The Secret Life of Handel

From surly Saxon porker to undercover spy, the mysterious life of Handel unravelled.

One of the most famous portraits of George Frideric Handel is an image the composer wouldn’t have wanted hanging in any museum.

The Charming Brute (also known as The Harmonious Boar) of 1733 depicts him as a hog, snout protruding from under his wig, a corpulent mass barely supported by a barrel of wine as he plays a pipe organ festooned with food. What does it say about him that this scathing caricature was created by one of his closest friends?

The story goes that the artist Joseph Goupy was invited to sup with the composer, but caught Handel secretly guzzling much finer fare than what he had offered his guest earlier that evening. After serving up revenge in the form of this unflattering engraving, Goupy was no longer welcome at 25 Brook Street, and the two men never reconciled. A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words, but perhaps he was saying more about the voracious maestro than he realised when he inscribed just four words on the banner at Handel’s feet: “I am myself alone.”

This enigmatic phrase gives rise to a number of burning questions: why is Handel’s personal life shrouded in mystery? Why did he choose to live alone, outside the luxury of royal and aristocratic patronage? Why did he never take a wife — was he gay, or simply married to the job? And even the irresistible controversy: was he sent to England as a Hanoverian spy?

It’s certainly true that the image of Handel that persists today is of an aloof, irascible foreign ogre, whose harsh tongue and temper could make even the most demanding divas tremble. But this one- dimensional view of the man is often accompanied by scant knowledge of the vast and varied body of work outside of Messiah, Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and Zadok the Priest; music which, despite the dour reputation of their creator, has brought joy to countless listeners for more than 250 years.

Charles Burney, that seemingly omnipresent music historian, was one of the few commentators well placed to observe these two contrasting facets of the composer’s personality, having played in Handel’s London concerts during the 1740s. “He was impetuous, rough and peremptory in his manners and conversation, but totally devoid of ill-nature or malevolence; indeed, there was an original humour and pleasantry in his most lively sallies of anger or impatience, which, with his broken English, were extremely risible... Handel’s general look was somewhat heavy and sour; but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit and good humour, beaming in his countenance, which I hardly ever saw in any other.”

“Impetuous” and prone to “lively sallies of anger or impatience” are traits that are well documented as far back as his early years at Hamburg’s Gänsemarkt Theatre, the only regular public opera company in Germany at the time. There, not yet 20 years old, the impetuous young Handel met the composer and singer Johann Mattheson. A friendly rivalry got out of hand during a performance of Mattheson’s Cleopatra, for which Handel would not allow the former to take over harpsichord duties after he had finished singing the role of Antony. A duel ensued, and we may never have had Messiah if Mattheson’s rapier hadn’t struck Handel’s metal coat button instead of running him through. By all accounts, the incident bonded the pair and they became closer friends than ever.

One thing that can be said with certainty about Handel is that he was a perfectionist, and one who suffered no fools, regularly waging war on singers within his own troupe. During a 1722 rehearsal of the opera Ottone, when the precious prima donna Francesca Cuzzoni refused to sing an aria not written specifically for her voice, Handel responded by grabbing her by the waist and preparing to throw her out the window. “I know that you are a very devil: but I must tell you, I am Beelzebub, the Chief of the Devils!” he told her. It seems to have done the trick, because the aria Falsa immagine became the hit of the season. He did throw a piece of music written by fellow composer Maurice Greene out of the window because, he quipped, “it wanted more air.”

The trouble with Handel, from a historian’s point of view, is that while these anecdotes are memorable, they come from witnesses or second-hand sources rather than from the horse’s (or indeed the hog’s) mouth. It’s a fascinating and frustrating state of affairs for Sarah Bardwell, director of the Handel House in London for the past nine years. “I keep hoping I might find something under the floorboards,” she laughs. “There is a definite frisson when you’re in the building; you really feel that he lived there.”

There are as few as 33 extant letters written by Handel, all formal in tone. It may be possible to glean more from his meticulous bank records, which reveal a prudent investor who managed to avoid grief in the financial crash of the South Sea bubble in 1720 and, unlike many other esteemed composers, died wealthy. “He doesn’t emote in his writing at all,” Bardwell explains. “It’s not like Mozart who got out of bed and made sure everyone knew about it. He spent most of his time writing music; he didn’t want to sit down and keep an intimate diary, and he was also a very private person.”

English harpsichordist and conductor Trevor Pinnock is a pioneer of the early music revival movement who made many of his seminal Handel recordings just as more information about the man and his music was coming to light. He says the portrait of Handel that emerges from deep familiarity with the music is of a strong personality, but nonetheless a guarded one. “I think you get more about Handel in the music than you get from the letters,” he insists. “I don’t feel I know him personally as a man, where I would count Haydn, for example, as a friend. He is a tricky character. He wasn’t an easy man.”

