George Frederick Handel
In a garret choked with lumber of various kinds, to which the dust of years had imparted the greyish hue of neglect and decay, a little fair-haired boy was seated before a spinet, fingering its yellow keys with a tenderness that betokened his fondness for the instrument. The level rays of the setting sun streaming through the dimmed casement lighted up the child’s head with its clustering curls, as he bent over the keyboard. The little spinet was almost dumb, and the voice which had cheered so many lonely hours spent in its companionship was hardly more than a whisper. Yet even so the boy loved to listen to it, for the spinet could speak to him as no living voice could speak; its sweet, faint sounds stirred the heart within him as nothing else in the whole of his childish world had the power to move it, awakening and creating fresh sounds that grew ever stronger as the hours flew by unheeded. To him the greatest joy of existence was to steal away to his garret next the sky and whisper his secrets to the friendly spinet.
George Frederick Handel, as the boy was named, was the son of a surgeon of Halle, Lower Saxony, in which town the child was born on February 23, 1685. Even before he could speak little George had shown a remarkable fondness for music, and the only toys he cared for were such as were capable of producing musical sounds. With this love for music, however, the father showed no sympathy whatever; he regarded the art with contempt, as something beneath the serious notice of one who aspired to be a gentleman, and that his child should have expressed an earnest desire to be taught to play only served to make him angry. He had decided that George was to be a lawyer, and in order that nothing should interfere with the carrying out of this intention he refused to allow the boy to attend school, lest his fondness for music should induce some one to teach him his notes. Poor George was therefore compelled to stifle his longing whilst in his father’s presence, and content himself with ‘making music’ in the seclusion of his own chamber. It may seem strange that Handel’s mother should not have interposed in order that her boy should be taught music, but there is no doubt that the elderly surgeon ruled his household with a firm hand, which not even his wife’s intercession would have made him relax. Moreover, Dorothea Handel was by nature far too gentle and submissive to seek to turn her husband from his decision. ‘Meister Görge,’ as he was styled, had been twice married. Dorothea, his second wife, was much younger than her husband, and possessed a gentle disposition that served to win her a place in the hearts of all who knew her, and that little George Frederick had his mother’s sympathy in his love for music we cannot doubt.
Handel was about five years of age when the wistful glances which he bestowed upon other children who were more fortunate than he in being permitted to learn music aroused the active sympathy of a kind friend, who procured for him a dumb spinet—a small harpsichord having its sound deadened by strips of cloth tied round the strings. The instrument was secretly conveyed to a lumber-room in the surgeon’s house, where a corner had been cleared for its reception, and thither would Handel delightedly repair at such times as he could do so without attracting notice. Hour after hour would pass whilst thus enrapt, until the shades of evening fell, or the moonbeams creeping across the instrument aroused him from his reverie. Often when the house was hushed in slumber the child would leave his bed, and steal away to the garret in order to commune with his beloved art. Day after day he laboured thus, mastering his difficulties one by one, his love and his genius preventing him from feeling the hardest work a drudgery.
For some time this secret practising continued without arousing suspicion on the part of the other inmates of the house. One night, however, when the child had resorted to his favourite spot, he was suddenly missed by those below, and, as it was known that he had been sent to bed, some fears were felt as to what could have become of him. The servants were summoned, but could give no account of him; the father was fetched from his study, whither he had retired, and a search began. The alarm increased when it was ascertained that the child was in none of the living-rooms of the house, and it was decided that the garrets and lofts must be searched. Calling for a lantern, the surgeon ascended the stairs leading to the lumber-room; it was possible that the boy might have found his way thither on some childish expedition, and there fallen asleep. Great was the father’s surprise, on reaching the top-most landing, to hear faint musical sounds proceeding from behind the closed door. Noiselessly retracing his steps, he summoned the rest of the household, and then, ascending the stairs in a body, they paused outside to listen. Sure enough the old garret was full of melodic sounds! Now near, now far off, they seemed to the listeners to be wafted from another world; there was something uncanny about it, and the maids gazed into each other’s faces with a scared expression, as the master softly lifted the latch, and, having peeped into the room, beckoned silently to the rest to follow him.
It might have been one of the angel choir itself whom these good people of the under-world had stumbled upon unawares! ‘Meister Görge,’ lifting his lantern above his head, peered forward into the darkness, whilst the women clasped their hands in astonishment at the vision presented to their gaze. For there, seated before the spinet, was the white-robed figure of the child, his face half turned towards them, and his eyes, as they caught the light of the lantern, revealing the dreamy, rapt expression of one who is lost to every earthly surrounding.
This discovery does not seem to have produced any outburst of anger on the part of the father. Possibly he was touched by the child’s devotion, or by his entreaties, and felt unwilling to deprive him of what, after all, he could only regard in the light of an amusement. At any rate, little Handel appears to have continued his practising without interruption. The progress which he made with his studies, however, made him long for an opportunity of hearing others play, and, very naturally, of being allowed to express his musical thoughts upon an instrument capable of responding with a fuller sound, though the fulfilment of this latter wish was more than he dared hope for whilst his father remained obdurate. One day, when Handel was seven years old, his father announced his intention of paying a visit to the castle of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels to see his son—a step-brother of George Frederick—who acted as valet de chambre to the Duke. Handel was most anxious to be allowed to accompany his father, because he had heard that the Duke kept a great company of musicians to perform in his chapel. But the father refused his consent, and the boy turned away with a look of fixed determination in his eyes, which it was well, perhaps, that the elderly surgeon did not perceive. ‘I will go,’ muttered the boy to himself, as he sought the seclusion of his garret; ‘I will go, even if I have to run every inch of the way!’
Handel did not know then that no fewer than forty miles lay between his home and the ducal castle, but having formed his bold resolution he awaited the moment when his father set forth on his journey, and then, running behind the closed carriage, he did his best to keep pace with it. The roads were long and muddy, and although he panted on bravely for a long distance, the child’s strength began at last to fail, and, fearing that he would be left behind, he called to the coachman to stop. At the sound of the boy’s voice his father thrust his head out of the window, and was about to give vent to his anger at George’s disobedience; but a glance at the poor little bedraggled figure in the road, with its pleading face, melted the surgeon’s heart. They were at too great a distance from home to turn back, and so Handel was lifted into the carriage and carried to Weissenfels, where he arrived tired and footsore, but supremely happy at having won his point.
Handel had certainly not formed too bright a picture of the musical delights of the Duke’s home. The musicians were most friendly towards him, and, as he was by no means shy where his beloved art was concerned, they soon became good friends. His delight was great when he was told that he might try the beautiful organ in the chapel. The organist stood beside him and arranged the stops, whilst the child, with a feeling of coming joy that was almost akin to fear, placed his fingers upon the keys. The next moment his hesitation had vanished, and the sounds were coming in response—one minute low and deep, then mysteriously calling to him from distant corners of the dim galleries, like sweet angel voices which he had the power to summon by the pressure of his fingers. In his lonely garret, fingering his spinet, he had longed for such an opportunity as this, to be enabled to make the great organ-pipes sing to him in whispers, or to thunder back to him in grand, deep chords that would set the whole air vibrating with music. And now the opportunity he craved for had come, and he could speak his musical thoughts into this noble instrument, which had the power to draw from the depths of his soul all that that soul contained. Ah, Handel was glad now that he had persevered and worked so hard at his music. He was glad, too, that he had undertaken that long, toilsome run behind his father’s carriage, for it had brought to him the greatest joy of his life.
