Music Essays – Handel – The Man

THEY USED to call him the Great Bear. He was gigantic: broad, corpulent, with big hands and enormous feet; his arms and thighs were stupendous. His hands were so fat that the bones disappeared in the flesh, forming dimples. He walked bowlegged, with a heavy, rolling gait, very erect, with his head thrown back under its huge white wig, whose curls rippled heavily over his shoulders. He had a long horse-like face, which with age became bovine and swamped in fat, with pendant cheeks and triple chin, the nose large, thick, and straight, the ears red and long. His gaze was direct; there was a quizzical gleam in his bold eye, a mocking twist at the corner of his large, finely cut mouth. His air was impressive and jovial. When he smiled, says Burney, “his heavy, stern countenance was radiant with a flash of intelligence and wit, like the sun emerging from a cloud.”

He was full of humor. He had a -”sly pseudo-simplicity” which made the most solemn individuals laugh though he him-self showed an unsmiling face. No one ever told a story better. “His happy way of saying the simplest things differently from anyone else gave them an amusing complexion. If his English had been as good as Swift’s, his bons mots would have been equally abundant and of the same kind.” But “really to enjoy what he said one almost had to know four languages: English, French, Italian, and German, all of which he mixed up together.”

This medley of tongues was as much due to the fashion in which his vagabond youth was molded while he wandered through the countries of western Europe as to his natural impetuosity, which, when he sought a rejoinder, seized upon all the words at his disposal. He was like Berlioz: musical notation was too slow for him; he would have needed a shorthand to follow his thought; at the beginning of his great choral compositions he wrote the motifs in full for all the parts; as he proceeded he would drop first one part, then another; finally he would retain only one voice, or he would even end up with the bass alone; he would pass at a stroke to the end of the composition which he had begun, postponing until later the completion of the whole, and on the morrow of finishing one piece he would begin another, sometimes working on two, if not three, simultaneously.

He would never have had the patience of Gluck, who began, before writing, by “going through each of his acts, and then the whole piece; which commonly cost him”—so he told Corancez —”a year, and oftener than not a serious illness.” Handel used to compose an act before he had learned how the piece continued, and sometimes before the librettist had time to write it.

The urge to create was so tyrannical that it ended by isolating him from the rest of the world. “He never allowed himself to be interrupted by any futile visit,” says Hawkins, “and his impatience to be delivered of the ideas which continually flooded his mind kept him almost always shut up.” His brain was never idle, and whatever he might be doing, he was no longer conscious of his surroundings. He had a habit of speaking so loudly that everybody learned what he was thinking. And what exaltation, what tears, as he wrote! He sobbed aloud when he was composing the aria, “He Was Despised.” “I have heard it said,” reports Shield, “that when his servant took him his chocolate in the morning, he was often surprised to see him weeping and wetting with his tears the paper on which he was writing.” With regard to the “Hallelujah” chorus of the Messiah he himself cited the words of St. Paul: “Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.”

This huge mass of flesh was shaken by fits of fury. He swore with almost every phrase. In the orchestra “when his great white periwig was seen to quiver, the musicians trembled.” When his choirs were inattentive, he had a way of shouting “Chorus!” at them in a terrible voice that made the public jump. Even at the rehearsals of his oratorios at Carlton House before the Prince of Wales, if the Prince and the Princess did not appear punctually he took no trouble to conceal his anger; and if the ladies of the court had the misfortune to talk during the performance, he was not satisfied with cursing and swearing but addressed them furiously by name. “Chut, chat!” the Princess would say on these occasions, with her usual indulgence: “Handel is spiteful!”

Spiteful he was not. “He was rough and peremptory,” says Burney, “but entirely without malevolence. There was in is most violent fits of anger a touch of originality which, together with his bad English, made them absolutely comical. Like Lully and Gluck, he had the gift of command; and like them he combined an irascible violence that overcame all opposition with a witty good nature which, though wounding to vanity, had the power of healing the wounds which it had caused. “At his rehearsals he was an arbitrary person; but his remarks and even his reprimands were full of an extremely droll humor.” At the time when the opera in London was a field of battle between the supporters of the Faustina and those of the Cuzzoni, the two prima donnas seized one another by the hair, in the middle of a performance patronized by the Princess of Wales, to the roars of the house. A farce by Colley Cibber dramatized this historic bout of fisticuffs and represented Handel as the only person who remained cool in the midst of the uproar. “To my thinking,” he said, “one should leave them to fight it out in peace. If you want to make an end of it, throw oil on the fire. When they are tired, their fury will abate of itself.” And in order that the battle should end the sooner, he expedited it with great blows on the kettledrum.

