Opinion & Features

Handel’s Catholic temptation

Handel: swept into the grandest circles

Georg Frideric Handel was a Lutheran, and a determined one. He resolved, according to his early chronicler John Mainwaring, “to die a member of that communion, whether true or false, in which he was born and bred”. His background on his mother’s side stretched through several generations of Saxon pastors. And the spiritual works for which he is best known – not least, Messiah – addressed Protestant audiences in Protestant terms. In later life he was a regular attender at St George’s, Hanover Square. And he was buried among the great and the good of 18th-century Anglicanism in Westminster Abbey.

But there was a time when things might have worked out differently. In 1706, aged 21, he took himself to Italy and spent the next three-and-a-half years writing Catholic liturgical music at the behest of a group of princely cardinals who gave him generous patronage. And the commissions would have come with expectations: in the 18th century, as now, free meals were rarely what they seemed.

Handelian music from that period is often overlooked: it doesn’t fit the broader picture. But a new CD has just been issued that explores this repertoire. Called Handel in Italy Vol 2 (volume one came out last year), it’s the work of the ensemble London Early Opera, directed from the harpsichord by Bridget Cunningham, who insists that “the importance of those three-and-a-half years was actually enormous”.

“They opened Handel’s ears to things he’d never have experienced in Saxony,” she says. “He met Arcangelo Corelli, whose high-energy string writing became a major influence. He had access to the world’s finest libraries, organs, harpsichords and singers. And there was Catholic liturgy, the veneration of Mary – all very alien to what he’d known as an adolescent organist at Halle Cathedral, which wasn’t even Lutheran. It was Calvinist.”

How Handel managed this considerable cultural transition isn’t documented, but the speed with which he managed it suggests it was no problem. Almost on arrival he was swept into the grandest circles and adopted by three cardinals – Pietro Ottoboni, Benedetto Pamphili and Carlo Collona – who took it in turns to commission works from him, get them performed and (when required) write the texts.

They were, of course, men of the world, these cardinals, from noble families with great wealth. Ottoboni was a serious patron of the arts who lined his bedroom walls with portraits of his mistresses posing as saints (he was reputed to have 60 children).
More pertinently, Ottoboni’s palace was the scene of Wednesday concerts given by his private orchestra which, naturally, boasted the best musicians in the city, including Corelli himself. And as the accompanying hospitality was lavish, they were hot-ticket events. According to a visiting French diarist, their only drawback was the inevitability of “being pestered by swarms of trifling little abbés who come to fill their bellies with liquors and carry off the crystal bottles, with the napkins into the bargain”.

It was in this household – where Handel found himself not the servant-musician he would probably have been in Saxony but an honoured guest – that the composer’s old Lutheran musical language blossomed into new Italian Baroque: highly charged and fulsomely melodic as opposed to intricately contrapuntal.

More importantly, though, the lessons learned in Ottoboni’s palace were repeated in the great Roman basilicas. Handel’s first significant liturgical commission, the sprawling 1707 setting of Psalm 109, Dixit Dominus, was written for the Colonna family church of S Maria Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo; and it set the tone for what would follow, with soloists, chorus and strings very much in the Corelli style. Very much not Lutheran.

Further settings of extended Vesper Psalms, Laudate Pueri and Nisi Dominus (the latter for the feast of Our Lady of Carmel at S Maria Montesanto), confirmed how far he’d travelled from the world of Luther. And so did his still larger Easter oratorio La Resurrezione, with its sweeping gestures and vivid word-painting.

But events surrounding Resurrezione indicated that he wasn’t totally ready to follow the Vatican line on performing etiquette. Against the rules, he cast a female voice for the soprano solos – until word reached Clement X, who promptly intervened and threatened the lady with a flogging if she dared to sing. She didn’t.

Papal interventions were, in fact, a common problem for musicians functioning in early 18th-century Rome – to an extent that raises questions about why the youthful Handel chose to be there. He had come to Italy, as Mainwaring quaintly describes it, “on his bottom” – which is to say, at his own initiative and expense. And for all that he stood to gain from writing church music and dining with cardinals, his real agenda was Italian opera – which was unavailable in Rome because a previous pontiff, Innocent XII, had closed the opera houses on the grounds that they defiled the city.

“Lack of opera meant that he was never going to stay in Rome,” says Cunningham. “He was essentially a tourist, albeit lingering because the Romans treated him so well. And that might just explain why he was prepared to get so involved with the Catholic Church but not actually convert. We know he was under pressure to do so, and he certainly wasn’t hostile to Catholicism. But if he saw his future as likely to take him back into Protestant territory, conversion would only cause problems. So he stayed as he was.”

Whatever reasons kept him Lutheran, Handel ranks among the most devout of all the great composers. When he set a Christian text, he meant it. Every word. And his declared hope was to die at Easter, which was more or less allowed him. Handel died on Easter Saturday 1757, faithful to the ways in which, as Mainwaring tells us, he was born and bred. But no doubt tempted by his cardinals – and with a string sound that bears testimony to it.