By John Andrews
How fluent was Handel in the language of his adopted homeland? To answer that question, listen to his dramatic works in English. The composer's Acis and Galatea opens at New York City Opera on April 16.
George Frideric Handel lived and worked in London for the last forty-nine years of his life. He became an English subject in 1727 and outshone all his rivals to become first a national institution, and then a treasure of the English-speaking world, best known for the Coronation Anthems and Messiah. And yet it was his mastery of Italian opera that brought Handel to England, and it was his flexibility and imagination as a businessman as much as his instincts as a composer which eventually led him to write music in English.
Handel was a consummate entrepreneur and innovator, and his journey into English-language works is the story of the challenges and rivalries of London musical life. Handel had already conquered Italy when his first opera for London, Rinaldo, became an astonishing success. Devoting himself to opera, over the next 20 years he produced some of the greatest works of the 18th-century stage, including Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda. During this period, his only excursions into English came from necessities of circumstance. Firstly, when opera seemed too expensive to produce (and his theater manager absconded with the receipts), Handel accepted a post with the Duke of Chandos. This retreat introduced him to a circle of gifted poets and he composed the private entertainments Esther and Acis and Galatea, on their English librettos. His second diversion from opera then came in 1727, with the Coronation of King George II. This gave him the opportunity to write a work of genuine mass popularity: the Coronation Anthems.
However, Handel continued to see himself as an opera composer, and after the collapse of the Royal Academy (the company which produced operas in London), Handel and its manager, Heidegger, went into business on their own. By 1732 they faced fresh challenges. A rival opera company, the 'Opera of the Nobility', was formed, expressly to break Handel's dominant position. When, that February, Bernard Gates organized a private birthday performance of the oratorio Esther, Handel did not immediately appreciate its commercial possibilities. For once, others did, and pirate productions quickly appeared of both Esther and Acis. That December, Henry Carey organized a season of English-language operas, and the impresario Aaron Hill wrote an open letter to Handel begging him to deliver audiences from their 'Italian bondage' and show that English was suitable for singing.
Challenged from two sides, Handel responded to the pirate productions by producing expanded versions of both works. Then he presented a season of unstaged English-language works at Oxford, where he had been invited to receive a doctorate (adding Athalia and Deborah to Acis and Esther). Here Handel discovered a crucial commercial weapon against the rival opera companies. With no sets, costumes, props, and English singers (not superstar Italians) who didn't need to learn the parts from memory, he could produce an evening's entertainment which appealed to a wider audience, but at a much lower cost. Capitalizing on the popularity of his choral movements (largely absent from Italian opera), he introduced these into his English works, which more than compensated audiences for the loss of scenery.
By the late 1730s, fashion was turning against Italian operas. While Handel clearly had no intention of abandoning operas completely, by mixing them with the cheaper English oratorios he could produce a season which was much more economical overall. He finally drove the Opera of the Nobility out of business in 1737. The success of Carey and Lampe's hilarious satire on Italian opera, The Dragon of Wantley (which Handel enjoyed hugely) illustrated how bored the public was of operas they couldn't understand. The death of Queen Caroline allowed Handel to compose another popular large-scale public work in the manner of his Coronation Anthems. The funeral anthem, The Ways of Zion Ddo Mourn, then became the beginning of Israel in Egypt, and from the years 1736-40 also come the English masterpieces Alexander's Feast, Saul, and L'Allegro. Handel continued to write Italian operas, but the last three (Serse, Imeneo, and Deidamia) were all financially disastrous. He finally abandoned the genre completely in 1741.
Musical politics also intervened again, challenging Handel to further innovation. In 1741 the Duke of Middlesex set up an opera company in explicit rivalry with Handel. Once again Handel responded by leaving London, accepting an offer to go to Dublin. In an astonishing feat of energy he composed Messiah and Samson in just three weeks each. His concert series was such a success that it was immediately followed by a second. This time, all of the performances were unstaged, and this finally convinced Handel that this was a viable business model. On his return he used it to devastating effect against his rivals:
Handel has set up an Oratorio against the Operas, and succeeds. He has hired all the goddesses from farces and the singers of Roast Beef from between the acts at both theaters [i.e. Theater musicians, not opera singers], with a man with one note in his voice, and a girl without ever an one; and so they sing, and make brave hallelujahs; and the good company encore the recitative, if it happens to have an cadence like what they call a tune (Horace Walpole, 1743).