Even when he flew into a rage, people felt that he was laughing in his sleeve. Thus, when he seized by the waist the irascible Cuzzoni, who refused to sing one of his airs, and carried her to the window, threatening to throw her into the street, he said, with a bantering air: “Now, madame, I know very well that you are a regular she-devil; but I’ll make you realize that I am Beelzebub, the prince of devils!”

All his life he enjoyed a wonderful amount of freedom. He hated all restrictions and avoided all official appointments, for we cannot so describe his position of teacher to the princesses; the important musical posts’ about the court and the fat pensions were never bestowed upon him even after his naturalization as an English citizen; they were conferred upon indifferent composers. He took no pains to humor these; he spoke of his English colleagues with contemptuous sarcasm. Indifferently educated, apart from music, he despised academics and academic musicians. He was not a doctor of Oxford University al-though the degree was offered to him. It is recorded that he complained: “What the devil! Should I have had to spend my money in order to be like those idiots? Never in this world!”

And later in Dublin, where he was entitled Dr. Handel on a placard, he was annoyed by the mistake and promptly had it corrected on the programs, which announced him as Mr. Handel.

Although he was far from turning up his nose at fame—speaking at some length in his last will and testament of his burial at Westminster and carefully settling the amount to which he wished to limit the cost of his own monument he had no respect whatever for the opinions of the critics. Mattheson was unable to obtain from him the data needed to write his biography. His Rousseau-like manners filled the courtiers with indignation. The fashionable folk who had always been given to inflicting boredom upon artists without any protest from the latter resented the supercilious and unsociable fashion in which he kept them at a distance. In 1719 the field marshal Count Flemming wrote to Mlle de Schulenburg, one of Handel’s pups:

“Mademoiselle! I had hoped to speak to M. Handel and should have liked to offer him a few polite attentions on your behalf, but there has been no opportunity; I made use of your name to induce him to come to my house, but on some occasions he was not at home while on others he was ill; it seems to me that he is rather crazy, which he ought not to be as far as I am concerned, considering that I am a musician . . . and that I am proud to be one of your most faithful servants, Mademoiselle, who are the most agreeable of his pupils; I should have liked to tell you all this, so that you in your turn might give lessons to your master.”

In 1741 an anonymous letter to the London Daily Post speaks of “the declared displeasure of so many gentlemen of rank and influence” in respect to Handel’s attitude toward them.

Excepting the single opera Radamisto, which he dedicated to George I—and this he did with dignity—he set his face against the humiliating and profitable custom of placing his compositions under the patronage of some wealthy person; only when he was in the last extremity, when poverty and sickness had overwhelmed him, did he resolve to give a “benefit” concert: “that fashion of begging alms” as he called it.

From 1720 until his death in 1759 he was engaged in an unending conflict with the public. Like Lully, he managed a theater, directed an Academy of Music and sought to reform—or to form—the musical taste of a nation. But he never had Lully’s powers of control, for Lully was an absolute monarch of French music; and if Handel relied, as he did, on the king’s favor, that favor was a long way from being as important to him as it was to Lully. He was in a country which did not obey the orders of those in high places with docility; a country which was not enslaved to the State; a free country of a critical, unruly temper, and apart from a select few, anything but hospitable, and inimical to foreigners. And he was a foreigner, and so was his Hanoverian king, whose patronage compromised him more than it benefited him.

He was surrounded by a crowd of bulldogs with terrible fangs, by unmusical men of letters who were likewise able to bite, by jealous colleagues, arrogant virtuosos, cannibalistic theatrical companies, fashionable cliques, feminine plots, and nationalistic leagues. He was a prey to financial embarrassments which grew daily more inextricable, and he was constantly compelled to write new compositions to satisfy the curiosity of a public that nothing ever did satisfy, that was really interested in nothing, and to strive against the competition of harlequinades and bearfights; to write, and write, and write: not an opera each year, as Lully did so peacefully, but often two or three each winter, without counting the compositions of other musicians which he was forced to rehearse and conduct. What other genius ever drove such a trade for twenty years?

