There were many reasons for the collapse of the opera. It had been carried on with reckless extravagance, and the noble directors were in all probability not very expert men of business. The scandalous behaviour of all concerned in Astyanax may well have caused a falling-off in the subscriptions. Mrs. Pendarves, who was a lady of unimpeachable conduct, continued to go to the opera, but she was a serious lover of music and a personal friend of Handel. The failure of the Academy is generally attributed to the success of The Beggar's Opera, which had been brought out at Lincoln's Inn Fields on January 29, 1728, and at once took London by storm. A letter of Mrs. Pendarves, dated January 19, but evidently continued later, tells us that she went to a rehearsal of Siroe: "I like it extremely, but the taste of the town is so depraved, that nothing will be approved of but the burlesque. The Beggar's Opera entirely triumphs over the Italian one." Even Mrs. Pendarves could not help enjoying it, once she had seen it.
It is probable that Handel himself had contributed to the downfall of the Academy. Out of the 487 performances given between 1720 and 1728, Handel's works obtained 245, Buononcini's 108, and Ariosti's 55. The great singers had drawn the public to listen to Handel's operas, but it is clear from many contemporary allusions that Handel's music was too severe to be an attraction in itself, except to cultivated musicians like Mrs. Pendarves. The same accusations were made against Handel that were made in later years against Mozart and Wagner—that his operas were noisy and overloaded with learned accompaniments. The Italian opera was killed, not so much by the fact that The Beggar's Opera made its conventions ridiculous (for its conventions could at that time have been ridiculous only to quite unmusical people), as by the incontestable attraction of the new work itself. It was witty and outspoken, with abundance of topical satire; its music consisted of the tunes that everybody knew, and it presented the public with the irresistible fascinations of Lavinia Fenton, who was soon to become the Duchess of Bolton.
Handel may well have resented the success of The Beggar's Opera, but the collapse of the Academy was in reality no great disaster for his own interests. In the first place, he had done very well out of it from a financial point of view; the noble directors might have lost their money, but he had been only their paid servant, in which capacity he had accumulated enough to invest no less than L10,000 of his own in the next operatic venture. He obviously realised the strength of the position which he had built up for himself both as a composer and as a man of business. The most important result of the Academy's career had been to provide Handel with the opportunity of consolidating his own style as a composer of musical drama. Like all the court composers of his age he had provided whatever his patrons required—chamber music, water music, minuets for court balls, Church music for royal ceremonial; but the music on which his own heart was set was that of the theatre.
Handel naturalized—partnership with Heidegger—Esther—the Opera of the Nobility—visit to Oxford—opera season at Covent Garden—Charles Jennens—collapse of both opera-houses.
Handel had by this time definitely decided to make England his home; on February 13, 1726, he had been naturalised as an English subject. He had every reason to regard England as the best place in which to live. He enjoyed the protection of the German court; George II and Queen Caroline gave him indeed a good deal more encouragement than George I. The appointments of composer to the Chapel Royal and composer to the court were purely honorary, but they strengthened his position. As to the opera-house, he must by now have felt that he was its unquestioned autocrat, and he could not help being aware that he was without a rival in Europe as far as the stage was concerned, for old Scarlatti had gone to his grave, and the younger generation had produced no composer of such outstanding eminence. And in England music was generously rewarded from a material point of view; high fees were paid, not only to singers, but to teachers as well, and England was also one of the few countries where music-printing was a flourishing business. A good proportion of Handel's savings must have come from the sale of his published compositions; among Handel's contemporaries no other composer in Europe had so many of his works printed during his lifetime. English society seemed always ready to subscribe for a new musical work, and neither in Paris nor in Amsterdam was music so admirably engraved as in London.
Encouraged by the Princess Royal, Handel went into partnership with Heidegger, who had also made his own profits out of the opera, as well as out of his notorious masquerades; they leased the King's Theatre for a period of five years. The first thing to do was to secure new singers, and for this purpose Handel went to Italy, probably in the autumn of 1728. Heidegger had already tried to bring back Senesino and the two "costly canary-birds," as Colley Cibber called them, but they had had enough of London, and probably of Handel too. Little is known of the details of this Italian journey; it has been said that Handel travelled with Steffani, but this is impossible, as Steffani died at Frankfurt early in the year. Mainwaring tells us that, at Rome, Cardinal Colonna invited him to his palace, but that Handel, hearing that the Pretender was staying there, prudently declined the invitation. In engaging singers he seems to have been perhaps more prudent than was desirable, for his new company did not contain any very distinguished names. In place of Senesino he obtained the castrato Bernacchi; his new first woman was Signora Strada del Po', who was a fine singer, but so unattractive in appearance that London nicknamed her "The Pig." It is interesting to note that he also engaged a tenor, Annibale Fabri, although in those; days tenors were considered only fit for old men's parts of minor importance, and at Naples were generally given the parts of comic old women. Fabri's wife and another woman were announced as good actresses of male parts. "Fabri has a tenor voice," wrote Mrs. Pendarves, "sweet, clear and firm, but not strong enough, I doubt, for the stage. He sings like a gentleman, without making faces, and his manner is particularly agreeable." Perhaps Handel's friendship with Mrs. Pendarves had given him a sure insight into the taste of English gentlewomen.
In the summer of 1729 Handel paid a visit to his mother at Halle; she was then blind and half paralysed. Bach sent his son Friedemann over from Leipzig to beg Handel to come and see him, as he was himself too ill to make the journey, but Handel not unnaturally declined. Towards the end of June he passed through Hanover, and also went to Hamburg, where he engaged a German bass Riemschneider.
The opera season began on December 2, with Handel's Lothario, but it had only a moderate success. After a few revivals of Giulio Cesare, he brought out a second new opera, Partenope, on February 24. Despite its many beauties, it was even less successful than Lothario. Handel's audience did not go to the theatre to listen to his music; they went to hear the singers, and Bernacchi, who was no longer a young man, was a poor substitute for Senesino. Strada was the only member of the company who interested the audience. For the next season something better had to be found, and through Francis Colman, the English Envoy at Florence, Senesino was persuaded to accept 1,400 guineas instead of the 2,000 that he had received before. He opened the season of 1730 on November 3, with his former role of Scipio. For the moment Handel remained in the background; the next opera was a pasticcio, that is, an opera made up of favourite songs from various operas stuck into any convenient libretto. On February 2 there came out the new opera of Handel, Poro, which turned the tide once more in the composer's favour. Later on, Rinaldo and Rodelinda were revived, but the season came to an early end on May 29. For the following winter some changes were made in the cast. Senesino and Strada were of course indispensable, and the most important new acquisition was Montagnana, the bass, for whom Handel was to write some of his most celebrated songs.
After revivals of Tamerlano and Admeto, Handel brought out Ezio on January 15, 1732; it had only five performances. Sosarme (February 19) had ten; it is remembered now by the exquisite song, "Rendi 'l sereno al ciglio," which was sung by Strada. The remainder of the season presented nothing of any special interest until on the last night Handel offered his subscribers a new type of entertainment in the shape of Acis and Galatea.
On Handel's birthday, February 23, Bernard Gates, the master of the children of the Chapel Royal, arranged a private performance of Esther, which had been neglected since its first performance at Canons some twelve years before. Among the boys who sang and acted in the "masque" were Beard, who afterwards became Handel's favourite tenor, and Randall, eventually Professor of Music in Cambridge, who took the part of Esther. The performance was repeated twice before a paying public at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, where concerts were often held, and on April 20 a rival organisation advertised a further performance of Esther at the concert-room in Villiers Street. On this occasion it was described as "an oratorio or sacred drama," and was evidently sung without action. Princess Anne wished to see it on the stage of the opera-house but the Bishop of London forbade a dramatic performance. As the bishop's ban was ultimately the cause of Handel's turning his attention to oratorio in preference to opera, it has sometimes been suggested that Handel might have created a new type of national English opera on biblical subjects if only his lordship had not interfered. In justice to the bishop it has to be pointed out that his objection seems to have been raised, not against the dramatic presentation of Bible stories (for he did not discountenance Gates' performances by the choristers at the Crown and Anchor), but against their presentation in a regular theatre by professional opera singers. Such prejudice may be difficult to understand at the present day, but even well into the middle of the nineteenth century persons of severe morality regarded the theatre and all who belonged thereto with stern disapproval, and the notorious scandals associated with Cuzzoni and Faustina, to say nothing of Heidegger, were not likely to have washed out the memory of Jeremy Collier's denunciations.
