Arts & Books Books

How London greeted Handel’s astonishing gifts

George Frideric Handel’s statue in Westminster Abbey (Getty)

Not even a stroke could halt the composer's incredible creativity,

Handel in London
by Jane Glover,
Macmillan, 448pp, £25, $29.95

To begin on a carping note, Jane Glover’s subtitle, The Making of a Genius, surely claims too much for London. Handel’s genius had been blazingly evident before he ever thought of working in England. In particular, during his years in Italy (1706-10) he had stunned audiences with his work for the Roman clergy, notably Dixit Dominus (1707) and La Resurrezione (1708). For all his Lutheran background, Handel established his reputation in the heart of Catholicism.

It was also in Italy that he first triumphed as an opera composer, his Agrippina scoring a huge success in Venice in 1709. The next year, still only 25, he secured the post of Kappelmeister at the court of Hanover. With the Hanoverian succession to the British throne in prospect after the death of Queen Anne, and with London now the richest capital in the world, Handel hastened, in 1710, to investigate his prospects there.

His arrival was timely, for a composer was required for a season of Italian opera at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket. Drawing extensively on his previous works, Handel put together Rinaldo in a couple of weeks. For all the slurs against Italian libretti in the Spectator, the opera proved a tremendous success.

Yet, when Handel returned to London in 1712, he discovered that the audience for Italian opera was fickle. Against this, though, he established a reputation at court, which resulted in Queen Anne granting him a pension of £200 per annum for life.
Jane Glover, in everything she writes about Handel, displays a wealth of illuminating detail, alike in regard to English politics and the London music scene. While paying due reverence to Handel’s astonishing musical gifts, her concern is not primarily to heap up encomia. Rather, she shows us the nitty gritty of Handel’s working life: the financial challenges of producing opera; the dependence upon patronage; the demands of theatre management; the stolid English prejudice against anything foreign; the search for the best singers; and the skill of the composer in adapting his music to their talents.

With rare exceptions such as Giulio Cesare, Handel, with iron discipline and unbreakable confidence in his own ability, rarely spent more than a month on the composition of an opera score. Much of his time was taken up with securing singers, dealing with their tantrums, jealousies and insecurities, and maintaining optimism in the face of unflagging human weakness.

Thus, in 1719, Handel travelled to Dresden to engage the services of the brilliant castrato Francesco Bernardi, known as Senisino, whom he employed at a salary of £2,000 a year, some £300,000 ($386,000) in today’s money. Senisino’s vanity was intolerable, and Handel was soon provoked into calling him “a damned fool”. His singing, however, redeemed his conceit, so that eventually he would appear in 23 of Handel’s operas. Another remarkable and difficult singer secured by Handel was the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. But she had met her match – Handel seized Cuzzoni and swore that he would throw her out of the window if she did not cease whingeing.

While Handel’s scores for Italian opera rarely fell below the sublime, Jane Glover discerns two periods of especial excellence: Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda in 1724 and 1725; and Orlando, Ariodante and Alcina between 1733 and 1735. Nevertheless, after the success of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728, the cult of Italian opera was in decline. Always a pragmatist, Handel turned increasingly to oratorio with English words, beginning with Esther in 1732. Despite a stroke in 1737, he followed up with Saul (1739), Israel in Egypt (1739), Messiah (1742), Samson (1742), Semele (1744),Judas Maccabeus (1746) and Solomon (1749).

Oddly, Messiah, though a triumph at the first performance in Dublin, took time to succeed in London. The delay enabled Charles Jennens, who produced the biblical libretto, to set a new standard in conceit. “Handel has made a fine entertainment of it,” he conceded, “but not near so good as he might or ought to have done.”

An important contribution to Handel’s success in England was the loyal support of George I and George II, and of George II’s wife, Queen Caroline. George II, in particular, showed his appreciation by regular attendance at Handel’s operas, while his daughter, Princess Anne, became in turn the composer’s pupil and friend. Reading Glover’s excellent book, one is left gasping at what Handel was able to achieve in England. In opera and oratorio alone he completed more than 70 dramatic works.

Overall, he was well rewarded for his labours. Not until some 200 years after his death, however, did the English begin to explore in depth the rich operatic heritage which Handel had left. Perhaps his genius in this medium would have been better valued if he had remained in Catholic Italy. But then Jimi Hendrix would never have lived next door to the composer’s house in Brook Street, and we would be without a museum giving us the Handel and Jimi Hendrix
experience.