Friday, 18 December 2009

Handel and the Semi-Welshman

You could click on this link and visit the Half Blood Welshman's blog to read the original version of the latest wonderful instalment in his series on some of the great composers, or you could just read the stolen stuff, conveniently copied below. That's up to you. The reason why I've been so brazen in pirating, plagiarising and purloining the excellent post is that Handel is one of my three favourite music geniuses.

I really hope the HBW doesn't sue me. (Not that I really mind, er, mind ;)

The excellent article:
George Friedrich/George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759)
Coming to the end of our time with the four great 09/59 composers, we come to arguably the greatest of them all, and certainly the most enduringly popular. Also, perhaps, the one who should not be bounded by national labels, being instead a true cosmopolitan - born in Magdeburg, trained in Florence and Venice, who from the age of 27 lived in London, spending much time in Dublin.

Among French musicians at the turn of the twentieth century, it was a standing joke that the English had only ever had one great composer, and they managed that by stealing him from the Germans. Yet that is a gross over-simplification of the role of Handel in music, particularly English language music. Although there was a tradition of English opera, oratorio and popular song established by Purcell, it was the music crafted by Handel - opera, but most of all oratorio - that carried it forward.

He also of course became involved in a very important English institution that was gradually extending itself into Scotland and therefore becoming British as well - the monarchy. In 1727 he was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation of George II. By all accounts the coronation was rather chaotic, but the anthems stuck - all four remain readily available in print, and no. 3 especially, "The King Shall Rejoice", is a joy to perform. It's always rather overshadowed, however, by no. 1 - generally called "Zadok the Priest" after its opening line. So far has this slipped into the idea of the British monarchy - the British nation - that it is performed at every coronation, receiving its last outing for this purpose in 1953. Truly a remarkable achievement, even if I prefer the others musically.

Details of his life are at once crowded and sketchy. His chronology is readily available, but little is known about his home life, or the reason he never married. Despite frequent financial crises caused by ill-advised ventures into opera management, or poor compositions (all composers produce a fair share of stinkers if they write any volume at all) he died worth £20,000, worth certainly many millions in today's terms (there is no precise way of calculating worth from that time to this, given the variables involved). Most of this went to his niece, who had remained in Germany - it is doubtful that he knew her well.

In his music, he left all of us a much greater legacy. His operas fell into obscurity post mortem, but have recently enjoyed a modest revival. That is nothing, however, compared to the oratorios - popular at the time, and popular ever since. That said, most people just know the edited highlights of most of them. Anyone who has ever been to an Easter Day church service will surely have sung "Thine Be the Glory" - the tune, known as "Judas Maccabeus," was originally set to "See The Conquering Hero Comes," written first for Joshua and then added to Judas Maccabeus. Who has not heard the wonderful number "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba," from Solomon and Sheba, with its wonderful, flowing theme importing the grandeur of the occasion? I recommend it to all of my friends who get married as a processional piece - far better than Wagner's "Treulich Gef├╝rht." For myself, I have always had a definite soft spot for the Solemn March from Joshua - I play it at Remembrance Day services, and at funerals where appropriate. It was originally written to measure the tramp of the Children of Israel as they marched around the Walls of Jericho, before the trumpets laid them flat in ruin.

In the majority of his oratorios Handel created essentially an opera without the actions - a strong narrative, with almost enough for a staging of it as an opera. This is the classic format for an oratorio (Elijah being another good example). But in one, he broke that mould, and created a classic that remains perhaps the most performed work in all English music. I speak, of course, of Messiah.

Messiah is, despite the title, very little concerned with the life and teachings of Jesus. Instead, it draws heavily on the prophecies of the Old Testament (especially Isaiah) and creates an interpretation of who He was, what He means, and what will come to pass, exploring the themes of the virgin birth, the Crucifixion and Resurrection - then continuing to show what that will mean at the Day of Judgement. Handel is said to have written the music in just 24 days - admittedly drawing massively on his earlier works for inspiration, but setting everything anew, painting the words with the music, and creating a work that nobody who calls themselves a singer should pass up a chance of singing.

Originally purely secular and written for theatre, in the 19th century it became a staple of the church choir. With their decline since the 1960s, it continues to thrive as a popular number for choral societies. And of course, it is a much-performed work for charities, as a "come and sing" event - especially at the Albert Hall, where hundreds come to sing it every year. Handel's most popular work abounds with choruses - most famously, but not by any means most brilliantly, the Hallelujah Chorus. It is a measure of the work's quality that I at least consider that one of the weaker choruses. Handel gave us a genuine masterwork, one that I have no doubt will be performed as long as there are 50 people in four parts to sing it with an organist (or better yet, an orchestra) to play along.

Therefore it may come as a surprise that I am closing, not with a piece from Messiah, but from Samson. I have a soft spot for both Joshua and Samson, the more so because I have never yet had a chance to perform either. Given the variety and quality of Handel's output, some very fine stuff tends to get overshadowed. Here, at the end of Act Two, the Israelites and the Philistines are quarrelling over who out of Jehovah and Dagon are "fixed in his everlasting seat" hence the continual echoes. Maybe one day I'll have a chance to perform it myself!

But do not despair if you love Messiah! I have three more posts to come on this blog, and the last, the very last, will close with a little something from it. It feels like the right way to go out. Next week then: on Tuesday, the Welsh Blogosphere and blogging more generally: on Wednesday, the posts I personally liked best out of the 297 I have done so far: and on Thursday - well, a little something to finish. In the meanwhile, I give you Samson.

Fantastic. But just in case that's a bit too expert for you (it is for me), and just in case you still doubt him (or me), here's a truly remarkable performance of part of his Royal Fireworks. If any more evidence were really needed of the depth of this utterly gifted musical revolutionary's talent, then this must be it. His music is still extraordinary, in the true sense of the term.

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