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George Frideric Handel
By Paul Henry Lang
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1994 Anne Lang
All rights reserved.
Halle—Handel's family—Earliest youth—Apprenticed to Zachow—Zachow as teacher—Handel's notebook and its contents—Fellow students—Visit to Berlin—Meeting electoral couple and Italian composers—Appointed organist at Halle Cathedral—The university student—Compositions in Halle period—Decision to leave Halle
EVERYTHING GREAT MEN ACHIEVE DURING THEIR RECORDED public lives is the transformation into negotiable currency of forces and capabilities they gathered when they were as yet neither great nor famous. If we want to judge the individuality of great men without the images their greatness and fame thrust upon them, so far as this is possible, we must begin our investigation in that period of their lives when in the darkness of anonymity they prepared themselves, consciously or unconsciously, for their future vocations.
If an artist could live to read his biography, he would recognize not so much himself as the mask that covered his face. Where is his true face? We see it in his works, which testify to the gifts he was endowed with, which made him what he is. Here we discover that humility, that patience, that disinterestedness and love to which are opposed the many rivalries of life. It is for these reasons the artist's creative work is called a confession, for in the work of art he is purely himself. To write a biography of a great composer without constantly exploring the music that accompanies the stations of his life is an idle undertaking; it is one of the chief reasons Handel is so little understood in the English-speaking world. But biography presents problems that become all the more acute if it is attempted in an unorthodox and unsystematic way. Where is the emphasis to be thrown? On the personality of the subject or on the measure of his work? There is the biographical thrill of demonstrating how personality gradually broadens out into the event. Yet there is the danger that a biographer may attempt to organize and arrange history.
Handel steps into history suddenly, already full-grown, in the first decade of the 18th century. To the average lover of music this date must be advanced farther, to the time of the successful oratorios, but even some of the well-informed Handelian authors in England and America deal perfunctorily with the youthful experiences that were vital to his future career. The twenty-five-year-old Handel who arrived in England was a mature master, but even the twenty-one-year-old who ventured into Italy was an accomplished composer capable of plunging immediately into the thick of the highly competitive Italian musical life and holding his own. And now we must turn the clock back still farther: the eighteen-year-old Handel, scarcely more than an adolescent, who left his home town to seek his fortune in the Hanseatic metropolis was a superbly trained, confident musician and virtuoso player with far more practical experience, knowledge, and assurance than most professionals many years his senior. He is never spoken of as a child prodigy, but in fact he was one, and at eighteen had all the assurance and savoir-faire of that miraculous youngster in the second half of the century: Mozart.
How had this style, already so mature, been formed? Surely this compels the historian to take a much more searching look at Handel's "German phase" than is customary among our English and American authors. Hitherto, for English readers, the period of Handel's apprenticeship as a composer has been shrouded in a certain mystery. They had a vague knowledge of his studies with Zachow and of his years of wandering in Italy, where he made the acquaintance of great musicians, but for them the curtain really rose on Handel's career with his arrival in England.
GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL was born February 23, 1685, in Halle, the second issue of his father's second marriage, to a pastor's daughter thirty years his junior. The family and surroundings into which he was born were conservative, steady, thrifty, unadventurous, and unimaginative, a typical provincial Saxon petit bourgeois existence. But his father, Georg, a barber-surgeon, was a man of strength, if lacking in warmth. Iron self-discipline, force of character, robust health, pugnacious will to fight for a cause, courage, infinite capacity for work, as well as an astute business sense, the son inherited from the father, though fortunately not his morose, misanthropic disposition. His mother came from a dynasty of Lutheran pastors. Equally sturdy and courageous, she was a good and pious woman whom Handel remembered with warm affection, even though he saw very little of her after leaving Halle in his early youth. Obviously, his kind and hearty nature came from the maternal stock. His musical abilities must have been noticed at an early age, but the dour surgeon paid no attention to such frivolities as music; that sort of thing was not encouraged in a solid professional family, and he preferred a lawyer's career for his son.
