Handel's English World, Part 1: Finding a Foothold
Updated: Aug 19, 2021
During my later years with the ABC I had the privilege of indulging my passion for the life and work of Handel on a number of occasions. In 2014 I was asked to make a six-part series which we called Handel’s English World. This was presented as a special series, separate from Keys To Music. It focused on Handel’s transformation from a German composer of Italian opera to an English institution over the period 1710-59, and surveyed his English language works.
In 2015 I followed this up with a series of four Keys To Music programs called Handel’s London Operas. This surveyed all of Handel’s Italian operas written after his arrival in London in 1710.
Then I completed the “trilogy” in 2016 with a three-part Keys To Music series called Handel Before England. This looked at Handel’s first 25 years, before his arrival in London, a vital but often ignored period which is essential to an understanding of the man we all think we know.
I’ve decided to share the scripts for all these programs in this blog, but in their chronological order of content rather than in the order I presented them on air. The three parts of Handel Before England were posted recently and they included discussions of Handel's first operas, from Almira to Agrippina, which were written in Hamburg, Florence and Venice. Handel's London Operas, also posted recently, surveys Handel's remaining works in this form, which were all written for performance in London.
In this post we start the longest and most detailed series, Handel's English World.
This music was written by one of the most remarkable figures in the history of European music. He's a man who has been, in a sense, my constant companion for more than fifty years. And he's also a man whose music is even today, with all the benefits of the early music movement, still largely unknown to music lovers.
George Frideric Handel wrote an enormous amount of music. He's remembered by most music lovers - and even music haters I guess - as the composer of Messiah, and it's Messiah which gets trotted out year after year to the almost total exclusion of his other English oratorios. The Italian operas and orchestral works are given a bit of a dusting off now and again, but even then, we hear only a small fraction of the total.
In this series I want to look at one aspect of Handel's life and work. He would have regarded himself as primarily an opera composer, and I see no reason to contradict that assertion. But, almost perversely, I want to mostly avoid the operas [I covered those in my earlier series in this blog: Handel Before England and Handel's London Operas] and look at Handel's English-language works - the oratorios, odes and church music - because these works not only reflect Handel's mid-life crisis and change of career direction, but they also reflect very much the world in which he lived.
It's that world I want to look at as well, Handel's English world, because Handel did become English. He was born in 1685 in Halle, then part of the Duchy of Magdeburg in Brandenburg-Prussia, now part of Saxony-Anhalt in eastern Germany. He left his home town in his late teens, and after a few years spent in Hamburg and then Italy, took up the post of Kapellmeister to the Elector Georg of Hanover in June 1710 when he was 25.
Handel probably didn't know it but he was already on the road to becoming English. Across the channel England had been through a national hell for most of the preceding century. Like so much of Europe since the Reformation, England had been torn apart by religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 17th century the relative peace at the end of Elizabeth's reign descended into the chaos of the civil wars and the Commonwealth before the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II and the so-called Glorious Revolution under William and Mary in 1688.
Mary II was the daughter of James II and her death in 1694 left her husband and joint monarch, William III, to reign alone. As they had no children, Mary's sister Anne was heir apparent, and Anne duly became Queen on William's death in 1702.
The major religio-political angst in England in the late 17th century centred on the religious allegiance of the monarch, who was legally the Supreme Head of the Protestant Church of England. Charles II is thought by some to have converted to Catholicism on his death bed; he was succeeded by his brother James II, who was openly Catholic. When James fled in the face of overwhelming opposition, William and Mary were greeted as Protestant monarchs by the establishment, and Anne was equally firm in her Protestant allegiances.
Queen Anne's marriage to Prince George of Denmark, brother of the Danish King Christian V, was by all reports a stable and happy one. Sadly, though, the couple were regularly afflicted by personal grief. Anne was pregnant at least eighteen times, and thirteen of these pregnancies resulted in miscarriages or stillbirths. Four of her five surviving children died before the age of two, but one son lived longer, providing hope for a smooth succession.
Sadly this son, William, Duke of Gloucester, died in 1700 at the age of only eleven. The Queen's private grief found public expression in England's crisis regarding the succession. James II's son, James Francis Edward, Prince of Wales, was still alive and in exile on the Continent, and he would have a strong claim to the throne on Anne's death; he was her half-brother after all. But he was a Catholic, so plans were made to prevent the re-establishment of a Catholic dynasty in England.
