the greater part of the music he 'adopted' was, no doubt, saved from oblivion by the fact of its inclusion in his works. The only possible justification of the proceeding is afforded by success.

Among the minor instances of appropriation by Handel of other men's themes, it has been alleged that the popular air known as 'The Harmonious Blacksmith,' which figures (with variations) in Handel's 'Suites de Pieces,' was the composition of Wagenseil, or of some still older and less known composer. There was republished at Paris a version of it, adapted to words by Clément Marot, which was said to be its original form; but no copy of the air, in any form, is extant of an earlier date than the set of 'Suites de Pièces' in which it appears; there is, therefore, absolutely nothing to show that it is not the work of Handel.

In any case, musical plagiarism is hard to define. The gamut is limited; similarity of thought is frequent, and coincidence of expression must be sometimes inevitable between composers of the same period. Justification can only be afforded by success. We are irresistibly reminded of the passage in which Heine speaks of the philosopher Schelling, who complained that Hegel had stolen his ideas: 'He was like a shoemaker accusing another shoemaker of having taken his leather and made boots with it.… Nothing is more absurd than the assumed right of property in ideas. Hegel certainly used many of Schilling's ideas in his philosophy, but Schelling himself never could have done anything with them.'

One man there was,—J. S. Bach,—whose fertility was so inexhaustible that he invented his own fugal subjects, and did not draw on the common stock. In this he was,—with all his severe science and seeming formality,—the true precursor of Beethoven and the modern romantic school of instrumental music; while Handel, in spite of his breadth and flow of melody, and the picturesqueness of his grand yet simple conceptions, was the glorified apotheosis of the purely contrapuntal, vocal music.

No biographer of Bach or of Handel can refrain from drawing a parallel between these two gigantic, contemporary masters, who never met, but who, in their respective spheres, united in their own persons all the influences and tendencies of modern thought, which brought about the revolution from the art of Palestrina to the art of Beethoven.

Handel's influence over the men who were his contemporaries was great; yet he founded no school. All his works were performed as soon as they were written; and, thanks to the constant opportunity thus afforded to him of comparing his conceptions with their realisation, his growth of mind was such that he surpassed himself more rapidly than he influenced others. That which is imitable in his work is simply the result of certain forms of expression that he used because he found them ready to his hand; that which is his own is inimitable. His oratorios are, in their own style, as unapproached now as ever; he seems to have exhausted what art can do in this direction; but he has not swayed the minds of modern composers as Bach has done.

Bach lived and wrote in retirement; a small proportion only of his works was published in his lifetime, nor did he take into account their effect on the public mind, or feel the public pulse, as Handel did. It is strange that he in his seclusion should have preserved a keen interest in the music of other men, whereas Handel's shell of artistic egotism seemed hardened by the rough contact of the world and society; music for him existed only in his own works. Bach was very anxious to make the acquaintance of his famous contemporary; and, on two occasions, when the latter visited Halle, made efforts to meet him, but without success. When Handel went thither the third time. Bach was dead.

Bach's influence began to be felt some fifty years after his death, when the treasures he had left behind him were first brought to light. He was a thinker who traced ideas to their source, an idealist who worshipped abstract truth for its own sake. His works are close chains of thought and reasoning, prompted by profound feeling, and infinitely suggestive; from the various starting-points which they offer, we go on arguing to this day; but they appeal chiefly to the reflective mind. They are no less complete as wholes than the works of Handel, but they are far more complex; and to perceive their unity requires a broad scope of judgment, not possessed by every hearer.

Handel's works appeal to all alike. He was a man of action; what he felt and what he saw he painted, but did not analyse. The difference is the same as that which lies between a great philosopher and a great epic poet,—between Plato and Homer. Who shall say whether is greater? For traces of the influence of the one we must seek deeper and look farther, but the power of the other is more consciously felt and more universally recognised.

'The figure of Handel,' says Burney, who knew him well, 'was large, and he was somewhat unwieldy in his actions; but his countenance was

  1. See two papers by Mr. E. Prout in the Monthly Musical Record for Nov. and Dec. 1871.