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  • Graham Abbott

Handel's Borrowings: From Himself

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

Today’s post is the second of two in which we’re looking at an aspect of Handel’s music which has caused consternation in the minds of music lovers and musicologists over the years, namely, his practice of re-using existing material. Yesterday we looked at Handel’s re-use of music by other composers, a practice regarded in earlier times as a compliment to the source, rather than an act of theft or dishonesty. The English composer William Boyce is supposed to have said that Handel took other men’s pebbles and polished them into diamonds.


Today I want to look at another aspect of Handel’s borrowing, one that he practised for virtually all his composing life. This is his occasional re-use of his own material; that is, borrowing from himself. Like the use of other composers’ ideas, this was not restricted to Handel. One need only look to JS Bach to see that he too re-used and adapted earlier works for different circumstances. Most of the Christmas Oratorio, for example, is made up of music arranged from Bach’s earlier cantatas, as are large parts of the B minor Mass, and many of his instrumental concertos were “re-purposed”. Rossini used the same overture for three different operas, the last being The Barber of Seville. There are countless examples. In a world before recording where music was often heard only once or twice, and where composers worked by hand and often to crushing deadlines, the re-use of earlier material was a way to make sure good music was heard by a larger audience.


However in Handel’s case the practice is raised to a fine art, not that huge amounts of his music weren’t new when he produced new works. It’s just that there are clear and obvious references in some of his later works to music written earlier - sometimes decades earlier - which provide a fascinating insight into his working methods, and his ability to refashion his own pebbles into new gemstones.


George Frideric Handel (The "Chandos" portrait, c. 1720)

From late 1706 to early 1710, Handel, then in his early 20s, was in Italy. He'd had some experience in the world of German opera having worked in Hamburg, but he set off to Italy "on his own bottom" to study vocal music - and particularly opera - at its heart. The young Saxon made a huge impression and one of the amazing fruits of his Italian years is a set of Latin church works composed in mid-1707. These comprise three psalm settings, some smaller antiphons and two motets for soprano and orchestra. These are all virtuoso works, the most famous of which is the psalm Dixit Dominus. [listen] Oddly, we don’t know for sure why they were written. It seems almost certain, though, that Handel was commissioned to write at least some of these works for the annual celebration of Vespers on the Feast of Our Lady of Carmel, which was celebrated each year on 16 July at the church of S Maria di Monte Santo in Rome.


Regardless of the occasion, Handel would have been keenly aware that this music was written for a single performance, and throughout his later life he went through periods where he obviously remembered this music with great fondness, even though his style had changed dramatically in the interim.


Handel’s later career shows that he never forgot his Roman church music. Take, for example, the opening of the famous Air from the Water Music, composed in London in 1717. [listen]


The opening motif of this piece is clearly a reworking of the opening of one of the Roman church works from ten years before, the Antiphon Haec est regina virginum. [listen]


This is the sort of self-borrowing which fascinates Handel enthusiasts like me. It’s not that the later work is simply an entire movement relocated, as one usually finds in Bach. Most of Handel’s borrowings are examples of him taking an identical - or very similar - starting point but using it to go in a very different direction.


Let’s look at another of the psalms from 1707, a setting of Laudate pueri. Scored for solo soprano, choir and orchestra, this work resurfaced in Handel’s consciousness not ten years later, but forty years later, when he was writing the oratorio Joshua. Throughout the later work there are moments where Handel clearly references the earlier work, which his London audiences of course would never have heard.


For example, in the psalm there is this movement. [listen]


That was 1707. Now four decades later, in 1747, Handel used the opening melody of that movement to chart a totally different course for the chorus which closes the first act of Joshua. [listen]


There are more links between the psalm and Joshua, and this one even connects a similarity in text. The final movement of the psalm sets the text “Gloria patri…” (Glory be to the Father…). It juxtaposes, as so much of Handel’s Italian music does, a solo voice and a solo oboe with extravagant coloratura. [listen]


In Joshua Handel sets the tremendous scene of the destruction of the walls of Jericho at the start of the second act in one of his most powerful choruses. The text here is, “Glory to God! The strong cemented walls, the tott’ring tow’rs, the pond’rous ruin falls.” Handel must have had the score of the Laudate pueri nearby because he immediately connected “Gloria patri” with “Glory to God”. Replacing the oboe with a trumpet echoed by a horn, and replacing the soprano with the tenor singing the part of Joshua, the result was this overwhelming music. If you listen to the entire movement you’ll hear the stunning middle section - not derived from the Roman music - describing the falling walls and the fear of the heathen nations. [listen]


The first Covent Garden Theatre, in which Handel worked (opened 1732, destroyed by fire 1808)

It seems that this early psalm setting was in Handel’s mind a lot in the 1740s. A motif from one of the psalm’s solo movements resurfaces in an aria in Belshazzar, written in 1744. However, most fascinating of all is how one aria from the Roman psalm was split to provide raw material for two different arias in two different oratorios. Here is the 1707 aria, Qui habitare facit. Take careful note of the orchestral introduction, and the melody of the voice when it enters. [listen]


This aria was used by Handel in both Joshua in 1747 and Solomon in 1748, but different bits were used in each. In Joshua Handel used the vocal melody but not the accompaniment as the starting point for “O had I Jubal’s lyre” in the third act. [listen]


Of course the early melody takes a completely different course in the later work, but the opening phrase is identical. It’s even in the same key. What’s really fascinating is that the following year, in writing a really vicious aria for the second harlot in Solomon, Handel took the orchestral part of the 1707 aria but not the vocal line to make a completely new aria. [listen]


Another really amazing work from Handel’s Roman years is the Italian oratorio La resurrezione (The Resurrection). This is a work of dazzling brilliance, calling for five soloists and orchestra, but no chorus. It was composed the year after the Carmelite Vesper music, but it too was written for performance in Rome, so interestingly none of the Vesper music is recycled in the oratorio. However, the following year, in Venice, Handel had a major success in what was to become his principal form of activity - opera - and ideas from La resurrezione keep resurfacing in the opera, Agrippina. Again, with one notable exception, where an aria is transferred from the sacred to the secular context almost intact - words and all - there’s almost no case in which Handel doesn’t take the earlier material and rework it in the opera. A few examples will suffice.