Perhaps that’s because he was very much a self-made man whose solitude was the cost of remaining fiercely independent. Born in Halle in Lower Saxony in1685, the same year as Bach, he faced early opposition to a career in music. His father was (worryingly) an eminent barber-surgeon, who nudged the young Georg towards the respectable profession of law, denying him access to instruments. Fortunately, the family seemed to have forgotten about a clavichord tucked away in the attic, on which Handel developed his musical gifts in secret.

After his first successes in Hamburg, including his first opera Almira (and three others, now lost), he received an invitation from the prince Gian’ Gastone de Medici to hone his craft in Italy. According to John Mainwaring’s 1760 Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel, the first published volume of its kind devoted to a single composer, Handel resolved instead “to go to Italy on his own bottom, as soon as he could make a purse for that occasion,” perhaps the first sign of his independent spirit. The occasion arose in 1706; in spite of his Lutheran faith, the 21-year-old embarked on a series of works for the church in Rome – among them the choral psalm setting of Dixit Dominus – and his first Italian opera, Rodrigo.

By the time Agrippina was premiered during the 1709 carnival season in Venice, he had perfected the style; every pause in the music was filled with cries of “Viva il caro Sassone!” (“Long live the dear Saxon,” certainly more gratifying than “The Charming Brute.”)

This period may have been Handel’s most adventurous and exploratory, and affords us a rare glimpse into his personal life, vis-à-vis rumours of an affair with the soprano Vittoria Tarquini, 16 years his senior. The singer was also thought to be the mistress of the bisexual Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (pictured), a possible explanation as to why Handel was never commissioned by the Medicis. The fact that Tarquini did not appear in the cast of Rodrigo casts some doubt on the liaison, but three years later, after Handel was appointed Kappelmeister to the court of Hanover, the gossip persisted: Electress Sophia of Hanover confided to a friend that the new recruit was “a fine-looking man, and rumour has it that he was the lover of Victoria”.

Mainwaring claims there were other discreet episodes with women, but “his amours were rather of short duration, always within the pale of his own profession.” In recent years there has been heated debate over Ellen T. Harris’s controversial book Handel As Orpheus, a study of homoerotic subtexts in more than 100 chamber cantatas Handel wrote largely for private performances in Florence and Rome, and for which the benefactors are known to be part of the homosexual milieu within the papal city. No amount of analysis and speculation, however, will produce substantiated evidence of romantic or sexual attachments throughout Handel’s life, even if his operas are rife with them.

It might seem strange that, having conquered the Italian public and subsequently accepted a post in Hanover, Handel then chose to set up shop in England. The fact that he abandoned his new position within six months of the appointment has created still more rather delicious speculation about the secret life of Handel: that his new employer, the Elector of Saxony and heir to the British throne, dispatched the composer as a spy, since the English Queen Anne was known to be in ill health.

While it’s tempting to imagine Handel embroiled in royal espionage, the more likely scenario is simply that it was a characteristically shrewd move for the composer in musical and business terms. A taste for Italian-style opera had been developing in London since 1705, with growing public demand for Italian singers and especially those exotic creatures, the castrati. But up until Handel’s arrival in 1710, the operas produced in London were English-language arrangements or pasticcios cobbled together from pre-existing works. It was Handel who took up the challenge to compose the first original Italian opera created specifically for the English audiences, the Saxon composer’s name printed as “Signor Georgio Frederico Hendel” for a touch of authenticity. With its spectacular effects (including hundreds of real sparrows released in the theatre, which then proved extremely difficult to recapture), themes of love, heroism and sorcery, and music of astonishing brilliance, Rinaldo revolutionised the London stage.


Rinaldo was Handel's first great London hit

So began his fruitful and sometimes turbulent half-century in England, where the cut-throat competition of running an opera company, not to mention dealing with capricious, highly paid singers (the catfights between sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni were legendary, even coming to blows on stage), must have hardened the uncompromising composer even more. In 1718 he was so consumed by the business of founding The Royal Academy of Music that he didn’t return to Halle upon the death of his sister. In August 1723, Handel took a lease on a house in Brook Street (now Handel House), where he remained for the rest of his life. It proved a peaceful and productive environment, as evidenced by Giulio Cesare, perhaps his most popular opera, composed during his first year living in Mayfair. By residing in his own property, on his own terms, he defied existing models to remain largely independent, explains Bardwell – not for Handel a life of bootlicking subservience. “He had a stipend from the royal family that reliably gave him income and the confidence to live by himself and not within the patronage of a nobleman. He was self- sufficient; he didn’t have to sing for his supper. He thrived on that. He worked incredibly hard.”

