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Handel in London: The making of a genius, by Jane Glover

30 November 2018

For this composer, London was a propitious adopted home, says Ronald Corp

I MIGHT quibble with the subtitle of this volume. You cannot “make” a genius; and, anyway, Handel was already a genius when he was writing such impressive pieces as Dixit Dominus in Italy before he came to London. But I see Jane Glover’s point: it was London that made him.

His activity as a composer and entrepreneur is riveting and exhausting. In London, he composed nearly 40 operas; occasional music for the royal family, including coronation anthems and a funeral ode, as well as the famous Water and Fireworks music; and more than 20 oratorios. These latter works particularly have held Handel’s name in the highest esteem from his day to ours.

Glover brings her years of experience as a conductor of his works to the task (she is Musical Director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, and she has conducted in many opera houses and concert halls throughout the world). She takes an academic approach to her subject, but balances it with a communicative and reader-friendly style of writing which makes the book a joy to read.

I admire Glover’s ability to elucidate the machinations of the court and political life, and to follow the rivalries between opera companies and opera composers. The brawling between singers whom Handel brought over from Italy is always an entertaining read, and there is a real sense of Handel’s diplomatic patience as well as his bullishness in dealing with his vocal divas (of both sexes).

Wikimedia commonsAnna Maria Strada del Pò, the loyal soprano who, trained by Handel, sang 31 of his roles in just nine years. A portrait, c.1732, by John Verelst, From Handel in London

The chronological approach allows Glover to give us a musical account of Handel’s works in order of composition, besides providing a fulsome picture of musical life in London. Opera in Italian in the capital eventually fell out of fashion, and Handel, always seizing the main chance, turned to unstaged works in the vernacular, creating the English oratorio, of which Messiah is the most famous.

Handel’s personal and private life remain an enigma, but Glover gives us as rounded a portrait of the composer as is possible, and an accomplished account of his nearly 50 years in London.

The Revd Ronald Corp is a composer and conductor, and an assistant priest at St Alban’s, Holborn, in London.

Handel in London: The making of a genius
Jane Glover
Macmillan £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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