On several occasions after this the organist came to the chapel on purpose to listen to Handel as the latter played, and he was so struck by the boy’s genius that he determined to surprise the Duke by letting Handel play His Highness out of chapel. Accordingly, on the following Sunday, when the service was concluded, the organist lifted Handel on to the organ-stool, and desired him to play. If the young player had needed courage and self-confidence, it must have been at this moment when bidden to perform before the Duke and all his people. But he needed neither, for he instantly forgot all else but the music which he was burning to express, and without a moment’s hesitation complied with the organist’s request.
The Duke and his friends had risen to their feet as Handel began to play, but the former, who was a good musician himself, instantly detected a difference in the playing, and, glancing towards the organ-loft, he was astonished to behold the figure of a child bending over the keys. But as he listened his astonishment became greater, for it was no longer the child’s figure that arrested his attention, but the melody which was pouring forth from the instrument. Instead of walking out of the chapel, the Duke remained standing where he had risen, with his gaze riveted upon the child player, and of course the members of the household likewise kept their places. At length, when Handel ceased to play, the Duke turned to those about him with the inquiry: ‘Who is that child? Does anybody know his name?’ As no one present seemed to know, the organist was sent for to explain matters. After a few words from this official the Duke commanded that Handel should be brought before him. When the boy appeared he patted him on the head, and praised his performance, telling him that he was sure that he would make a good musician. At this point, however, the organist interposed with the remark that he understood that the boy’s father had refused to let him follow up his musical studies. ‘What!’ cried the Duke in astonishment, ‘is it possible that he can contemplate anything so foolish and unjust as to stifle the genius of his own son! I cannot believe it. Who is the father? Where does he live?’ On being told that the surgeon was staying in the palace, the Duke sent for him, and having told him how much he admired his son’s performance, he pointed out to him that he would be doing a great wrong to the child if he persisted in placing any obstacle in the way of his advancement. ‘I need hardly say,’ concluded the kindly Duke, ‘that such action on your part would, in my opinion, be quite unworthy of a member of your own honourable profession.’ The father listened with respect to what the Duke had to say, and then (though with obvious reluctance) consented to allow the boy to pursue his studies. ‘Come,’ said the Duke, as he saw that his point was won, ‘that is good, and, believe me, you will never regret it.’ He finally turned to little Handel, and, patting him once more on the head, bade him work hard at his music, and then took his leave. The child would have thanked him, but his heart was too full for words, and tears of gratitude started to his eyes as the kindly nobleman turned away. At last the wish of his heart would be fulfilled. Happy was the journey that had so happy an ending for the young musician.
As it was now settled that Handel should devote himself to music, it became necessary to place him with a good teacher. Friederich Zachau, an excellent musician, and the organist of the cathedral at Halle, was chosen to instruct the boy in composition as well as to give him lessons on the organ, harpsichord, violin, and hautboy. Zachau was extremely pleased with his pupil, and, perceiving his extraordinary aptitude and genius, he did his best to bring him on. The organist possessed a large collection of music by composers of different countries, and he showed Handel how one nation differed from another in its style of musical expression, or, to put it another way, how the people of a particular country felt with regard to the art. Zachau also taught him to compare the work of various composers, so that he might recognise the various styles, as well as the faults and excellencies of each. All this time, too, Handel was set work in composition. Before long he was actually composing the regular weekly services for the church, in addition to playing the organ whenever Zachau desired to absent himself—yet at this time Handel could not have been more than eight years old.
It was at the end of three years’ hard work that Zachau took his pupil by the hand, and said: ‘You must now find another teacher, for I can teach you no more.’ Well and faithfully indeed had Zachau discharged his duty toward the pupil for whom, to use his own words, he felt he could never do enough, and grateful must Handel have been for all his care and attention. The parting was sad for both master and pupil, but with both the art which they loved stood before all else, and so Handel was sent to Berlin to pursue his studies.
It is hardly to be wondered at that the people of Berlin should have regarded as a prodigy a child of eleven who was capable of composing music for Church services, as well as of playing the organ and harpsichord in a masterly fashion. There were two well-known musicians living in Berlin at the time, named Ariosti and Buononcini, to whom Handel was of course introduced. The former received the boy very kindly and gave him every encouragement, but Buononcini took a dislike to him from the first, and seems to have done his best to injure the little player’s reputation. Under the pretence of testing Handel’s powers he composed a most difficult piece for the harpsichord, and, setting it before the child, requested him to play it at sight. The piece bristled with complications, and Buononcini confidently anticipated that Handel would break down over its performance. To his chagrin, however, the boy played it through with perfect ease and correctness, and from that moment Buononcini regarded him as a serious rival. Indeed, Handel’s skill in improvising both on the organ and pianoforte created astonishment in all who heard him, and despite Buononcini’s hostility he made many friends. The Elector himself was so delighted with his playing that he offered him a post at Court, and even expressed his willingness to send him to Italy to pursue his studies. Handel’s father, however, refused his consent to both proposals; no doubt he thought that if the boy developed according to the promise which he showed it would be necessary to keep him free from Court engagements, since it had happened in the case of others that great difficulty had been experienced in breaking away from such connections. The royal patrons of music were most anxious to obtain the services of the best musicians, and naturally were very loath to part with them when once secured. It was therefore determined that Handel should return to Halle, and be placed once more under the care of his old master. As may be imagined, Zachau was delighted to receive his pupil back again, and, with no less joy on his part, Handel set to work with increased energy to master the science of composition.
Whilst Handel was delighting the people of Berlin with his playing, a little boy, who was destined to become one of the greatest of musicians, was injuring his sight by copying out by moonlight the manuscript music which he had taken from his elder brother’s cupboard, and helping to support himself by singing in the street, and at weddings and funerals, snatching every moment that could be spared from such work for adding to his knowledge of composition and playing. That little boy was Johann Sebastian Bach.
About this time Handel formed a friendship with a young student named Telemann, who was studying law at Leipzig. Curiously enough, Telemann’s history up to this point bore a close resemblance to that of Handel. From a child he had been passionately devoted to music, but it was his parents’ wish that he should study law, and now, in obedience to his mother’s desire, he had come to Leipzig University. The love of music, however, was strong within him, and the meeting with Handel seems to have fired his passion anew. Yet he resolutely set his face against the temptation to stray from the path laid down for him, and to strengthen his resistance he put all his manuscript compositions in the fire—all save one, which lay forgotten in an old desk. It happened that a friend lighted upon this solitary manuscript by accident, and recognising its beauty showed it to the Church authorities of Leipzig. They in turn were so delighted with it that they immediately offered the composer the post of organist at the Neukirche, at the same time sending him a sum of money for the manuscript, and requesting him to compose regularly for the Church. At this juncture Telemann abandoned the struggle against his love for the art, and to his mother, who was supplying him with the means of living, he wrote, saying that he could no longer hold out against what he felt to be his true sphere of work, and mentioning that he had already begun to receive remuneration for the compositions. At the same time he returned the money which she had sent towards his education, and begged her not to think too hardly of him. The fact that his talent for music could produce money seems to have melted the mother’s heart, for she instantly wrote to her son, and not only returned the money he had sent, but gave him her blessing into the bargain.
From this point Handel and Telemann became fast friends, and worked together at their musical studies, and it is interesting to record that the latter afterwards became one of the most celebrated German composers of his day. So numerous were his compositions, in fact, that it is told that he could not reckon them, and perhaps no other composer ever possessed such a facility in composition, especially in Church music. When reminded of his extraordinary talent, however, he used to say laughingly that a good composer ought to be able to set a placard to music.
