The Other Handel by David Wihowski, Part One 

George Frideric Handel; say the name and Messiah immediately comes to mind--it is as if Messiah were synonymous with its composer; and there is hardly a city large enough to have a community chorus that does not perform Messiah in some shape or form annually during the Christmas “season.”  But Handel was approximately as prolific in total output as his contemporary JS Bach. Messiah is perhaps Handel's single greatest composition, but he wrote many other fine, worthy works.  Perhaps you are straining your mind to think of some others and you recall: Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Coronation Anthems (Zadok the Priest has been performed at every British coronation since George II, for whose coronation it was composed). And now, perhaps, you strain your mind even more and... oh, yes, he wrote a bunch of operas, and weren't there other oratorios besides Messiah. Can you name any? I have posed similar questions to many of my non-professional musical friends and they usually hem and haw in response. Even some professionals do not get past just a few other compositions. 

Beethoven revered Handel greatly. Haydn's last eight great works for choir, soloists and orchestra (his last six masses, The Creation and The Seasons) probably would be entirely different and inferior had it not been for his exposure to Handel’s lasting effect on England during his stay in London. Mozart's Requiem may well have been different, had not Mozart been familiar with some of Handel's major works, including Messiah" Mendelssohn's great oratorios may not have occurred had not Handel elevated the humble oratorio to a musical status on par with the opera. Of course this is speculation, but it is also a fact that artists are not sui generis and the influence of others before them cannot be denied; those who are familiar these composers and their “post-Handel” compositions nearly always see a great number of his probable influences. 

You may counter by bringing up the criticism commonly leveled against him: Handel was a frequent musical plagiarist, as if that puts a great cloud over his otherwise original and prodigious output. This criticism is still prevalent among many amateur and professional musicians, and they still allow it to taint, even poison, their view of an otherwise great composer (this criticism still seems to carry a lot of weight for those who value “originality” and “artistic integrity”). However, the vast majority of composers from the late Baroque period (Domenico Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Telemann, et al.) used what many call the “parody” technique, in which parts of or entire compositions are loosely “based” on other works that were either written by themselves or other composers. This parody technique may be loosely compared to what is usually called “arranging” nowadays, as in so-and-so’s arrangement of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” And although musical plagiarism in a stronger form—copying entire melodies or even entire movements of works by other composers was not uncommon in his day, Handel may have been the most egregious, even to the point of being chided by a publisher. Perhaps a little history to assuage some of Handel's "guilt" (I have dual motives with the history: not just assuaging his guilt, but also giving a brief look into who he was).

Though rudimentary copyright laws were being established during his day, they had not been, in actuality, applied to musical compositions. Despite this “legal loophole,” there was still something of a gentlemen's agreement that if you obviously "borrowed" music from someone else, you at least gave them credit; Handel rarely gave credit to anyone for the things he "lifted," though few other composers gave credit for things they parodied—their less blatant version of “borrowing.” 

In a day when being a professional musician meant almost absolutely that you worked for a church or had a wealthy patron, Handel was in all likelihood the first successful "free agent." Although he was technically and continuously patronized by British monarchs from Anne through George II, the monarchs were relatively parsimonious, and Handel made his real money in the "public market." His patrons kindly allowed Handel the freedom to compose other works (than those requested by them) and also to perform them under his own management and for his own profit. Handel wrote and put on, under his management and direction, most of his forty-two operas and twenty-nine oratorios. Most were financially lucrative and allowed Handel to amass enough wealth so that he died with a substantial estate, unlike nearly any other composer before or after him, at least up to Mendelssohn, who was independently wealthy. 

In order for Handel to be so successful, he had to continually produce new works to satisfy the demands of his concert attenders. Some have criticized Handel as pandering to his “bourgeois” audience--as if pandering to a wealthy patron or demanding church somehow exempted the other composers of the period, or as if there were no true appreciators of great music in his audience; this point also seems to prejudice some of the highbrow connoisseurs of “fine” music. Handel lived in an age when professionally performed music was vastly more available to and demanded by the (wealthier) masses than any earlier era in the history of Western music. 

Handel was something of a strange sponge--he absorbed things quickly, but in his own way. He often spoke sentences which intermingled three or four of the languages in which he was fluent. Handel was born in Germany and there he learned much about counterpoint and the rudiments of Italian opera (at the time all the rage in Germany); his musical mentors there also exposed him to a great variety of styles. In his twenties, he moved to Italy for about three years and learned more of opera and the Italian style of composition for strings; he composed several operas and a number of other notable works while in Italy. His apparent skill and winsome nature earned him the epithet "Il caro Sassone" (the dear Saxon) while there. After a brief visit back to Germany, he moved to England at the ripe age of 27. England became his home for the rest of his life. 

It is entirely possible that at least some of his "borrowings," as the more gracious critics call them, were merely things he had absorbed so fully in his diverse and prolific musical "education" that he "reused" them without realizing they were written by someone else. Handel also borrowed from himself probably as frequently as he borrowed from others. Reusing one’s own previously composed material was relatively common in the Baroque Era; Bach's great Christmas Oratorio, for instance, is virtually all music Bach composed earlier for other purposes and reused in the oratorio. At the rate which Handel produced operas and later oratorios, he may have “had to” plagiarize (whether consciously or not) just to meet demand. At his peak, Handel was producing two or three major works per year, while also managing, directing and even selling tickets for the performances, not to mention composing the odd concerto, hymn or anthem, as well. 

4 Responses

  1. Charles L says:

    What a timely article — just last night I was listening to Patricia Petibon sing Handel, and the other day I was going through many of Sabine Devieilhe’s performances. The biggest criticism that I have heard of Handel’s music is that, while brilliant, it does not have great emotional depth. I believed that myself until a few weeks ago when I heard his Italian cantatas and his oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.

    I now believe that his most popular works, as good as they are, are nowhere near his best. He was a giant.

    Looking forward to Part Two.

  2. David Wihowski says:

    Charles L.: I believe Handel is a giant (which is why I chose to write about him). Most older music histories claimed that he and Bach were the two giants of the late Baroque (and they were fully aware of Handel’s borrowings). Many modern histories tend to give him short shrift or be somewhat dismissive. People of the “Ah, Bach” camp tend to see Handel as lightweight, and though he certainly was not the complete master of counterpoint (fugue, etc.) that Bach was, Handel has his own excellences that I think make him great in his own right.

  3. David Wihowski says:

    Charles L.: Thanks for mentioning Patricia Petibon. I had not heard of her, but she obviously has an appreciation for and sensitivity to the master: is a fine example of this.

  4. Patrick Kinnell says:

    For what it is worth, my ears tell me Handel deserves to be considered a giant. Borrow away I say. Thanks for this informative
    article Mr. Wilhowski, and I hope there will be many more to come.