In this perpetual conflict he never made use of concessions, compromises, or discreet expedients; neither with his actresses nor their protectors, the great nobles, nor the pamphleteers, nor all that clique which makes the fortune of the theaters and the fame or ruin of the artists. He held his own against the aristocracy of London, The war was bitter and merciless, and, on the part of his ‘enemies, ignobly fought; there was no device, however petty, that was not employed to drive him into bankruptcy.

In 1733 after a long campaign in the press and the drawing rooms of London, his enemies managed to contrive that the concerts at which Handel produced his first oratorios were given to empty chairs; they succeeded in killing them, and people were already repeating, exultingly, that the discouraged German was about to return to his own country. In 1741 the fashionable cabal went so far as to hire little street-arabs to tear down the advertisements of Handel’s concerts which were posted up out of doors, and “made use of a thousand expedients equally pitiable, to cause him injury.” Handel would probably have left the United Kingdom but for the unexpected sympathy which he found in Ireland, where he proceeded to spend a year. In 1745 after all his masterpieces, after the Messiah, Samson, Belshazzar, and Hercules, the cabal was reconstituted, and was even, more violent than before. Bolingbroke and Smollet mention the tenacity with which certain ladies gave tea parties, entertainments, and theatrical performances—which were not usually given in Lent—on the days when Handers concerts were to take place, in order to rob him of his audience. Horace Walpole was greatly entertained by the fashion of going to the Italian opera when Handel was giving his oratorios.

In short, Handel was ruined; and although he was victorious in the end, the causes of his victory were quite unconnected with art. To him there happened in 1746 what happened to Beethoven in 1813 after he had written the Battle of Vittoria and his patriotic songs for a Germany that had risen against Napoleon: Handel suddenly became after the Battle of Culloden and his two patriotic oratorios, the Occasional Oratorio and Judas Maccabaeus, a national bard. From that moment his cause was gained, and the cabal had to keep silence; he was a part of England’s patrimony, and the British lion walked beside him. But if after this period England no longer grudged his fame, she nevertheless made him purchase it dearly; and it was no fault of the London public that he did not die in the midst of his career of poverty and mortification. Twice he was bankrupt, and once he was stricken down by apoplexy amid the ruins of his company. But he always found his feet again; he never gave in. “To reestablish his fortunes he need only have made certain concessions; but his character rebelled against such a course. He had a hatred of all that might restrict his liberty and was intractable in matters affecting the honor of his art. He was not willing that he should owe his fortune to any but himself. An English caricaturist represented him under the title of “The Be-witching Brute,” trampling underfoot a banner on which was written: “Pension, Privilege, Nobility, Favors”; and in the face of disaster he laughed with the laugh of a Cornelian Pantagruel.

Finding himself on the evening of a concert confronted by an empty hall, he said: “My music will sound the better so!”

This masterful character with its violence and its transports of anger and of genius was governed by a supreme self-control. In Handel that tranquility prevailed which is sometimes met with in the offspring of certain sound but late marriages. All his life he preserved this profound serenity in his art. While his mother, whom he worshiped, lay dying he wrote Poro, that delightfully carefree opera. The terrible year 1717, when he lay at the point of death in the depths of a gulf of calamity, was pre-ceded and followed by two oratorios overflowing with joy and material energy: Alexander’s Feast (1736) and Saul (1738), and also by the two sparkling operas, Giustino (1737) with its pastoral fragrance, and Serse (1738), in which a comic vein appears.

… “La calma del cor, del sen, dell’alma,” says a song at the close of the serene Giustino. And this was the time when Handel’s mind was strained to breaking point by its load of anxieties!