The death of Handel’s father, which took place at this period, left his mother with very small means, and Handel at once determined that he must work for his own living, so as not to deprive his mother of any portion of her limited income, to which, indeed, he hoped to make some addition ere long. But for the present, it was necessary that his education should be completed in accordance with his father’s injunction, and so Handel continued to attend the University classes in classics. From this time he acted as deputy organist at the Cathedral and Castle of Halle, and a few years later, when the post fell vacant, he was duly appointed organist, with a salary of £7 10s. a year and free lodging. The duties were many, and included attendance on Sundays, festivals, and extra occasions, the care of the organ, and obedience to the priests and elders of the church. The organ was of the old-fashioned kind, in which the bellows were worked by the feet of the blower, who for this reason was called a ‘bellows-treader’ (Bälgentreter). Handel was now seventeen, and longing for greater things; but he could not expect to earn much in so small a town as Halle, and so, in January, 1703, he said good-bye to his mother and his old friend Zachau, and set out for Hamburg to seek his fortune.
His first engagement at Hamburg was a very small one. The Opera House orchestra needed aripieno (supplementary violin), and Handel accepted the post. What reason he had for letting it be understood that he possessed only a slight skill in playing is not shown, for to play ripieno meant that he was expected simply to help out the orchestra when additional harmonies were required, and to give support to the solo parts. As may be imagined, this must have seemed very easy work to Handel, nor was it long before he found an opportunity of showing what he was capable of doing. At that time it was the custom for the conductor to preside at the harpsichord, where, with the score of the piece before him, he kept a check upon the players, and, where necessary, beat the time. One day the conductor was absent through some accidental cause, and no arrangement had been made to fill his place. Handel thereupon without a word stepped up and took his seat at the instrument, and conducted so ably as to excite the astonishment of the other performers. Having thus revealed his powers, he was thereafter permanently established in the post.
Handel had not been long in Hamburg before he made the acquaintance of a most remarkable man named Mattheson. In addition to being an exceedingly clever musician and composer, Mattheson was a good linguist and a writer on a variety of musical subjects. He had formed a resolve to write a book for every year of his life, and he accomplished more than this, for he lived to be eighty-three years of age, and at the time of his death he had published no fewer than eighty-eight volumes. Despite the vanity which formed so large a part of his character, Handel could not fail to be attracted by so accomplished a man, and their acquaintance soon ripened into a friendship which lasted for many years. Shortly after they became known to each other the post of organist in the church of Lübeck fell vacant, and Handel and his friend determined to compete for it. Accordingly, they set out together in the coach, with the evident intention of enjoying themselves. They had a poulterer as fellow-traveller, who seems to have been quite of the same opinion, and as they journeyed to Lübeck they told stories, composed ‘double fugues,’ (which it is to be hoped the poulterer appreciated), and altogether had a very merry time. On reaching their destination they paid a round of visits to the organs and harpsichords in the town, trying them all in succession, and it was then arranged between them that Handel should compete only on the organ and Mattheson on the harpsichord. Matters, however, were not destined to be carried to the point of actual trial, for they suddenly discovered that the successful competitor would be required to wed the daughter of the retiring organist, and as neither musician contemplated taking so serious a step, they promptly retreated to Hamburg without even seeking an audience of the would-be bride!
The self-will and determination which marked the character of Handel as a child clung to him through life, and not even the closest ties of friendship prevented his obstinate temper from asserting itself whenever occasion arose. Handel’s temper, opposed to Mattheson’s vanity, gave rise to a quarrel between the two friends which might have been attended by very serious consequences. Mattheson had written an opera called ‘Cleopatra,’ in which he himself took the part of Antony, and it had been his custom after the death of this character to take his place at the harpsichord and conduct the rest of the opera. This had been the arrangement with the former conductor, and Mattheson did not doubt that it would be adhered to when Handel presided at the pianoforte. But Mattheson had clearly reckoned without his host, for when the actor-composer, having departed this life on the stage, suddenly reappeared through the orchestra door and walked up to Handel’s side with the request that the latter would yield his place to him, he was met by a flat refusal on the part of the conductor in possession. Possibly Handel may have been struck by the absurdity of a personage whose decease had only a few moments before been witnessed by the audience desiring to reassume his mortal dress in the orchestra. Mattheson’s vanity, on the other hand, was no doubt deeply injured by his being made to look foolish, and he left the theatre in a rage.
At the conclusion of the piece Handel found his friend awaiting him at the entrance. An altercation took place, and it is said that Mattheson went so far as to box Handel’s ears. A public insult such as this could only be wiped out by a resort to swords, and the belligerents at once adjourned to the market-place, where, surrounded by a ring of curious onlookers, they drew their weapons. After several angry thrusts on either side, the point of Mattheson’s sword actually touched his adversary’s breast, but, fortunately, was turned aside by a large metal button which Handel wore on his coat. The consciousness of how narrowly he had missed injuring, if not actually killing, his friend brought Mattheson suddenly to his senses, and, the bystanders at this juncture interposing between them, the duellists shook hands, and thenceforth, it is said, became better friends than ever.
The life at Hamburg was a very busy one—full of teaching, study, and composition. With the growth of his fame the number of his pupils increased, and Handel was enabled not only to be independent of his mother’s help, but even to send her money from time to time. He now began to practise a habit which remained with him always—that of saving money whenever he could. Unlike most students of his age, he was impressed by the fact that, in order to produce with success works which were essentially works of art, one should be to some extent independent. It was during these student days that he composed his first opera, ‘Almira, Queen of Castile,’ which was produced in Hamburg on January 8, 1705. Its success induced him to follow it up with others, and then, in the following year, he set out for Italy. It was a journey he had been looking forward to during these years of hard work—ever since the time, in fact, when the Elector’s offer had been refused by his father. Now he could go with the feeling that he was a composer of some note, confident that his works would at least obtain a hearing from the Italians. But this tour was not undertaken with the idea of making a holiday: it was to be a time of hard, continuous work as regards both operas and sacred music, by which his fame as a composer was to be greatly enhanced.
At Florence, where he stayed for some time, he composed the opera ‘Rodrigo,’ which was received with great applause. The Grand Duke was so delighted with it that he presented Handel on the first performance with fifty pounds and a service of plate. At Venice he brought out another opera, ‘Agrippina,’ the success of which was even greater than any previously produced. The audience were most enthusiastic, rising from their seats and waving their arms, whilst cries of ‘Viva il caro Sassone!’ (Long live the dear Saxon) resounded through the house. That a German composer should thus have taken Italian audiences by storm is an indication of the power which Handel wielded through his music, especially when we consider the rivalry which existed between the two countries in regard to the art. At the same time it must be remembered that the works of Handel which were performed in Italy were composed under Italian skies, after close study of the productions and methods of the masters of Italian opera, and when the composer himself was imbued with what he had observed of the tastes and customs of the people. The quality of his works, however, must have served to convince the Italians of the strength which the sister country was capable of putting forth in support of her claim to be regarded as a home of musical art.
Whilst on this tour Handel was present at a masked ball when Scarlatti, the celebrated Italian performer, aroused great applause by his playing on the harpsichord. Handel, whose identity was unknown to both Scarlatti and the audience, was next invited to play, and excited so much astonishment by his performance that Scarlatti, who had been listening intently, exclaimed aloud, ‘It is either the famous Saxon himself, or the devil!’ Later on, at Rome, the two performers competed in a friendly manner on the organ and pianoforte, and though it was undecided as to which should have the palm for the latter instrument, Scarlatti himself admitted Handel’s superiority on the organ, and ever afterwards, when people praised him for his playing, he would tell them how Handel played, and at the same time cross himself in token of his great reverence for his gifted rival.