"The sacred story of Esther, an oratorio in English," was accordingly announced for May 2, with the information that "there will be no acting on the stage, but the house will be fitted up in a decent manner for the audience; the Musick [i.e. the orchestra] to be disposed after the manner of the coronation service." Within a fortnight, Thomas Arne, father of the composer, advertised a performance of Acis and Galatea at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket "with all the choruses, scenes, machines, and other decorations, being the first time it was performed in a theatrical way." The laws of the time gave no protection to musical and dramatic copyright. Handel could only reply by giving a performance of the work himself; his one advantage was that as composer he could remodel the score and make several new additions to it. But he did not have the work acted; it was sung in costume with a background of appropriate scenery. Even in this form it obtained four performances; Senesino and Strada took part in it, singing in English.
Such a setting may appear strange to modern readers, but, even if it was a new idea for England at the time, it was a fairly well established tradition on the Continent, and Handel may very likely have seen a similar entertainment in Italy. The subscribers to the opera would see little in it that was incongruous. They were accustomed to see singers in all operas wearing dresses that differed very little from their own, and scenery which recalled their own Italianate gardens and palaces; Handelian opera, in any case, left little scope for what most people now call acting. At the same time we may be pretty sure that concert singers, especially Italians, allowed themselves far more liberty of spontaneous expressive movement than Victorian oratorio singers holding their music-books in front of them by traditional convention.
Four more performances of Acis and Galatea were given at the opera-house in December 1732; Handel evidently saw that it would be a sure attraction. Alessandro and Tolomeo were revived, and on January 23 he produced a new opera, Orlando, which had ten performances, with six more later in the season. Orlando is one of Handel's most original operas; he seems always to have derived a peculiar inspiration from the poems of Tasso and Ariosto, as in the case of Rinaldo. Orlando is a thoroughly romantic opera—Chrysander even compares it with those of Weber—full of episodes of madness and magic; it is so far removed from the ordinary conventions of its time that we can well imagine it to have startled both its audiences and its singers.
The affairs of the opera-house were going badly, and it is probable that there were considerable dissension within its walls. It is certain that relations between Handel and Senesino were becoming more and more strained; Orlando was the last opera of Handel's in which he sang. It seems fairly certain also that Heidegger was none too loyal as a partner. Heidegger was in a strong position, for he was the actual owner of the stock of scenery and other appurtenances taken over from the original Academy. He seems to have lent the theatre to Buononcini for some performances of Griselda, and, when the lease came to an end, it was Heidegger who left Handel in the lurch and allowed a rival organisation to secure it.
There was, too, a further reason for the general hostility against Handel. Encouraged by the success of Acis and Galatea, he had composed a new oratorio, Deborah, which was performed at the opera-house on March 17, by the King's command. For this work prices were doubled; tickets were a guinea each, and admission to the gallery half a guinea, instead of five shillings. At the second performance the normal prices were charged. The raising of prices for an extraordinary performance might well seem nothing unreasonable; but the event came exactly at the moment of the popular outcry against Walpole's Excise Bill, and the satirists of the day seized the opportunity of comparing Handel with Walpole.
Handel was now nearly fifty years of age. In the days of Rinaldo he had been a young man of twenty-five, making friends with those of his own age or younger, a new attraction with all the fascination of genius and youth. In the course of a generation he had become an established institution. He had made a success; he had amassed a fortune; he had secured to himself the unshaken confidence of the court; but he had inevitably made enemies. The native musicians were very naturally jealous of the foreigner, and the numerous foreign musicians in London jealous of one who made more money out of the extravagant English than they did themselves. The Italian singers found him tyrannical, and society very probably resented his rough manners. Society had engaged him to provide music for their entertainment, and he took up the unheard-of attitude of expecting society to pay its guineas for whatever music he chose to write. England, one might almost say, had spoiled him, for it was only in England that "The Great Bear," as he was sometimes called, could go his own way—a musician behaving with the complete disregard of public opinion which was considered the exclusive privilege of the English nobility. In any other country he would have been forced either to pander to the taste of a court or to relapse into obscurity. It was not until after the French Revolution that a Beethoven could display the independence of Handel in the aristocratic environment of Vienna.
The English nobility, having set Handel this example, claimed their own rights, and organised a rival opera-house at Lincoln's Inn Fields. They had no difficulty in seducing, first Senesino, then Montagnana, and finally Heidegger. Only Strada remained faithful to Handel. Buononcini having lost their favour, they engaged as composer the Neapolitan Nicolo Porpora, famous then as a great trainer of singers, and still more famous in later years as the teacher of Haydn. If Handel had the King and Queen on his side, the nobility could count on the support of Frederick Prince of Wales, who was immensely popular throughout the country and was on the worst possible terms with his royal parents. The Opera of the Nobility, as the new syndicate was called, was making its plans in good time, directly after the end of Handel's season.
In July 1733, Handel was invited to Oxford for a series of performances of his works, and it was proposed to confer on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Music. The Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Holmes, was a loyal Hanoverian, and hoped by honouring Handel to do something to counteract the Jacobite reputation of the University. Esther and Deborah were performed, as well as the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, and the Coronation Anthems; Handel further provided a new oratorio, Athaliah. The degree he refused to accept, for what reason has never been explained. Various suggestions have been offered. The Abbe Prevost, who was in England at the time, says that he refused the degree out of modesty; later biographers have differed in their views as to whether modesty was one of Handel's characteristics. Others have supposed that he refused to pay the fee of L100 that was demanded, but it is inconceivable that a fee should have been demanded for an honorary degree, although it would naturally have been paid by candidates who took the degree in the normal way. The concerts were attended by large audiences, many music lovers coming over from Eton and Cambridge, although there was considerable resentment at the price of admission—five shillings, a small amount compared with Handel's London charges. This "Handel Festival" at Oxford is significant, for it shows that in the space of no more than a year oratorio had begun to make a wide appeal, even outside London, although it was a form of composition that was new to English audiences. Esther, considered as a masque to be acted, might be said to continue the English traditions of the previous century, but there was no precedent in England for anything like Esther in concert form. The only English works which offered anything remotely like oratorio were the odes of Purcell and Blow for the musicians' festivals on St. Cecilia's Day, apart from the greater services and anthems of Purcell, which were composed, not for entertainment, but for liturgical use.
After the Oxford concerts, Handel and Schmidt went to Italy to look for singers. They heard Farinelli, the most famous castrato of the century, but did not engage him; perhaps his demands were too high. The castrato whom they did engage was Carestini, who, though less celebrated, was at any rate a singularly artistic singer. Durastanti came back, and, in place of Montagnana, Handel contented himself with Waltz, a German, who is often described as having been Handel's cook. Burney, at any rate, recorded that he was said to have filled this office, but Burney remembered him chiefly as a popular comic singer. He had sung Polyphemus in Arne's pirated performance of Acis and Galatea, and owing to the defection of Montagnana, took his place in Athaliah at Oxford. He had "a coarse figure and a still coarser voice" (Burney).
Handel opened his season on October 30, 1733. He had already finished the composition of a new opera, Ariadne, but it was not brought out until January 26, 1734. The reason, no doubt, was that an opera on the same subject by Porpora was produced by the Opera of the Nobility on December 29. Handel would no doubt have heard that it was in rehearsal, and have postponed his own production until he could see how Porpora's was succeeding. The two operas obtained the same number of performances, but Handel's theatre was seldom full, and many opera-goers were dissatisfied at his giving them oratorios, such as Deborah and Acis, on opera nights; these, however, seem to have been commanded by the King, and that in itself would make them all the more unpopular.
In March the Princess Royal was married to the Prince of Orange, and Handel was commissioned to write a wedding anthem. He also provided a secular entertainment in the shape of Parnaso in festa, described as a serenata. It was not unlike a masque; Apollo and the Muses appeared in costume on Mount Parnassus, but apparently there was no acting. The music was adapted from Athaliah, which, so far, had only been heard at Oxford. Oratorio was also attempted by Handel's rival; Mrs. Pendarves heard a work of his at Lincoln's Inn Fields in March. "It is a fine solemn piece of music," she wrote, "but I confess I think the subject too solemn for a theatre. To have words of piety made use of only to introduce good music, is reversing what it ought to be, and most of the people that hear the oratorio make no reflection on the meaning of the words, though God is addressed in the most solemn manner." Needless to say, it was "not equal to Mr. Handel's oratorio of Esther or Deborah." Mrs. Pendarves was at this time a near neighbour of Handel's in Lower Brook Street; one of her letters describes a small musical party (her musical parties were always small) a month later. Apparently there were not more than ten guests, including Lord Shaftesbury, who begged another guest to bring him, and was admitted as being "a profess'd friend of Mr. Handel"; the only professional musicians present were Handel and Strada. "I never was so well entertained at an opera! Mr. Handel was in the best humour in the world, and played lessons and accompanied Strada and all the ladies that sung from seven o' the clock till eleven." In such company Handel could evidently be more agreeable than on the stage at rehearsals, and it is interesting to note that the amateurs had no timidity about singing before Strada, and that Handel was willing to accompany all of them alike.