Herein the anti-psychologists who claim that the knowledge of an artist’s life is of no value in the understanding of his work will find cause for triumph, but they will do well to avoid a hasty judgment; for the very fact that Handel’s art was independent of his life is of capital importance in the comprehension of his art. That a Beethoven should find solace for his sufferings and his passions in works of suffering and passion is easily understood. But that Handel, a sick man, assailed by anxieties, should find distraction in works expressing joy and serenity presupposes an almost superhuman mental equilibrium. How natural it is that Beethoven, endeavoring to write his Ninth Symphony, should have been fascinated by Handel! He must have looked with envious eyes upon the man who had attained that mastery over things and self to which he himself was aspiring and which he was to achieve by an effort of impassioned heroism. It is this effort that we admire; it is indeed sublime. But is not the serenity with which Handel retained his footing on these heights equally sublime? People are too much accustomed to regard his serenity as the phlegmatic in-difference of an English athlete:

“Gorged to the teeth with underdone sirloins, Handel bursts into vigorous and loyal song.”

No one had any suspicion of the nervous tension or the super-human determination which he must have needed in order to sustain this tranquility. At times the machine broke down, and his magnificent health of body and mind was shaken to the roots. In 1737 Handel’s friends believed that he had permanently lost his reason. But this crisis was not exceptional in his life. In 1745 when the hostility of London society, implacable in its attacks upon his Belshazzar and Hercules, ruined him for the second time, his reason was again very near to giving way. Correspondence which has recently been published has afforded us this information. The Countess of Shaftesbury wrote on March 13, 1745:

“I went to Alexander’s Feast with a melancholy pleasure. I wept tears of mortification at the sight of the great and unfortunate Handel; crestfallen, gloomy, with sunken cheeks, seated beside the harpsichord which he could not play; it made me sad to reflect that his light has burned itself out in the service of music.

On August 29 of the same year the Rev. William Harris wrote to his wife:

“Met Handel in the street. Stopped him and reminded him who I was, upon which I am sure it would have entertained you to see his fantastic gestures. He spoke a great deal of the pre-carious condition of his health.”

This condition continued for seven or eight months. On October 24, Shaftesbury wrote to Harris:

“Poor Handel looks a little better. I hope he will recover completely though his mind has been entirely deranged.”

He did recover completely, since in November he wrote his Occasional Oratorio and soon afterward his Judas Maccabaeus. But we see what a gulf perpetually yawned beneath hi. It was only by the skin of his teeth that he, the sanest of geniuses, kept himself going, a hand’s-breadth from insanity, and I re-peat that these sudden organic lesions have been revealed only by the hazards of a correspondence. There must have been many others of which we know nothing. Let us remember this and also the fact that Handel’s tranquility concealed a prodigious expenditure of emotion. The indifferent, phlegmatic Han-del is only the outer shell.

Those who conceive of him thus have never understood him, never penetrated his mind, which was exalted by transports of enthusiasm, pride, fury, and joy; which was at times almost hallucinated. But music for him was a serene region which he would not allow the disorders of his life to enter; when he surrendered to it wholly he was, despite himself, carried away by the delirium of a visionary, as when the God of Moses and the Prophets appeared to him in his psalms and his oratorios—or betrayed by his heart in moments of pity and compassion that were yet without a trace of sentimentality.

He was, in his art, one of those men who, like Goethe, regard their lives from a great distance, a great height. Our modern sentimentality, which displays itself with complacent indiscretion, is disconcerted by this haughty reserve. In this kingdom of art, inaccessible to the capricious chances of life, it seems to us that the prevailing light is sometimes too uniform. Here are the Elysian Fields; hither one retreats from the life of the world; here, often enough, one regrets it. But is there not some-thing affecting in the spectacle of this master, serene amidst all his afflictions, his brow unlined and his heart without a care?

Such a man, who lived entirely for his art, was not calculated to please women; and he troubled his head very little about them. None the less, they were his warmest partisans and his most venomous adversaries. The English pamphleteers made merry over one of his worshipers who, under the pseudonym of Ophelia, sent him when his Julius Caesar was produced a crown of laurel with an enthusiastic poem in which she represented him as the greatest of musicians, and also of the English poets of his time. I have already alluded to those fashionable ladies’ who endeavored, with hateful animosity, to ruin him. Handel went his own way, indifferent to worshipers and adversaries alike.

