Handel (Rolland)/His Technique and Works

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No great musician is more impossible to include in the limits of one definition, or even of several, than Handel. It is a fact that he reached the complete mastery of his style very early (much earlier than J. S. Bach), although it was never really fixed, and he never devoted himself to any one form of art. It is even difficult to see a conscious and a logical evolution in him. His genius is not of the kind which follows a single path, and forges right ahead until it reaches its object. For his aim is none other than to do well whatever he undertook. All ways are good to him—from his early steps at the crossing of the ways, he dominated the country, and shed his light on all sides, without laying siege to any particular part. He is not one of those who impose on life and art a voluntary idealism, either violent or patient; nor is he one of those who inscribe in the book of life the formula of their campaign. He is of the kind who drink in the life universal, assimilating it to themselves. His artistic will is mainly objective. His genius adapts itself to a thousand images of passing events, to the nation, to the times in which he lived, even to the fashions of his day. It accommodates itself to the various influences, ignoring all obstacles. It weighs other styles and other thoughts, but such is the power of assimilation and the prevailing equilibrium of his nature that he never feels submerged and overweighted by the mass of these strange elements. Everything is duly absorbed, controlled, and classified. This immense soul is like the sea itself, into which all the rivers of the world pour themselves without troubling its serenity.

The German geniuses have often had this power of absorbing thoughts and strange forms,[1] but it is excessively rare to find amongst them the grand objectivism, and this superior impersonality, which is, so to speak, the hall-mark of Handel. Their sentimental lyricism is better fitted to sing songs, to voice the thoughts of the universe in song, than to paint the universe in living forms and vital rhythms. Handel is very different, and approaches much more nearly than any other in Germany the genius of the South, the Homeric genius of which Goethe received the sudden revelation on his arrival at Naples.[2] This capacious mind looks out on the whole universe, and on the way the universe depicts itself, as a picture is reflected in calm and clear water. He owes much of this objectivism to Italy, where he spent many years, and the fascination of which never effaced itself from his mind, and he owes even more to that sturdy England, which guards its emotions with so tight a rein, and which eschews those sentimental and effervescing effusions, so often displayed in the pious German art; but that he had all the germs of his art in himself, is already shown in his early works at Hamburg.

From his infancy at Halle, Zachau had trained him not in one style, but in all the styles of the different nations, leading him to understand not only the spirit of each great composer, but to assimilate the styles by writing in various manners. This education, essentially cosmopolitan, was completed by his three tours in Italy, and his sojourn of half a century in England. Above all he never ceased to follow up the lessons learnt at Halle, always appropriating to himself the best from all artists and their works. If he was never in France (it is not absolutely proved), he knew her nevertheless. He was anxious to master their language and musical style. We have proofs of that in his manuscripts,[3] and in the accusations made against him by certain French critics.[4] Wherever he passed, he gathered some musical souvenir, buying and collecting foreign works, copying them, or rather (for he had not the careful patience of J. S. Bach, who scrupulously wrote out in his own hand the entire scores of the French organists and the Italian violinists) copying down in hasty and often inexact expressions any idea which struck him in the course of his reading. This vast collection of European thoughts, which only remains in remnants at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, was the reservoir, so to speak, from which his creative genius continually fed itself. Profoundly German in race and character, he had become a world citizen, like his compatriot Leibnitz, whom he had known at Hanover, a European with a tendency for the Latin culture. The great Germans at the end of that century, Goethe and Herder, were never more free, or more universal, than this great Saxon in music, saturated as he was with all the artistic thoughts of the West.

He drew not only from the sources of learned and refined music—the music of musicians; but also drank deeply from the founts of popular music—that of the most simple and rustic folk.[5] He loved the latter. One finds noted down in his manuscripts the street cries of London, and he once told a friend that he received many inspirations for his best airs from them.[6] Certain of his oratorios, like L'Allegro ed Il Penseroso, are threaded with remembrances of his walks in the English country, and who can ignore the Pifferari (Italian peasant's pipe) in The Messiah, the Flemish carillon in Saul, the joyous popular Italian songs in Hercules, and in Alexander Balus? Handel was not an artist lost in introspection. He watched all around him, he listened, and observed. Sight was for him a source of inspiration, hardly of less importance than hearing. I do not know any great German musician who has been as much a visual as Handel. Like Hasse and Corelli, he had a veritable passion for beautiful pictures. He hardly ever went out without going to a theatre or to a picture sale. He was a connoisseur, and he made a collection, in which some Rembrandts[7] were found after his death. It has been remarked that his blindness (which should have rendered his hearing still more sensitive, his creative powers translating everything into sonorous dreams) soon paralysed his hearing when its principal source of renewal was withdrawn.

