The Magazine

'Messiah' Man

The music of George Frideric Handel 'makes you want to live.'

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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This year marked the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), and musical hallelujahs rang out around the world, as choral societies, professional and amateur, trotted out the warhorse oratorios, and opera houses not only presented the now-standard works (Alcina, Orlando, Serse, and Giulio Cesare in Egitto) but also dug deep for esoterica (Ezio, Partenope).

England, which despite Handel's German origins justly claims him as its greatest composer, was the cynosure of this festive music. Westminster Abbey, where Handel lies buried beside Charles Dickens in Poets' Corner, was the site of a performance of Messiah on April 14, the date of his death. BBC3 Radio conducted a year long celebration, including broadcasts of all 42 operas on successive Thursdays, reaching a climax during Easter week, when it was pretty much all Handel, all the time.

The Handel House Museum also commissioned a new oratorio based on Handel's life and work, 25 Brook Street (the address of the London house, now the museum, where he lived for 36 years and where he died), in a collaboration by four British composers. Another museum production is the exhibition Handel Reveal'd, focusing on those biographical subjects dear to all modern democrats: the great man's finances, health, and his legendary gourmandise. The Foundling Hospital is holding another exhibition, Handel the Philanthropist; a good man as well as a great one, he conducted regular benefit performances of Messiah in the hospital chapel.

The great man fills his admirers with ecumenical richness of heart. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation kicked off its multicultural series of sacred music, The Rhythm Divine, with excerpts from Messiah done by one of Sydney's finest Anglican church choirs; Handel's masterpiece remains sufficiently world-spiritual to be accorded a place beside Indian ragas for meditation and compositions inspired by Islam. Israel hosted three performances of the oratorio Saul by the Stuttgart choir and orchestra Laudamus Te with German, Israeli, and Brazilian soloists; one of the performances was at the Ein Gedi resort, near the cave where David hid from Saul. In the United States, meanwhile, regional opera companies that had not undertaken Handel before introduced his work for the lyric stage to audiences familiar only with Messiah, and educational institutions from Phillips Exeter Academy to the University of Kansas did their hopeful best with memorial lectures and recitals to lay the groundwork for another generation of Handel lovers.

Handel was born in Halle in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach, and was christened Georg Friedrich Händel. As is customary with musical genius, talent and inclination showed themselves in boyhood. However, his father, a surgeon-barber and valet de chambre to the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, 63 years old at Handel's birth, was dead set that his son would not grow up to be a musician; a career in civil law was the only way to go. Paternal strictures against the boy's having anything to do with music only enhanced his desire. The enterprising youngster secretly had a small clavichord brought to an attic room, and there he practiced while everyone else in the house was sleeping. Then one day, after the seven-year-old had finagled a visit to the duke's court with his father, the duke heard him playing the organ and proclaimed his genius, which must not be wasted. The duke persuaded the father to let Handel have music lessons, gave the boy more money than he had ever seen, and told him that if he worked hard he would enjoy every encouragement.

Who can argue with an openhanded potentate? Organ, harpsichord, violin, and composition lessons ensued, and it transpired that the youth was a budding master. Yet after his father's death, his mother emotionally strong-armed her son into pursuing legal studies at the University of Halle. He would never make a lawyer. A month into his first term, the Halle Cathedral offered him the post of organist, and he leaped at the chance. Also, he met Georg Philipp Telemann, another law student in spite of himself, at the University of Leipzig. Telemann performed the invaluable service of true friendship: He introduced Handel to opera, which was not to be found in Halle at the time, and which would become a major aspect of Handel's vocation-indeed, apart from Messiah, the basis of his current reputation as the second musical wonder, after Bach, of his time.

Opera can be a hellion's sport, and playing the harpsichord in the orchestra pit for a purported friend's opera became a near-death experience for Handel. In 1704, at a performance in Hamburg of Johann Mattheson's Cleopatra, the opera's composer, who had been conducting from the harpsichord, mounted the stage to sing Antony, and Handel took over for him at the keyboard. After Antony's suicide, Mattheson returned to the harpsichord to finish the opera, but Handel refused to budge. Such a matter of artistic protocol was not to be taken lightly, and to top off the evening's entertainment, the two men drew swords. Mattheson's blade shattered on Handel's large metal coat-button.

