University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/George Frederick Handel

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Of Handel, Haydn once said, "He is the master of us all." He was born at Halle, in Prussian Saxony, February 23, 1685. His father was a surgeon, and sixty-three years old at the time of Handel's birth—a severe old man, who almost before his son was born had determined that he should be a lawyer. The little child was never allowed to go near a musical instrument, and the father even took him away from the public day-school because the musical gamut was taught there.

But his mother, or his nurse, managed to procure for the boy the forbidden delights; a small clavichord, or dumb spinet, with the strings covered with strips of cloth to deaden the sound, was found for the child, and this he used to keep hidden in the garret, creeping away to play it in the night-time when everyone else was asleep, or when his father was away from home.

When George Frederick was seven years of age, the old man was compelled to change is views. He set out one day on a visit to the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weisenfels, where another son by a former marriage was a page. George Frederick had been teasing his father to let him go with him to see his elder brother, whom he had not yet met, but this was refused. When old Handel started by the stage-coach the next morning, the little fellow was on the watch and ran after it, and the father stopped he coach and took him in. So the child was allowed to go on to Saxe-Weissenfels. When there the chapel, with the beautiful organ, was the great attraction, and George Frederick found his way into the organ-loft, and when the regular service was over, contrived to take the organist's place, and began a performance of his own; and, strange to say, though he had not had the slightest training, a melody with chords and the correct harmonies was heard.

The Duke, who had not left the chapel, had the boy brought to him and soon discovered his passion for music. The Duke told the father it would be wrong to oppose the inclination of the child, and old Handel promised to procure him regular musical instruction.

On Handel's return to Halle he became the pupil of Zachau, organist of the cathedral there. Before the pupil was nine years old, his instructor used to set him to write fugues and motets as exercises, and soon he allowed him to play the organ at cathedral services on Sunday, whenever Zachau himself wished to take a holiday. When Handel was only nine years old, the master confessed that his pupil knew more music than he himself did, and advised that he should be sent to Berlin, and thither he went in 1696.

In Berlin the boy was soon recognized as a prodigy. There he met two Italian composers of established reputation, Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti, both of whom he was to encounter in after life, though under very different circumstances, in London. Bononcini soon conceived a dislike for the little fellow, and attempted to injure him by composing a piece for the harpsichord full of great difficulties, and then asking him to play it at sight. The boy, however, executed it without a mistake, and the schemer was foiled by his own device.

Attilio was of a different disposition; he praised the young musician, and was never weary of sitting by his side at the organ or harpsichord, and hearing him improvise. The Elector of Brandenburg also conceived a great admiration for the boy's talents, and offered to send him to Italy. But the elder Handel pleaded that he was now an old man, and wish his son to remain near him. Consequently the boy was brought back to Halle to work again under Zachau.

Soon after this return his father died (in 1697), leaving hardly anything for his family, and young Handel had now to bestir himself to make a living. He went to Hamburg, where he obtained a place as second violin in the Opera-house. Soon the post of organist at Lübeck became vacant, and Handel was a candidate for it. But a peculiar condition was attached to the acceptance of the office; the new organist must marry the daughter of the old one! and as Handel either did not approve of the lady, or of matrimony generally (and in fact he never was married), he promptly retired from the competition.

At first no one suspected the youth's talents, for he amused himself by pretending to be an ignoramus, until one day the accompanist on the harpsichord (then the most important instrument in an orchestra) was absent, and young Handel took his place, astonishing everybody by his masterly touch. Probably this discovery aroused the jealousy of some of his brother artists, for soon afterward a duel took place between him and Mattheson, a clever composer and singer, who one night in the midst of a quarrel, on leaving the theater, gave him a box on the ear; swords were drawn, and the duel took place there and then under the portico of the theater. Fortunately Mattheson's weapon was shivered by coming in contact with a metal button on his opponent's coat. Explanations were then offered, and the two adversaries became friends afterward. "Almira, Queen of Castile," Handel's first opera, was brought out in Hamburg in 1705, and was followed by "Nero" and "Daphne," all received with great favor and frequently performed.