The 1701 Act of Settlement provided for an exclusively Protestant succession and officially barred Catholics from the throne. Failing any further children from Anne and George's marriage, the throne on Anne's death would go to the elderly Sophia, Electress of Hanover in Germany. Sophia was more than 50 places down the line of succession but crucially all those with a prior claim to the throne were Catholics. The Protestant Sophia, and her descendents, were offered the throne of England on Anne's death.
Sophia's husband, Ernest Augustus, was the Elector of Hanover until his death in 1698; Sophia as Dowager Electress thereafter held a "queen mother" type of role when her son, Georg, became Elector of Hanover on his father's death.
It was into this court in Hanover that the 25 year old Handel was appointed in 1710. As Elector of Hanover (or officially, Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg) Georg was a wealthy and powerful monarch; but his mother was set to become Queen of Great Britain on the death of Queen Anne, and of course that placed Georg next in line to the British throne.
On his appointment to the Hanoverian court Handel made it clear he wanted to check out opportunities for opera work elsewhere in Europe. He'd had great success in Italy (which he had only left a few months before) and was keen to follow up contacts and offers he'd received in Venice earlier in the year after the runaway success of his opera Agrippina. He went to Innsbruck, and then Hanover. Hanover had a great opera house but despite landing the Kapellmeister's job he was given permission almost immediately to take up to a year's leave of absence. Why?
Thereby hangs one of the mysteries about Handel's early life. Why would he have been given the job - complete with salary - only to be encouraged not to do it? And by no less a person that the Elector himself? There is a sizeable body of opinion which suggests that Handel was more than the Elector's head musician, and that his eventual visit to London was part of a larger political plan to prepare the way for the establishment of a German court in London.
After visiting Düsseldorf to follow up more contacts from Venice, Handel arrived in London for the first time in November or December of 1710.
Anne had been on the throne for eight and a half years when Handel arrived in London, and there had been moves to have Sophia come from Hanover to live in London as well but Anne was having none of that. Handel had come to a city where Italian opera was a novelty in its infancy, with no ongoing tradition. Wren's new St Paul's Cathedral had only just been finished - after more than 30 years of agonising construction - but as one of his compatriots, Baron von Pollnitz put it, London wasn't a very attractive option:
Despite its magnificent structures both sacred and profane, it cannot be ranked among the finest cities; for many of its streets being dirty and ill-paved, its houses of brick, not very high, nor adorned with architecture, but blackened with unmerciful smoke and coal fires, gives it a dark hue, which renders it far less agreeable than it would be otherwise.
And Pollnitz wasn't the only high-ranking German in London. Slowly and surely members of the Hanoverian court were arriving in the English capital. There can be no doubt the way was being prepared for the new regime in two ways. Firstly, the English were being softened up for the inevitable influx of Germans into the aristocracy, and secondly, many of the Germans in London were sending back information to Sophia and Georg through diplomatic channels. Georg, especially, developed a keen understanding of English politics. He was going to need it.
The question has often been asked if Handel was acting in this way, as an agent or fifth-columnist for his employer back in Hanover. There is some evidence to support this idea and the notion cannot be completely discounted; and it goes part of the way to explaining the extraordinary generosity of Handel's contract in Hanover.
Still, regardless of any "extra-curricular" aspects to Handel's visit to London, he had come to see if he could make a go of being an opera composer there. During the first decade of the 18th century, attempts had been made to try out fully-sung opera on the London public, either in Italian or English, but neither option had unqualified success. London theatre-goers were more accustomed to mixed evenings of plays with music, such as Purcell had written in the early 1690s. Fully-sung evenings of opera were not what they were used to, regardless of the language.
A company based at the Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket was patching together operas from pre-existing scores when Handel arrived. The theatre was built between 1703 and 1705 by Sir John Vanbrugh, later to achieve fame as the architect of Blenheim Palace. It was effectively managed in the 1710-11 season by the playwright Aaron Hill who, with Giacomo Rossi, pieced together an Italian opera libretto for Handel to set. The work, Rinaldo, was not only Handel's first opera written for England, it was also the first completely original work written for the Haymarket company.