In July 1734, Handel's lease of the King's Theatre came to an end, and he found the theatre let at once by some means to his rivals, the Opera of the Nobility. He therefore entered into an arrangement with Rich for the use of his new theatre in Covent Garden, but his autumn season actually opened at Lincoln's Inn Fields on October 5. The probable reason for this was that the Princess Anne was spending the summer in England and wished to hear some of Handel's operas. She was a remarkably gifted musician, and Handel considered her to be the best of his pupils; she not only sang and played the harpsichord well, but was thoroughly grounded in the theoretical side of music and quite capable of composing a fugue, according to a Dutch musician who became acquainted with her after her marriage. She came to England on July 2 for a long stay, and at once persuaded Handel to give three additional performances of Il Pastor Fido, which he had revived that season. Pastor Fido and Ariadne were given again for her in October; probably Covent Garden was not quite ready for performances. Princess Anne left England on October 21, and her last words at parting were to beg Lord Hervey to do all he could to help Handel.
The chief attraction to the public at Covent Garden was probably not Handel but Mlle Salle, a French dancer who had been engaged by Rich. The first performance at the new theatre was a ballet, Terpsichore, in order that she might inaugurate the season. Terpsichore, which includes songs and a chorus, served as prologue to Il Pastor Fido. The next opera was Oreste, a pasticcio made up by Handel himself from his own works; on January 8, 1735, he produced his Ariodante, an opera over which he had spent the unusually long time of ten weeks. The score was begun on August 12 and finished on October 24. The story is taken from Ariosto, and, as with Orlando, Handel found that it afforded opportunities for his peculiar vein of romanticism. On April 16 he followed it up with Alcina, again on a subject from Ariosto, and one of even more romantic character. Ariosto's enchantress Alcina was the model for Tasso's better-known Armida, who provided both Lulli and Gluck with one of their most dramatic heroines, and Burney says, with some justice, that Handel's Alcina gave birth to all the Armidas and Rinaldos of modern times. Both Ariodante and Alcina contained a large amount of ballet music, and the dances in Alcina, intermingled with choruses in the French manner, are among Handel's most attractive compositions.
Mrs. Pendarves, after the rehearsal of Alcina, described Handel as himself "a necromancer in the midst of his own enchantments," but he could not prevail against the enchantments of Farinelli, who had been engaged by the rival opera company. There could be no competing against a combination that included along with him Senesino, Cuzzoni, and Montagnana. The one powerful counter-attraction that Handel could offer was oratorio on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent, when operas were not allowed to be given. Porpora's David, which the rival management put on, had no chance against Esther, Deborah, and Athaliah. Alcina carried the Opera on to the end of the season, the well-known air "Verdi prati," which Carestini had at first refused to sing, being encored at every performance. Handel's alleged angry retort to Carestini in comical broken English has been often quoted from Burney; but Schoelcher very sensibly observed that Handel was pretty certain to have conversed with Carestini in Italian.
The newspapers informed the world in May that Handel was going to spend the summer in Germany. His health had been seriously undermined, and it may well have been possible that he had talked of taking a cure at Aix-la-Chapelle; but on this occasion he went no farther than Tunbridge Wells. It was probably in the earlier part of 1735 that he made the acquaintance of Charles Jennens, a young man who was eventually to play a great part in his life, for on July 28 he wrote to Jennens to say that he was just starting for Tunbridge.
The letter is so short that it may be quoted here in full, for it gives us a great deal of interesting information.
London, July 28, 1735. Sir,
I received your very agreeable letter with the enclosed Oratorio. I am just going to Tunbridge; yet what I could read of it in haste, gave me a great deal of satisfaction. I shall have more leisure time there to read it with all the attention it deserves.
There is no certainty of any Scheme for next Season, but it is probable that something or other may be done, of which I shall take the liberty to give you notice, being extremely obliged to you for the generous concern you show upon this account.
The Opera of Alcina is a writing out, and shall be sent according to your direction. It is always a great pleasure to me if I have an opportunity to show the sincere respect with which I have the honour to be,
Sir, &c., &c.,
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL.
Jennens was a conspicuous figure in the London society of his day. At the time of this correspondence he was thirty-five, and unmarried; he had inherited vast wealth in his youth and spent it freely. He was ostentatious, even for an age when extravagance was fashionable; but although he was conceited and on occasions foolish, he was certainly possessed of considerable intellectual gifts, and the things which interested him most in life were literature, music, and the fine arts. The letter shows us that he must have admired Alcina sufficiently to ask the composer for a copy of the score. He also seized the opportunity of offering him a libretto for a new oratorio. He had a very good opinion of himself as a poet, and it is possible that he foresaw the importance of the new type of semi-dramatic entertainment which Handel was creating. There were plenty of Italian poetasters, even in London itself, who could put together a conventional opera-book, but English oratorio was still in the making, and it was not so easy to find a literary framework for it.
In any case, it was evident that Italian opera was a precarious enterprise. In October the papers again gave out that Handel was going to give oratorios and concerts at Covent Garden; no operas were announced, and for the time being Handel appeared to have abandoned opera altogether. He made no move until Lent 1736, and then brought out Alexander's Feast (February 19), which he had set to music in the previous two months. Those ever popular favourites Esther and Acis and Galatea followed it, and, as in the foregoing season, Handel played organ concertos between the acts of these works. It is evident that as Handel could not secure the great Italian singers for his oratorios he felt obliged to offer his public some other display of virtuosity, and his own performance on the organ seems to have been considered a very powerful attraction.
The marriage of the Prince of Wales to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (April 27, 1736) provided him with unexpected opportunities for coming before the public. It seems to have been at the desire of the Princess herself that he undertook a short Italian opera season of eight performances, which eventually was extended to ten. Atalanta, Handel's new opera for this season, in which the chief singer was Gizziello, then making his first appearance in England, was composed especially to celebrate the royal nuptials, and seems to have finally converted the Prince of Wales to the music of Handel. He now became a regular supporter of Handel's theatre, with the result that the King promptly withdrew his patronage, as he refused to be seen in the same house as the Prince. Encouraged by this sign of princely favour, Handel reopened Covent Garden in November with a revival of Alcina, followed by Atalanta. Three more new operas were ready, or nearly so; Handel seems to have prepared himself for the winter in better time than usual. But neither Arminio (January 12, 1737), nor Giustino (February 16), nor even Berenice, with its famous minuet (May 18), could save Handel from ruin. The rival opera-house was in no better case. Handel was obliged to close Covent Garden on June 1, and the Haymarket followed suit ten days later. Opera at both houses had been killed, mainly by the folly of party strife.
Bankruptcy and paralysis—visit to Aix-la-Chapelle—the last operas—Vauxhall Gardens—Handel's "borrowings"—visit to Ireland—Messiah and other oratorios.
The collapse of the Opera left Handel not only bankrupt, but with seriously endangered health. In April 1737 it had been announced that he was "indisposed with the rheumatism," from which he made a slight temporary recovery; but before the season was over it became clear that he was suffering from paralysis. "His right arm was become useless to him," says Mainwaring, "and how greatly his senses were disordered at intervals, for a long time, appeared from an hundred instances, which are better forgotten than recorded." With some difficulty his medical advisers persuaded him to go to the sulphur bath of Aix-la-Chapelle, where, according to Mainwaring, he submitted to prolonged and drastic treatment. His cure was considered remarkably rapid, and the nuns (presumably nursing sisters) who heard him play the organ within a few hours of leaving his bath ascribed it to a miracle. "Such a conclusion," observes our clerical biographer, "in such persons was natural enough."
It has been asserted that during his stay at Aix, Handel composed a cantata for the five-hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Elbing, a town in East Prussia between Danzig and Koenigsberg. A German researcher about 1869 appears to have discovered documents at Elbing mentioning the cantata, with the name of the poet and that of a local singer, Jean du Grain, who composed the recitatives; Handel "of London" was said to have composed the choruses. No trace of the music has survived, and there seems to be no evidence whatever to connect this work with Handel's visit to Aix. Nor is it possible to suggest any reason why the authorities of this remote place should have applied to Handel for a composition.