'Theatrical' (including operatic) performances were banned during much of Lent. But without staging, Handel could circumvent this. This meant that he could perform at a time when there were no rival operas and also when the theaters were cheaper to hire. Now in rivalry with the Middlesex company, Handel turned his innovations around again and wrote several works (Semele, Hercules, Susannah, and Alexander Balus) which, though English and unstaged, rivaled the operas in their plot, characters, and vocal virtuosity. Such was their success that Handel could now persuade Italian singers to sing in English. They also had spectacular choruses (which could be as complicated as Handel liked since they didn't need to be memorized). And in the absence of a set, Handel produced some of his most vivid descriptive music. Finally Handel was able to cast theater trained actor-singers, who engaged the audience in their own language. Anti-Italian feeling was strengthened by the threat of a Jacobite invasion (which materialized in 1745). Hearing a Handel oratorio performance in English thus became a patriotic act. With few exceptions, the English-language Lenten season was to serve Handel well for the rest of his performing life, and in a delightful irony of fate, Acis, written initially only for private performance, would be one of his best sellers.
The question naturally arises, how fluent was Handel in the language of his adopted homeland? Unquestionably he was an accomplished linguist, and would doubtless have spoken Italian to his singers, and French or German at court. Personal correspondence from him survives in all three languages, and surviving anecdotes about him suggest a man comfortable in English, but retaining a strong German accent, and liable to lapse into one of a handful of other languages under stress:
Having one day some words with CUZZONI on her refusing to sing Falsa imagine in OTTONE; Oh! Madame (said he) je scais [sic.] bien que Vous êtes une véritable Diablesse: mais je Vous ferai sçavoir, moi, que je suis Beelzebub le Chéf des Diables. With this he took her up by the waist, and, if she made any more words, swore that he would fling her out of the window.
Or on another occasion:
A time was fixed for this private rehearsal at the Golden Falcon, where Handel was quartered; but, alas! on trial of the chorus in the Messiah, 'And with his stripes we are healed,' poor Janson, after repeated attempts, failed so egregiously, that Handel let loose his great bear upon him; and after swearing in four or five languages, cried out in broken English,
In fact, contrary to Burney's own description, Handel's English here is not broken at all--it is merely heavily accented. Of course his vocabulary was sometimes stretched by his librettists:
I heard him [Morell--one of Handel's librettists] say that one fine summer morning he was roused out of bed at five o'clock by Handel, who came in his carriage a short distance from London... When the doctor asked him what he wanted, he said,
This Handel said, and then bade his coachman return, without addressing another word to the doctor.
But this suggests that he knew his limitations, and did not let them stop him from taking real care over every last word. It also serves as a reminder that Handel may well have been drawn to English because of his working relationship with librettists. Handel's greatest and happiest Italian operas had been composed on libretti by Nicola Haym. A professional cellist, Haym's lack of poetic pretension and his sensitivity to the needs of musical drama made him a far better companion for Handel than the other Italian literati, and Haym's death in 1729 deprived Handel of one of his closest colleagues. Handel's English works are by no means uniform in the quality of their words, but Handel clearly enjoyed good working relationships with several of his English librettists, in particular Charles Jennens, Newburgh Hamilton, and Thomas Morrell (the latter two included in his will). Hamilton provided masterly adaptations from Milton and Dryden, two undisputed giants of English literature, while Jennens selected and arranged from the King James Bible the words for Messiah.
Even an early work like Acis shows an amazing fluency, but surviving correspondence between Handel and Charles Jennens nearly thirty years later suggests that the composer was often ready to take advice on prosody from his librettists if he respected them, and the team assembled round him on Acis (which included Alexander Pope) would have awed even the indomitable Handel. Moreover, Handel was given to composing almost ahead of his librettists. Handel famously demanded that Thomas Morrell change his iambic verse to fit the music that he was composing:
Handel: "Damn your iambics!"
On another occasion, Handel was so far ahead of his librettist that he demanded words for a chorus already underway ('Fallen is the Foe' in Judas Maccabaeus). A close examination of some of Handel's manuscripts also shows that on occasion, librettists would adapt the text once it had been set if Handel's setting ran against the rhythm of the poetry. For instance "No, no, I'll take no less" in Semele had its words completely rewritten after Handel had set it, to reaccommodate it to his music. While the evidence for Handel's working methods is too scanty to pronounce with any certainty on the respective contributions of composer and librettist, the musical and theatrical results speak for themselves. Handel's ability to capture not only the poetic surface of a text, but also the recesses of underlying meaning is second to none. His music not only fits the text like a glove, but often elevates and deepens the meaning and characterization. For proof of this, consider how difficult it is to read the texts set in Messiah without hearing (and lapsing into) Handel's music, or indeed how hard it is to sing the superficially happy music of "The Flocks shall leave the mountains" from Acis without a rising sense of unease--even before Polyphemus' entrance. As Beethoven said: "He is the master of us all".
John Andrews, a British conductor and musicologist, is currently completing a Ph.D. on the social, political and religious context of Handel's Semele. This summer, he will conduct Handel's Riccardo Primo for Opera de Baugé.
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