But the young musician determined to visit Italy, and after staying in Hamburg three years he was able to set off on the journey. He visited Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples, in almost every city writing operas, which we are told were produced with brilliant success. At Venice an opera was sought for from him, and in three weeks he had written "Agrippina." When produced it was received with wild enthusiasm, the theater resounding with shouts of "Viva il caro Sassone!" (Long live the dear Saxon!)

The following story illustrated the extraordinary fame he so quickly acquired in Italy. He arrived at Venice during the middle of the Carnival, and was taken to a masked ball, and there played the harpsichord, still keeping on his mask. Domenico Scarlatti, the most famous harpsichord-player of his age, on hearing him, exclaimed, "Why, it's the devil, or else the Saxon whom every one is talking about!" In 1769 he returned to Hanover, and was appointed by the Elector George of Brunswick, afterward King George I of England, his court kapellmeister.

The next year Handel paid a visit to London, and there Aaron Hill, director of the Haymarket Theater, engaged him to write the opera of "Rinaldo," which was written in a fortnight, and was marvelously successful. Some morceaux from it, such as the lovely "Lascia ch'io pianga," "Cara sposa," and the March, are still performed. This opera was put on the stage with a magnificence then, and even now, unusual; and a flight of real birds in the scene of the gardens of Armida is given as an example of the clever devices of stage management, though the "Spectator," in referring to it, hints that the birds, by knocking over the candles and flying all over the place, were little else than a nuisance. Welsh, the music publisher, made £1500 by publishing the airs of the opera, and Handel, who possessed a considerable vein of dry humor, remarked on this, "My dear sir, as it is only right that we should be on an equal footing, you shall compose the next opera, and I will sell it!"

After returning for a short time to Hanover, Handel was in England again in 1713, when the grand "Te Deum" and "Jubilate" were performed in St. Paul's Cathedral before Queen Anne and the Houses of Parliament, and the Queen was so enraptured with these compositions that she bestowed upon the composer a pension of £200 a year for life.

Handel was in no hurry to return to Hanover; in fact he remained in England and ignored his engagement across the sea. But retribution was at hand. The Elector of Hanover, on the death of Queen Anne, came to England as the new king, and his delinquent kapellmeister could hardly expect to receive royal favor in future. He determined, however, if possible, to conciliate the King, and wrote twenty-five short concerted pieces and had them performed by musicians in a boat following the royal barge on the Thames one day when the King went up the river for a picnic. The King recognized the composer by his style, spoke in praise of the music, and the news was quickly conveyed to the anxious musician. This is the story of the origin of the famous "Water Music." Soon afterward the King allowed Handel to play before him, and finally peace was made between them, Handel being appointed music-master to the royal children, and receiving an additional pension of £200. In 1726 a private act of Parliament was passed making George Frederick Handel a naturalized Englishman.

Handel was for some years director of music at Cannons, the magnificent residence of the Duke of Chandos, where he composed the "Chandos Anthems," and the "Harmonious Blacksmith." The last piece is one of the "Suite de pieces pour le clavecin," and the story connected with it, though much doubted, is about as well established as most musical anecdotes are.

One day, it is said, Handel was overtaken by a shower while passing on foot through the village of Edgeware, and took refuge in the house of own Powell, a blacksmith. Under shelter in the smithy he watched Powell at his work. As he labored at the anvil, the blacksmith sang an old song, while the strokes of his hammer resounded in regular cadence with the notes, and Handel perceived that the sounds from the anvil were in the same key as those of the song, and formed a continuous base to it. The song, with its accompaniment, lingered in his memory, and the same evening he composed "The Harmonious Blacksmith."

In 1720 a number of noblemen formed themselves into a company for the purpose of reviving Italian opera in England at the Haymarket Theater, and subscribed a capital of £50,000. The king himself subscribed £1000, and allowed the society to take the name of the Royal Academy of Music. Handel was appointed Director of Music. Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti, his old acquaintances in Berlin, were attracted by this new venture to London, and very novel competition followed. The libretto of the new opera, "Muzio Scevola," was divided between the three composers. Attilio was to put the first act to music, Bononcino the second, and Handel the third. We need hardly wonder that the victory is said to have rested with the last and youngest of the trio, although the cabals against him, which afterward did him such grievous harm, had already commenced. In connection with this rivalry a clever epigram is often quoted, sometimes as Swift's, though it really was by John Byrom, the Lancashire poet:

       Some say, compared to Bononcini,
          That Mynheer Handel's but a Ninny;
          Others aver that he to Handel
          Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle.
          Strange all this difference should be
          'Twixt Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Of the many operas written for the Royal Academy of Music, all, except in name, have long been forgotten. As might have been expected, the noblemen's enterprise did not succeed, and in eight years they had spent the whole of their £50,000, and then had to close the theater. But Handel was not dismayed. He had saved £10,000, and on the collapse of the noblemen's company he took the theater himself. The speculation, however, proved a terribly losing one. But if he had not at last lost confidence in his labors of tricking out Italian insipidities in music far too good for them, he might not so soon have discovered where lay his real strength—as a composer of sacred music. The year 1732 was memorable for the performance at the Haymarket Theater of his first great English oratorio, "Esther," and this, having proved a great success, was followed by the cantata "Acis and Galatea," and the oratorio "Deborah."

Handel still clung to his operatic speculation; and when he had to leave the Haymarket Theater, which was given up to another Italian company, he changed to the Lincoln Inn Field Theater and began again. More unsuccessful operas were produced, and at last, in 1737, having lost the whole of his hard-earned money, Handel was compelled to close the theater and suspend payment for a time. He now again turned his thoughts to oratorio. "Saul" and "Israel in Egypt" were composed in quick succession; the last gigantic work being written in twenty-seven days. These works were followed by his fine setting of Dryden's "Ode on St. Cecilia's Day," and Milton's "L'Allegro," and "Il Penseroso"; but it cannot be said that his pecuniary affairs were materially improved by their production.

A journey to Ireland, in 1741, will always be remembered in connection with his immortal work "The Messiah," which was first performed for the benefit of charitable institutions in Dublin in the following spring. The performance took place at Neale's Music Hall on April 18, 1742, at midday, and, apropos of the absurdities of fashion, it may be noticed that the announcements contained the following request: "That ladies who honor this performance with their presence, will be pleased to come without their hoops, as it will greatly increase the charity by making room for more company." The work was gloriously successful, and £400 was obtained the first day for the Dublin charities.

Handel seems always to have had a special feeling with regard to this masterpiece of his—as if it were too sacred to be merely used for making money by, like his other works. He very frequently assisted at its performance for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital, and he left the score as a precious gift to the governor of that institution. This work brought £10,299 to the funds of the hospital. In this connection a fine saying of his may be repeated. Lord Kinnoul had complimented him on the noble "entertainment" which by "The Messiah" he had lately given the town. "My lord," said Handel, "I should be sorry if I only entertained them—I wish to make them better." And when some one questioned him on his feelings when composing the Hallelujah Chorus, he replied in his peculiar English, "I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself." What a striking remark that was of poor old George III, in describing the "pastoral symphony" in this oratorio—"I could sees the stars shining through it!"

The now constant custom of the audience to rise and remain standing during the performance of this chorus is said to have originated in the following manner. On the first production of the work in London, "the audience were exceedingly struck and affected by the music in general; but when the chorus struck up, 'For the Lord God Omnipotent,' in the 'Hallelujah,' they were so transported that they all together, with the King (who happened to be present), started up and remained standing till the chorus ended. This anecdote I had from Lord Kinnoul." So says Dr. Beattie, the once famous poet, in one of his letters.

"The Messiah" was commenced on August 22, 1741, finished on September 12, and the orchestration filled up two days afterward—the whole work thus being completed in twenty-three days. Handel was fifty-six years old at the time.

The next ten years of the life of the "Goliath of Music," as he has been called, are marked by some of the most splendid achievements of his genius. "Samson," the "Dettingen Te Deum," "Joseph," "Belshazzar," "The Occasional Oratorio," "Judas Maccabæus," "Joshua," "Solomon," and "Theodora" being composed during this time, when, already an old man, it might have been thought that he would have taken some repose after the labors of so toilsome and troubled a life. But, as in the case of Milton, his greatest works were those of his old age. "Judas Maccabæus" was perhaps the most successful at the time. It was commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales, to celebrate the victory of his brother, the Duke of Cumberland, at Culloden, over the Pretender and his forces. The words were compiled by a poetaster named Morell, who fulsomely dedicated the work to the conqueror. This Duke of Cumberland was in reality a very unherolike leader, and had sullied his victory with cold-blooded butchery of prisoners taken in war; but Handel probably thought very little about the man whose name was to be inscribed on the work, when he wrote the sublime music celebrating the deeds of the great Jewish liberator. "The Messiah," "Israel in Egypt," "Samson," and "Judas" may be said to be his grandest works.

But a terrible misfortune was approaching—his eyesight was failing. The "drop serene," of which Milton speaks so pathetically, had fallen on his eyes, and at the time when, in February, 1752, he was composing his last work, "Jephthah," the effort in tracing the lines is in the original manuscript painfully apparent. Soon afterward he submitted to three operations, but they were in vain, and henceforth all was to be dark to him. His sole remaining work was now to improvise on the organ, and to play at performances of his oratorios.

One night on returning home from a performance of "The Messiah" at Covent Garden, Handel was seized with sudden weakness and retired hurriedly to bed, from which he was never to rise again. On April 14, 1759, he quietly passed away, at the age of seventy-four. His remains were laid in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, and the place is marked by a statue by Roubilliac, representing him leaning over a table covered with musical instruments, his hand holding a pen, and before him is laid "The Messiah," open at the words "I know that my Redeemer liveth."

Handel is described as being of large and portly figure, with a countenance full of fire and dignity, eyes remarkably bright, short and prominent eyebrows, and finely marked and handsome features. "Handel's general look," says Burney, "was somewhat heavy and sour, but when he did smile it was like his sire the sun bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humor beaming in his countenance which I hardly ever saw in any other."

He was a man of honor 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.'" Handel was plain-spoken, and would not give in to any one if he knew he was in the right.

Handel's life-work falls naturally into two divisions. In each of these he was during his lifetime admittedly preëminent; but while opera since his day has developed with extraordinary rapidity, oratorio has tended to advance but little upon specially characteristic lines; therefore even to the casual hearer of to-day Handel's oratorios still represent the highest human achievement in this particular department of music, while his operas are as a rule summarily dismissed as being too old-fashioned in structure to merit more than a passing word.

It is commonly said that Handel's operas are merely a string of solos and duets with a chorus to bring down the curtain. A cursory examination of the works in question reveals that this is not the case. Handel used the chorus in his operas more freely than is usually stated, and when occasion demanded he wrote concerted numbers for solo voices in a manner ordinarily looked upon as the invention of a much later age. It is noticeable, too, that as Handel advanced in years and experience, he used the chorus more freely. But at no time did he permit the rules and conventions that governed opera of his day to override his own judgment.

It would be useless to try to review Handel's operas in detail. By reason of their subjects perhaps even more than their intrinsic musical value some of them appeal to a modern audience far less than the others. Many of the librettos which he set are inane rubbish, but no one who turns their pages can fail to be struck by the amazing force with which he gave realization to any spark of human interest which the situation contained.

Apart from the majestic and impeccable form of Handel's oratorios, the point in them that must fallibly strike the most casual observer is their immense range of thought. Handel's imagination was irrepressible, his sympathy was boundless. Nothing was strange to him; he could take every point of view. He who, when writing the Hallelujah Chorus, "did see all heaven, and the great God himself," was equally at home in the high places of heathendom. Whatever his own religious views may have been—and his contemporaries believed him to be sincere Christian—he had a most subtle appreciation of pagan rites. His heathens never repeat themselves. Compare, for instance, the brilliant festivities of the Philistines in "Samson" with the "dismal dance around the furnace blue in "Jephthah"; the frozen elegance of Roman ritual in "Theodora" with the barbaric raptures of the worshipers of Mithra in "Alexander Balus." But religion is only a fraction of the field he covered. He is equally at home in the far-away patriarchal life of the Old Testament as pictured in Caleb's song, 'Shall I in Mamre's fertile plain," in "Joshua," in the pomp and glitter of Solomon's court, in the insolent splendor of Belshazzar's feast, in the clash and din of battle in "Deborah," in the cold raptures of martyrdom in "Theodora," in the sunny sparkling life of old Greece in "Semele," in the innocent revels of nymph and shepherd in "Acis." Nothing came amiss to him; the passions and aspirations of the human race are written in his oratorios for all to read.

When we leave Handel's operas for his oratorios we come to more familiar ground. The operas are practically unknown to modern musicians, but though the popularity of "The Messiah" has tended to cast the other oratorios into the shade, the latter, with few exceptions, are still occasionally performed.

It is commonly said of Handel that those whose knowledge of his works is bounded on the one hand by "The Messiah" and on the other by the celebrated "Largo," that he had but one style for every subject. It is true that his style is strongly marked and individual, and it may well be that a man—even a musician—whose experience has been confined entirely to modern music, would derive an impression of monotony from Handel's work, largely because the methods of expression common to all eighteenth-century composers differs so widely from those now in common use as to constitute almost a different musical language.

It is a grave injustice to Handel that fate has fixed on "The Messiah" as the one work by which he should be known to the general public to-day; for "The Messiah," incomparable as it is, represents the many-sidedness of his genius singularly ill. His unerring instinct bade him in "The Messiah" adopt a severer and a more reticent mode of expression than he employed in any of his other works. He felt that in treating a subject of this character the noblest of all instruments, the human voice, should be supreme, and he voluntarily denied himself the assistance of those orchestral devices which in his other oratorios he employed with such admirable effect. The orchestration of "The Messiah" is simpler and less ornate that in any of Handel's other oratorios, and over the whole the work there breathes an air of gravity and solemn restraint, admirably in keeping with the tremendous subject, but by no means typical of the composer, whose feeling for picturesque detail, and whose knowledge of its application were consummately acute. Yet as an expression of Handel's attitude to life in general and to Christianity in particular "The Messiah" is a document of extreme value. Nevertheless, it cannot be repeated too often that a knowledge of "The Messiah" is very far from connoting a knowledge of Handel. A man who knows Handel only by "The Messiah" can have no conception of his passionate love for outdoor Nature and of his inimitable gift of recording her various phases in music.

Before concluding we must refer to the question of Handel's borrowings from other composers. That he did borrow is undeniable. But if he had borrowed or adapted or stolen far more than he did he would only have done what every great man has done to his heart's content. Chaucer translated freely from Jacobus de Voragine, Boccaccio, and many others. Shakespeare borrowed nearly all his plots and often versified Plutarch when it suited his purpose. Molière boasted that he took what he liked from whom he liked. The sources of "Paradise Lost" are notorious. Handel is in good company at any rate, and no one seriously pretends that the question of his debts to other men can affect our ultimate estimate of his genius.

"Handel," says R. A. Streatfield, "is the Shakespeare of music; but he has left us no such record of himself as Shakespeare did in the sonnets, if, that is to say, Mr. Sidney Lee's latest published opinion permits us to regard them as autobiographical. … Handel's personality is elusive. He took delight in his work for its own sake. He never preaches; he never moralizes. Handel is always an artist. … Nevertheless, to those who know his works intimately, the nature of Handel and his attitude to life are revealed in what he has written. Handel was an incurable optimist. He had that worship of beauty for its own sake that is inevitably allied to optimism. There are certain phases of modern thought which are not represented in his music, and it is partly from their absence that his appeal to the world of to-day is less potent than formerly. He loved life and drank deep of it; he looked upon death and was not afraid. There is nothing morbid in Handel. He was as blind to the beauty of decay as was the sculptor of the Elgin marbles. His view of life was simple, but it was magnificently sane. His music has a tonic force that it is not for our good that we neglect."