In Rome itself Handel’s interest was deeply aroused, and he returned for a second visit to the city in 1709. It was here that he composed and produced his first oratorio, the ‘Resurrection,’ which added to his fame as a writer of sacred music. During this second visit he witnessed the arrival of the Pifferari, a band of shepherd-fifers, who each year left their flocks on the Calabrian hills, and journeyed to Rome to celebrate the birth of Christ by singing and playing an ancient chant in memory of the shepherds of Bethlehem. Handel must have retained this simple melody in his mind, for many years later he introduced a version of it into his great oratorio, the ‘Messiah,’ where, under the title of the ‘Pastoral Symphony,’ it accompanies the scene of ‘the shepherds abiding in the field.’
The following year Handel returned to Germany, and went to Hanover, where he was most kindly received by the Elector (afterwards King George I. of England). The post of Capellmeister, with a salary of about £300, was offered and accepted, but Handel had a further favour to prefer. He had for long cherished a desire to visit England, whither the noise of his fame had already extended, and whence he had received many pressing invitations. His request for leave of absence for this purpose was at once granted by his royal master, but ere Handel could turn his steps to these shores a stronger claim upon him remained to be satisfied: this was to visit his mother and his old master, Zachau. We may imagine the meeting—the mother proud of her son, Zachau equally proud of his pupil. How glad the hearts of both must have been to welcome back one who had so abundantly justified their confidence in his powers! Short as the time had been, the young musician had accomplished a great work for his country, for his compositions had sufficed to show the Italians the height to which the music of Germany had risen. It now remained for him to bring the English under his subjection, and of his success in this direction he had little fear. When the autumn came Handel took leave of his dear ones, and, with the sorrow of parting tempered by joyful anticipations, he set sail for England.
Italian opera had of late become the fashion in the musical world of London, but so much dissatisfaction had been aroused by the manner in which it was produced that it needed all the genius and power of such a master as Handel had shown himself to be to restore it to popular favour. We have, therefore, to think of Handel coming to London, with the fame of his Italian tour clinging to him, to a people longing for music which they could appreciate. That fame had paved the way for a cordial reception; he must next show them what he could do. In the February following his arrival Handel produced his opera ‘Rinaldo’ at the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket, having expended just a fortnight in composing and completing it! The opera was a triumphant success. For fifteen nights in succession (a long run in those days) the house was crowded with an enthusiastic audience, and the charming airs which were first uttered within the walls of the Haymarket Theatre were afterwards wafted to the furthest corners of the three kingdoms. Even to-day, when many of us hear for the first time the airs ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Cara sposa,’ we seem to fall at once under the spell of their charm; and can we not imagine the effect which these beautiful songs produced upon the Londoners of nearly two centuries ago, as they were voiced by the great singer Nicolini? We have mentioned but two of the airs which have ever remained popular, but the opera abounded in graceful melodies that could not fail to captivate the ear of a people who had been languishing for the sunshine.
It is interesting to recall the manner in which the opera was put upon the stage in those days. Every effort seems to have been made to render the scenes as realistic as possible, though occasionally this straining after effect was carried to an excess that excited ridicule. Thus, in the scene for Act II of ‘Rinaldo,’ representing the garden of Armida, the stage was filled with living birds, which were let loose from cages. As the opera was produced in the winter months, the only birds available were sparrows—a fact which gave rise to sarcastic comments in the papers. The practice, however, might have been justly condemned on account of its cruelty.
Handel was now firmly established in the favour of English music-lovers. They had expected great things of him, and they were not disappointed. There was a body of true musicians in London at that time to whom the presence of the composer must have given special delight. Regular concerts, where amateur musicians could meet for the purpose of playing and hearing the best music, were unknown, and it was left to the enterprising zeal of one humble individual to originate the idea of the regular weekly concerts in London which later on became so widely known and appreciated. In a small shop near Clerkenwell Green lived a small-coal dealer named Thomas Britton. In those days ‘small-coal,’ or charcoal, was extensively used amongst the poorer classes, and regularly each morning Britton would shoulder his large sack of the fuel and go his round through the streets, disposing of his burden in pennyworths to the inhabitants. When the round was finished he returned home, changed his clothes, forgot that he was a small-coal man, and became a musician. Nor were there wanting many belonging to far higher stations in life who were ready to testify to the deep love for the art which distinguished the small-coal dealer. In a long, low-pitched room above the shop, which had originally formed part of a stable, Britton had collected a large number of musical instruments of various kinds, as well as the scores of some of the best music of the day. To this humble apartment would repair numbers of amateur and professional musicians belonging to all ranks of society, from the highest to the lowest. No one paid for admission, and the sole qualification expected of the visitor was that he or she should be a lover of the art. Thus, at the weekly gatherings in the small-coal man’s loft, might have been seen peers of the realm, poets and artists, singers and performers, both known and unknown, mingling freely together, drinking coffee provided by the host at one penny per dish, and settling themselves down to enjoy the best chamber music of the day. Handel was not long in finding his way thither, and he became a regular attendant, always presiding at the harpsichord. The fame of Britton’s assemblies grew apace, and led eventually to the establishment of regular weekly chamber concerts in London.
This first visit to England seems to have implanted in Handel a sincere affection for the country and its people, and although he returned to Hanover and took up his duties again at Court, he felt convinced that London was the centre in which his genius could have its fullest play. It was not long, therefore, before he obtained fresh leave of absence to visit England, giving in return a promise to present himself at his post within a ‘reasonable’ time. How he carried out this promise we shall see from what follows. London was only too glad to see him again, and his acquaintances became more numerous than ever. Lord Burlington invited him to stay at his seat, Burlington House (now the Royal Academy), in Piccadilly, where the only duty expected of him in return for the comforts of a luxurious home and the society of the great was that he should conduct the Earl’s chamber concerts. It is difficult to realise that Burlington House stood then in the midst of fields, whilst Piccadilly itself was considered to be so far from town that surprise was felt that Lord Burlington should have removed himself to such a distance from the centre of life and fashion. The loneliness of Piccadilly at that period may be surmised from the fact that it was not safe to traverse the thoroughfare after nightfall unless protected by an escort strong enough to repell the attacks of highwaymen who haunted the neighbourhood.
The time passed so quickly amidst the pleasures of society and the unceasing devotion to composition that Handel himself probably failed to realise that he was gratuitously extending his leave of absence beyond all ‘reasonable’ bounds. His fame had made great progress all this while, and when the wars in Flanders at length came to an end with the signing of the peace of Utrecht, he was called upon to compose the Te Deum and Jubilate, which were performed at the Thanksgiving Service held at St. Paul’s, and attended by the Queen in state. To signalise this great event, as well as to mark the royal favour in which the composer was held, Queen Anne awarded Handel a life pension of £200. It is small wonder, then, that he should have been slow to sever, even for a time, his connection with the world of London. Amongst his numerous acquaintance of this time was a certain Dr. Greene, a musician of some ability, but more perseverance, whose attentions to the composer were so persistent as to partake of the nature of persecution. Handel was never the man to cultivate an acquaintance for which he had no liking, and it was a part of his character to make no effort to conceal his dislikes either for persons or things. When, therefore, Dr. Greene sent him a manuscript anthem of his own to look over, Handel put it on one side and forgot it. Some time afterwards Dr. Greene went to take coffee with the great man, and having waited vainly for some reference to his manuscript until his patience was exhausted, he burst out with: ‘Well, Mr. Handel, and what do you think of my anthem?’ ‘Your antum?’ cried Handel in his broken English. ‘Ah, yes, I do recollect, I did tink dat it vanted air,’ ‘Air!‘ exclaimed the astonished and indignant composer. ‘Yes, air,’ responded Handel, ‘and so I did hang it out of de vindow.’
