Interlude: Handel’s Enduring Influence

Handel’s lasting influence remains in the operatic world. His operas which were rarely performed a generation or two ago, have found renewed life in the 21st century. Why? Not for the first time here, the music makes its own case. Consider this album from one of the most exciting singers in the opera world today: Anthony Ross Constanzo. On this album, ARC blends the music of Handel and Philip Glass, offering a rare insight into a possible Conversation between Handel and one of the most important contemporary composers. The musical connections between the two composers are indistinct, and yet there appears to be more linking them than just the ethereal sound of Costanzo’s countertenor.

A light and delightful offering today before we begin to grapple with the greatest musical mind of all beginning next week: The first of more than three months devoted to that singular genius, J.S. Bach.

Handel and Opera

As much as I love Handel’s oratorios, his 42 operas are his supreme achievement. Another digression. I met my wife in the Spring of 1998 and we got together, in no small part, because my father developed a very serious tumor and was in the hospital for most of the next year. Over the course of that year, I took her to her first opera (to be detailed in a future post, but rest assured it was not your standard Italian fare) and my father literally yelled at me from his hospital bed that I was going to turn her off to opera and, presumably, to me. She loved it. For a second opera, I took her to see Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Same lecture; same result. Giulio Cesare remains, I believe, her favorite opera.

Glyndebourne, the great summer opera festival in England, invited William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment do this back when we were living in London. I was going to go, but got too busy at work: A major life regret. Here are a few highlights from the opera, using the great Glyndebourne production where possible. The story is one we all know–Julius Caesar’s conquest of Egypt.

George Frideric Handel, Giulio Cesare

Da tempeste il legno infranto:

‘Caro Bella:

Full opera:

Telemann may have been the favorite of the people and Bach the favorite of musicologists. But Handel was the favorite of his contemporaries and those composers who immediately succeeded him.

Handel’s Instrumental Music

Handel is best known for his oratorios and operas, but his instrumental music, often overlooked, reveals a brilliant mind at work.

Handel learned the concerto grosso form from Corelli during his time in Italy and took Corelli’s innovation to the next level. Haydn and the modern symphony are now mere decades away, getting closer all of the time. Here is a link to them being performed by Andrew Manze and the Academy of Ancient Music. I like this set very much, which is performed on original instruments and in a properly Baroque tempo. Some would say that Nos. 6 and 7 are the best, but I am partial to Nos. 5 and 10. There are links in the description that allow you to skip around if desired.

George Frideric Handel, Concerti grosso:

Theme and variation was a popular form for smaller compositions in the Baroque age.  The concept was simple:  take a basic theme and progress it through various rhythms, keys and ornamentations.  Handel’s Chaccone in G Major takes the familiar A-B-A form, with the B theme presented in the contrasting G minor, before the A theme returns to G major.  A classic Handel tune.

George Frideric Handel, Chaconne Variations in G Major:

Handel was also a prolific chamber music composer and his violin concertos have been in constant repertoire since their composition. This is one of my favorites. Despite the many wonderful midcentury recordings, modern instruments dull the composition. I am a huge fan of original instruments and this is as good a reason why. Here is another Andrew Manze performance from one of my favorite recordings. I think this concerto sums up Handel the best of any piece of music here.

George Frideric Handel, Violin Sonata in F Major, Op. 1, No. 12:

Baroque Music XI: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Handel is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach.” J.S. Bach

Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived… I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb.” Ludwig van Beethoven

The two titans of Baroque music, George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, were born several weeks apart in 1685.  These two composers, collectively, brought music forward at an exponential rate.  While Bach was busy creating some of the most complex music ever composed, Handel was upping the dramatic urgency, particularly through his oratorios and operas.  As with the Baroque, the watchword was always more: more instruments, more singers, more complexity—more, more, more!  And no one met that challenge better than Handel.  I consider Bach to be the superior composer, but Handel gets more playtime in my home.  Everyone knows his Alleluiah chorus from the Messiah.  But he’s so much more than that one piece.