The young wizard had an operatic success of his own in 1705, also in Hamburg, with Almira, in which Mattheson was the principal tenor, and Handel followed that in short order with Nero, Florinda, and Daphne, for which the music has been lost. However, the upsurge of Pietism, which frowned on all theatrical spectacle, was making Hamburg inhospitable to opera, and in 1706 he lit out for points south. In Rome he promptly won the regard, and most important the patronage, of leading princes of the church; his being a Lutheran did not prevent cardinals of extravagant aesthetic plumage from honoring his gifts. Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, a scarlet magnifico, actually wrote the libretto for Handel's immensely successful Agrippina, a bitter comedy of lustrous darkness, wicked as Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, and featuring some of the same figures from imperial Rome's decadence. The cardinal's family theater in Venice, reputedly the finest in town, put on the show.

But it would be in London, where Handel landed for good in 1712 after bouncing between England and Germany, that he made his name, both for his day and centuries to come. He had his work cut out for him. The English were slow to cotton to the pleasures of opera, tending to consider it a poor sister of the spoken drama. Opera seria, serious opera, featuring tales of historical grandees or mythological heroes or characters from chivalric romance, posed serious hazards for audience and composer alike. The da capo aria-take it from the top-in a strictly ritualized A-B-A form, the repetition as exorbitant in its embellishments as a Balinese warlord's headdress, was and still is responsible for numerous reported cases of coloratura-induced coma; and in the original performing version of Giulio Cesare, the title character and Cleopatra had eight arias apiece.

The recitativo secco, dry recitative, the speech-like foundation of the drama, or what the singers sing when they are not engaged in their vocal high-wire act, was pitched toward rapid fire inexpressiveness. The plot frequently ran every which way, and its entanglements were unsubtly unknotted by a god from the machine or other wonder-worker. And a night at the opera meant accepting a disquieting moral grotesquerie, for the reigning deities of the stage were the castrati, who had endured the all-but-ultimate sacrifice for the greater glory of-well, themselves, such as they were.

From a noble lady in the throes, the most celebrated of these virile eunuchs received the highest tribute a divo can get: "One God, one Farinelli!"

The Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket was the brainchild of the redoubtable Sir John Vanbrugh, impresario, playwright, architect of Blenheim Palace for the Duke of Marlborough, and at the Queen's, Vanbrugh presented the first Italian opera written specifically for the English stage, Handel's Rinaldo (1711). It was the first of many London hits for the composer. He would make Italian opera seria the most popular ticket in town. For years English-language opera never stood a chance in London: Handel's Italian tunes written for Italian singers were the rage.

The great world took to Handel with warmth and gusto. The 18-year-old Lord Burlington opened his purse and his magnificent Piccadilly house to him, and Handel spent three years as a sort of composer-in-residence. Queen Anne bestowed a generous pension for life on the winning composer, who had turned out a Te Deum and Jubilate very much to her liking for the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.
Her successor, George I, became a regular with the royal family at the opera, and commissioned the famous Water Music, originally performed on a barge in the Thames on a July evening in 1717; the king enjoyed the music so much that he had it played three times as he floated downriver.

In 1719 a contingent of noblemen, hoping to serve art and to make a killing, founded the Royal Academy of Music-the king was glad to imprint his seal-a joint-stock company designed principally to secure the rights to Handel's operas for the foreseeable future. Although other composers, such as Giovanni Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti, contributed to the venture, Handel wrote most of the operas and oversaw the artistic operation. He had a great run, producing such sterling works as Giulio Cesare (1724), Tamerlano (1724), and Rodelinda (1725), but eventually the expense of the enterprise brought it down. When the house was shuttered in 1728, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with its simple ballads and low-life atmospherics, was pulling in the crowds at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Handel would persist in the Italian operatic vein, as efforts by the librettist Joseph Addison and the composer Thomas Arne to convince him to write English operas failed utterly. As of 1733, however, the new incarnation of the Royal Academy at Covent Garden had to compete with the upstart Opera of the Nobility, and London simply could not sustain two opera companies; both went belly-up in 1737. Handel almost went belly-up himself that year, suffering an apparent stroke that temporarily crippled his right hand and his mental powers.

Fortunately, hardiness won out, and the second stage of his career got underway. Actually, it had already gotten underway in 1733, when he had written his first English oratorios, Deborah and Esther. Generally speaking, oratorio is a musical dramatic work on a sacred theme, performed in a church or a concert hall without the usual operatic accoutrements of costumes and scenery. There are, of course, variations and exceptions. The most famous of oratorios, Messiah, is really not a drama or even a narrative, exactly, but a sort of meditative celebration of the essential Christian mystery, like an ornate alternative form of the Mass.

Disenchanted with the worldly beguilements of opera, Handel hurled himself upon his new métier with a convert's zeal, and enhanced both his already considerable name and his treasure in doing so. Besides
Messiah, which was hailed as the musical ne plus ultra at its Dublin premiere in 1742, Handel's best-known oratorios include Saul (1739), Samson (1743), and Judas Maccabaeus (1747). He was after something here that he had been unable to attain in Italian opera: There was a moral impetus behind his composition now; spiritual elevation was the end he pursued. When a noble friend congratulated him on the superb entertainment he had just provided his audience, Handel replied, "My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wish to make them better."