Just before Rinaldo was premiered, though, a highly significant event took place: Handel performed before Queen Anne. On the Queen's birthday (6 February), he performed an Italian duet of his own composition in praise of the Queen at Court with singers from the opera. We don't know what the music performed on this occasion was, but the vital connection with the court - and hoped-for royal patronage - had been made. By all reports Anne liked what she heard.
Rinaldo was premiered later that same month on 24 February 1711, a day after Handel turned 26. It was staged spectacularly and was a spectacular success, and it clearly made Handel feel as if London might play a role in his future. Little did he realise London would more or less be his future. [listen]
In June 1711, after Rinaldo had had 15 performances, Handel returned to Hanover via Düsseldorf, but must have known he was going to return to London. A little over a year later, in October 1712, he was back (having received permission from the Elector Georg for more paid leave), and by the end of the year his next opera, Il pastor fido, hit the boards at the Queen's Theatre.
Even at 27 Handel was a famous composer, but he was still a foreigner, even if he was part of the increasing number of German musicians and other professionals now making London their home. From 1712 to 1714 Handel mostly lived at Burlington House in Piccadilly, the residence of Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, who was only 19 when he met Handel. Burlington was an intelligent supporter of the arts and he was in effect Handel's patron. It would have been a stimulating environment for Handel who met and conversed there with some of the leading artistic figures of the day, including Alexander Pope and John Gay.
In January 1713 Handel's third London opera, Teseo, premiered at the Queen's Theatre but more germane to Handel's eventual Englishness was the composition of two pieces of English church music in that same month. A little over two years after arriving in England Handel set his first known pieces with an English text. More significantly for his growing reputation these were the two canticles for Morning Prayer - the Te Deum and Jubilate - which were to be sung in St Paul's Cathedral later that year at a service of thanksgiving to mark the singing of the Treaty of Utrecht which ended Britain's involvement in the long War of the Spanish Succession.
In order to force Parliament's hand, Anne created twelve new peers in a single day to ensure the Tory vote to ratify the treaty was carried in the House of Lords. It's Anne's role as a peacemaker which is referred to constantly in the other English-language work Handel wrote in 1713, the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne. For reasons not fully clear to us today, the work was not performed on the Queen's birthday, either that year or the next. In 1713 Anne was increasingly unwell and it's more than likely the celebrations of her birthday in February went largely unmarked because of her ill health.
Thankfully the work survived; Handel occasionally raided it for ideas in later years, as was his practice. It opens with one of the most sublime, gorgeous arioso passages for countertenor, solo trumpet and strings. It's such a shame that Anne probably never heard this invocation: Eternal source of light divine, / With double warmth thy beams display, / And with distinguish'd glory shine, / To add a lustre to this day. / The day that gave great Anna birth / Who fix'd a lasting peace on earth. [listen]
Ambrose Philips's poem provided for Handel the framework to write a court birthday ode of the first rank. Handel used Purcell's odes and psalm settings as his models when it came to his first attempts to set the English language (and comments attributed to Handel in later life suggest he admired his famous English predecessor). But Purcell is more in evidence in the Utrecht canticles; here in the birthday ode the refrain ("The day that gave great Anna birth..." etc) appears seven times, and Handel links the refrain - with new music every time except the last - to the sparkling solo movements which set each new verse.
This fabulous duet on a ground for alto and bass appears halfway through. Handel reworked it forty years later as one of the movements in his concertos for double wind choir. In this original version, Handel seems to want to make it clear he understands the text even though English is his fourth language. The words "rolling" and "murmurs" are set somewhat obviously. [listen]
That Handel even wrote this work - performed or not - is testament to his status as a celebrity in London even at this early stage. A few decades later, Samuel Johnson's dictionary would define opera as "an exotic and irrational entertainment", and Handel would even in 1713 have exemplified the exotic part of that delightful definition at least. He was a foreigner (a German) writing dazzling works in Italian, so his main claim to fame was exoticism on two fronts. But the ease with which Handel gained access to, and moved with, the high and mighty is still rather breathtaking. He came from solid working class stock, but I imagine he displayed sheer panache and confidence in the way he assumed his talent was worth being heard and supported by the rich and powerful. He made this clear in Hamburg, in Rome, in Florence and in Venice. It was the basis for his appointment in Hanover and now he was making it all the way to the top with the British Queen.