The role of Lucifer in La resurrezione calls for a bass with an enormously wide range. In this aria near the beginning of the work, Lucifer starts by admitting that he did fall from heaven but that he lost none of his hatred for God in so doing. The descent of his fall is clearly painted by Handel in the descending phrases of the music. [listen]


In Agrippina, written in Venice the following year, the role of the Emperor Claudius is written for a similar voice. Claudius sings an aria early in the second act which speaks of the world falling in subjection before the might of Rome. It even begins with another form of the same Italian word which starts Lucifer’s aria. This clearly suggested a reuse of the earlier material to Handel, which he adapts with some interesting twists in harmony and rhythmic variations when compared with Lucifer’s aria. Claudius has to span two octaves from high D to D below the bass stave in his opening phrase, something Lucifer didn’t have to attempt! [listen]


La resurrezione contains a wonderful coloratura aria for Mary Cleopas, an aria which is as testing for the orchestra as much as it is for the singer. Its text uses the time-honoured operatic metaphor of a ship tossed in stormy seas being contrasted with the hope and stability afforded by the sighting of land. Thus the character contrasts her present state of uncertainty with the hope of repose promised by Jesus. Note especially the wide leaps in the violins and oboes, and the racing passages in the lower strings. [listen]


In Agrippina the following year, this pure and spiritual moment is completely turned on its head. Handel takes the wide leaps and rushing passages and puts them to very different ends. Nero is in Poppea’s bedroom in a scene where lustful assignations and overheard conversations make for a comic romp on a par with that in the first act of Mozart’s Figaro. Certainly Mary Cleopas’ portrayal of a ship in a storm is now made to represent a storm of a very different kind for the future Emperor. [listen]


La resurrezione provided Handel with further inspiration in later years. The work was only ever heard in Rome in 1708, so clearly he could reuse ideas in the works he wrote in London. A very subtle connection exists between an aria such in the earlier work by St John, and an aria sung by Sesto in Julius Caesar, written 16 years later. Here is St John, singing of love born of nobility and constancy. [listen]


And here is Sesto, a Roman in Ancient Egypt, singing in 1724 of hope inspiring him to revenge the wrongs done to him. [listen]


And yes, ideas from La resurrezione appear in Joshua, a gap of 39 years. Lucifer sings an aria of defiance, certain that he still has the power to overcome Jesus. The striding leaps in the music make it almost possible to see him striding along, full of bluster and blindly heading for destruction. [listen]


In Joshua the bass role is the kindly Caleb, an aged faithful warrior who acts as a link with Moses in helping Joshua and the Israelites enter the promised land. Caleb’s first aria is derived directly from what we just heard, but the sentiments couldn’t be more different. He sings, “O first in wisdom, first in pow’r, Jehovah, ev’ry blessing show’r around thy sacred head.” [listen]


Hudson: George Frideric Handel (1756)

And we could go on for weeks! Still, don’t let these examples of Handel’s self-borrowing lead you to think he was devoid of ingenuity. Nothing could be further from the truth. These self-borrowings - as well as those from other composers mentioned yesterday - indicate another aspect of his creativity. An idea is almost never recycled exactly as it was. Everything is redeveloped, reshaped, sometimes from the smallest of fragments. Certainly Joshua has more overt self-borrowings than most, and it’s fascinating to see such a high proportion of them come from works Handel had written four decades earlier. We could have spent at least as much time looking at material that was new in Agrippina which was redeveloped for Julius Caesar and other operas, English-language works, even chamber music and orchestral works in later decades.


What to finish with, when there are hundreds of other examples to choose from? I’ve decided to show you another aspect of Handel’s self-borrowing which could very easily be described as self-promotion.


In his later life Handel of course gave regular seasons of English oratorios, and clearly wanted to keep the music from past oratorios in front of the public. In the age before recordings made this possible on a scale Handel could not have dreamed of, Handel ingeniously managed to do this by having his orchestra play spectacular concertos during the intervals of his oratorio which were in large part orchestral “cover versions” of some of his most popular works. These three concertos, which Friedrich Chrysander in the 19th century called “Concerti a due cori” (Concertos for two choirs) are scored for a string orchestra with two antiphonal wind choirs. Two of the concertos use horns, oboes and bassoons in these wind choirs, but the other uses only oboes and bassoons.


The concerto without horns was probably performed during the first performances of Joshua in 1748. In addition to reworking music from two oratorios (Belshazzar and Semele) and two operas (Ottone and Lotario), the concerto opens with an overture which couples the opening of the oratorio Alexander Balus with an instrumental version of a chorus from Messiah, which was nowhere near as well known in 1748 as it later became. [listen]


Messiah was at that time still not established as an institution so in all likelihood that was the first exposure to Messiah’s first chorus (“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”) for many of Handel’s 1748 audiences. The annual performances at the Foundling Hospital didn’t start until two years later.


Ticket for Handel's Founding Hospital performance of Messiah, May 1750

To end we’ll hear one of the other double wind concertos, the spectacular second concerto which reworks music from the 1718 version of Esther, Messiah, and other pieces. This link shows a video of a brilliant live performance from the BBC Proms in London featuring the combined forces of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed from the violin by Rachel Podger. [listen]


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2007.

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