Although there were some Puritans who regarded oratorio as sacrilege, for the most part London audiences were only too happy to take Handel's instruction with their delight. He died wealthy and esteemed. He wanted a private funeral, but 3,000 people crowded Westminster Abbey for his burial service. It was the turn toward sanctity that established Handel as the musical paragon in English hearts, and in others' as well. Goethe would claim that Messiah led him "to the most serious in musical art." Beethoven praised Handel as the greatest composer ever-"I would uncover my head, and kneel down at his tomb"-and revered Messiah above all.

Handel's operas, however, fell into oblivion for a very long time. After a revival of Admeto in 1754, none was staged anywhere until the 20th century, when a German academic mounted a production of Rodelinda in 1920. Happily, that prolonged oversight has now been corrected, and Handel's operas are once again in fashion on the stage and in the recording studio. Their place is rightly among the best. Like the other great popular operatic composers-Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Bizet, Puccini-Handel is above all a superb melodist, and employs tuneful music to delineate complex emotion with ravishing delicacy-and as subtly as the foremost dramatists working in words alone.

In Giulio Cesare in Egitto, perhaps Handel's finest opera, Sesto is the son of the Roman general Pompeo, who has been murdered by the Egyptian tyrant; the youth, sung originally by a soprano and nowadays usually by a mezzo-soprano, vows to avenge his father in the aria Svegliatevi nel core (Awaken in my heart). In the opening section, his martial resolve seems indomitable; but then in the B section, when Sesto invokes the voice of his father's ghost, which enjoins heroic severity, the music turns soft and tremulous, with the suggestion that the son may be loath to perform the bloody work he appeared so eager to undertake. Finally, in the reprise of the A section, hysteria commandeers him: Sesto must come unhinged in order to talk himself into doing his filial Roman duty! The aria is as dramatically rich and potent as a scene from Hamlet.

Alcina (1735) rivals Giulio Cesare in excellence, and the title character's aria Ombre pallide (Pale shadows) demonstrates the art of drama in song at its highest. Alcina, a Circe-like island sorceress who captivates men sexually, then turns them into beasts or trees or rocks, is calling on spirits that no longer do her will, and she laments the erotic disenchantment of her beloved Ruggiero and the dissolution of her magic powers. Her despair is patent, and yet in the soaring vocal lines a savage, lacerating ecstasy emerges: There is exultation in the knowledge of her approaching ruin, and one apprehends the self-hatred at her core. Pride may have formerly concealed her disgust at her own malignancy, but any vanity is gone now, and in her naked misery she finds release. This is some of the most shattering operatic music ever written, and it serves the most acute sense of dramatic values.

But it is of course Messiah that remains Handel's nonpareil work. Here the secular and the sacred are joined, as Handel constructs a monument to everlasting truth on a pedestal of familiar, worldly beauty. In Handel's sound-world, biblical grandeur requires an admixture of joyous levity to portray fully the surpassing love of the God who suffered and died for human salvation. Some of the music is unmistakably churchly, based on the hymn rather than the dance or operatic aria: The bass recitatives and airs have all the majesty of prophetic utterance whose solemnity is amplified as only music can do. But the melody of the alto air He was despised could almost be set to a lament for lost love from Alcina or Rodelinda. Similarly, a chorus such as For unto us a child is born has the ebullient lightness of a pastoral dance from an Italian opera, though it will swell into hieratic magnificence. His yoke is easy is another brightly tripping chorus, which evokes happiness here, in this life, as all suffering is erased when one takes Christ into his soul.

Messiah is the voice of an earthly ecstasy that has no need of mysticism, but is available to all in their ordinary lives thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus. It is fitting that this oratorio has become the consummate Christmas musical staple: It exemplifies the community at glad-hearted worship, in a world that fulfills its spiritual needs.

And this community of souls extends well beyond the Christian flock. In Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow's hero, an American millionaire trying to heal his spiritual desolation with a journey into the African wild, is greeted warmly by the isolated Arnewi tribe. Anticipating revelation and renewal, Henderson is moved to sing to the Arnewi from Messiah: He was despised and But who may abide the day of His coming. Taking in the music, Willatale, the old queen of the tribe, the woman of Bittahness, says to him, "Grun-tu-molani." Henderson cannot wait to understand what she is saying, and the translator explains, "Say, you want to live. Grun-tu-molani. Man want to live."

That is what Handel's music does: It makes you want to live. There is no greater gift an artist can give his audience.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.