Thus, saturated in all the European music of his time, impregnated with the music of musicians, and the still richer music which flows in all Nature herself, which is specially diffused in the vibrations of light and shade, that song of the rivers, of the forest, of the birds, in which all his works abound, and which have inspired some of his most picturesque pages with a semi-romantic colour,[8] he wrote as one speaks, he composed as one breathes. He never sketched out on paper in order to prepare his definite work. He wrote straight off as he improvised, and in truth he seems to have been the greatest improviser that ever was. Whether extemporising on the organ at the midday services in St. Paul's Cathedral, or playing the capriccios during the entr'actes of his oratorios at Covent Garden—or improvising on the clavier in the orchestra at the opera, at Hamburg or in London, or "when he accompanied the singers in a most marvellous fashion, adapting himself to their temperament and virtuosity, without having any written notes," he astounded the connoisseurs of his time; and Mattheson, who may hardly be suspected of any indulgence towards him, proclaimed that he had no equal in this. One can truly say that "he improvised every minute of his life." He wrote his music with such an impetuosity of feeling, and such a wealth of ideas, that his hand was constantly lagging behind his thoughts, and in order to keep pace with them at all he had to note them down in an abbreviated manner.[9] But (and this seems contradictory) he had at the same time an exquisite sense of form. No German surpassed him in the art of writing beautiful, melodic lines. Mozart and Hasse alone were his equals in this. It was to this love of perfection that we attribute that habit which, despite his fertility of invention, causes him to use time after time, the same phrases (those most important, and dearest to him) each time introducing an imperceptible change, a light stroke of the pencil, which renders them more perfect. The examination of these kinds of musical eaux-fortes in their successive states is very instructive for the musician who is interested in plastic beauty.[10] It shows also how certain melodies, once written down, continued to slumber in Handel's mind for many years, until they had penetrated his subconscious nature, were applied at first, by following the chances of his inspiration, to a certain situation, which suited them moderately well. They are, so to speak, in search of a body where they can reincarnate themselves, seeking the true situation, the real sentiment of which they are but the latent expression; and once having found it, they expand themselves with ease.[11]

Handel worked no less with the music of other composers than with his own. If one had the time to study here what superficial readers have called his plagiarisms, particularly taking, for example, Israel in Egypt, where the most barefaced of these cases occur, one would see with what genius and insight Handel has evoked from the very depths of these musical phrases, their secret soul, of which the first creators had not even a presentiment. It needed his eye, or his ear, to discover in the serenade of Stradella its Biblical cataclysms. Each read and heard a work of art as it is, and yet not as it is; and one may conclude that it is not always the creator himself who has the most fertile idea of it. The example of Handel well proves this. Not only did he create music, but very often he created that of others for them. Stradella and Erba were only for him (however humiliating the comparison) the flames of fire, and the cracks in the wall, through which Leonardo saw the living figures. Handel heard great storms passing through the gentle quivering of Stradella's guitar.[12]

This evocatory character of Handel's genius should never be forgotten. He who is satisfied with listening to this music without seeing what it expresses—who judges this art as a purely formal art, who does not feel his expressive and suggestive power, occasionally so far as hallucination, will never understand it. It is a music which paints emotions, souls, and situations, to see the epochs and the places, which are the framework of the emotions, and which tint them with their own peculiar moral tone. In a word, his is an art essentially picturesque and dramatic. It is scarcely twenty to thirty years since the key to it was found in Germany, thanks to the Handel Musical Festivals. As Heuss says, concerning a recent performance at Leipzig, "For a proper comprehension no master more than Handel has greater need of being performed, and well performed. One can study J. S. Bach at home, and enjoy it even more than at a good concert, but he who has never heard Handel well performed can with difficulty imagine what he really is, for really good performances of Handel are excessively rare." The intimate sense of his works was falsified in the century which followed his death by the English interpretations, strengthened further still in Germany by those of Mendelssohn, and his numerous following. By the exclusion of and systematic contempt for all the operas of Handel, by an elimination of nearly all the dramatic oratorios, the most powerful and the freshest, by a narrow choice more and more restrained to the four or five oratorios, and even here, by giving an exaggerated supremacy to The Messiah, by the interpretation finally of these works, and notably of The Messiah in a pompous, rigid, and stolid manner, with an orchestra and choir far too numerous and badly balanced, with singers frightfully correct and pious, without any feeling or intimacy, there has been established that tradition which makes Handel a church musician after the style of Louis XIV, all decoration—pompous columns, noble and cold statues, and pictures by Le Brun. It is not surprising that this has reduced works executed on such principles, and degraded them to a monumental tiresomeness similar to that which emanates from the bewigged Alexanders, and the very conventional Christs of Le Brun.