According to Mainwaring, Handel stayed six weeks at Aix; the London papers announced his return on November 7, 1737. The management of the Opera had now been taken over by Heidegger, but the death of Queen Caroline on November 20 caused all theatres to be closed from that date until the end of December. It was announced in the papers that the Opera would reopen on January 10 with a new oratorio by Handel, called Saul, but this performance did not take place, and the theatre actually reopened on January 7 with his new opera Faramondo. This opera was the first work that Handel had undertaken after his return to London, but its composition was interrupted by that of the Funeral Anthem for the Queen. Although she died on November 20, Handel did not receive the King's command to write the anthem until December 7, as George II was strangely undecided in making arrangements for the funeral. It was finally fixed for December 17, and a special organ was hurriedly built for it in Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey. Handel's anthem was performed by 80 singers and 100 instrumentalists. Queen Caroline had been one of his most faithful friends, and his gratitude and affection for her found utterance in music which Burney placed "at the head of all his works for expression, harmony and pleasing effects."
It was at ten at night on Christmas Eve that Handel finished the score of Faramondo; on Boxing Day he began the composition of Serse. Faramondo had only six performances, and Serse did not appear on the stage until April 15, when it ran for five nights only. It is remembered now, if at all, by the fact that the first song in it is the so-called "celebrated Largo," but the opera as a whole is of curious interest. "He was neither in health, prosperity, or spirits," says Burney, "when it was composed; appearances remain in his foul score [i.e. rough copy] of a mind disturbed, if not diseased. There are more passages, and even whole pages, cancelled in this score, than in any one of all his former operas." Serse, it must be explained, is a comic opera, and the only comic opera that Handel ever wrote. What induced him to attempt this style it is difficult to conceive. It is of course true that the failure of Handel's earlier operas was largely due to the success of The Beggar's Opera (1728), and of other comic entertainments which succeeded it—Hurlothrumbo (1729), Pasquin (1736) and The Dragon of Wantley (1737). A new type of comic opera had arisen in Italy too, and comic intermezzi were first seen in Italian grand opera in London in January 1737, although it was not until 1748 that a real company of Italian comic-opera singers came over to England. But what is more important to notice is that the whole style of Italian opera was changing during the second quarter of the century. Handel had continued to develop his own style, based on the grand manner of old Scarlatti, but Handel's operas were practically unknown outside London and Hamburg; in Italy, Scarlatti's style had already become old-fashioned before his death in 1725, and opera was moving on towards the lighter and flimsier manner of Galuppi, who first came to London in this year of Serse, 1738.
In choosing the libretto of Serse, Handel seems to have been making a desperate attempt to keep up with the taste of the day. Humour he had in plenty; one has only to recall Acis and Galatea. But the humour of Serse, diverting as it is to the modern historical student, is neither the musical nor the dramatic humour of 1737; the plot bears no resemblance whatever to the Neapolitan comic operas of Vinci and Pergolesi, but rather recalls the very early operas, based on Spanish comedies, composed by Alessandro Scarlatti in the 1680's. Serse was revived a few years ago in Germany, considerably cut about and reduced to one act, in which arrangement it had some success; but we can well understand its complete failure on its first London production.
The only satisfaction which Handel received in that unfortunate season of 1738 was the proceeds of his benefit concert at the Haymarket on March 28, organised for him by his friends, apparently rather against his own wish. According to Burney the net receipts were L800; Mainwaring puts the figure at L1,500. Even if we accept Burney's estimate, the sum is remarkable, and particularly so in view of the known hostility of a large section of society towards the composer. It can only be supposed that Handel's physical and mental collapse had been grave enough to awaken a wide-spread sense of pity for his misfortunes. Another mark of popular appreciation was the erection of a statue of Handel, executed by Roubiliac, at Vauxhall Gardens, in recognition of the pleasure which his music had afforded to the frequenters of that famous resort. This piece of "laudable idolatry," as Burney calls it, was thus described by a contemporary journalist: "Mr. Handel is represented in a loose robe, sweeping the lyre, and listening to its sounds; which a little boy sculptured at his feet seems to be writing down on the back of a violon-cello. The whole composition is in an elegant taste." Commissioned by an impresario who had made a fortune out of the use of Handel's music, it now appropriately adorns the vestibule of Messrs. Novello's music-shop in Wardour Street.
Charles Jennens, writing to his cousin Lord Guernsey on September 19, 1738, remarks that "Mr. Handel's head is more full of maggots than ever." Towards the end of July he had begun the composition of Saul, for which Jennens had provided the libretto three years before. It is evident that Handel intended to startle his audiences with his new oratorio scheme. He had ordered a new organ for the theatre at a cost of L500, constructed so that he might have a better command of his performers, and he had also acquired another instrument, which Jennens calls a "Tubalcain"—in other words a set of bells played from a keyboard—which he intended to use in the scene in which the Israelites welcome David after his victory over the Philistines. It is curious that Handel should have dramatised the insanity of Saul just after he had himself recovered from mental derangement.
No sooner was Saul finished (September 27) than Handel, four days later, began the composition of Israel in Egypt. Saul was first performed on January 16, 1739, and enjoyed a moderate success, but Israel (April 4) was a failure, even after it had been shortened and made more attractive by the insertion of Italian opera songs.
Israel in Egypt is the most conspicuous example of a strange and almost unaccountable habit which from about this period began to show itself in Handel's methods of composition—the incorporation of large quantities of music by other composers. Samuel Wesley was the first person to draw attention to this practice of Handel's, though only in a private letter of 1808. In 1831 Dr. Crotch, in his professorial lectures at Oxford, named no less than twenty-nine composers whom Handel had "quoted or copied." The researches of Chrysander, Dr. Max Seiffert, Ebenezer Prout, and Sedley Taylor eventually proved beyond dispute that not only Israel, but several other works of Handel were largely made up from the music of other men.
Chrysander maintained that Handel began appropriating other men's ideas as early as 1707, for not only Rodrigo and Agrippina, but also La Resurrezione and the Laudate pueri show obvious reminiscences of Keiser's opera Octavia (Hamburg, 1705). These were probably subconscious, like Handel's reminiscences of Scarlatti and others at this period; they need not be taken any more seriously than Schubert's frequent reminiscences of Beethoven. But in Atalanta (1736) and Giustino (1737), Prout discovered quotations and adaptations several bars long from a Passion by Graun, which is known to have been composed not many years before. Further fragments of this Passion were identified by Prout in Alexander's Feast and the Wedding Anthem (1736); Saul, like Israel, incorporates several movements from a Te Deum by Urio (fl. 1660). From this date onwards until the end of his career Handel systematically drew upon the works of other musicians.
There has been much controversy over this question, and many attempts have been made to explain away Handel's "borrowings" so as to leave no moral stain on his character, which indeed, by all contemporary accounts, was scrupulously upright. Sedley Taylor (1906) was certainly anxious to clear Handel's character, but still more concerned to arrive at the exact truth, and his method of presenting the evidence throws a new light on Handel's procedure. He showed that in most cases Handel made frequent alterations in the music which he utilised, almost as if Stradella (to cite one name out of many) had been a young pupil to whom he was giving a lesson in composition.
A careful study of these alterations suggests a reason for Handel's action which seems not to have occurred to any previous writer on the subject. No one seems to have noticed hitherto that Handel's "borrowings" begin in 1736 on a small scale, and become more frequent in 1737, after which they develop into a regular habit. It seems only natural therefore to connect them with Handel's mental collapse; it became acute in the spring of 1737, but it may well have been approaching in the previous year.
There is no need to go so far as to suggest that Handel suffered from moral insanity and was incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong; but it is quite conceivable that his paralytic stroke affected his brain in such a way that he may sometimes have had a difficulty in starting a composition. Biographers of Handel have more than once drawn attention to phases in which he seems to have suffered from the inability to make a definite decision. Indecision is a common symptom of overstrained nerves, and anyone who has attempted musical composition or taught it to students will understand the hesitation and uncertainty which often attends the first writing down of a musical theme, although, once the initial idea has been settled, the continuation and development of it may proceed without difficulty. Any musician who studies the examples printed by Sedley Taylor will at once exclaim that for a man of Handel's experience, to say nothing of his fertility or indeed of his genius, it would have been far less trouble to compose an original setting of given words than to adapt them so laboriously to music written by someone else for a totally different purpose. But after his attack of paralysis there may well have been occasional moments when Handel could not make up his mind to write down an idea of his own, but may very likely have found that when once he had an idea ready on paper before him, whether that of another composer or an old one of his own, he could then continue to compose, and often make alterations in the music under his eyes which transformed it from a commonplace into a masterpiece.