Handel's music for the thanksgiving service in St Paul's in July 1713 came at a pivotal moment for him professionally, as it was at that very time he was formally dismissed from his post in Hanover. He was on his own in London now, and for the second half of 1713 he lived by his wits with no regular income, even if he did still have Burlington's support. But surely he must have known that the music we now call the "Utrecht" Te Deum and Jubilate would make an impression. Here Handel showed his deference to English taste, taking Purcell's setting of the same texts in 1694 as his model and transporting them to a new age. [listen]
Handel was also clearly aware of the acoustic environment in which his music would be heard at the service. St Paul's was very new and I can imagine the young German touring the amazing edifice in his earliest explorations of the English capital. To a musician (and I can attest to this from personal experience) the sound of Wren's mighty church is what impresses. The look of it is of course incredible, but the reverberation and sheer sonic massiveness of the place must be what led Handel to write music which at times is as monumental as the building itself. It even allows spaces for the echoes to dissipate. [listen]
Handel's dismissal from his post in Hanover must have been expected. In the three years since his appointment as Kapellmeister in June 1710 he'd only actually been resident in Hanover for a little over a year. He was clearly holding out for Queen Anne's death on the assumption that he'd be automatically made part of the new German court in London. The removal from the Hanoverian post in mid-1713 showed that Anne had lingered a little longer than people generally expected, and Handel was somewhat miffed at this demotion.
However it was made clear to him by the Hanover court's diplomatic resident in London - completely unofficially and off the record - that he would probably re-enter the service of the Elector when he eventually came to London as heir to the throne. The resident's letters to the Elector on the subject of Handel, by the way, provide fascinating hints that Handel was indeed providing diplomatic information to the Hanoverian court, most particularly on the state of Queen Anne's health.
The concern in Hanover regarding Anne's health was understandable. When she died, the Electress Sophia of Hanover would be made Queen of Great Britain and the Elector Georg would be the heir.
For her part, the ailing Queen Anne did what she could and Handel was awarded an annual pension of 200 pounds from the Crown just after Christmas 1713. Thus his Hanover salary, lost in the July, was replaced by a British pension in the December.
The first half of 1714 is a total blank in the Handel story; no documentary evidence survives as to his whereabouts or activity. The Haymarket opera season opened in January but he wasn't involved. It's assumed that the birthday ode from the year before was prepared for performance on the Queen's birthday in February as there is evidence of some revision to the score on Handel's part. Anne's failing health is most likely the reason that yet again no performance is recorded.
In his biography of Handel, Donald Burrows speculated on the silence in the Handel record for these six months in these words: "It is almost as if he, in company with London's politicians, were holding his breath waiting for the Queen's death..."
As it turned out two queens died, not one. Electress Sophia of Hanover, heir to the British throne, was elderly but in good health. Her sudden death on 8 June 1714 at the age of 83 took everyone by surprise. This made her son, the Elector Georg, next in line to the British throne. Then the following month, Queen Anne finally passed away, aged only 49. Her reign was eventful and momentous; I've barely touched on its importance here and it's a period in British history too often overlooked. Quite apart from the masterful handling of Britain's continental wars, Anne's reign saw the creation of modern Britain with the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. I've always thought it appropriate that a statue of Anne has pride of place outside St Paul's Cathedral.
From this point things moved quickly. The new royal family arrived in stages over the next few months, with George himself (to give him the Anglicised name by which he would now be known) arriving first, on 20 September. A Te Deum setting of Handel's was performed at the service in the Chapel Royal on the 26th to mark the new King's arrival, so there can be no question of Handel being in any way out of the King's favour. The Te Deum thought to have been performed for the new King is the one now known as the "Queen Caroline" setting. [listen]
Handel's Te Deum was sung again at the Chapel Royal on 26 October after more members of the royal family had arrived from Hanover. Between these two services - on 20 October - George's coronation had taken place and the new dynasty was up and running. James Francis Edward Stuart, the would-be James III, was still in exile and there were many in Britain who supported his cause (known as the Jacobite cause after the Latin version of the name "James"). Jacobite rebellions arose in George I's reign and were decisively put down.
