Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Handel (sort of) scandal

Inspired by a radio announcer (ABC, of course) informing me today that it is the 275th (I think) anniversary of the first performance of Handel's "Messiah" in Dublin, I decided to Google "Handel scandal" and see what popped up.

Indeed there was a bit of associated scandal around this production.  A short summary is given in this NYT review in 2000 of a (apparently, not very good) play about the oratorio:
In 1741, Handel, then 56, was in debt and in crisis. His royal patron and ardent admirer, Queen Caroline, the wife of King George II of the House of Hanover, had died in 1737. His Italian operas were losing popularity. He was suffering from the aftermath of a partial stroke. In the summer of 1741, Charles Jennens, a wealthy squire and music connoisseur, who had written the libretto for Handel's oratorio ''Saul,'' sent him a new script. It had no characters; it simply told the story of the Messiah using biblical scripture compiled by Jennens. At first Handel was baffled by it. But when a performance opportunity arose in Dublin, he composed a score in three weeks.
All the characters in Mr. Slover's play are based on historical people, and they are quite a gallery. Susannah Cibber (performed by Mary Miller), was a singer and actress who had married the co-manager of the Drury Lane Theater to assist the flagging career of her brother, the composer Thomas Arne. She was ruined by her part in an adultery scandal, the salacious details of which were circulated in a best-selling book at the time, the Starr report of its day, as Mr. Slover has called it. The play includes quotes from the book and the trial transcript. The Dublin and London premieres of the ''Messiah'' were Cibber's comeback.
Wait a minute: three weeks?    He composed it in 3 weeks?  They don't make composers like they used to.  Let's look more into that (at Wikipedia):
The music for Messiah was completed in 24 days of swift composition. Having received Jennens's text some time after 10 July 1741, Handel began work on it on 22 August. His records show that he had completed Part I in outline by 28 August, Part II by 6 September and Part III by 12 September, followed by two days of "filling up" to produce the finished work on 14 September. The autograph score's 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratchings-out, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors, but according to the music scholar Richard Luckett the number of errors is remarkably small in a document of this length.[26] The original manuscript for Messiah is now one of the chief highlights from the British Library's music collection.

At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote the letters "SDG"—Soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone the glory". This inscription, taken with the speed of composition, has encouraged belief in the apocryphal story that Handel wrote the music in a fervour of divine inspiration in which, as he wrote the "Hallelujah" chorus, "he saw all heaven before him".[26] Burrows points out that many of Handel's operas, of comparable length and structure to Messiah, were composed within similar timescales between theatrical seasons. The effort of writing so much music in so short a time was not unusual for Handel and his contemporaries; Handel commenced his next oratorio, Samson, within a week of finishing Messiah, and completed his draft of this new work in a month.
 I really like The Messiah, but have never read much about Handel.  There's a short but entertaining account of him and, the music scene in London in which he worked, to be found at   Here are some of my favourite parts:
Increasingly elaborate opera productions led to rising costs due, in part, to hiring musicians and singers from Italy. "It was generally agreed Italian singers were better trained and more talented than local products," notes Christopher Hogwood, a Handel biographer and founder of the Academy of Ancient Music, the London period-instrument orchestra he directs. But beautiful voices were often accompanied by mercurial temperaments. At a 1727 opera performance, Handel's leading sopranos, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, actually came to blows onstage, with their partisans cheering them on. "Shame that two such well-bred ladies should call [each other] Bitch and Whore, should scold and fight," John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), the mathematician and satirist, wrote in a pamphlet describing the increasing hysteria of London's opera world.
As for Handel himself, it sounds like he was a mix of physical greed and generosity:
Despite his fame, Handel's inner life remains enigmatic. "We know far more about the environment in which he lived and the sort of people he knew than about his private life," Keates adds. Part of the explanation lies in the dearth of personal letters. We must rely on contradictory descriptions of Handel by admirers and detractors, whose opinions were colored by the musical rivalries of 1700s London.

Although he neither married nor was known to have had a long-lasting romantic relationship, Handel was pursued by various young women and a leading Italian soprano, Vittoria Tarquini, according to accounts by his contemporaries. Intensely loyal to friends and colleagues, he was capable of appalling temper outbursts. Because of a dispute over seating in an orchestra pit, he fought a near-fatal duel with a fellow composer and musician, Johann Mattheson, whose sword thrust was blunted by a metal button on Handel's coat. Yet the two remained close friends for years afterward. During rehearsals at a London opera house with Francesca Cuzzoni, Handel grew so infuriated by her refusal to follow his every instruction that he grabbed her by the waist and threatened to hurl her out an open window. "I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!" he screamed at the terrified soprano.
Handel, who grew increasingly obese over the years, certainly had an intimidating physique. "He paid more attention to [food] than is becoming to any man," wrote Handel's earliest biographer, John Mainwaring, in 1760. Artist Joseph Goupy, who designed scenery for Handel operas, complained that he was served a meager dinner at the composer's home in 1745; only afterward did he discover his host in the next room, secretly gorging on "claret and French dishes." The irate Goupy produced a caricature of Handel at an organ keyboard, his face contorted into a pig snout, surrounded by fowl, wine bottles and oysters strewn at his feet.
"He may have been mean with food, but not with money," says Keates. Amassing a fortune through his music and shrewd investments in London's burgeoning stock market, Handel donated munificently to orphans, retired musicians and the ill. (He gave his portion of his Messiah debut proceeds to a debtors' prison and hospital in Dublin.)
The picture painted of the turbulent world of opera at the time sounds like it would make a good movie or play.  Pity the one attempt the NYTimes reviewed was not good...

1 comment:

Not Trampis said...

Upon o us a child is born is to me the greatest song ever composed for this sort of music!

Definitely a genius