In the autumn of 1739 Handel transferred his concerts to the smaller theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where at first there seemed some hope of success. On November 17 he produced his setting of Dryden's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day; it was repeated several times, Alexander's Feast and Acis and Galatea being added to the programmes. But a month later an exceptionally severe frost set in; the Thames was frozen over, and for two months it was useless to open the theatre, owing to the impossibility of warming it adequately. In February he produced L'Allegro, adapted by Charles Jennens from Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, to which Jennens had added a third part of his own, Il Moderato; but the public, whether from indifference to the work or from fear of the cold, refused to come to it. Handel was once more on the verge of ruin, but that did not prevent him from giving a performance of his two most popular works, Acis and Alexander's Feast, for the benefit of a new musical charity.
The charity in which Handel was so keenly interested had been founded in 1738 to assist impoverished musicians and their families; it still carries on its honourable work under the title of the Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain.
The same year saw the inauguration of another charitable institution which owed much to the continued generosity of Handel, the Foundling Hospital. Like Hogarth, who was also a benefactor, Handel did not confine his support to an occasional gift, but took the warmest personal interest in the place, and eventually both he and Hogarth were made governors of it.
The managers of the Opera had found themselves quite unable to continue productions on the grand scale of former years. In the winter of 1739-40 there had been an insignificant season at Covent Garden; it seems to have been directed by the Italian composer Pescetti, who, in the following winter, started concerts at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. Mrs. Pendarves, who during the last few years had not lived much in London, and had thus dropped out of Handel's life, wrote in November: "The concerts begin next Saturday at the Haymarket. Carestini sings, Pescetti composes; the house is made up into little boxes, like the playhouses abroad." Dr. Burney gives a comic account of the undertaking. "The opera, a tawdry, expensive and meretricious lady, who had been accustomed to high keeping, was now reduced to a very humble state. Her establishment was not only diminished, but her servants reduced to half-pay. Pescetti seems to have been her prime minister, Carestini her head man, the Muscovita her favourite woman, and Andreoni a servant for all work." Concerts and pasticcios formed the main repertory, and Burney ascribes such success as they enjoyed to the fact that the Little Theatre was a "snug retreat" in which those who had the courage to quit their firesides during the great frost might keep reasonably warm.
Handel had nothing to do with this theatre, but in 1740 again rented the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where on November 8 he revived Parnaso in Festa "in its original oratorio manner, with the addition of scenes, dresses and concertos on the organ and several other instruments." It had but one performance; on the 22nd, Handel produced a new opera, or, as Burney calls it, an operetta, which had no more than two performances. This was Imeneo. On January 10, 1741, he brought out another new opera, Deidamia, which ran for three nights. Imeneo is a work of little importance; Deidamia, on the other hand, contains several very beautiful songs. But Dr. Burney, notwithstanding his admiration of it, has to admit that much of it was old-fashioned, in the style of Handel's youth, and sometimes "languid and antique." To Handel's admirers to-day such criticism may seem ridiculous, but to his audiences of 1741 these reversions to an earlier style would certainly have been most unwelcome.
Deidamia was Handel's last work for the stage; the glorious achievements of his youth and maturity had come to a hopeless end. His own public had unjustly neglected him, posterity consigned his operas to oblivion.
At some period during the summer of 1741 Handel received an invitation from the fourth Duke of Devonshire, then Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, to go over to Dublin and give concerts there for the benefit of the local hospitals. It is very probable that Mrs. Pendarves may have helped to secure this engagement for Handel. She had spent a year and a half in Ireland in 1731-32, and her letters give a lively account of society in Dublin. Matthew Dubourg, an excellent violinist, was at the head of the Viceroy's band, and musical entertainments were frequent, for to judge from Mrs. Pendarves' descriptions the Irish bishops and deans lived almost as magnificently as the cardinals in Rome. Mrs. Pendarves was naturally a very popular guest in Dublin society; she was a remarkably fine harpsichord player for an amateur, and was constantly in demand as a performer at private parties. There was no one in London or Dublin who had a more intelligent understanding of Handel's music, and her enthusiasm for his works was unbounded. She kept constantly in touch with Dublin life when in England, for she corresponded with Dean Swift, and, what was more important still, she had in 1730 made the acquaintance of Dr. Delany, an Irish clergyman, whom she was to marry in 1743.
Handel did not leave London until the first week of November. During the summer he had been occupied with the composition of a new oratorio, Messiah, the words for which had been chosen and arranged by Jennens, apparently with a good deal of assistance from his chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Pooley. Whether Messiah was composed with a view to production in Dublin is not known; it was begun on August 22 and finished on September 14. A fortnight later he had completed the first act of Samson. On the way to Holyhead he stopped at Chester, where he was obliged to stay several days on account of contrary winds which prevented his embarking. He seized the opportunity to try over some of the choruses of Messiah with local church-singers, and Burney, who was at school at Chester, gives an amusing account of the little rehearsal, at which Handel was roused to grotesque fury by the inability of the bass, a printer by trade, to read "And with His stripes" at sight. On November 18 he arrived in Dublin, and opened his season at Neal's new music-hall in Fishamble Street on December 23 with a performance of L'Allegro, interspersed with concertos. A few days later he wrote a long letter to Jennens describing the unprecedented success which he had enjoyed. Dublin received him with open arms, and he thoroughly enjoyed his triumph, the more so as he felt himself to be in unusually good health.
A series of concerts followed, at which various oratorios and other works were performed. On April 8, 1742, there was a rehearsal of Messiah, open to those who had taken tickets for the first performance, which took place on Tuesday, April 13. The choir was provided by the singers from the two cathedrals, some of whom took the male solo parts as well; the female soloists were Mrs. Cibber and Signora Avolio. Over seven hundred persons were present, and about L400 was divided between the three charities, the Relief of Prisoners, Mercer's Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary.
Saul was performed on May 25, and a second performance of Messiah took place on June 3. Handel left Ireland on August 13. In another letter to Jennens he says that his plans for the winter are undecided; for "this time twelve-month" (i.e. September 1743) he intended to continue his oratorios in Ireland. For some reason or other this second visit to Ireland never took place.
It was not until February 17, 1743, that Handel came before the London public again with Samson, which, unlike most of his oratorios, had an immediate success. He had by this time dropped the Italian singers altogether, and depended mainly on Mrs. Cibber and John Beard, a tenor who had more sense of artistic style than power of voice. Mr. Flower says that his voice was more powerful than sweet; Horace Walpole, who heard him, said that he had only one note in it, and Mrs. Pendarves, whose judgment was probably more trustworthy, said that he had no voice at all. The first London performance of Messiah was given on March 23, but it had no more than two subsequent repetitions this season. There were many reasons why it should have fallen flat. Jennens himself was extremely dissatisfied with it. Israel had been a failure too, and it is extremely probable that musical people, accustomed to the Italian opera, were estranged by a setting of Bible words in prose instead of a libretto in verse laid out on more or less dramatic lines.
William Law's Serious Call had been published in 1729; the book makes frequent allusions to the frivolity of Italian opera, and opera-going is picked out as one of the chief characteristics of irreligious persons. In 1739 John Wesley first began to preach in the open air; in 1742 Edward Young's Night Thoughts achieved its extraordinary popularity. These three events were all significant of the religious movement that was taking place among the more cultured classes in England, and this movement undoubtedly affected Handel's oratorio concerts. The ultra-religious were shocked at the association of sacred subjects with the theatre; those who could combine religion with culture, like Mrs. Delany, who was now approaching the age of piety, were Handel's most earnest supporters. It is quite probable that the section of society which preferred its culture unmixed with religion resented the attitude of the second party even more than that of the first, because the second party belonged to their own social class, and this resentment may well have contributed to the ever-increasing hostility shown by many social leaders toward Handel. And Handel's personal oddities were becoming rapidly more acute, partly owing to increasing age, and still more owing to recurrences of paralysis and associated mental derangement. He had another attack in this very year—1743.
Messiah and Samson were composed at a more favourable moment, and show little use of borrowed material, except that Messiah incorporates some of Handel's own chamber duets, the melodies of which were more suitably illustrative of their original Italian words than of the sentences from Scripture to which he adapted them. But his next important work, the Te Deum in celebration of the victory at Dettingen (June 27), begun in July and performed on November 27, incorporates no less than nine movements from the Latin Te Deum by Urio already drawn upon for Israel in Egypt. Mrs. Delany "was all raptures," and thought it "excessively fine."