Born in Germany, Handel found his fame in London under what was then the new Hanover dynasty. No wonder Germans love London so much—the Queen is German, their greatest composer was German, and they love sausages and beer. But before he arrived in England, Handel, like many composers, spent time in Italy. While in Rome, he studied with both Corelli (and thus mastered orchestration) and Alessandro Scarlatti, from whom he learned about opera and composing for solo voice.

Hands down, my favorite work of Handel’s is an early one, composed in Rome around 1707—his great early oratorio, Dixit Dominus. Dixit Dominus is divided into eight movements, scored for a five-part chorus and five soloists. Composed at 22, this 30 minute piece is a blockbuster. In the raucous first movement, the strings’ arpeggios punctuated by the chorus repeating “dixit”, i.e., the Lord said—the synthesis of Corelli and Scarlatti, with a dash of German oomph (yes, that is a technical term). In the penultimate movement, “De Torrente in via bibet,” Handel unleashes a series of dissonant suspensions that are so unbelievably beautiful as to practically stop your heart. And while I have not checked the score, I do believe we hear the Circle of Fifths poke out from time to time.

This piece is very special for me. It was the first music that my daughter ever heard–starting on the first day of her life. We played this disc so much the (largely Dominican) nurses thought we were VERY Catholic and paid extra attention to her as a result. It was perhaps inevitable she ended up in Catholic school.

Religion aside, my interest in this music is far more prosaic. This is baroque rock n’ roll—proto-Led Zeppelin. You cannot play this one too loud—the horns, the chorus all benefit from more volume. Here is the full recording on YouTube and some selections on Spotify–the Spotify links are to my favorite recording of the work, the same one we played for my daughter on her first day of life.

George Frideric Handel, Dixit Dominus:

Telemann and Handel

Handel and Telemann kept up a robust correspondence and, not surprisingly, Telemann’s friendship and correspondence resulted in numerous Conversations between the two composers.  And perhaps uniquely, this was a true two-way Conversation, with each man influencing the other.  Here is an example of how Telemann influenced Handel.  Handel, a subscriber to Telemann’s Tafelmusik publication, took the basic theme from the opening to the Violin Concerto in F major (1740) and expanded upon it for his famous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (1749), one of the most famous works of the entire Baroque Period. I stumbled on this Conversation as a kid, playing the Telemann and knowing that I had heard that theme somewhere before. With no Google or streaming music services, my curiosity had to wait several months before figuring it out at a concert.

Georg Philipp Telemann, Tafelmusik, Violin Concerto in F Major:

George Frideric Handel, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba:

More Lully: A Brief Coda

Jean-Baptiste Lully composed one of the most performed songs in history.  Nearly everyone in the world has heard it.

The duties of a court composer were, shall we say, varied—particularly when dealing with that most mercurial of monarchs, Louis XIV.  In 1686, the Sun King developed a perianal abscess.  Court physicians attempted to treat the King’s posterior with a series of bizarre procedures, including the use of a red-hot iron.  These efforts predictably failed and, omitting some details, the King developed an anal fistula. Surgeons were called in and the procedure was a success; however, the dance-mad King would not be performing anytime soon. Seeking to improve his patron’s mood, Lully composed a short song to celebrate the King’s recovery from what can only be described as “anal surgery pre-anesthesia”.  Regardless of his modest intentions, the song proved to be a hit with successive French courts.

Decades later, George I’s court composer, George Frideric Handel visited Versailles in 1714 and heard the song, which he quickly jotted down and translated into English.  Handel brought the short score back to England, where it has remained ever since.  I promise you: you will never hear this song—an ode to a French King’s rear end—the same way again:

George Frideric Handel, (aft. Lully), God Save the Queen:

Incidentally, Handel picked the wrong Lully tune. He should have picked this one, an ode to the Sun King’s reign:

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Plaude laetare Gallia: