Book Reviews - Winter 2019

Making Himself at Home

A German-born composer and his English oratorios

By Sudip Bose | December 3, 2018
Flickr/Kent Wang
Flickr/Kent Wang

Handel in London: The Making of a Genius by Jane Glover; Pegasus Books, 448 pp., $28.95

One of the great assimilation stories in the history of music involves the transformation of Georg Friedrich Händl, fledgling German composer from the city of Halle, into George Frideric Handel, naturalized British subject and unrivaled master of the English oratorio. Although Handel was never quite fluent in the language of his adopted land, his ability to adapt the poetry of John Milton, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope, to say nothing of the King James Bible, resulted in an output that was as magnificent as it was extensive. By the time of his death in 1759, no one, with the possible exception of Henry Purcell, had done more to invigorate English music—a status unchallenged until the advent of Edward Elgar well over a century later.

As Jane Glover, a noted English conductor and the author of a previous book on Mozart, writes in her new work, Handel arrived in London in 1710, at the age of 25, having spent four apprentice years in Italy. He had enjoyed his first operatic triumph—Agrippina—in Venice, and he was eager to continue in this theatrical vein. His first London opera, the extravagant, brilliantly scored Rinaldo, was in Italian. The language barrier aside, the work was an unqualified success, vaulting its composer into the city’s cultural elite and bringing him enduring favor with the British royal family.

Under the auspices of his Royal Academy of Music, Handel recruited some of the finest Italian voices of the day, tailoring his music to the talents of his singers—thus the long lyrical phrases and difficult passages of coloratura in his compositions. Not everyone, however, was enamored with so much Italian opera in the capital. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, in the pages of The Spectator, were among the most prominent voices denouncing any entertainment performed in a language that audiences could not understand. As a result, a rival company arose in the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre that put on such productions as The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, made up of vernacular English ballads and satirical English dialogue—a theatrical riposte to Handel that proved massively popular. Meanwhile, financial troubles at the Royal Academy didn’t help Handel’s cause, and especially after the Jacobite rising of 1715, the public turned away from opera, favoring orchestral and chamber concerts instead, as well as masquerades that were heavy on the costumes and light on the music. Handel could not have imagined that his operatic doldrums—temporary though they would be—would lead him on another fruitful path.

While ensconced at Cannons, the sumptuous country estate of James Brydges, first duke of Chandos, Handel began setting church verses and other English texts, producing a Te Deum, several anthems, the oratorio Esther, and the exquisite pastoral masque Acis and Galatea. Handel had successfully pivoted to English, but his career in Italian opera was hardly over. Indeed, the bulk of his operatic output came after 1724, when he composed a series of beautiful and profound works—Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Orlando, Ariodante, and Alcina, among them. The public’s response was generally strong, though enthusiasm was short-lived; indeed, the canonical position of several of these operas can be attributed to their revival in modern times. At any rate, when the appetite for opera finally subsided, Handel turned his energies to chamber and instrumental works and also to oratorios. “Despite the lack of any staging, costuming or theatrical lighting,” Glover writes, Handel’s earliest forays in the oratorio genre “proved popular with the public, not least for their being sung in English—that old chestnut—but also for their magnificent use of the essentially English ecclesiastical choirs, with their especial expertise.”

By the time of Handel’s death in 1759, no one had done more to invigorate English music—a status unchallenged until the
advent of Edward Elgar.

Indeed, a listener could spend a lifetime exploring an oratorio like the splendid and towering Saul and not discover all its choral and orchestral riches. So it is with Israel in Egypt, Susanna, Solomon, Samson, Belshazzar, Judas Maccabeus, and Handel’s most popular work, Messiah, which he completed during a happy sojourn in Dublin. “That Messiah would become a veritable cornerstone of European and therefore world culture,” Glover writes, “resonating spectacularly through the centuries and across the globe, changing the whole nature of music-making and to an extent also that of concertgoing, as well as uplifting countless millions of performers and listeners, would—even for the confident, resilient and optimistic Handel—have been utterly unimaginable.”

As we might expect from a conductor of Glover’s experience, her descriptions of Handel’s music—of how the composer married text with sound to such extraordinary effect—are deeply perceptive. And her explanations of operatic form are clear and deft. We see just how Handel developed the tripartite da capo aria, surrounding it with recitatives, choruses, and dances to create cohesive theatrical spectacles. Where Glover falters is in the tedious recitation of every plot of every opera and oratorio, and of the singers that made up every cast. Some of the passages are downright wearying, the prose occasionally repetitive. At one point, she writes, “A new chapter in the life of Handel, and in the operatic life of London, was about to begin.” Not 30 pages later, she writes, “A new era for the Royal Academy of Music, and for Handel, was about to begin.” Glover describes Giulio Cesare as “arguably Handel’s greatest opera, and indeed one of the greatest operas from the whole of the eighteenth century.” Saul, meanwhile, “is unquestionably one of Handel’s greatest masterpieces, and indeed one of the greatest masterpieces of the eighteenth century.”

More problematic than this lack of imagination is that Glover paints too faint a portrait of Handel the man. We learn that the composer was private and stubborn, demanding and hard-working, that he happily undertook season after grueling season of new productions and revivals. We know almost nothing, however, about what animated him, what he thought and felt during his many decades in the English capital. Unfortunately, some of the most colorful and insightful snippets that reveal something of Handel’s character come from a work—John Mainwaring’s Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel (1760)—that Glover dismisses as unreliable. She does present a detailed picture of the world around Handel, of European history and politics, of rebellions and intrigues and royal successions. Yet Handel himself seems almost a peripheral figure in the story of his life. In the absence of firm detail, we must ultimately turn to Handel’s music to know who he was, to the keyboard and instrumental music, to the Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks, to Alexander’s Feast and the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, and to the more than 70 operas and oratorios that form the heart of his oeuvre. Glover’s book, its flaws notwithstanding, will leave you eager to delve into that mighty corpus. For that it must be commended.

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