It is curious that, whereas the Dettingen Te Deum was largely based on borrowed material, Semele, composed in the previous month of June, should be, as far as is at present known, entirely original. The libretto had been written by Congreve in 1707 for an opera, and it was only natural that its theatrical sense and its literary grace and distinction should have inspired Handel to one of his loveliest works. Handel was never quite at home in the English language, but in his later years he seems to have developed a feeling for English poetry, more especially for that of approximately his own time. But Semele did not attract the opera audience; it became increasingly clear that the opera party would have nothing to do with Handel, and were in fact deliberately doing all they could to bring him to ruin. Mrs. Delany and a few other great ladies remained faithful, but they were in a small minority. It was evidently the younger generation who were in opposition; Mrs. Delany alludes to them as "the Goths—the fine ladies, the petits maitres and the ignoramuses," and seemed surprised that they allowed the oratorio to be performed without making a disturbance. Mrs. Delany was settling down to being the wife of a dean.
Joseph (March 2, 1744) fared no better, and Handel himself "was mightily out of humour about it" at the rehearsals. The summer was devoted to the composition of Belshazzar, for which Jennens had supplied the libretto. The collaboration was not altogether happy, for although Jennens had considerable sense of the picturesque, and offered Handel opportunities for what may be called spectacular music on the grand scale, his literary style was pompous, rhetorical, and long-winded. Handel protested perpetually against the length of the work, for the Handelian style of composition naturally extended the prolixity of the words; Jennens greatly resented the musician's criticism, and insisted on printing the poem in full.
When the winter came, Handel produced nothing of importance until January 5, when he brought out Hercules, a secular oratorio which he had composed in the summer during intervals when Belshazzar had to be laid aside owing to Jennens' delays. Belshazzar was given on March 27. Semele, Joseph, and Saul were revived, but, whatever oratorio was given, the theatre was almost empty, and the season came to a premature end on April 23. Handel was again suffering from some form of illness, and was unable to take any part in the performances, although he was present at them. Lady Shaftesbury describes "the great, though unhappy, Handel, dejected, wan and dark, sitting by, not playing on, the harpsichord," and adds that "his light had been spent in being overplied in music's cause." Hawkins states definitely that Handel became blind in 1751, and this date has been generally accepted; Lady Shaftesbury's letter suggests that he was already blind, or partially so, as early as March 1745, unless the word "light" is to be taken as meaning the light of his reason. This interpretation, in fact, is confirmed by a later letter of Lord Shaftesbury in October, in which he says: "Poor Handel looks something better. I hope he will entirely recover in due time, though he has been a good deal disordered in the head." Another friend of Handel's, William Harris, met him in London, in August, when he seems at first not to have recognised Harris and to have behaved with some oddity; "he talked much of his precarious state of health, yet he looks well enough."
It has generally been stated that in 1745 Handel again became bankrupt, but Barclay Squire pointed out that his name does not occur in the official lists of bankrupts. It must be remembered that, however disastrous his opera or oratorio seasons were, he had always his permanent pension of L600 a year to fall back on, and Hawkins states that this pension, originally granted by Queen Anne and George I, was punctually paid throughout his life.
From the end of August, London was in a panic over the Jacobite rebellion under the Young Pretender, Charles Edward. The Opera remained closed on account of the prejudice against the Papist Italian singers; at the other theatres patriotism expressed itself in appropriate music. Purcell's "Genius of England" was sung at one, Arne's recently composed "Rule, Britannia" at another, and on November 14 a "Chorus Song, set by Mr. Handel for the Gentlemen Volunteers of the City of London," was sung by Mr. Lowe at Drury Lane. The words suggest that the anonymous author was familiar with the Epilogue to Purcell's King Arthur; Handel's music is neither in his own style nor in Purcell's, but resembles the poorest sort of English patriotic song of the early eighteenth century. Patriotic poetry was well illustrated by an additional verse for "God Save the King" which was printed in this same month:
From France and Pretender Great Britain defend her, Foes let them fall; From foreign slavery, Priests and their knavery, And Popish Reverie, God save us all.
On December 6 the Pretender began his retreat from Derby, and panic was allayed. Handel seized the opportunity to compose and bring out his Occasional Oratorio, about half of which was taken from Israel in Egypt; it contains a well-known quotation of "Rule, Britannia," and the point of the quotation is made clearer when we know that it was one of the patriotic songs sung at the theatres during the period of panic.
The Duke of Cumberland's defeat of the Pretender at Culloden on April 16, 1746, finally disposed of the Jacobites, and Handel made a further contribution to the national rejoicings in "A Song on the Victory over the Rebels," which was printed in the London Magazine for July. The words were by John Lockman; the first and last verses are as follows:
_From scourging rebellion and baffling proud France, Crown'd with laurels behold British William advance: His triumph to grace and distinguish the day, The sun brighter shines and all nature's gay.
Ye warriors on whom we due honours bestow, O think on the source whence our late evils flow; Commanded by William, strike next at the Gaul, And fix those in chains would Britain enthral._
In the same month Handel began the composition of a new oratorio in honour of the Duke; this was Judas Maccabaeus, for which he had discovered a new librettist, the Rev. Thomas Morell, formerly Fellow of King's College, Cambridge. Morell has given a lively account of his collaboration with the great man, whom he did not fear to criticise. Handel's retorts to him have been reproduced as if they were outbursts of righteous indignation against a snarling poetaster, but, in view of many other records of Handel's rough tongue and genial humour (in which he seems often to have resembled Brahms), we need not take them too seriously. It is quite clear that Morell was more amused than offended, and the fact that they continued to collaborate up to the end of Handel's career as a composer shows that they must have remained on completely friendly terms.
Morell, to judge from the contemporary portrait of him, must have been a rather comic little figure with a strong sense of humour. He was a scholar, and something of a musician too. The academic primness of his verses has endeared him to all lovers of Handel, and to no one more than Samuel Butler; they are always admirably suited to their purpose, neat and scholarly, concise and direct, with never a word too many. They run easily for a singer, and it is not improbable that Morell was acquainted with the works of that great model of all opera-poets, Metastasio, for his words, like Metastasio's, acquire an unexpected beauty when they are sung.
Handel must have felt himself fully restored to health in the summer of 1746, for Judas, which was written in five weeks, contains no "borrowings," apart from a few numbers added some ten years later and adapted from some of his early Italian opera songs. It was not performed until April 1, 1747.
Judas Maccabaeus—Gluck—Thomas Morell—incipient blindness—Telemann and his garden—last oratorios—death—character and personality.
The new oratorio met with surprising success. In the first place, Handel had given up the subscription system, and opened the theatre to all comers. The relief produced by the victory of Culloden had no doubt encouraged the general public to spend more money on entertainments; the Duke of Cumberland was a popular hero, and, through the Occasional Oratorio, Handel's name had come to be associated with him. Judas was naturally patronised by the court and by the Duke himself, who had made a handsome present to Morell in recognition of his literary laurels. And a new class of enthusiasts appeared in the shape of the Jews, we are told, who were attracted by the glorification of a national hero of their own. We do not hear much of the Jewish community in London in the days of Handel, and it cannot have been a very large one, but they appear to have been worth Handel's consideration. It may be mentioned that Handel's early librettist in London, Nicolo Haym, must have been a Jew, to judge from his name. Handel, at any rate, was sufficiently impressed to ask Morell to find another Jewish subject for his next oratorio; this was Alexander Balus, produced the following year.
The Italian opera party had this year engaged Gluck as a composer, and he too celebrated the Duke of Cumberland's achievements with an opera, La Caduta dei Giganti (January 5), which was a complete failure. It must have been put together in a hurry, for all of the "favourite songs" in it, published by Walsh (and no other record of the music remains), were taken from earlier operas of Gluck's; in any case they are poor stuff, and from Burney's description of the singers it is no wonder that the opera had no success. Gluck called on Handel, who told someone that he knew no more of counterpoint than his cook. Gluck was just under thirty, Handel just over sixty, and one can understand Handel's attitude; in any case he gave him some plain and practical advice as to how to please an English audience, which was not much use to Gluck, as he never visited this country again. Handel was quite right in his criticism, for Gluck was always very clumsy in his technique; and, at any rate, Gluck found him friendly enough and spoke of him forty years later with the profoundest respect. It is probable that Gluck heard Judas, as he was still in London in April.
