George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends

George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends

by Ellen T. Harris

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An intimate portrait of Handel’s life and inner circle, modeled after one of the composer’s favorite forms: the fugue.
During his lifetime, the sounds of Handel’s music reached from court to theater, echoed in cathedrals, and filled crowded taverns, but the man himself—known to most as the composer of Messiah—is a bit of a mystery


An intimate portrait of Handel’s life and inner circle, modeled after one of the composer’s favorite forms: the fugue.
During his lifetime, the sounds of Handel’s music reached from court to theater, echoed in cathedrals, and filled crowded taverns, but the man himself—known to most as the composer of Messiah—is a bit of a mystery. Though he took meticulous care of his musical manuscripts and even provided for their preservation on his death, very little of an intimate nature survives.
One document—Handel’s will—offers us a narrow window into his personal life. In it, he remembers not only family and close colleagues but also neighborhood friends. In search of the private man behind the public figure, Ellen T. Harris has spent years tracking down the letters, diaries, personal accounts, legal cases, and other documents connected to these bequests. The result is a tightly woven tapestry of London in the first half of the eighteenth century, one that interlaces vibrant descriptions of Handel’s music with stories of loyalty, cunning, and betrayal.With this wholly new approach, Harris has achieved something greater than biography. Layering the interconnecting stories of Handel’s friends like the subjects and countersubjects of a fugue, Harris introduces us to an ambitious, shrewd, generous, brilliant, and flawed man, hiding in full view behind his public persona.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1749, the 64-year-old George Frideric Handel enjoyed one of his most remarkable oratorio seasons, premiering Susanna, Solomon and staging revivals of Hercules, Samson, and Messiah. Despite of his fame, Handel’s private life continues to remain a bit mysterious. Drawing heavily on Handel’s letters, diaries, financial accounts, and wills of Handel’s closest friends, music historian Harris pulls back the curtain on Handel’s life, ambitions, and involvement in the political, religious, and charity life of early- and mid-18th-century London. As she points out, while Handel did not explicitly depict his friends in his musical works, they provide the best illustration of his listening public. For example, Rinaldo, which set in the Middle East, would not have seemed exotic to James Hunter, who worked with the British East India Company; the legal problems that afflicted the title character in Susanna also plagued Mary Delany and her husband. Handel composed much of his chamber music and keyboard music for private performances in homes, and his friend Lord Shaftesbury once remarked that in these settings “Handel was in high spirits and I think never played and sung so well.” Although Harris often lapses into an academic voice (“as I stated earlier,” “as has been described”), she nevertheless has written ay readable tale of one of the world’s most enigmatic musicians and composers. (Sept.)
Richard Taruskin
“George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends is the consummation of Ellen Harris's long professional life with Handel. It is the work of a wise scholar who views musicians as social beings and music as social activity. That outlook, and the author’s fresh and supple prose, make this a most appealing, finally endearing, book.”
Renée Fleming
“Ellen Harris's background as a singer and an expert in historic vocal performance practice gives her a unique vantage point. Her fugal approach treats Handel's life, times, music, and social circle as distinct themes in a narrative that goes far beyond simple biography. It is a fitting and fascinating way to reveal Handel's personality, and Harris adds layers of understanding to his genius.”
Lloyd Schwartz
“This thoroughly engaging, inventively structured, and politically, socially, psychologically, and musically astute account confirms Ellen Harris's place as our most illuminating Handel scholar. How lucky we are that someone who knows so much can also write so well.”
Robert L. Marshall
“Surely no one knows the life and music of Handel more intimately than Ellen Harris. Her daringly original approach to his biography reveals surprising and enlightening connections between contemporary events and his music. This is one of the most insightful—and one of the most humane—composer biographies to appear in quite some time.”
Gilbert Blin
“This book is an awesome tribute, and an undertaking beyond imagination.”
Dame Emma Kirkby
“Admirable in its scope and boldness. A fascinating, joyful achievement!”
Weston Williams - Christian Science Monitor
“A fascinatingly pure application of [Handel’s] music to history…an interesting, unique, and significant work of nonfiction.”
David Weininger - Boston Globe
“An illuminating, refracted portrait of Handel’s previously obscure inner life… a large-scale fugue, with a series of themes that appear, metamorphose, and interact with one another.”
Melinda Bargreen - Seattle Times
“Readers will… have a much clearer picture of how Handel lived and worked, and how his music relates to events of the day as well as to the lives of his friends… This quirky biography repays careful reading.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-06-18
An author of scholarly works about George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) returns with a more general work about the prolific composer and his milieu.Harris (Emeritus, Music/MIT;Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, 2004) notes from the beginning that Handel left few documents—letters, journals—about his personal life, so she elects to reconstruct the various worlds in which he moved. In this lushness of context, she argues, Handel will appear—and so he does. The author also elects to write her text in the fashion of a fugue; she presents themes (Handel’s life, the culture, his friends, his music) and revisits them continually—a very effective way of reminding readers about key points and people. Harris begins with family and then charts Handel’s quick rise in the music world (so little is known about his youth) and his decision to move to England, where he lived the majority of his life and endeared himself both to the royals and the commoners. She examines the vagaries of his financial situation (he did well, for the most part), his various patrons, the composition of his operas (which he stopped doing in 1741) and his sex life—did he have one? He never married, but most of his operas, notes the author, culminated with marriage. After his opera career, Handel shifted to oratorios, and Harris writes engagingly aboutMessiah, which he premiered in Dublin in 1742. The author tells us much about the lives of his intimates, some of whom were more assiduous about letter- and journal-writing. So, indirectly, we learn some about Handel’s reading, collecting (art, books about music) and his health, which featured some occasional “paralytic attacks” and a final blindness that ended his composing and playing. Harris also includes helpful timelines scattered throughout the text.Musical in structure, tone and emotional effect.
Library Journal
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) is known and beloved the world over for his Messiah, but very little is known about the composer's life. While he was fastidious with his manuscripts and provided for their preservation in his will, very few of his papers survive. Harris (professor emerita, MIT; Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas) takes a new approach to the popular view of "biography" and studies the lives and archives of those closest to her subject. The author's work is inspired by and formatted in much the same way as one of Handel's musical devices, the fugue. In a fugue, the same pattern is repeated, similar to a simple round but in layers of increasing complexity. Harris introduces Handel's life using thematic elements that keep recurring and overlapping, including the culture and politics of the period, his social circle, and his art. VERDICT A fascinating approach, and a valuable addition to any collection. Of special appeal to musicologists and performers but also to those interested in learning about early 18th-century life and customs in Europe.—Virginia Johnson, Weymouth P.L., MA

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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9.20(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.50(d)

Meet the Author

Ellen T. Harris is professor emeritus at MIT and has served on the music faculties of Columbia University and the University of Chicago. Her previous books include Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, and she has spoken at Lincoln Center and appeared on PBS NewsHour and BBC Radio 3. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

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