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Handel’s music and milieu

20 February 2015

David Martin enjoys a life looked at through a different lens


George Frideric Handel: A life with friends
Ellen T. Harris
W. W. Norton £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

ALFRED BRENDEL recently referred to the "miraculous" change in our estimate of Handel: he is now seen as "equal in stature" to Bach, with a vocal imagination equal to that of Mozart and Schubert.

Ellen Harris contributed to that change with a study of Handel's chamber cantatas, mostly from his Italian period, 1706-09, when he produced significant works of startling freshness and vitality, very different from the tiny group of later oratorios loved by amateur choirs. It was these that had helped label Handel a religiose morale-booster who appealed to provincial amateurs rather than a cosmopolitan, and an opera composer whose music was sung by the finest European performers.

In her new book, Harris does not reach much further into Handel's private life than his chief biographers, including Jonathan Keates, Christopher Hogwood, and Donald Burrows, have done. Indeed there is little personal information about the composer which cannot be gleaned from assiduous searching in the Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia (2009) - for example, Handel's activities as the eyes and ears of his Hanoverian master, his extensive financial dealings, his remarkable charitable donations, and his art-collecting. Commenting on his sexuality, Harris lets go of her earlier speculations about the homoerotic milieux of his early life in Italy and London.

But, on the basis of the letters and other papers of his small group of friends, such as Mary Delany and the artist Lewis Goupy, Harris provides what she calls a "refractory" approach that tells us much about the ambience of Handel's world, especially the conventions of society and status that governed a choice of marriage partner. It is not difficult to work out why Handel, as a businessman with outsider status, never married. The range of her research here is prodigious in its coverage of contemporary issues, such as music in the domestic, or theatrical, or church, or court settings, and in law, commerce, and medicine.

The heart of the book concerns the governing themes of his music; and in Handel's penultimate masterpiece, Theodora, Harris discerns a shift from great issues of state and monarchical succession to more personal and cultural matters, such as freedom of conscience. She takes us through the political implications of the operas that have themes of the clash of passion with duty, the urge for revenge, and the claims of clemency. Harris also discusses the anti-deist position represented by Israel in Egypt and Messiah, by way of the theological and literary learning of Handel's collaborator, Charles Jennens.

The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the LSE, and non-stipendiary assistant priest at Guildford Cathedral.

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