A significant indication of the new popularity which Handel had acquired was the production of a pasticcio, at the Italian Opera in November 1747, made up chiefly from the operas of Handel; but the experiment was not repeated. In the autumn of 1748 a company of Italian comic-opera singers came over to London; they brought an entirely new type of entertainment, and after their success Handelian opera was buried for ever.
Alexander Balus was not one of Handel's popular works; Joshua (March 23, 1748) is now pretty well forgotten, but was a great attraction when new, mainly because it contained "See the Conquering Hero," which was afterwards transferred to Judas Maccabaeus. "What the English like is something that they can beat time to," said Handel to Gluck. He agreed with Hawkins in not caring very much for it himself, but added, "you will live to see it a greater favourite with the people than my other fine things." Joshua contains two "borrowings," one from Handel's own opera Riccardo, and another from Gottlieb Muffat.
The productions of the next year (1749) were Susanna (February 10) and Solomon (March 17); it is not known who wrote their libretti, though Solomon has been tentatively ascribed to Morell. Susanna was remarkably successful, perhaps on account of its story, which has always been a favourite with the painters of the later Renaissance. One can understand Lady Shaftesbury's saying, "I believe it will not insinuate itself so much into my approbation as most of Handel's performances do, as it is in the light operatic style." Solomon was a complete contrast, with its magnificent scenes of oriental pageantry.
The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (October 1748) had no doubt contributed, as the victory of Culloden did, to make people more inclined to enjoy the pleasures of life, with beneficial results to the organisers of music and drama. The King ordered a grand celebration of the event to take place on April 27, 1749, and preparations for it were begun as early as the preceding November. The famous theatrical architect Servandoni was commissioned to design an elaborate entertainment of fireworks on a colossal scale to be let off in the Green Park, accompanied by the music of Handel. The Fireworks Music was scored for fifty-six wind instruments. A rehearsal of it (without fireworks) was held at Vauxhall Gardens a week before, at half a crown admission, and it is said to have been attended by a crowd of twelve thousand persons. At the actual performance the fireworks were a disastrous failure, owing to various accidents, but Handel's music, accompanied by the firing of ordnance, was the real event of the evening. A month later Handel repeated the music at the Foundling Hospital, along with selections from Solomon, and a new work, composed for the occasion, known as the Foundling Anthem. His next act of generosity was to present the hospital with an organ, which he inaugurated on May 1, 1750, with a performance of Messiah. Henceforth the performance of Messiah at the Foundling Hospital for the benefit of the institution became an annual event, and it was this charitable association which really secured the work its subsequent popularity.
Handel's next oratorio, Theodora (March 16, 1750), came out at a bad moment, for a series of earthquakes were being felt in London, with the result that many people took refuge in the country, and those who stayed behind were reluctant to go to the theatre. The blame for the neglect which has always overtaken Theodora has been very unjustly laid on Morell. Handel himself, remembering the successes of Judas and Susanna, observed to the poet, "The Jews will not come to it, because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come, because it is a virtuous one." Theodora was always Handel's favourite among his oratorios, and he considered the chorus, "He saw the Lovely Youth," to be far beyond anything in Messiah. None the less, the theatre was half empty when Theodora was given. "Never mind," said Handel, with grim humour, "the music will sound all the better."
An old acquaintance reappeared this year in London in the shape of Cuzzoni, who had continued her quarrelsome career at Venice, Vienna, and Stuttgart. An unsuccessful benefit concert was given for her, at which Giardini the violinist made his first appearance in London. Handel engaged her to sing in Messiah at the Foundling Hospital, but her voice was gone. She was arrested for debt and bailed out by the Prince of Wales; after a few years in Holland, where she was again in prison, she died in destitution at Bologna.
In the summer Handel went to Germany for the last time. Nothing is known of his movements there beyond the fact that on the journey out he met with a carriage accident between the Hague and Haarlem. He was seriously injured, but was stated in a London paper of August 21 to be out of danger. Nor is it known when he returned; we have no further news of him until in January he began work on Jephtha. Morell says that he himself wrote Jephtha in 1751, but, as Handel had completed the first act on February 2, it is probable that Morell, like Jennens, supplied him with the words in instalments.
The composition of the music suffered various interruptions owing to the failure of Handel's eyesight, and possibly to a return of mental disorder (Streatfeild). He was able to play the organ at the Foundling Hospital in May, and directly afterwards went for a short visit to Cheltenham, returning to London on June 13. He resumed work on Jephtha, and finished it on August 30. It was some time this year (the precise date is unknown) that he consulted Samuel Sharp, a surgeon of Guy's Hospital, who told him that he was suffering from gutta serena, and that freedom from pain in the visual organs was all that he had to hope for during the remainder of his days. It was a severe shock, especially to a man whose general physical and mental health was already undermined, and it is no wonder that Handel began to give way to periods of profound depression. The condition of Handel's eyes, and of his hand as well, may be clearly observed in the autograph of Jephtha, and it may be noted that here he again reverted to the process of "borrowing"—this time from five Masses by Habermann, a composer twenty years his junior, published in 1747.
It may well be asked how Handel acquired the original copies of all the works which he utilised in his later years, since it is obvious that they could not have been well known or easily available to musicians in England. A guess may be hazarded that he obtained them through his old friend Telemann at Hamburg. Telemann, it will be remembered, had been a close friend of Handel's during their student days at Halle; whether they met again in Germany after Handel had taken up his residence in London is not known, but it is quite probable. The fact remains that Handel was undoubtedly in friendly correspondence with Telemann in 1750, for in December of that year he wrote a long letter to him (in French) thanking him for a theoretical work. Telemann appears to have been a keen gardener, and had evidently asked Handel to send him some rare plants. Handel's reply suggests that he was not much interested in gardening himself, but was most anxious to do all he could to give Telemann pleasure.
Another letter (again in French) to Telemann, dated September 20, 1754, explains that Handel had set about procuring the plants when Captain Carsten of Hamburg, by whose ship he intended to send them, told him that Telemann was dead; but, after another voyage to Hamburg and back, Carsten brought the news that Telemann was alive and in good health. He also brought a list of the rare plants desired, and Handel writes to say that he has obtained almost all of them, and will send them by Captain Carsten when he sails for Hamburg again in December.
It is true that there is no mention of any parcel of music in these letters, beyond Telemann's "System of Intervals," but they suggest that they were part of a longer correspondence. Telemann was keenly interested in contemporary music, as his correspondence with Graun shows; he also seems to have asked Graun to send him plants from Berlin. He is the most likely person to have sent musical works of interest to Handel; possibly they were sent on loan, and returned after Handel had made the extracts which are to be seen in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge.
Jephtha was produced on February 26, 1752. Handel's oratorios had by now become a lucrative undertaking, and it was characteristic of English audiences that they came in crowds to see Handel playing the organ in his blindness, and enjoy the luxury of tears when Beard sang "Total Eclipse!" Sharp, the oculist, recommended Handel to employ as his assistant John Stanley, who had been blind from early childhood and was a singularly accomplished organist. Handel burst out laughing. "Mr. Sharp, have you never read' the Scriptures? Do you not remember? If the blind lead the blind, they both fall into the ditch."
He underwent various operations, but derived only partial benefit from them. During these last years he led a very retired life, but he continued to play the organ at his oratorios, at first from memory, and later extemporising the solos in his concertos, which were always an integral feature of his concerts. The profits of these were enormous, and when he died in 1759 he left investments to the extent of 20,000. Composition naturally became a more difficult matter after blindness set in, but new songs were added to many of the oratorios, and in 1758 he made a complete revision of his old Italian cantata, Il Trionfo del Tempo. Morell translated it into English, and seventeen new numbers were added. Some of these were new, but many were adapted from other works of Handel's, chiefly from Parnasso in Festa, and there are also borrowings from Lotti and Graun. Two choruses by Graun had already been utilised in the revision of the Italian version which Handel brought out in 1737.
All this time John Christopher Schmidt, now known as Smith, had been his indispensable factotum. Smith made fair copies of his music, and managed his affairs for him, though Handel, almost up to the end, seems to have discussed his investments in person with his financial adviser, Mr. Gael Morris, in the City. Smith's son, who had come with his father to London as a child, had been educated under Handel's direction, and in 1754 became the first organist of the Foundling Hospital. In Handel's later years it was the son who assisted him at the performances of the oratorios and acted as his musical amanuensis. There is a curious story of a quarrel which took place at Tunbridge Wells, about four years before Handel's death, between the two old men. The cause of it is not known, but it is stated to have been quite trivial; old Smith left Handel abruptly, and Handel vowed he would never see him again. The son attempted to heal the breach and even went so far as to say that he would refuse to assist Handel at his concerts any more unless Handel restored to his father the legacy which after the quarrel he had intended to leave to the son; young Smith foresaw that he himself would be accused of having deliberately alienated the affections of Handel from his father in order to secure the money for himself.
