Handel, by Christopher Hogwood
Handel makes an interesting case in the tension that exists between a composer and his works. On the one hand, Handel has had a good reputation largely because of the strength of his works that has served, especially his oratorios (which have always appealed to a wide audience because they could be sung by amateur musicians like myself) as well as his Water Music. On the other hand, his dissolute lifestyle and his tendency to get involved in foolish disputes (like the rivalry he had with a noble-supported opera company), his affairs with singers, and his plagiarism and the controversial use of biblical material in his oratorios attracted a high degree of criticism from pious Englishmen in his own time and have also led to criticism of him in our own time. Handel is clearly a major composer but he is equally clearly someone whose life and musical approach had some difficulties, and the sheer amount of plagiarism and self-plagiarism to be found here as Handel sought to share the same sort of scraps and pastiches over and over again is somewhat distressing to read as it takes up a large amount of this work, because the author is interested in this matter.
This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into six large chapters. The book begins with a map and a preface. After that the author talks about Handel’s youth and education in Halle and Hamburg (1) as well as his Italian years (2) that provided him his basic approach to composition in the way that he learned how to copy himself and others in the rapid writing of not particularly original operas at a massive amount to meet the demand that Italians had in it. After that the author spends three chapters discussing the rest of Handel’s life as a composer in London and Great Britain as a whole thanks to the patronage of the Hanoverians. First, the author discusses Handel’s time in London during the heyday of opera there from 1710-1729, where there is a discussion of every opera he wrote during the period and his business dealings and personal affairs (4). After that there is a discussion of the decline of opera where Handel engaged in a ruinous feud that harmed his reputation and income (5) and health even. Finally, the author discusses the way that oratorios provided for success as well as a lasting reputation (6), which leads naturally to a look at Handel and posterity with his death and his postlife reputation (7), which is then followed by a chronological table, select bibliography, list of illustrations and index.
How one will enjoy and appreciate a work like this depends in large part on what the reader of this work is really interested in. As a reader, I happen to be interested in Handel’s music, but not to the extent that I care about him as a businessman trying to run an opera company. Nor does the author’s interest in pastiches strike me as the best way of showcasing Handel’s creativity as a composer. Indeed, the author’s discussion of Handel’s behavior, which would be precisely what was expected of the Italian opera composers of his time, does not follow the sensibilities that contemporary music listeners have about the creativity of composers. This is a work that rushes through the creation of the Messiah and other works that the reader is likely to be interested in and spends a huge amount of time discussing Handel’s relationship with the Hanoverian dynasty. Some people will appreciate this but others will not because at least for this reader, the work emphasized those elements of Handel’s life and art that I was least interested in and de-emphasized those aspects I was most interested in, and that is a great shame.