The death of the Queen must have awakened Handel with a shock to a sense of his neglect of duty, for the Elector of Hanover thereupon came to England as her successor. That King George would be likely to receive Handel with favour was out of the question, notwithstanding the monarch’s love of music and the fame which had grown about his Capellmeister’s name. The offence lay far too deep for that, and Handel realised that he must employ some special means of grace to secure his master’s pardon. The opportunity he sought for came ere long. A royal entertainment on the Thames was arranged, in which there was to be a grand procession of decorated barges from Whitehall to Limehouse. An orchestra was provided, and Handel was requested by the Lord Chamberlain to compose the music for the fête, in the hope that by so doing he might pave the way towards a reconciliation. Handel acquiesced, and the result was the series of pieces which have since been known as the ‘Water Music,’ The King was so delighted with the performance that he had it repeated, and, learning that Handel was conducting it in person, he sent for him, and not only granted him a full pardon, but conferred upon him an additional pension of £200. Nor did the royal favour stop here, for he was shortly afterwards appointed music-master to the daughters of the Prince of Wales at a salary of £200 a year. Handel was thus raised to a position of independence, for as the original grant from Queen Anne continued in force he enjoyed a total income of £600 a year, a sum which in those days was equivalent to a considerable fortune.
It was not long after this that Handel was appointed chapel-master to the Duke of Chandos, at the latter’s palace of Cannons, near Edgware. The post up till then had been held by a certain Dr. Pepusch, but he resigned at once in favour of Handel. Anything more princely in style than Cannons could hardly be imagined; its size and magnificence were the talk of the country for miles around, whilst the fabulous riches of its owner and his luxuriousness of living earned for him the title of ‘The Grand Duke,’ The palace itself has long since disappeared, but the chapel originally attached to it has been preserved, and now forms the parish church of Whitchurch, or Little Stanmore. The interior is furnished and decorated after the fashion of the Italian churches, but it is not on account of its structural beauty that the church has become the object of interest to thousands of pilgrims who annually make their way to the village of Edgware; it is the knowledge that it was here that Handel composed his first English oratorio, ‘Esther,’ as well as numerous anthems and other minor works. The manuscript score of this fine work—which is but rarely heard now—is to be seen in the Royal Collection of Handel manuscripts at Buckingham Palace, though a portion of it is missing. No one who finds his way to the church of Little Stanmore should fail to notice the organ, for it is the instrument used by Handel from 1718 to 1721, and on which he played the organ parts of ‘Esther,’ when the oratorio was performed for the first time in the Duke’s chapel. With the lavishness that was his chief characteristic the Duke handed to the composer on this occasion £1,000, but in so doing he may have been actuated by a sincere desire to add to Handel’s independence. Those were very happy and busy years which Handel passed at Cannons. Amongst the numerous compositions for the harpsichord belonging to this period is the suite of pieces which includes the air, with variations, popularly known as ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith,’ The origin of this title has for long been a matter of discussion; it is quite certain that Handel himself did not so name the piece, for the manuscript bears the title only of ‘Air et Doubles,’ nor was it ever known by any other name during the composer’s lifetime. Yet there are few of us, perhaps, who willingly reject as fable the story which for many years after Handel’s death was believed to have given a true account of its origin. According to this story Handel was one day walking to Cannons through the village of Edgware, when he was overtaken by a heavy shower of rain, and sought shelter within the smithy. The blacksmith was singing at his work, and the strokes of his hammer on the anvil kept time to his song. Handel, it is said, was so struck both by the air and its accompaniment that on reaching home he wrote down the tune with a set of variations upon it. Assuming this story to have no foundation in fact, no satisfactory explanation has been forthcoming to account for the origin of the title, and when, in 1835, the story was investigated, it was claimed that both anvil and hammer had been traced as having passed through several hands. The blacksmith’s name was said to have been Powell, and the anvil is described as bearing a capital P, and, further, that ‘when struck with the hammer it gives, first, the note B, but immediately afterwards sounds E. These notes correspond very nearly with the B♭ and E♭ of our present concert pitch, and therefore coincide very closely with the E♮ and B♮ of Handel’s times,’ Again, with regard to the air itself, the contention that Handel took it from another composer has never been proved, and there is ‘absolutely nothing to show that it is not the work of Handel.’
It is difficult for us to imagine the road leading from the Marble Arch (then called Tyburn) to Edgware as being infested by highwaymen. This fact, like that regarding the condition of Piccadilly, serves to show in a striking manner how circumscribed the London of those days must have been. Handel must often have had to travel between Cannons and London, but we do not hear of his having been robbed by the way. The Duke, however, was attacked on more than one occasion, and he always performed the journey with an escort of his favourite Swiss Guards, of whom a body was kept to protect the palace.
For several years the production of opera ‘after the Italian style,’ which Handel on his coming over had done so much to stimulate, had languished for lack of funds. To many Londoners who were fond of music the sight of the closed doors of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket imparted a feeling of regret and loss. When, therefore, a number of rich patrons of music met together and decided to form themselves into a society for the purpose of reviving the opera in London, the project was received with signs of general pleasure. The King was greatly interested, and subscribed £1,000 to the venture. Handel was at once engaged in the double capacity of composer and ‘impressario,’ the latter duty charging him with the selection and engagement of singers. The new society was to be called the Royal Academy of Music, but we must not confuse this body with the Royal Academy of Music existing at the present day, which was founded in 1822.
Handel now set out for Germany with the object of visiting Dresden, where the Elector of Saxony was maintaining a company of the best singers for the performance of Italian opera. On his return journey he paid a visit to Halle, where he found his mother alive, and overjoyed to see him, though the cheery welcome of his old master Zachau could no longer be heard, for the old man had gone to his rest. There was another sad note about this visit, for on the very day that Handel left for England Sebastian Bach, filled with a longing to meet his great contemporary, arrived at Halle, whither he had journeyed from Cöthen, only to find that he was a few hours too late. This was the last chance of their meeting, for when Handel paid his next visit to Germany Bach was dead.
Early in the following year the doors of the theatre in the Haymarket were besieged by a huge crowd, anxious to secure seats for the performance of Handel’s new opera, ‘Radamisto,’ which was being produced by the Royal Academy of Music. The applause was deafening, and the success of the opera was assured. But Handel was not to be left to enjoy his honours in peace; an opposition party had already arisen, who were moved to do him evil partly from envy, and partly because he had stirred them up to resentment by his dominancy and self-will. From Hamburg came his old enemy, Buononcini, to try his fortune with the new society, and it was not long ere the rival composers were engaged with a third musician, whose name is uncertain (though some state it to have been that of Handel’s friend of his Hamburg days—Ariosti), in the composition of a new opera. It was arranged that this work should form a kind of competition, with the object of determining whether Handel or Buononcini was the better composer. Thus Handel wrote the third act, and Buononcini the second, the first act being committed to the hands of the third musician, whose claim to be regarded as a rival was very small in comparison with the others. When the new work, ‘Muzio Scævola,’ was performed Handel’s act was pronounced by the principal judges to be much superior to that of Buononcini’s; the latter’s friends, however, refused to accept a defeat, and being joined by others, the battle waxed exceedingly hot. The newspapers took it up, and very soon nothing else was talked about but the rival merits of the two composers. Numerous verses were composed on either side, as well as others which poked fun at both parties. Amongst the latter was an epigram written by John Byrom, the Lancashire poet, which, without the knowledge of the author, got into all the papers, and was considered to hit off the situation more neatly than any which had gone before. Thus it runs:
‘Some say, compar’d to Buononcini,
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 Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!’