George I's majestic Thames 'Water Music' pageant

After several successful seasons, the company was nonetheless in crisis by 1732, not least because Handel’s always-heated relationship with Senesino ended in the dismissal of the star castrato. The singer was snapped up by the rival company the Nobility Opera run by the Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora, which would soon boast the trump card of Farinelli: the greatest castrato of the age. Despite the demise of the Nobility Opera in 1737, removing the competition, Handel’s health had deteriorated under the pressure of one hectic season after another amid waning audiences. The 52-year-old suffered the first of his strokes that year, leaving his right hand paralysed and preventing him from performing until he travelled to the vapour baths in Aachen for treatment. Deidamia, the last of his 42 operas, was performed three times in 1741. Shortly after, Handel gave up the opera game; he had already begun to revolutionise music in his adopted country yet again – and to reinvent himself – as father of the English oratorio. What is so fascinating about this transformation, for Pinnock, is that “the dear Saxon” transcended his own heritage and that “he gave us a national music which has never died, and that went on way beyond his time, serving as the basis for English composition”. The move from lavish operas for the upper echelons of London society to unstaged sacred works based on biblical texts for the masses was undoubtedly a sound business move. He brought all the dramatic powers acrued throughout his life in the theatre to bear on the new genre, to the point that one admirer of Italian opera observed of Samson that “Handel has set up an Oratorio against the Operas, and succeeds.”

The image of the greedy, selfish “brute” hoarding fine food and wine must be taken alongside charitable acts of extraordinary generosity, perhaps the lesser-known side of Handel. “He had his heart in the right place,” affirms Bradwell, speaking of his role in founding the Society of Decayed Musicians for those who could no longer sing or play their instruments to make a living; his Dublin concert series raising funds for local hospitals, and his subsequent bequest of the original Messiah score and parts to the Foundling Hospital to raise money. Pinnock, too, puts it simply: “I think he was a good man.”

Messiah has attained such mythic status that it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. That it was composed at great speed even by Handel’s standards, in just 24 days, is common knowledge and attests not to the demands of subscribers or singers, but to the composer’s divine – yet deeply human – inspiration. Bardwell relates the apocryphal vignette often bandied about regarding Handel House: “We have a wonderful story here that when his servant came into his bedroom at 8 o’clock one morning he found Handel in tears because he had just written the Hallelujah chorus.” (Still, Handel refuted the idea of this being his greatest masterpiece, citing instead the chorus He saw the lovely youth from Theodora.)

Whether or not there’s any truth to that scenario, Pinnock agrees that the deeply personal nature of the work for Handel tends to be overlooked amid the popular festive hits. “Handel visits every bit of his human thought. If we take He was despised and rejected, we hear the absolute isolation of somebody, and this is an isolation that Handel could understand. All aspects of the emotions presented in the Messiah seem to be very well attached to his person, which is why it’s such a powerful work. You can hear what a passionate man he is, and it’s from that basis that I approach Handel.”

Handel’s final oratorio, Jephtha, was a tragic experience for the composer, who raced against encroaching blindness as he worked on the score, at one point scrawling: “Reached here on 13 February 1751, unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.”

As William Coxe remarked in his 1799 Anecdotes of George Frederick Handel and John Christopher Smith, “Handel contracted few intimacies, and when his early friends died, he was not solicitous of acquiring new ones.” Handel’s known correspondence to his friends was overtly formal and reveals little of his inner world, but the 67-year-old Pinnock has long been captivated by the generosity of spirit gleaned in just one letter. “It’s a beautiful letter from Handel to his friend Telemann. It’s an old man’s letter; what old men are interested in most is their friends and how the health is of the other one. It’s very human. Handel knew Telemann was a keen gardener, and sent him a great case of flowers, the best plants that he could find, rare plants.”

In fact, Handel wrote to his fellow Teuton composer (interestingly, in French) twice on the subject of these plants, over four years. On Christmas Day 1750, he referred to “choice flowers... of charming rarity” and assured Telemann: “You will have the best plants in all England.” But the crate never arrived. The second letter, dated September 1754, explains that Handel had received the erroneous news that Telemann was dead, and that he was delighted to discover this was not the case. He has procured almost all the plants Telemann wanted and they will be shipped “by the first boat which leaves here”. The second delivery arrived safely.

Did Handel soften in later life, or was this great capacity for kindness always there beneath the prickly exterior? Whatever the case, it’s certain that there’s more to ‘the charming brute’ than his reputation for anger and gluttony would suggest.

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The Secret Life of Handel
Handel: international man of mystery
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