George I never really touched the hearts of the British people and has been unfairly treated by popular history. There was a large degree of simple xenophobia at the base of many of the attitudes of his subjects. He was stiff and formal in public but relaxed and congenial in private. He is said to have spoken little or no English, which is completely untrue. He may have spoken with a heavy accent, but then Handel never lost his accent either, and there is plenty of evidence to show that George understood, spoke, and wrote English well, especially later in his reign.
He was certainly not unintelligent. In addition to his native German, he spoke fluent French and good Latin, and some Dutch and Italian. He was an enlightened ruler in many respects and this certainly included his love of music. George I immediately signalled his favour towards Handel by continuing the pension he had been granted by Queen Anne and by being a loyal supporter of Handel's operatic ventures for the rest of his reign.
Closer to home, though, the new King had a problem which was not uncommon in royal families: for many years there were tensions between himself and his son, George Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne. Both King and Prince set up rival courts and thereby began a major public relations exercise to win over the British people. The King occasionally pulled a PR rabbit out of his crown to trump anything his upstart son could produce.
In 1715 George held at least six water parties of the Thames. These were ostentatious displays of the King and his court to the public, the equivalent of a modern celebrity going shopping (having notified the paparazzi in advance). The royal family, high-ranking members of the court and various hangers on were rowed down the river at night in a series of long, flat barges which were festooned with decoration. People would have flocked to the see the show as it barged down the Thames (to paraphrase Victor Borge), and there would certainly have been music involved.
Sadly, we don't know if Handel was involved in the water parties in 1715. The only such occasion with which his name is definitely associated took place in 1717, and the evidence suggests that on this occasion his famous Water Music was heard not once but three times in its entirety. Handel wanted to impress as much as the King did; this is the first recorded occasion on which horns were used in an orchestra in England. We tend to forget that these would have been raw, natural open-air horns with little concern for the niceties of diatonic tuning. You'll get a great idea of what I mean by listening to this link from the 5'00 mark! [listen]
In the meantime Handel had been securing his reputation as an opera composer. A new opera, Amadigi, had been premiered in 1715 and revived the following year, and revivals of Rinaldo took place in 1714, 1715 and 1717. In 1716 he spent the second half of the year back in Germany; the opera company at the Haymarket folded at the end of June 1717 but there seems to have been no thought in Handel's mind of moving back to the Continent permanently.
After the water party of July 1717 Handel moved out of town. He'd found a new patron: James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon. Today he's better known as the Duke of Chandos, a title he received in 1719. He maintained an estate at Cannons Park in Edgware ("Cannons" with a double n), which had its own elaborately decorated chapel, St Lawrence's. Today Canons Park (without a doublehim n) is now a north-western London suburb with its own tube station, within the M25 ring road, but St Lawrence's is still there.
Handel took up residence at Cannons in late July or early August of 1717 and stayed there for about a year. Brydges maintained a small musical establishment and for these forces Handel wrote a number of significant works. For the chapel services he wrote a series of anthems (now known as the "Chandos Anthems") and a setting of the Te Deum. [listen]
More connected with Handel's later fame, though, are two works originally created for Brydges setting dramatic texts in English, one secular, one sacred. We know next to nothing about the circumstances of their performance but these works were later to become incredibly significant to Handel's career.