Handel apparently yielded to some extent, but it is clear that he was not reconciled to old Smith for a long time. "About three weeks before his death," we are told, in Coxe's Anecdotes of Handel and Smith, published soon after young Smith's death, "Handel desired Smith junior to receive the sacrament with him. Smith asked him how he could communicate, when he was not at peace with the world and especially when he was at enmity with his former friend, who, though he might have offended him once, had been faithful and affectionate to him for thirty years." Handel was much affected by Smith's words, and the reconciliation took place. Religion had gained a strong hold upon Handel in his years of suffering; he spoke much to Hawkins and others of his delight in setting the Scriptures to music, and he was a regular worshipper at St. George's, Hanover Square.
His last appearance in public was at the performance of Messiah on April 6, 1759, but at the end of it he was seized with a fainting attack, took to his bed, and died during the night between the 13th and 14th of April. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on the evening of the 10th; the choirs of the Chapel Royal and St. Paul's joined the Abbey choir in singing the burial music of Dr. Croft, and it is said that three thousand people were present.
Handel's will, executed June 1, 1750, left the bulk of his fortune to his niece and goddaughter Johanna Friderica Floerken (nee Michaelsen) of Gotha; other relatives were also left legacies. To Christopher Smith (junior) he left 500, besides his large harpsichord, his chamber organ, his portrait by Denner, and his manuscripts. He had at one time thought of leaving the manuscripts to the University of Oxford, and, having already promised them to Smith, offered him a legacy of L3,000 if he would resign all claim to them. Smith refused, and also refused an offer of L2,000 made for them, after Handel's death, by Frederick the Great. He kept them until 1772, when he presented them to George III in return for a pension of L200 a year. But he did not hand over the whole of the manuscripts to the King, and a large collection of rough sketches and fragments was acquired by Lord Fitzwilliam, who bequeathed them to the University of Cambridge.
The foregoing pages will have shown how singularly few are the definite facts about Handel's life which can be ascertained with any degree of certainty. There are a number of portraits which give some idea of his outward appearance, but most of them represent him as a man of middle age, and the anecdotes of his life and habits recorded by various contemporaries belong mostly to the same period. It is almost impossible to form any idea of his private character and his inward personality. Biographers of musicians often attempt to deduce their characters from their musical works, but it need hardly be said that such a procedure is thoroughly unreliable.
Portraits are notoriously unsafe as guides to the interpretation of character, but if the miniature reproduced by Mr. Flower as having been painted in Rome is an authentic likeness of Handel as a young man and it certainly bears some resemblance to the portrait by Denner painted about 1736 or 1737—he must have been singularly attractive in those days. It cannot have been his musical abilities alone that won him the immediate friendship of Telemann at Halle and Mattheson at Hamburg; and, although he seems from his earliest days to have been ambitious and determined to make a career for himself, his contemporaries give the impression that he was retiring rather than self-assertive. In later life he was often described as bearish and rough-mannered, but this cannot have been the case in his youth, or he would never have achieved the position which he held in the most cultured and distinguished society of Rome and Naples. His visit to Italy must inevitably have been a wonderful education in the humanities, otherwise he could never have been received as he was on his first visit to London by the society which most nearly resembled that of his Italian friends and patrons.
Professional musicians, and especially those connected with the theatre, were regarded in England as being more or less disreputable, unless they held university degrees and posts of distinction. Handel moved among them in his professional life, as was only natural, but his more intimate friendships seem, throughout his career, to have been confined mainly to the innermost circle of the well-bred amateurs; we must not forget, however, that it was only persons of that class whose letters and memoirs have come down to us. Burney and Hawkins at any rate were well acquainted with the professional world, and their testimony tends to confirm that Handel stood more or less aloof from it. It was only in later life that he associated on terms of friendship with such a person as Mrs. Cibber, the singer. In an age when all opera-houses were, with some truth, regarded as centres of sexual promiscuity, it is indeed remarkable that not the least evidence exists, with one solitary exception, that Handel was ever even alleged to have had an illicit love-affair. Mr. Flower discovered a copy of Mainwaring's biography, with marginal notes said to be in the handwriting of George III, and there we read: "G. F. Handel was ever honest, nay excessively polite, but like all Men of Sense would talk all, and hear none, and scorned the advice of any but the Woman he loved, but his Amours were rather of short duration, always within the pale of his own profession." The Anecdotes of Handel and Smith mention two occasions on which he was said to have become engaged to be married, or nearly so, but the writer is so reticent that little faith can be placed in his statement, and in any case the Anecdotes, published in 1799, are not very reliable as far as Handel is concerned.
It is not difficult to understand that there were two Handels, one "excessively polite" (which, in the language of the eighteenth century, does not mean that he was servile and cringing, but simply that he behaved like a man of good breeding), as he appeared to such people as Mrs. Delany and the Harris family, and the other as he showed himself at rehearsals, or in the society of men friends of more or less his own standing—bluntly outspoken and perhaps at times inconsiderate. The hostility of a large number of social leaders may well have been aroused in the first instance by some careless harsh word.
"The figure of Handel was large," says Burney, "and he was somewhat corpulent and unwieldy in his motions; but his countenance, which I remember as perfectly as that of any man I saw but yesterday, was full of fire and dignity; and such as impressed ideas of superiority and genius. He was impetuous, rough, and peremptory in his manners and conversation, but totally devoid of ill-nature or malevolence; indeed there was an original humour and pleasantry in his most lively sallies of anger or impatience, which, with his broken English, were extremely risible. His natural propensity to wit and humour, and happy manner of relating common occurrences in an uncommon way, enabled him to throw persons and things into very ridiculous attitudes. Handel's general look was somewhat heavy and sour, but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humour, beaming in his countenance, which I hardly ever saw in any other."
Both Burney and Hawkins record that outside his profession he was said to be ignorant and dull, and the fact that they are at pains to defend him on this charge shows that there was apparent ground for it. Pepusch said of him that he was "a good practical musician," which is what one might well expect of Pepusch, whose devotion to antiquarian learning aroused the amusement rather than the admiration of his contemporaries. Handel was at any rate keenly interested in painting, like Corelli, and the third codicil to his will, dated August 4, 1757, mentions two landscapes by Rembrandt, one a view of the Rhine, which he bequeathed to one of the Granvilles from whom he had received both as a gift.
Another characteristic of Handel's for which his early biographers are hard put to find an excuse was his enormous appetite for food and drink, satirised by his once intimate friend the painter Goupy in a well-known print called "The Charming Brute," in which Handel is represented with the head of a pig, seated at an organ, with various comestibles disposed at his feet. In this connexion it may be noted that for all his gluttony Handel was never accused of drunkenness; if he exceeded in the pleasures of the table, it was as a gourmet and a connoisseur. Yet it is recorded that he never led an extravagant life, and apart from this particular weakness he lived as simply in the days of his wealth as in those of his poverty. Generosity to those in distress was at all times characteristic of him.
Although Handel became a naturalised British subject, none of his contemporaries would ever have dreamed of regarding him as an Englishman, or as a composer of English music. Burney's account of the commemoration festival of 1784 may be regarded as an official panegyric, but even in that he goes no further than to say that Handel, "though not a native of England, spent the greatest part of his life in the service of its inhabitants, improving our taste, and introducing among us so many species of musical excellence, that, during more than half a century, while sentiment, not fashion, guided our applause, we neither wanted nor wished for any other standard. Indeed, his works were so long the models of perfection in this country, that they may be said to have formed our national taste." In the pages which deal with the character of Handel as a composer, he says that he united "the depth and elaborate contrivance of his own country with Italian elegance and facility." Handel's music, he holds, was from the first congenial to the English temperament, but he never regards it as being at all English in style, though in other writings he naturally recognises the occasional indebtedness of Handel to the influence of Purcell. It was only in the nineteenth century that Handel came to be regarded as a national institution. His own country for the most part neglected his works; his operas were thought impossible to revive, and the oratorios were considered by most Germans as being "too English"—an opinion which the writer of this book frequently heard expressed in Germany some fifty years ago. Since 1920 there has been an astonishing revival of Handel in Germany, beginning with the restoration to the stage of his operas—the last works of his which most people would have thought suitable for presentation to modern audiences—and much energy has been expended by German critics on an attempt to demonstrate the essentially Germanic character both of Handel's music and of his personality.