That Handel showed scant consideration for those who differed from him in regard to his works is proved by his treatment of the artists who were engaged to perform for him. He could not be thwarted from his bent, nor cajoled into doing anything that he disliked, whilst his stubborn pride prevented him from yielding to any, whether great or small. When, in 1723, his opera ‘Ottone’ was about to be produced, he had engaged as prima donna the great Continental singer, Francesca Cuzzoni. The lady does not appear to have possessed the sweetest of tempers, and she showed her independence by not putting in an appearance in England until the rehearsals were far advanced. This could not have been pleasing to the composer, but when on her presenting herself at the theatre she flatly refused to sing the aria ‘Falsa Immagine’ in the way Handel had written it, he burst into a rage, and seizing her in his arms, cried: ‘Madam, you are a very she-devil, but I vill have you know dat I am Beelzebub, de prince of devils!’ with which he made as if to throw her out of the window. Cuzzoni was so frightened by his fury that she promised to do as she was bid. Accordingly, she sang as he directed, and made one of her greatest successes with the song. How much the public appreciated the singing of this gifted artist we may guess when it is told that the directors obtained as much as five guineas for each seat when she was advertised to sing.
Although he would brook no contradiction on the part of those who were engaged to execute his works, Handel spared no pains to help them over a difficulty, or to show how his music should be expressed. At times, however, his temper took the form of the most unsparing sarcasm. One day a singer at rehearsal protested against the manner in which Handel was accompanying him on the harpsichord, and in a fit of anger exclaimed: ‘If you continue to accompany me in that fashion I will jump from the platform on to the harpsichord, and smash it!’ ‘Vat!’ cried Handel, looking up in surprise, ‘do you say you vill jump? Den I vill advertise it at once, for people vould come to see you jump dat vill never come to hear you sing!’
We have not space to describe the whole of the works which Handel wrote for the Royal Academy of Music. His industry was untiring, and the fertility of his genius was such that within a period of eight years from the beginning of the Society’s work he had composed and produced no fewer than fourteen operas. Amongst this number was the opera called ‘Scipione,’ in which is to be found a ‘Triumphal March in D,’ which the Grenadier Guards claim to have been specially composed for their regiment by Handel before its inclusion in the opera. The Guards are very proud of their march, and the band still plays it under the title of the ‘Royal Guards March.’
During the whole of this time, however, Handel’s enemies never ceased their opposition, and, despite successes, it was soon apparent that the rival parties were bent on destroying each other. The enormous cost incurred in producing operatic works, added to the losses occasioned by quarrels and dissensions amongst the singers, many of whom deserted Handel to join his enemies, at length brought the Royal Academy to the end of its resources. In 1727, when the society was tottering to its fall, the rival theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields brought out the famous work called ‘The Beggar’s Opera,’ written by John Gay, which formed the first English ballad opera. Its success was stupendous; London was taken completely by storm, and everybody was soon singing and humming its catching airs. Fickle as the public taste had hitherto shown itself to be in regard to musical productions, it now became fixed on the new work, and opera in the ‘Italian style’ was completely deserted. What was the secret of this wonderful success? Simply this: a poet seized upon a number of the most entrancing airs which the musical genius of England and Scotland had produced, many of them belonging to ancient times, together with the favourite melodies of the day, and he set them to words which were utterly unworthy of the sentiment inspired by these beautiful compositions. The richest stores of ballad music were pillaged for this degrading work; the march in Handel’s ‘Rinaldo’ was stolen to form a robber’s chorus, whilst the exploits of Captain Macheath and his highwaymen companions were held up as models of daring and gallantry when performed to the most captivating of airs. The public hailed the piece with delight; the ladies modelled their dresses on the stage costume of ‘Polly,’ the heroine, and decorated their fans with the words of her songs, and for sixty-two nights the walls of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre shook with thunders of applause from gallery, pit, and stalls. In thus speaking of a work which not only held London captive for so long, but was afterwards performed in every part of the kingdom, we must not forget that its remarkable popularity was due in some measure to the brightness of its dialogue; to its witty sayings hitting off men and manners of the day; but, above all, to the exquisite beauty of its melodies, which served to lay a glamour over what otherwise would have undoubtedly been condemned as vulgar.
The success of the ‘Beggar’s Opera’ completed the ruin of the Royal Academy of Music, but Handel, undismayed by the failure of this great scheme, and setting his enemies at defiance, went once more to Italy to collect a new company of singers, for he was determined to carry on the work himself with the fortune which his operas had brought him. On his way home he paid a visit to Halle, where he found his aged mother stricken by illness. She lingered until the following year (1730), when she died at the age of eighty. For several years Handel struggled to build up the fortunes of Italian opera in London, but the persistent rivalry and opposition of his enemies, combined with the decadence of musical taste on the part of the public, caused his losses to accumulate, until, in 1737, he found himself, after repeated failures, deeply in debt, and with his health broken down by overwork and anxiety. The whole of his fortune of £10,000 had been swallowed up in this disastrous enterprise, and it was a poor consolation for him to know that his rivals failed in the same year with a loss of £12,000. Not even at this juncture, however, would his indomitable will submit to the force of circumstances. After a brief rest at Aix la Chapelle, with a course of vapour baths, he returned to London prepared to begin the battle afresh, and although he had lost to a great extent the favour of the rich, his popularity was such that a statue of himself was executed by public subscription, and erected in Vauxhall Gardens, an honour which, as has been truly observed, had been paid to no other composer during his lifetime.
It was only after several failures that Handel was at length convinced that it was useless to attempt to re-awaken the interest of English audiences in Italian opera, and yet, although he made no concealment of his regret at the abandonment of a line of composition in which he had so greatly excelled, it was with no diminished vigour or determination that he now, at the age of fifty-five, turned his attention to work of a serious character. And if we admit that Handel excelled in operatic work, what shall we say of the oratorios which formed the later creations of his genius? To many of us, perhaps, his name is so intimately associated with the titles of his religious works that we are almost ready to believe that all which had gone before was merely in the nature of preparation for such noble works as ‘Saul,’ ‘Israel in Egypt,’ ‘Samson,’ ‘Jephtha,’ and, above all, the ‘Messiah.’ It is on the ‘Messiah’ alone that our space permits us to dwell, and we will endeavour to relate the story of how this great oratorio came to be written.
It was in 1741 that the plan of writing the ‘Messiah’ was formed, but it is not known whether the subject originated with Handel himself, or was suggested to him by a friend named Mr. Charles Jennens, a man of great literary tastes and acquirements, who lived a retired life in the country. It is certain, however, that Mr. Jennens selected and wrote out the passages from the Scriptures, and sent them to Handel to set to music, and for the care and choice exercised in this compilation we owe to Mr. Jennens a deep debt of gratitude. Towards the end of this year Handel received an invitation from the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland to visit Dublin, as the Irish people were very desirous of hearing some of his compositions performed in their country. Handel accepted the invitation very willingly, for he saw in the tone in which it was conveyed an assurance of the sympathy of the sister isle, as well as a prospect of being enabled to retrieve his fallen fortunes. He left England at the beginning of November, having previously sent a promise to Dublin that he would devote a portion of the money realised by his performances to three charitable institutions in that city. The music of the ‘Messiah’ must have been actually composed before he set foot upon the ship at Chester, for at the end of the following month we find him writing to Mr. Jennens from Dublin, and referring to the latter’s oratorio, ‘”Messiah,” which I set to music before I left England,’ Moreover, he must have had the manuscript score with him on his voyage, though his friends in London were ignorant of the fact; for we learn that being detained at Chester for some days by contrary winds, he got together at his inn several of the choir boys from the cathedral in order to try over some of the choral passages in the work. Needless to say, the title of the oratorio was not allowed to transpire on this occasion, but many of us may feel curious to know whether any of these young singers felt impressed by the beauty of the parts which it was their envied lot to ‘try over’ in the composer’s room at the hostelry. One at least of these trial performers must have carried away an unpleasant experience of the great man’s impetuous temper. ‘Can you sing at sight?’ was the question put to each before he was asked to sing, and one broke down lamentably at the start. ‘What de devil you mean!’ cried Handel, snatching the music from his hands. ‘Did not you say you could sing at sight?’ ‘Yes, sir, I did,’ responded the confused singer, ‘but not at first sight!’