In Italy when he was twenty years of age, he had a few temporary love affairs, traces of which survive in several of the Italian cantatas. There is a rumor, too, of an affair which he is supposed to have had at Hamburg when he was second violin in the orchestra of the Opera. He was attracted by one of his pupils, a girl of good family, and wanted to marry her; but the girl’s mother declared that she would never consent to her daughter’s marriage with a catgut scraper. Later, when the mother was dead and Handel famous, it was suggested to him that the obstacles were now removed; but he replied that the time had gone by, and according to his friend, Schmidt, who, like a good romantic German, delights to embellish history, “the young lady fell into a decline that ended her days.” In London a little later there was a fresh project of marriage with a lady in fashionable society; once again, she was one of his pupils, but this aristocratic person wanted him to abandon his profession. Handel, indignant, “broke off the relations which would have fettered his genius.” Hawkins tells us: “His sociable instincts were not very strong, whence it comes, no doubt, that he was a celibate all his life; it is asserted that he never had any dealings with women.” Schmidt, who knew Handel much better than Hawkins, protests that Handel was not unsociable but that his frantic craving for independence “made him afraid of belittling himself, and that he had a dread of indissoluble ties.”

In default of love he knew and faithfully practiced friendship. He inspired the most touching affection, such as that of Schmidt, who deserted his country and his kin to follow him in 1726 and never left him again until his death. Some of his friends were among the noblest intellects of the age; such was the witty Dr. Arbuthnot, whose apparent Epicurianism concealed a stoical disdain of mankind and who, in his last letter to Swift, made this admirable remark: “As for leaving for the world’s sake the path of, virtue and honor, the world is not worth it.” Handel had moreover a profound and pious feeling for the family, which was never extinguished and to which he gave expression in some touching characters, such as Joseph and the good mother in Solomon.

But the finest, purest feeling of which he was capable was his ardent charity. In a country which witnessed in the eighteenth century a magnificent impulse of human solidarity, he was one of those who were most sincerely devoted to the cause of the unfortunate. His generosity was not extended merely to this or that individual whom he had personally known, such as the widow of his old master, Lachow; it was lavished continually and abundantly in the interest of all charitable undertakings, more particularly in that of two such organizations which made especial appeal to him: the Society of Musicians and the Foundling Hospital.

The Society of Musicians was founded in 1738 by a group of the principal artists in London—artists of all descriptions—for the assistance of indigent musicians and their families. An aged musician received a weekly allowance of ten shillings; a musician’s widow, seven shillings. The Society also undertook to give them decent burial. Handel, embarrassed though he was, showed himself more generous than his colleagues. On March 20, 1739, defraying all expenses, he produced for the benefit of the Society his Alexander’s Feast, with a new organ concerto especially written for the occasion. On March 28, 1740, in the midst of his worst difficulties, he produced Acis and Galatea and the little Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. On March 18, 1741 he gave a gala performance—for him a most onerous task—of Parnasso in Festa, with scenery and costumes, and five concerti soli executed by the most famous instrumentalists. He left the Society the largest legacy which it received—one of a thousand pounds.

As for the Foundling Hospital, established in 1739 by an old sailor, Thomas Coram, “for the relief and education of deserted children,” “one may say,” writes Mainwaring, “that it owed its establishment and its prosperity to Handel.” In 1749 Handel wrote for it his beautiful Anthem for the Foundling Hospital. In 1750 after the gift of an organ to the Hospital, he was elected governor. We know that his Messiah was first performed, and afterward almost entirely reserved, for the benefit of charitable undertakings. The first performance in Dublin, on April 12, 1742, was given for the benefit of the poor. The profits of the concert were entirely divided between the Society for the Re-lief of Debtor Prisoners, the Infirmary for the Poor, and the Mercers’ Hospital. When the success of the Messiah was established in London—not without difficulty—in 1750, Handel decided to give annual performances for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital. Even after he was blind he continued to direct these performances. Between 1750 and 1759, the date of Handers death, the Messiah earned for the Hospital a sum of £6,955. Handel had forbidden his publisher, Walsh, to publish any part of this work, the first edition of which did not appear until 1763; and he bequeathed to the Hospital a copy of the full score. He had given another copy to the Dublin Society for the Relief of Debtor Prisoners, with permission to make use of it as often as the Society pleased in the interest of their beneficiaries.

