Thursday, February 26, 2009

Handelling the truth

Handel loved Britain, but that doesn't mean we have to love him back. (Yrs Truly speaks up in today's Indy.)

Of course, singing 'Where e'er you walk, Freezing Hurricanes Shall Blow Away Miss Glade' in a hallful of bored-to-tears brown-clad schoolgirls clutching fast-wilting daffodils once every year until the age of 17 might have something to do with it - since then I've never had much stomach for Handel. The school I attended happened to be on the site of Cannons Palace where Handel lived for, er, a year or so in 1717-18. The Founders' Day celebrations wouldn't have been the same without him. Oh, and sitting through an early reconstruction of Rodelinda in Cambridge, also reconstructing baroque staging techniques (walk to centre, strike wooden symbolic attitude, hold while singing until replacing with new wooden symbolic attitude) which went on for the better part of 4 hours on a very hot night (it felt like 8 hours) also didn't help.

Here, dear readers, is the Director's Cut, with added teeth.


Hallelujah! 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of Georg Friedrich Handel’s death. In the UK, which has produced perhaps five musical geniuses in 350 years, the domicile of this German giant in London from 1712 is taken as something of a national triumph; he’s been deified ever since. To question his supremacy is to blaspheme against three centuries of opinion, received or otherwise. But does his music really deserve such status?

Handel was a strong, quick-witted, pugnacious personality. He didn’t mince his words: once he threatened to throw a disobedient soprano out of the window. He never married, partly because the families of his potential brides disapproved of a match with a mere musician. Perhaps that was extra incentive for him to prove just how much he was worth.

His antithesis was JS Bach, his contemporary, who signed his works ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ – only for the glory of God; his job at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig gave him the freedom to compose, within its parameters, according to the truths of his own soul. Handel, by contrast, went commercial. He travelled widely, hobnobbed with the great and the good, wheeled and dealed behind the scenes and in front of them. To please the wealthy, the powerful and the masses, he wrote for maximum impact and maximum income. Had he lived in the 1980s, his chief rival could have been Andrew Lloyd Webber.

His commercial instinct was first-rate. When the young Gluck asked his advice on a new stage work, Handel allegedly replied: “You have taken too much trouble over your opera. Here in England that is a mere waste of time. What the English like is something they can beat time to, something that hits them straight on the drum of the ear.” Later, Mozart cottoned on: “Handel understands effect better than any of us,” he wrote.

Handel was incredibly prolific. At times he was paid to churn out multiple operas per year, at others he ran his own operatic seasons (and lost huge sums of money). So he cut corners. He recycled his music ad infinitum. And he borrowed other composers’ music and did likewise with that. “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds,” gasped the composer William Boyce. Today it would be called plagiarism.

Many of his operas’ plots are impossibly convoluted, the stop-start action carried forward in a plodding succession of recitatives and ‘da capo’ arias each involving opening section, middle bit, then recap of opening plus twiddles ad-libbed by the singer to show off. The same arias appear in a variety of operas, with different words. Occasionally a gifted director will work magic – David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne was a case in point. But in lesser hands these operas can feel interminable, and today they are regarded as sacred country, so cuts are frowned upon.

The reverence with which we worship at the shrine of baroque potboilers is misplaced; that attitude was invented in another era, namely by Wagner, for Wagner. In Handel’s time, business meetings, illicit trysts and so on took place in the theatre throughout; when you went to the opera, it wasn’t for the music. Though you could – unlike now – enjoy throwing the odd vegetable at it.

Handel wrote stirring choruses, damn good tunes and enough instrumental pieces to drive music students round the bend for centuries. But did he compose anything that has the intense, sublime, genuine spirituality of Bach’s St Matthew Passion? Is there a single Handel aria remotely comparable to its heartbreaking ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben?’ Not even the beautiful ‘Ombre mai fu’ is on that level. Where in those operas can we find the degree of perception and compassion that Mozart showed in Don Giovanni? And Handel’s pleasant chamber and orchestral works reduce to Muzak the minute you encounter Beethoven’s.

Beethoven said: “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived.” He was wrong: he deserved that epithet himself. Handel can’t hold a candle to Bach, let alone Beethoven. A one-man baroque-and-roll hit factory, he compromised his art by selling out. Even if he did move to Britain.