The welcome extended to Handel by the people of Dublin was a very warm one; the performances were a great success, and then we get the first public mention of the new oratorio. At the ‘Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin’ is to be performed ‘Mr. Handel’s new grand Oratorio, called the “Messiah,” in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertos on the Organ, by Mr. Handel.’ It was further announced that the proceeds would be devoted to two charitable institutions, and ‘for the Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols.’ These latter were miserable persons who had been imprisoned for debt, and whose sufferings through neglect and poverty were such as to excite deep compassion. Four hundred pounds was the sum realised by this performance, which took place on Monday, April 13, 1742, and no doubt the poor prisoners felt very grateful to the composer, who had thus put into practice the very precepts which his sacred work inspired. So great was the success of this first performance that a second was called for, the announcement of which contained an earnest appeal to the ladies to leave their hoops behind them. This singular request was obeyed, with the result that accommodation was found for one hundred more persons than on the first occasion.
The citizens of Dublin seem to have been very loath to part with Handel, whilst he, for his part, must have felt in the warmth of his reception some recompense for the neglect from which he had been made to suffer in London. The visit was therefore prolonged for many months, and it was not until March 23, 1743, that a London audience gathered to witness their first performance of the ‘Messiah’. How is it possible to give, in a few words, an idea of this great work? When we hear the ‘Messiah’ performed we are struck by its magnificence and beauty of expression; the language of Scripture seems to be clothed, as it were, in a beautiful garment of music which, ever changing as the oratorio proceeds, appears to give the fullest and most exact expression to each portion of the sacred story. At one time the music blazes forth like a jewelled crown when it catches the sun; at another it soars heavenwards like the song of the lark; once again it pours forth like the thunderous roar of a huge cataract, filling our ears with the majesty of its volume; then, again, it sinks to the tender moan of the wind as it sweeps through the trees; but everywhere and at all times it seems to exactly fit the words, and to give them their noblest expression. The oratorio opens with an overture, grand, yet simple, and designed to prepare our minds for the story which follows. Then we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Comfort ye my people,’ telling of the coming of the Messiah, and relating the signs by which His approach is to be heralded—’Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,’ etc.—and leading up to the revelation, ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,’ and so to the mighty outburst of harmony—’Wonderful! Counsellor!’—with which the prophecy reaches its culminating point. When these words are thundered forth in chorus we seem to have suddenly presented to our eyes a picture of the Messiah as He was revealed to the mind of the Prophet. But note attentively what follows. With the concluding notes of that grand choral outburst still ringing in our ears—the designation of a mighty Prince, a great Counsellor—we find ourselves, at the ushering in of the Nativity, not, as the words of the chorus would seem to predict, at the welcoming scene of a great Prince in all his splendour, but in the presence of a group of lowly shepherds tending their flocks in the quiet fields of Judæa. How wonderfully striking is the contrast between the grandeur of the concluding chorus and the simplicity and quiet beauty of the scene now presented to us by the Pastoral Symphony! It is founded upon the ancient melody which Handel had heard the Calabrian shepherds play at Rome many years before, and soon the air is ringing with the chorus of the heavenly host, ‘Glory to God in the highest,’ followed by the joyful outburst, ‘Rejoice greatly.’ Then comes the revelation of what Christ shall be to His people—’He shall feed His flock like a Shepherd,’ ‘His yoke is easy and His burthen is light—’ with which the first part comes to an end.
In the second part we are shown the incidents leading up to the Passion, and our emotions are deeply stirred by the pathetic music indicating the sufferings of our Lord. What could be more touchingly beautiful than the air, ‘He was despised and rejected of men’? in the writing of which Handel is said to have burst into tears. Then, the Passion past, we have the realisation of all that that sacrifice meant, the awakening of hope, followed by the triumphal chorus, ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates!’ and after a succession of beautiful airs and choruses we reach the culminating point of the Recognition in that grand hymn of praise, the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ with which the second part concludes.
Scarcely have the glorious hallelujahs of the last chorus died away ere the beautiful strains of the air, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ are ringing in our ears; from this we are led to the chorus, ‘Worthy is the Lamb,’ indicating the glorification of the sacrifice, and the marvellous concluding chorus of the ‘Amen,’ which strikingly portrays the unified assent of heaven and earth to the Godhead of Christ.
On the occasion of the first performance of the ‘Messiah’ in London, at which the King was present, the vast audience were so impressed by the grandeur of the music and the reverence which it inspired that when the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ began, and the words, ‘For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,’ rang out, they one and all, including the King, sprang to their feet as if by a given signal, and stood until the last notes of the chorus had been sounded. From that time forward it has been the custom at performances of the oratorio to stand during the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’
No other sacred musical work has been the means of securing for the sick and needy so much relief as that which the ‘Messiah’ has effected by its frequent performances in various parts of England and on the Continent. Handel, as we have seen, gave the proceeds of its first performance to help the sick and miserable, and his good example has been followed by many others. Later on his compassion was aroused by the poor, helpless little inmates of the Foundling Hospital. We all know the Foundling Hospital, in Guilford Street, Russell Square, but perhaps we do not all know why it is that Handel’s portrait is there accorded the place of honour, or why the foundlings should hold the composer’s memory in such reverence. Handel did not, it is true, establish the hospital; it was founded in 1741 by one Captain Coram, out of the profits of a trading vessel of which he was the master. But nine years later (in 1750) he presented the hospital with a fine organ, and, in order to inaugurate the opening of the instrument, he announced that he would perform upon it the music of the ‘Messiah.’ So great was the demand for seats upon this occasion that it was found necessary to repeat the performance. Handel afterwards presented a manuscript score of the oratorio to the Foundling, and undertook to give an annual performance of the work for the benefit of the charity. Eleven performances under his direction were given at the Foundling before his death, by which a sum of £6,955 was added to the hospital funds. Nor did this good work cease with the composer’s death, for we learn that the annual performances continued to be given, and that seventeen of these brought the total amount by which the ‘Messiah’ benefited the hospital up to £10,299, a fact which of itself speaks volumes for the appreciation in which the oratorio was held.
In connection with the gift of the ‘Messiah’ score to the Foundling an amusing story is told, which serves to illustrate the imperiousness of Handel’s temper. The directors of the hospital were desirous of retaining for themselves the exclusive right to perform the ‘Messiah,’ and with this idea they sought to obtain an Act of Parliament confirming their rights. When Handel heard of the proposal, however, he burst out in a rage with, ‘Te teufel! for what sall de Foundlings put mein moosic in de Parliament? Te teufel! mein moosic sall not go to de Parliament!’ And it is hardly necessary to add that ‘de moosic’ did not go to ‘de Parliament.’
It is difficult, within the compass of this little story, to convey a just idea of the extraordinary amount of work which Handel’s life comprised. One oratorio after another followed the ‘Messiah,’ none of them entitled to rank with that great work for either loftiness of subject or grandeur of expression, yet many containing passages of unrivalled beauty. ‘Jephtha,’ which was the last oratorio he composed, contains the magnificent recitative, ‘Deeper and deeper still,’ and the beautiful song, ‘Waft her, angels.’ It was while writing ‘Jephtha’ that Handel became blind, but, though greatly affected by this loss, it did not daunt his courage or lessen his power of work. He was then in his sixty-eighth year, and had lived down most of the hostility which formerly had been so rife against him. Who, indeed, could for long withstand so imperious a will, backed by such unquenchable genius? With increased fame, moreover, his fortunes had built themselves up once more, so that when he died he left £20,000 to be disposed of by his executors.
The range of Handel’s compositions was gigantic; there was no branch of the art which his genius did not penetrate and adorn, but it is as a writer of choruses that his power is seen at its best. ‘No one,’ writes Mr. Julian Marshall, in his biography of the composer, ‘before or since has so well understood how to extract from a body of voices such grand results by such artfully simple means as those he used.’ No master, we may add, has given us music which expresses with greater clearness, beauty, or force the passages of Scripture it is intended to illumine than that which is to be found in the choral parts of Handel’s oratorios. Handel was the greatest master of counterpoint the world has ever seen, and this power enabled him to give musical expression to written words with an ease and fluency which can only be described as marvellous. Yet it is not its marvellous character which strikes us when we hear his work for the first time so much as its oneness with the subject it portrays; we feel that it is like some grand painting, in which colour and form are so charmingly blended as to make a perfect and indivisible whole.
It is often alleged that Handel copied from other composers, and that such was the case there is abundant evidence to show. It must be remembered, however, that in his day people did not attach to originality of ideas the value which we allow to them now. Handel, however, did more than this: he not only borrowed ideas or themes which—to a great extent, at least—were regarded as common property, but he actually embodied in some of his works entire passages taken from the compositions of comparatively unknown composers. For this no justification is possible; nor, on the other hand, can it be urged that Handel stole other men’s brains because he lacked power to use his own. The only thing that it seems possible to say by way of explaining a practice which must be condemned as dishonest is that Handel in all probability did not realise his offence or view it in the light in which we view it at the present day. Everything in his life and character argues against the idea of his committing an action which he held to be mean or dishonest. No man could have been more fearlessly independent, either in thought or action, and, whatever other faults he possessed, his character has always been regarded as strictly honourable.
Handel was a big man, with a very commanding presence and a fiery temper, which, as we have seen, was apt to explode at trifles. He did not hesitate to launch the most virulent abuse at the heads of those who ventured to talk whilst he was conducting, and at such times not even the presence of royalty could make him restrain his anger. But when Handel raved the Princess of Wales would turn to her friends, and say softly, ‘Hush, hush! Handel is angry.’ He had a rooted dislike to hearing his orchestra tune up in his presence, and he gave strict orders that the performers were to get this business over before he arrived. One night, however, when the Prince of Wales was to be present, a wag gained access to the orchestra and secretly untuned every instrument. When the Prince arrived and the audience were all seated, Handel ‘gave the signal to begin con spirito, when such a discord arose that the enraged musician started from his seat, overturned the double-bass, seized a kettledrum, threw it at the leader of the orchestra, and lost his wig. He advanced bareheaded to the front of the orchestra, but was so choked with passion that he could not speak. Here he stood, staring and stamping, amidst general convulsions of laughter, until the Prince presently, with much difficulty, appeased his wrath, and prevailed on him to resume his seat.’
Handel’s fondness for the pleasures of the table was one of the weaknesses which his enemies did not fail to make the most of, and which has given rise to more than one story. For instance, it is told that he went into a dining-house one day and ordered ‘dinner for three.’ The waiter, having received the order, disappeared, and was absent so long that Handel lost patience, and, ringing the bell, demanded to know why the meal was delayed. ‘Sir,’ replied the waiter, ‘I was awaiting the arrival of the company.’ ‘De gompany!’ cried the famished musician, in a voice which made the glasses jingle, and caused the waiter to start back in dismay, ‘I am de gompany!’
Dr. Burney, the eminent musician and friend of Handel, has described the composer’s countenance as having been ‘full of fire and dignity.’ ‘His general look,’ continues the doctor, ‘was somewhat heavy and sour, but when he did smile it was the sun bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humour beaming in his countenance which I hardly ever saw in any other.’ His sense of humour was keen, and he could relish a joke—especially when it was not directed towards himself. When visiting Dublin he was accompanied by the celebrated violinist Dubourg, who was engaged to play at his performances. One evening Dubourg was delighting the audience with an extempore cadenza, and wandered so far away from the original key that he found it no easy matter to return to it. At length, after some moments of suspense, the shake was heard which announced that the violinist was about to return to the theme; Handel thereupon looked up from the harpsichord, and, in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the hall, exclaimed, with significant emphasis, ‘Velcome home again, Mr. Dubourg!’
In bringing our story of Handel’s life to a close, we are tempted to make a brief comparison between Handel and that other great master who lived and worked at the same time—Sebastian Bach. When we compare the two men we perceive this marked difference between them—namely, that, while Bach evinced a complete indifference with regard to public praise, but a very deep interest in the works of other musicians, Handel cared a great deal for what the public thought of his works, and was too much absorbed in his own music to give much attention to the compositions of others. The one wrote for posterity; he published but little, and it was only when half a century had passed since his death that the musical world awoke to a sense of the inestimable value which attached to the works which that life had produced. Handel, on the other hand, studied the tastes of his own day as regards both sacred and secular music, and devoted the whole of his life to the supply of that demand on the part of the public which he had done so much to create and develop.
Full as was Handel’s life as regards the fulfilment of its great object, it was in other ways extremely simple. Few things outside his incessant round of work interested him, but he was fond of going to the theatre, and he had a passion for attending picture sales. Of his charity we have spoken, but we may add that he was always ready to help those in distress, and he helped to found the Society for Aiding Distressed Musicians. The last occasion in which he appeared in public was at a performance of the ‘Messiah’ at Covent Garden, on April 6, 1759. On the 14th of the same month his death took place at the house in Brook Street where he had resided for many years. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a grand monument was later on erected to his memory. His chief manuscripts came into the possession of King George III., and are preserved in the musical library at Buckingham Palace.
From STORY-LIVES OF GREAT MUSICIANS by Francis Jameson Rowbotham
HANDEL’S PRINCIPAL COMPOSITIONS
8 Oratorios, etc.
La Resurrezione (1708); two Passions (1704 and 1716); Acis and Galatea (1720); Esther (1720); Deborah (1733); Athalia (1733); Alexander’s Feast (1736); Saul (1738); Israel in Egypt (1738); Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739); L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato (1740); The Messiah (1741); Samson (1741); Joseph (1743); Semele (1743); Belshazzar (1744); Hercules (1744); Occasional Oratorio (1746); Judas Maccabæus (1746); Alexander Balus (1747); Joshua (1747); Solomon (1748); Susanna (1748); Theodora (1749); The Choice of Hercules (1750); Jephtha (1751); The Triumph of Time and Truth (1757).
Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate. 1713.
12 Chandos Anthems. 1718-1720.
2 Chandos Te Deums. 1718-1720.
4 Coronation Anthems (Let thy Hand be Strengthened, My Heart is inditing, The King shall Rejoice, and Zadok the Priest). 1727.
Funeral Anthem (The Ways of Zion do Mourn). 1737.
Dettingen Te Deum. 1743.
40 Operas, mostly remembered only by a single aria. The following may be named:
Almira (1705); Rodrigo (1707); Agrippina (1709); Rinaldo (1711); Radamisto (1720); Muzio Scævola (Act III. only—1721); Ottone (1722); Scipione (1726); Admeto (1726); Ezio (1732); Serse (1738).
Water Music. 1715.
17 Suites de Pièces for the clavecin.
40 Concertos for various instruments.
by Francis Jameson Rowbotham
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