Handel in London: The Making of a Genius

Imagine, for a moment, two of the characters in Jane Glover’s biography of George Frideric Handel returning to Earth this holiday season; the composer to witness the annual outbreak of his Messiah – in the mall, perhaps, or at a church sing-along – and Queen Anne, to discover a movie version of herself in “The Favourite” festooning every multiplex. As you read Handel in London: The Making of a Genius such irreverent visions may flicker in the margins. Not because Glover encourages them, far from it, but because she conjures up an extraordinary past so convincingly that its wonders – and its creatures – seem to stray off the page and into our present. With Handel, of course, leading the cast.

“The charismatic twenty-five year old who strode into Princess Caroline’s drawing room in the spring of 1710,” Glover begins, “had been born into a medical family in late February 1685” in Halle, Germany.  (Just a few weeks, astonishingly, before the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach.) Arriving in London after a formative sojourn in Italy and on leave from the Hanoverian court, Handel had “probably heard much about the lonely forty-five year old woman who reluctantly sat on the English throne.” Queen Anne was “… shy, short-sighted and stout.” Throughout her miserable reign, she endured agonizing gout, seventeen doomed pregnancies, the dislike of the populace and the treachery of friends. But she also presided over one of the most remarkable periods in the history of music in general and of opera in particular. Or “semi-opera” as it was in early 18th century England. “Some come for the play and hate the musick,” one aficionado wrote of grumbling audiences who were further irritated by operas sung in Italian, — and often sung by Italians. As late as 1733, one of Handel’s orchestras was accused of being “…a lowsy Crew…of forreign fiddlers” and “…a Company of squeeking, bawling, out-landish Singsters.” (Never mind that Handel himself had become a British subject in 1727.)

Such carping, however, could never impede the composer’s growing reputation. For, as Glover explains, Handel’s gifts “had always attracted the attention and support of wealthy patrons…and throughout his career he continued to cultivate and tend his royal and patrician subscribers, inspiring their loyalty and generosity.” From Queen Anne, an early benefactor for whom Handel wrote several celebratory works and to whom he dedicated his 1711 opera Rinaldo, to George II, who in 1749 demanded encore upon encore of Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Glover, a renowned conductor and musical historian, sets this 18th century stage efficiently and alluringly. Here every detail — of business and of manners; of royalty and politics – enriches her portrait of a labyrinthine society while each insight illuminates the workings of genius. When she writes, for example, that Handel “taught his singers to act and…actors to sing,” she elaborates by noting how the composer’s “truly impressive ability to understand the human voice” developed as he adapted to those performers’ strengths and weaknesses. Similar revelations, understated yet profound, surface throughout a briskly flowing narrative. The essential role, for instance, of women and of castrati emerges: Glover introduces us to soloists like Francesca Cuzzoni who made “the most profound impact on London operatic life in the 1720s,” and the famed castrato Senesino who in 1720 commanded a salary equivalent to $300,000. Meanwhile the astounding creativity and stamina of Handel, his collaborators and his performers is pithily evoked. “It had been another huge season,” Glover notes of the year 1730, “In less than seven months, six productions… had been consecutively learned, rehearsed and performed with absolutely no respite between them.”

When Handel died in London in 1759, blind and paralyzed but meticulous still in matters such as bequests to servants and friends, he had composed “over seventy dramatic works (opera and oratorio), and impressive lists of sacred music, secular cantatas, instrumental music and keyboard music.” Many of these Glover has conducted over her forty-year career, including Messiah, of course, at least one hundred times. Handel’s music like that of Mozart, the subject of her previous biography, is her native element. Describing music, however, is devilishly hard — ask any writer from Thomas Mann to Amit Chaudhuri – and particularly so when the work, as in this case, must speak for its reticent creator. (Handel, unlike Mozart, was a restrained correspondent who “essentially traveled alone through life”) Yet here too Glover’s plain style triumphs. Setting each major composition in its historical and social context, she simultaneously evokes music and emotion that shimmers above earthly concerns. So that, paradoxically, we seem to hear the “wildly scurrying strings” in Tamerlano, the “suggestively curvaceous” vocal line in Partenope just as we marvel at the spectacle of George II’s coronation (“1,800 candles were lit in just three minutes, causing some alarm to the Queen and her ladies”), of trombones and battle drums ingeniously employed in Saul and of “brief passages written, for the first time in music history, in the irregular meter of 5/8” in the opera Orlando. Given the right setting, even arcane details of tempo can be thrilling.

Inevitably perhaps in such a tightly focused portrait, there are lacunae. Bach, Telemann and other contemporary composers are mentioned only in passing as are a handful of writers and artists. Handel’s friendships too are left largely unexplored and in this respect Glover is more methodical than nimble. With evocative flourishes, nonetheless, and with single-minded devotion, she follows her subject through four decades of miraculous invention until the light finally dims. “[Thomas] Hudson’s magnificent 1756 portrait,” she concludes, “was of a man of the greatest distinction, authority and sensitivity, whose eyes betrayed no suggestion of their new worthlessness. Had Handel been able to see the painting, he would surely have been delighted with it.” A year later, with poignant symmetry, the composer’s earliest oratorio, first heard in Rome in 1707, was performed again in London. It is called The Triumph of Time and Truth.