The boy must have taken part in the singing at grammar school and heard the Sunday music in Our Lady's Lutheran church where the family worshipped, but where and in what manner he acquired his early proficiency at the keyboard is unknown. There are many romantic stories, such as one about a clavichord hidden in the attic, but none of them can be proved. One important fact is known: the barber-surgeon held a court appointment, and therefore often journeyed to nearby Weissenfels, where the duke had established his residence after Prussia annexed the city of Halle. Georg Händel undoubtedly took his son with him on many occasions, because a relative of his first wife was employed at the court and could look after the youngster while the father made his professional rounds. On one of these occasions when young Handel was permitted to play the postlude to a service, the duke happened to be lingering and was impressed that an eight- or nine-year-old child should play with such ease and fluency. His Serene Highness summoned the elder Händel, suggesting he encourage such a manifest talent. Ducal hints are not to be disregarded, especially by such a hard-bitten status seeker as the court surgeon, so upon their return to Halle the boy was turned over for musical instruction to the organist of the Händels' parish church. Here we have arrived at the first important turn in the future great composer's life but also at the first crucial biographical, artistic, and historical lacuna in the Handel literature.
Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712), Handel's first and only teacher, was still a young man of about thirty when the new student was entrusted to him, but he was already widely known as a fine organist and a rather original composer in the "new style." This man, who is referred to as "lacking in imagination," whose music, "innocuous and trifling," "never rose to great heights," whom even Friedrich Chrysander, the editor of Handel's collected works, held in low esteem, was actually one of the most cultivated, learned, and imaginative musicians in Germany at the end of the century. Nor was Zachow an ordinary cantor, for he enthusiastically embraced the new concerted, dramatic style. His cantatas, often highly dramatic, are distinguished by very imaginative choral writing, colorful orchestration, and skilful handling of the concerted element. Many traits we consider typically Handelian are present in Zachow's music; it is spacious, euphonious, its melody sturdily designed yet sensuous, it can be suave but also monumental. Above all, this music is healthy and communicative; Zachow too had the ability—and the power—to be simple yet effective. He understood the Italians and managed to unite their art felicitously with his German heritage.
This distinguished musician was also an excellent, understanding, and solicitous teacher of both composition and performance. He taught the boy harpsichord and organ (as well as other instruments), which Handel played so capably that by his eleventh year he was able to substitute for Zachow on the organ when the need arose. Handel's first compositions date from this same year, 1696. He received from his master a solid grounding in harmony, counterpoint, and choral writing, as well as in very imaginative orchestration. This consisted not only in writing for a full ensemble with all the winds but also in the subtle art of coaxing varied effects from a simple string orchestra. More than that, Zachow inculcated in his young pupil an intellectual curiosity, a desire to know all styles of music in all countries, an interest he always retained. And there was something else he received from Zachow that became his for the rest of his life: the cool discipline, the artistic brakes to tame the wayward flights of a rich imagination. It is amusing to read in a popular Handel biography that "Zachow had taught him the rudiments of counterpoint and harmony," as if the instruction had been something like a college course for freshmen. The thorough training he received at Zachow's hand formed the boy's musical nature for life.
These studies were copious and severe, but the disciple could not get too much of them and composed steadily. "I used to write like the devil in those days," reminisced Handel many years later, and in view of the enormous productivity of the years of his full maturity, reams of note paper must have been covered for daily exercises with Zachow. Handel's admiration for his teacher was boundless and reverential. After Zachow's death in 1712, Handel, famous London composer, sent "frequent remittances" to his widow.
The manner in which Zachow dealt with Handel shows that he recognized the child's exceptional musical talents. There was a system in this instruction as rare as it was enlightened and thorough. Zachow possessed an unusually well-stocked library of music that reflected both the catholicity of his taste and the inquisitive turn of his mind. During the years of his apprenticeship, Handel became methodically acquainted with the contents of this library, thus acquiring as comprehensive a knowledge of styles and techniques as possible. Apparently, besides strenuous exercises in the strenger Satz, the cantor's traditional art in fugue and cantus firmus work, the master made the pupil copy what he considered significant and instructive scores by all manner of composers. Here we are dealing with actual documents, particularly with a notebook dating from 1698, which Handel kept all his life. While unfortunately lost, the book was sufficiently well described so that we know whose airs, choruses, fugues, and other works it contained.
Now let us examine the panorama offered by the notebook, which is in fact the panorama of music Handel beheld in the most impressionable years of his life. There were, of course, the works of his teacher, but we also encounter some of the key figures in German musical history.