The first was Acis and Galatea, variously described as a masque, a pastoral or a "little opera". As originally conceived at Cannons in 1718, Acis requires five singers, no chorus, and a small instrumental ensemble. The text is in two parts and tells a simple pastoral story of love, loss and bliss. This was Handel's first setting of a dramatic work in English but whether it was designed to be acted out (like an opera) or sung in concert (as an oratorio) we have no idea. The text was by John Gay, and Alexander Pope also contributed; both men were well-known to Handel from his days at Burlington House. There's no doubting the charm of the music, though, nor is there any question that Handel's dramatic gifts grasped this opportunity with both hands. [listen]
While Handel never seriously contemplated writing opera in English, Acis and Galatea did provide ample scope for him to exercise his gifts in the creation of dramatic music to an English text. The other dramatic work, almost certainly composed for Cannons as well, was sacred: the oratorio Esther. This sets a less well-crafted text (by whom we're not certain), but Handel's music is fabulous. Esther is on a smaller scale than the later English oratorios, cast in six scenes and taking a bit over an hour and a half to perform. But the vocal requirements are grander with a dozen solo roles and music for a real choir (as opposed to an ensemble of soloists forming a chorus, as was the case in Acis). The 1718 version of Esther is a gem and contains beautiful music, even if the libretto is, to use a modern expression, a bit "clunky". [listen]
Acis and Esther were the last substantial English texts Handel would set for fifteen years. The sojourn in Cannons was opportune for him, providing some respite from the city of London and a working base while there were no prospects of ongoing opera work. But that all changed in 1719 with the formation of a new opera company. This was the Royal Academy of Music (not in any way connected with the present educational institution of that name), formed under the King's patronage (he gave ₤1000 a year for five years) but functioning as a joint stock company. Handel was appointed a director and sent to Europe to scout for singers. From 1720 until mid-1728, he was one of the staff composers of the Academy. He wrote new works, arranged others and contracted singers. In other words, he was totally immersed in the rough and tumble of London's theatrical world. For the Academy, Handel wrote fourteen new operas and arranged several others.
After the company folded in 1728 Handel continued to compose operas and managed the theatrical operations himself in conjunction with a business partner, John Jacob Heidegger. From 1729, under this new arrangement, he composed a further five operas before considering a dramatic work in English for his London public in 1732. It's with that venture, a tentative testing of the water with a revival of Esther, that we'll pick up the thread in Part Two of this series.
But Handel did set some English texts between 1718 and 1732, although they were not intended for a theatre. In June 1727, George I died on one his visits to Hanover and was buried there, little lamented by his subjects in Britain. One of his last acts before leaving London was to give royal assent an Act of Parliament which made official Handel's naturalisation as a British subject. This was signed on 20 February, 1727 and it shows clearly where Handel believed his future was. A little over sixteen years after first setting foot on English soil, Georg Friedrich Händel officially became George Frideric Handel and the first music commissioned from the new, British Mr Handel was a series a four anthems for the coronation of George II in October of that year. Handel selected the texts himself, although he based his choice on well-respected precedents, most notably Purcell's anthems for the coronation of James II in 1685.
Handel's coronation anthems of 1727 are among his best-known music. They grow naturally out of the music he wrote at Cannons a decade before, the "Chandos" anthems and Esther in particular. The massive verse anthem which closes Esther owes much to Purcell, and the monumental nature of the coronation anthems for George II was enhanced by the huge forces used on that occasion. One report mentions 40 voices and 160 instruments.
Handel was not Master of the King's Music; he never was. It's a testament to his already iconic position in English society - as a famous composer of opera - that he was offered this prestigious commission over the head of John Eccles, who was Master of the King's Music in 1727, or Maurice Greene, organist at the Chapel Royal (who became Master of the King's Music himself in 1735). It also says much for Handel's subsequent reputation that one of the anthems, Zadok the Priest, has been performed at every British coronation ever since.
Yet despite writing Anglican church music for royal occasions ever since the days of Queen Anne, Handel was regarded by all - and by himself - as a composer of Italian opera. At George II's coronation Handel would not have considered for a minute that he would ever give up opera and devote himself to music written in the language of his newly-adopted nation. That is a remarkable story which we'll continue next time.
What Handel did do was apply his razor-sharp theatrical instincts to the way he set the coronation anthems. It's the sheer theatrical panache of the opening of Zadok the Priest which makes it instantly appealing, and it's achieved totally through harmony, not melody. The way the chords pull the listener in and create expectation is miraculously simple, but miraculously effective. But that's something Handel was always able to do; he did it at the start of the Queen Anne birthday ode more than a decade before. As George Bernard Shaw said:
It was from Handel that I learned that style consists in force of assertion. If you can say a thing with one stroke unanswerably you have style... Handel had this power... You may despise what you like; but you cannot contradict Handel. [listen]
Handel's English World was presented on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) as a special six-part series in December 2014 and January 2015.