This love of the poor inspired Handel in some of his most characteristic passages, such as certain pages of the Foundling. anthem, full of a touching benevolence, or the pathetic evocation of the orphans and foundlings, whose pure shrill voices rise alone and without accompaniment in the midst of the triumphant chorus of the Funeral Anthem, attesting to the beneficence of the dead queen.

One year almost to the day before Handers death, there stands on the register of the Foundling Hospital the name of a little Maria Augusta Handel; born on April 15, 1758. She was a foundling to whom he had given his name.

For him charity was the true religion. He loved God in the poor.

For the rest, he was by no means religious in the strict sense of the word—except at the close of his life after the loss of his sight had cut him off from the society of his kind and isolated him almost completely. Hawkins used to see him then, in the last three years of his life, diligently attending the services of his parish church—St. George’s, Hanover Square–kneeling “and manifesting by his gestures and his attitude the most fervent devotion.” During his last illness he said: “I wish I might die on Good Friday, in the hope of joining my God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of His resurrection.”

But during the greater part of his lifetime when he was in the fullness of his strength, he rarely attended a place of warship. A Lutheran by birth, replying ironically in Rome, where an attempt was made to convert him, “that he was determined to die in the communion in which he had been brought up, whether it was true or false,” he nevertheless found no difficulty in conforming to the Anglican form of worship and was regarded as very much of an unbeliever.

Whatever his faith, he was religious at heart. He had a lofty conception of the moral obligations of art. After the first performance in London of the Messiah he said to a noble amateur: “I should be sorry, my lord, if I gave pleasure to men; my aim is to make them better.”

During his lifetime “his moral character was publicly acknowledged,” as Beethoven arrogantly wrote of himself. Even at the period when he was most discussed, discerning admirers had realized the moral and social value of his art. Some verses which were published in the English newspapers in 1745 praised the miraculous power which the music of Saul possessed of alleviating suffering by exalting it. A letter in the London Daily Post for April 13, 1739 says that “a people which appreciates the music of Israel in Egypt should have nothing to fear on whatever occasion, though all the might of an invasion were gathered against it.”

No music in the world gives forth so mighty a faith. It is the faith that removes mountains and, like the rod of Moses, makes the eternal waters gush forth from the rock of hardened souls. Certain passages from his oratorios, certain cries of resurrection are living miracles, as of Lazarus rising from the tomb. Thus, in the second act of Theodora, God’s thunderous command breaks through the mournful slumber of death:

“Arise!” cried His voice. And the young man arose.

Or again, in the Funeral Anthem, the intoxicated cry, almost painful in its joy, of the immortal soul that puts off the husk of the body and holds out its arms to its God.

But nothing approaches in moral grandeur the chorus that closes the second act of Jephthah. Nothing enables us better than the story of this composition to gain an insight into Handers heroic faith.

When he began to write it, on January 21, 1751, he was in perfect health despite his sixty-six years. He composed the first act in twelve days, working without intermission. There is no trace of care to be found in it. Never had his mind been freer; it was almost indifferent as to the subject under treatment. In the course of the second act his sight became suddenly clouded. The writing, so clear at the beginning, is now confused and tremulous. The music too assumes a mournful character. He had just begun the final chorus of Act II: “How mysterious, 0 Lord, are Thy ways!” Hardly had he written the initial movement, a largo with pathetic modulations, when he was forced to stop. He has noted at the foot of the page:

“Have got so far, Wednesday, 13th February. Prevented from continuing because of my left eye.”

He breaks off for ten days. On the eleventh he writes on his manuscript:

“The 23rd February, am a little better. Resumed work.” And he sets to music these words, which contain a tragic allusion to his own misfortune:

“Our joy is lost in grief . . . as day is lost in night.”

Laboriously, in five days’ time—five days! and formerly he could have written a whole act in the time—he struggles on to the end of this somber chorus, which illumines, in the darkness that envelops him, one of the grandest affirmations of faith in time of suffering. On emerging from these gloomy and tormented passages, a few voices (tenor and bass) in unison murmur very softly,

“All that is … ”

For a moment they hesitate, seeming to take breath, and then all the voices together affirm with unshakable conviction that all that is… is good.”

The heroism of Handel and his fearless music, which breathes of courage and faith, is summed up in this cry of the dying Hercules.