Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel – Richard Wistreich
by John Mainwaring
edited and directed by Bernhard Trebuch
read by Richard Wistreich
The first major biography of a composer
What moved John Mainwaring (1724 – 1807) to publish his biography of George Frederic Handel anonymously? Little did the author know, when his small octavo volume entitled Memoirs of the Life of the late George Frederic Handel appeared in 1760 in London, that it was the first western biography of a musician ever to be published.
Let us assume that the young theologian was simply modest, unwilling to boast about the several years of meticulous fact-collecting and conversations with the composer himself, his companions, friends and rivals, which enabled him to put together a compendium upon which much Handel research is based even today.
Admittedly, Mainwaring leaves many gaps; there is all too little personal detail in this first biography, so that we are left in the dark about much of the private life of the great musician. Today we may speculate about the sexual nature, the soft skills or psychological configuration of Halle’s most important son; the Memoirs are of no great help. They portray a full-blooded musician who pursued his passion up until his dying breath without any regard for his own health.
It would be churlish to criticise Mainwaring for historical misrepresentation, more than two hundred and fifty years after Handel’s death, simply because unimportant corrections can be made here and there today. Headstrong, ambitious, fearless, an artist with business acumen, a man who enjoyed taking risks – this is the portrait of the Saxon giant in Rome, London or taking the waters in Aachen. A workaholic, a gourmet addicted to immoderate culinary enjoyment that Mainwaring felt obliged to defend – such is the image of Handel we may derive from the Englishman’s writings. At the same time, his biography fulfils both literary and musicological demands in its description of a life and its commentary on the works; a treasure in the genre of the 18th century memoir and still a welcome vademecum for every Handel lover today.