Wednesday 23 September 2015

Handel and the English

Today I am wildly excited to welcome Sheena Vernon to the salon. Sheena is the author of the wonderful book, Messiah. Love, music and malice at a time of Handel, and is joining us to discuss the composer's life and work in England!


Handel and the English

Handel was a Saxon yet his home for forty five years (1714-59) was London. He invented a new genre of music, the English dramatic oratorio, yet he came to fame as the composer of Italian opera. He made London the musical capital of Europe with musicians and singers that were almost exclusively foreign. And to complete the conundrum, he created a brand, headed by monarchs who originated from Hanover, that became the epitome of Britishness.

Yes, George Frideric was a mass of wonderful contradictions. Which is possibly why he and the British public had their ups and downs. In fact his ups and downs with pretty much everybody who was anybody were legendary; he was, after all, a ‘creative’ and therefore difficult at times to work with. His Italian singers found him an insufferable dictator. Which is why, in 1733, most of them walked out on him and joined a rival opera company. English composers like Thomas Arne resented the long shadow he cast, getting every commission for public occasions like royal marriages, deaths and coronations. The news sheets liked to deride the Italian Opera for promoting effeminacy and popery and aimed their most excoriating prose at its director, Handel, for encouraging Jonny Eunuch to caper round the stage shrieking in a language that no-one understood. The other accusation was that he was typically German, telling the English what their taste in music should be.

At one stage Handel left London, unable to take the barracking of the tabloids, the tantrums of his singers, and the hissing and growling of London’s beau monde who had divided into factions when the new opera company was set up as a rival to his. In the winter of 1741 he stomped off to Dublin for ten months and it was there that he premiered his greatest oratorio, The Messiah. During the years leading up to this rupture Handel not only endured the media brickbats, factionalism and peer group resentment just mentioned but had come close to bankruptcy, due to audiences being split across two opera companies.

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner, 1726-28
George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner, 1726-28 

So why, you might be asking, did Handel make London his home and in 1727 become a naturalised citizen? Why didn’t he move to another Protestant court, in the Netherlands, maybe or Austria, Prussia, and even Hanover where he had once worked? The answer lies with what London had to offer musicians at the time. I think that the close group of sponsors who became his friends also played a part as well as the patronage of the royal family. Finally, Handel eventually hit on a formula which the public loved: he started to compose works in English and to rely on English singers. By the time of his death his airs were being played on every parade ground, in the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, in the concert halls of provincial cities, and at the ceremonies that trumpeted British triumphs - the Treaty of Utrecht, the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle, the victory at Culloden.

The first half of the eighteenth century saw London became capitalistic, colonial and cosmopolitan (though none of those words existed). The fact that George 1st couldn’t speak English was, for English parliamentarians of the time, part of his charm; they wanted a figurehead who brought stability, they didn’t want a Stuart who believed he had divine rights or who would meddle in running the country. Nowhere else in Europe was there the same libertarian approach to governance that allowed new wealth to be created from trade and finance. For twenty five years Britain made money rather than war. When this period of peace ended in 1739 it was in order to fight the Spanish for trade dominance in the West Indies. 

Handel, being a businessman and entrepreneur, thrived in this ruthless, often brutal and always robust environment even though he was bruised at times. Unlike Mozart, when he died in 1759 he was well-off because there were opportunities to make money as a musician in London which did not exist elsewhere (this was the principal reason why London attracted so many foreign musicians); there were also new audiences from among the mercantile classes and this broke the grip of aristocratic patronage on the arts. 

An additional advantage for Handel was his relationship with the House of Hanover. King George ll was in all senses a philistine, but his father genuinely loved Italian opera and George ll’s spouse, Caroline, and her two eldest daughters - all three of the same Lutheran stock as the composer - were his friends. Handel’s friendship circles were small and tight but very loyal; his right hand man was a fellow Saxon, Johann Christophe Schmidt, but he also moved in several English circles, notably those round Lord Shrewsbury and his near neighbour Mrs Delaney, née Pendarves. When I read about his relations with the British musical and church establishment, I wonder sometimes if Handel wasn’t borderline Aspergers. But the existence of close friends suggests someone capable of considerable, albeit a crusty, charm, and his ongoing popularity with royalty, despite the fact that so many of them loathed each other, is testimony to his diplomatic skills. 

Finally, Handel and the British grew to love one another. After 1741 Handel composed no more Italian operas, focusing instead on English oratorios. Some say this was merely because the opera was just too uneconomic, but maybe Handel himself saw the need to evolve as a musician. Above all of this, he became an institution; the Hallelujah chorus, Zadock the Priest, the water music and the fireworks music are only the tip of a huge Handelian iceberg that defined public life, that made him, truly, one of us.

Messiah book cover

Sheena Vernon is author of the novel ‘Messiah. Love, music and malice at a time of Handel,’ which is available in paperback, as an ebook or in audio.

Written content of this post copyright © Sheena Vernon, 2015.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating and relevant to us today. If we give our readers what they want, they MAY love us. If we give them what they don't want -- like Handel doing opera in Italian -- they will probably vote with their feet. Or worse. Many thanks to Sheena. Love the subtitle. Says it all. @joannamaitland

Julia Ergane said...

I still love Handel's Italian operas. I am glad that they are finally being done again. He really knew how to write for the voice, as did Mozart. When I was in London I was thrilled to be able to see his tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, Joanna!

Catherine Curzon said...

It is quite a monument; I wrote a blog on it last year!

Unknown said...

Julia, I absolutely love his operas. For many years he was adored and reverred for having bought this art form to England. I was merely saying in the blog that it exposed him to a lot of media criticism, especially as castrati were so foreign to the average Englishman.