There is Johann Krieger (1652-1735), who, according to Mattheson, excelled all the "brave old masters" in fugues. Indeed, Handel took a copy of Krieger's Clavier-Übung with him to England, later presenting it to his friend Bernard Granville. Granville wrote on the flyleaf: "The printed book is by one of the celebrated Organ players of Germany; Mr. Handel in his youth formed himself a good deal on his plan, and said that Krieger was one of the best writers of his time for the organ." Krieger's counterpoint is smooth and fluent, the handling of the themes, especially counter-subjects, individual and incisive, and he shows considerable inventiveness and originality in the devising of fugal episodes. Unfortunately, his harmonic sense was not venturesome. Handel was undoubtedly also acquainted with Krieger's cantatas, of which there were over two hundred, though scarcely three dozen survive. However, at least one, Geliebet sei der Herr (printed in the Bavarian Denkmäler, VI/1), was preserved in a copy made by Zachow. Handel did not miss the remarkable triple fugue contained in this work.
Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693), the much-travelled disciple of Valentini, Carissimi, and Frescobaldi, is another significant German master represented in the notebook who looms large in Handel's initial musical formation. With him Handel was introduced to the southern style and manner, for Kerll, though born a Saxon, spent ten years in Italy and was so thoroughly converted to the southern way that he even became a Catholic. Kerll's keyboard works were highly regarded and soon became known in the north, where Zachow and Handel studied them avidly. Handel remembered this music for a long time, borrowing not only bits but an entire movement, which he used in Israel in Egypt. Kerll's bold, even romantic, treatment of dissonance fascinated Bach too, who not only studied Kerll's works but, like Handel, borrowed from them.
Still another keyboard composer who appears in the notebook is Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667). In his works, Handel, who later became a past master of the art, could observe the working of the mind of an internationally oriented musician who, like himself, was receptive to ideas, no matter what source they came from, that he could reconcile and fuse in a logical and well-balanced style. Once more, both Handel and Bach (together with Zachow and Buxtehude, whose wondrous preludes and toccatas cannot be imagined without Froberger's example) studied this music closely and with considerable profit. Another southerner appearing in the notebook was Froberger's Viennese colleague Wolfgang Ebner (1612-1665). But Ebner, though less well known than Froberger, surely must be considered co-founder of this 17th-century Viennese keyboard school; besides, he was the originator of Viennese ballet music.
Vocal composers were not neglected. Handel was introduced to Heinrich Albert (1604-1651), the most popular and admired song composer of his time, virtually the founder of the modern German song. Albert's songs and arias appeared in practically every anthology, were printed and pirated for two centuries, and many of them are still alive as folksongs. Handel must have been attracted by the irregular period structure, the highly expressive and free recitative encountered in Albert's works, all of which became part and parcel of his own style.
Adam Krieger (1634-1666), a disciple of Samuel Scheidt, was one of the most engaging song composers of the German Baroque. Handel studied his so-called ritornel constructions and later used them in the formal articulation of some of his choral movements. Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725), who in the seventies was active in Halle and later in nearby Weissenfels where he stayed for forty-five years until his death, was a prolific opera and cantata composer. He impressed Handel both as an instrumental and as a vocal composer. Aside from studying his works with Zachow, Handel must have heard—even met—the court conductor in Weissenfels; it is hard to believe that the duke did not consult his court musician before summoning the elder Händel to that memorable audience. The fugal Amens or Hallelujah choruses in Krieger's cantatas (of which he wrote at least six times as many as Bach), simple but solid and very effective, lingered in Handel's capacious memory. Krieger was an experienced, worldly-wise musician quite different from his home-bred colleagues. This could not have escaped Handel, no matter how young. Also, Krieger had the "Handelian" characteristic of dominating the musical scene around him.
The notebook also contained music by Georg Muffat (1653-1704), in whose works the young student could observe the entire formative process of the age he was about to enter. Muffat, whose distant ancestors were Catholic Scots who fled from Elizabethan Britain, was born (of a French mother) in Savoy, but always professed himself a German, and indeed, aside from his years of study, his professional life was spent within the German orbit. Since he studied with Lully, Corelli, and Pasquini, his music is as many-sided as his ancestry, a remarkable combination of Italian, French, and German elements that made him a style builder of the rank of a Froberger. It seems that the French accents we encounter in Handel owe their inception to Muffat's works, which abound in them. Muffat's easy and imaginative synthesis of suite, sonata, and fugue found a ready echo in the younger man.
Excerpted from George Frideric Handel by Paul Henry Lang. Copyright © 1994 Anne Lang. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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