It is necessary to turn back. Handel was never a church musician, and he hardly ever wrote for the church. Apart from his Psalms and his Te Deum, composed for the private chapels, and for exceptional events, he only wrote instrumental music for concerts and for open-air fêtes, for operas, and for those so-called oratorios, which were really written for the theatre. The first oratorios he composed were really acted: Acis and Galatea in May, 1732, at the Haymarket Theatre, with scenery, decoration, and costumes, under the title of English Pastoral OperaEsther, in February, 1732, at the Academy of Ancient Music after the manner of the Grecian tragedy, the chorus being placed behind the stage and the orchestra. And if Handel resolutely abstained from theatrical representation[13]—which alone gives the full value to certain scenes, such as the orgie and the dream of Belshazzar, expressly conceived for acting—on the other hand he stood out firmly for having his oratorios at the theatre and not in the church. There were not wanting churches any less than dissenting chapels in which he could give his works, and by not doing so he turned against him the opinion of religious people who considered it sacrilegious to carry pious subjects on to the stage,[14] but he continued to affirm that he did not write compositions for the church, but worked for the theatre—a free theatre.[15]

This briefly dramatic character of Handel's works has been well comprehended by the German historians who have studied him during recent times. Chrysander compares him to Shakespeare,[16] Kretzschmar calls him the reformer of musical drama, Volbach and A. Heuss see in him a dramatic musician, and claim for the performance of his oratorios dramatic singers. Richard Strauss, in his introduction to Berlioz's Treatise of Orchestration, opposes the great polyphonic and symphonic stream issuing from J. S. Bach with that homophonic and dramatic one which comes from Handel. We hope that the readers of this little book have found here in nearly all these pages a confirmation of these ideas.

· · · · ·

  1. Lessing, in the Preface to his Beiträge zur Historie und Aufnahme des Theaters (1750), gives as the principal characteristic of the German, "that he appreciates whatever is good, particularly where he finds it, and when he can turn it to his profit."
  2. See the Voyage en Italie, May 18, 1787, letter to Herder.
  3. French Songs (MSS. in Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge); copies in the Schoelcher Collection, in the library of the Paris Conservatoire.
  4. See the Abbé Prevost: Le Pour et le Contre, 1733.
  5. These are not traits special to Handel alone. The double stream—encyclopaedic and learned on the one hand, popular or pseudo-popular on the other—was found in an even greater degree in London amongst the musicians of Handel's time. In the circle of the Academy of Antient Musick there was quite a mania of archaic eclectism. One of these members, the composer Roseingrave, even went to the length of having the walls of his rooms and all his furniture covered with bars of music, extracted from the works of Palestrina. At the same period there was felt all over Europe a reaction of popular taste against that of the savants. It was the day of the little lieder by Bononcini or by Keiser. Handel took sides with neither extravagances, but chose whatever was alive in both movements.
  6. Letter from Lady Luxborough to the poet Shenstone in 1748—quoted by Chrysander.
  7. His passion of collecting increased with age and fortune. A letter of 1750 reveals him buying some beautiful pictures, including a fine Rembrandt. It was the year before he was smitten with blindness.
  8. From the "Hauts tilleuls" of Almira up to the Night Chorus in Solomon.
  9. A study of the MS. of Jephtha (published in facsimile by Chrysander) affords an opportunity of noticing Handel's speed of working at composition. On these very pages one reads various annotations in Handel's own handwriting. At the end of the first act, for instance, he writes: "Geendiget (finished) 2 February." Again, on the same page one reads: "Völlig (complete) 13th August, 1751." There were then two different workings; one the work of invention, the other a work of completion. It is easy to distinguish them here on account of the illness which changed the handwriting of Handel after February 13, 1751. Thanks to this circumstance, one sees that with the Choruses he wrote the entire subjects in all the voices at the opening; then he let first one fall, then another, in proceeding; he finished hastily with a single voice filled in or even the bass only.
  10. It was so with the melody: Dolce amor che mi consola in Roderigo, which became the air: Ingannata una sol volta in Agrippina—and also with the air: L'alma mia from Agrippina, which was used again for the Resurrection, for Rinaldo and for Joshua.
  11. The Eastern Dance in Almira became the celebrated Lascia ch'io pianga in Rinaldo; and a joyful but ordinary melody from Pastor Fido was transformed to the touching phrase in the Funeral Ode: "Whose ear she heard."
  12. One can examine here in detail the two very characteristic instrumental interludes from Stradella's Serenata a 3 con stromenti which had the fortune of blossoming out into the formidable choruses of the Hailstones and the Plague of Flies in Israel. I have made a study of this in an article for the S.I.M. review (May and July, 1910), under the title of Les plagiats de Handel.
  13. There is reason to believe that he was not absolutely free in the matter. In 1732, when the Princess Anne wished to have Esther represented at the opera the Archbishop (Dr. Gibson) opposed it, and it was necessary to fall back to giving the work at a concert.
  14. An anonymous letter published in the London Daily Post in April, 1739, dealing with Israel in Egypt, defends Handel against the opposition of the bigots, who were then very bitter. The writer protests "that the performance at which he was present was the noblest manner of honouring God . . . it is not the house which sanctifies the prayer, but the prayer which sanctifies the house."
  15. Is not even Joseph entitled "a sacred Drama," and Hercules "a musical Drama"?
  16. At the end of his second volume of the Life of Handel.