George Frederick Handel on Music & Love
in conversation with fra bernardo
A glance at ensemble concert plans, opera and festival programmes or recording catalogues shows that George Frederick Handel’s music enjoys enormous and unwavering popularity today.
Even during his lifetime, Handel’s works could be heard on the continent as well as in his adoptive country. Following a roaring success as “Caro Sassone” among the Italians his fame spread like wildfire throughout Europe before the composer finally settled among the British in London.
Just surveying the vast extent of your music raises the question of how it was physically possible for you to cover so many sheets of manuscript paper.
Although as you know I suffered several periods of severe illness, I’m basically both a morning and evening person. I’ve reduced my need for sleep to about four hours. Music interested me from childhood on. Apart from composing I was always passionate about reading through pieces by other composers. That’s why you can find me among the subscribers to Telemann’s “Musique de Table”. I’ve used every available minute to write.
As researchers have found out, you also copied a lot from others.
How strange that they discovered that particular aspect. It’s true, but so what? Take my Jephta (1) from 1751 for example. About a dozen numbers come originally from masses by the Czech composer Frantisek Vaclav Habermann, published in part books in 1747 in Graslitz. My loyal assistant John Christopher Smith prepared me scores of these masses so that I could play through them on the harpsichord. The music appealed to me straight away, expressing just what I wanted. By the way, one of my favourite airs comes from Jephta: “Waft her, angels” often reduced me to tears. But to come back to this so-called “copying”. I have the feeling that far too much theorizing goes on in your day and age. The explanation for my borrowing of musical ideas, often from myself but also from colleagues, is quite simple and has to do with my working method. Why shouldn’t I recycle successful means of expressing emotions? I don’t see the problem. There could well be some problems today with copyright issues, but all that gets equalled out by the various internet exchange platforms anyway.
Your operas have become increasingly popular on the international music scene recently. How do you explain that and what does it mean to you as a former opera director?
My works have always been performed. There’s an unbroken tradition, something you can’t say for my colleague Bach and many others. Just think of the pasticcio oratorios that were put together from my works in London immediately after my death or the arrangements by Mozart, Mendelssohn or Moscheles.
As for music theatre, the libretti I chose to set are timeless. Of course, today’s audiences long for new operas more and more because the monotony of the standard repertoire can only be pepped up with crazy productions. That’s a fundamental difference to my time. Production and staging were hardly mentioned then; nowadays apparently it’s first and foremost the production that’s considered worthy of reviewing.
Talking of differences, there’s something I’d like to get off my chest, if you don’t mind. I often get annoyed by modern productions of my operas because they go completely against my intentions. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. In my situation I knew exactly which singers were available for a particular production and tailored my music to suit them. Nowadays people search desperately for singers to suit my music. In my day, if the cast changed for a revival, I’d scrupulously transpose or even re-write entire arias to suit the particular vocalists. People are far too literal now and don’t dare transpose an aria up or down a tone for the sake of the singer or the music.
In that case, dear maestro, you must have liked Sir Thomas Beecham’s performances and recordings of your oratorios!
Musical performances should always be considered in their historical context. To be honest, although I’m not a great fan of full-bodied panoramic sound (2) I have to admit that Beecham got it right. It would be inappropriate to trim a traditional orchestra down to the lean, vibrato-free sound of an historical instrument ensemble. Just as trying to imitate a harpsichord on a modern piano makes no sense. Beecham’s arrangements are very intelligently done, comparable to Mozart’s.
How would you describe the social situation of your musicians? Was there anything like an amicable relationship?
You’ve no idea what great fun we had playing together. I’m just thinking of bits like the Giulio Cesare sinfonia with those repetitive wave-like figures in the bass (3), “Happy we” in Acis, the jealousy chorus in Hercules or the Water Music.
I used to invite some of my players to dine with me – including the soloists of course, with whom I even rehearsed at home – and we’d often discuss various political matters, books like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (4) or a visit to Isaac Newton’s house, which was even equipped with a small observatory. Although I felt a first among equals, I was more like an absolutist ruler and I’m afraid I could be pretty nasty to my fellow musicians sometimes, particularly the singers.
Apropos nasty: I’m sure you’re familiar with some of the performances of your music today. Are there things to criticise there?
Once again, performances should always be considered in the context of the time in which they took or take place. Inevitably, my main criticism concerns the singers. I’m afraid I’m not exaggerating in saying that often you only hear an unarticulated stream of vowels. Only a few of today’s singers are sufficiently aware that just by declaiming a text you get a kind of rhythm. Speech is a sort of music in itself after all. If you don’t have that kind of awareness you’ll never be able to deliver a recitative convincingly. Or do you often get goose bumps from the recitatives you hear in the opera house?
Generally there’s far too little attention paid to shaping the bass line in your times. There’s only one group in Vienna with a conductor (5) who’s aware of the fundamental power of the bass to propel music forwards. When phrasing and contour is missing in the bass, then the drive, as you would probably say nowadays, is missing too. Music today is often churned out far too routinely.
Today we often think and talk about whether to experience music…
No, definitely not. I know what you wanted to ask. You don’t have to be able to read music or to have a musical training, to know biographical details about the genesis of a piece or know about the composer’s mental state in order to feel the power of music. If I had only addressed myself to musical intellectuals, I wouldn’t have been able to leave my nephew a considerable sum of money. Music is something transcendental, it can’t be rationalised. That’s why it’s completely irrelevant how much of Jephta is really by me. The emotions are the main thing, it’s important that music moves you. It’s the feelings that count most in being human. At least for me.
So for you music is the language in which you express your feelings. Is love important to you? We don’t actually know anything about your private life.
Maybe you’ll think I’ve gone mad now, because I believe that any answer would be completely irrelevant for you and your dear listeners. You can only experience emotions if you have or have had them yourself. I mean, when a cinema audience cries during a sentimental scene, it’s because it can feel something. Which means, logically, that it has experienced something…in other words, whether I loved or was loved is of no interest today. I’d prefer to leave the answer to your imagination. Only one thing: without love, without having loved or been desired, I would never have been able to write the arias “Lascia ch’io pianga” or “Cara sposa”, let alone live.
(1) By this time Handel was already struggling with failing eyesight.
(2) Sir Thomas Beecham (1879–1961) partly re-orchestrated Handel oratorios and performed them with a large orchestra and vocal forces
(3) in the fugal part of the overture
(4) first published by Taylor in London in 1719
(5) probably referring to Concentus Musicus Wien and its director Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929–2016)