Tag Archives: George Frideric Handel

Rinaldo and the Enlightenment

The resounding success of the premiere of Händel’s Rinaldo, his first opera in England, was tempered by satirical and sarcastic criticism in The spectator, a weekly journal dedicated to combining wit with morality.

The spectacular scenery and costumes, textual weaknesses, and lack of logic were all points of criticism. Joseph Addison, measuring the performance by the standards of reason, truth, and naturalness, hardly found occasion to mention the music and excellent cast.

The main forum for these ideas of a new moral, social, and national function for opera was the London coffeehouse. Thus the Enlightenment, through the medium of opera, came to influence the thought of large groups and stimulated new social behavior and artistic standards.

This according to “Mit Rindern, Schafen und Spatzenschwärmen: Die Londoner Uraufführung der Oper Rinaldo von Händel” by Wilhelm Baethge (Das Orchester XLIII/11 [1995] 17-22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-14126).

Today is the 31oth anniversary of Rinaldo’s premiere! Below, the opera’s march remains one of its most popular excerpts.

BONUS: John Gay’s celebrated repurposing of the march for The beggar’s opera.

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Filed under Baroque era, Opera, Reception

King Saul’s music therapy

The course of King Saul’s music therapy with the young shepherd David, as told in 1 Samuel, 16 and 18, exactly corresponds to the current state of psychotherapeutical knowledge, which holds that the quality of the relationship ultimately determines whether therapy succeeds or fails.

On the assumption that Saul’s affliction was the manifestation of an early, preverbal trauma (in today’s psychopathological terminology, a depressive breakdown in the context of a personality structure with damaged self-esteem), the initial therapeutic success is attributed primarily to the positive transference between therapist and patient, and only secondarily to David’s music-making. It follows logically that this therapy takes a malign course at the point when Saul’s positive transference becomes negative.

This according to “Heilung durch Musik? Der biblische Mythos von David und Saul als klinische Fallstudie” by Dagmar Hoffmann-Axthelm, an essay included in Rhythmus und Heilung: Transzendierende Kräfte in Wort, Musik und Bewegung (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2005, pp. 83–92).

Above, Rembrant’s depiction of the episode; below, Händel imagines David’s therpeutic harp playing in Saul, HWV 53.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Therapy

Händel’s bestiary

Händel filled his operas with arias that make reference to animals; rich in symbolism, the perceived virtues and vices of the lion, bee, nightingale, snake, elephant, and tiger, among others, resonate in his works.

The aria Qual leon, from Arianna in Creta, was written for Händel’s longest-serving singer, Margherita Durastanti, and it gave her a chance to sing full force about revenge and punishment: “Like an enraged lion whose young have been stolen, so will I, armed with anger, strike in battle.” The accompanying horns evoke the lion’s fierce and regal power.

This according to Handel’s bestiary: In search of animals in Handel’s operas by Donna Leon (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2010).

Below, hear Ann Hallenberg roar.

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Filed under Animals, Baroque era, Opera

Saul, HWV 53


In 2014 Carus-Verlag issued Saul, HWV 53, a critical edition of Händel’s oratorio that presents for the first time the version conducted by the composer himself.

Saul is one of the most dramatic of Händel’s oratorios, and to a greater extent than almost any other oratorio it reveals with its gripping power its proximity to opera of its era.

The score demands what was at the time Händel’s most varied orchestra; the normal opera orchestra of the day was augmented by trombones, harp, solo organ, glockenspiel, and large kettledrums. The choir functions for the first time as a central participant in dramatic action, while also undertaking commentating functions as in a Greek tragedy.

This new edition makes use for the first time of musical material revealed by the latest Händel research, based as its most important source on the conducting score from which the composer himself directed his performances. Only this research has shown which arias, choruses, recitatives, and instrumental pieces, after he had made numerous corrections in his autograph, Händel chose for his performances, and in what order they were given.

The result has produced, apart from many changes of details (e.g. autograph instructions concerning the use of the organ), an uncommon ordering of individual pieces, and passages with altered notes.

Below, a dramatic excerpt.

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Filed under Baroque era, Dramatic arts, New editions

Händel’s clock music

Charles Clay musical clock

On 8 May 1736 London’s Weekly advertiser reported on an exhibition of a musical clock to the Queen, giving “uncommon satisfaction to all the Royal Family present”. Although two descriptions survive, the machine itself is lost.

However, the discovery among Händel’s MSS of two sets of tunes for musical clock suggest that the composer was, at the very least, intrigued by the instrument’s capabilities—it is also possible that this machine, or one like it, played these very works. Clearly Händel was not averse to mechanical reproduction of his works, and he may indeed have heard it happen!

This according to “Handel’s clock music” by William Barclay Squire (The musical quarterly V/4 [October 1919]) pp. 538–552.

Today is Händel’s 330th birthday! Above, a musical clock by Charles Clay, the inventor of the machine reported on in 1736; below, Händel’s works performed on a toy piano.

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities

Handel reference database

handel monument

Handel reference database is the largest collection of documents on the composer’s life, career, and early reception. This open-access online resource is the ongoing work of Ilias Chrissochoidis.

Currently at 800,000 words, it has fully absorbed Deutsch’s documentary biography on Handel up to the year 1726 and aspires to incorporate every available document on Handel through his Commemoration Festival of 1784.

Aside from providing free, direct, and permanent access to records on the Enlightenment’s most influential composer, it seeks to highlight the role of public benefit scholarship in today’s academia. HRD welcomes and fully acknowledges contributions from researchers working on the long 18th century (especially on Continental European music and theater) as well as collaborations that can accelerate its growth and improve its functionality.

Above, the monument to Handel at Westminster Abbey, where the composer’s remains are buried.

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Filed under Baroque era, Resources

Händel and Johnson


Samuel Johnson lived in London during a struggle between English and foreign composers—epitomized by the rivalry between Händel and Thomas Arne—and witnessed its climax, which was to have a devastating impact on English musical morale through the 19th century.

During Johnson’s first decade in London this rivalry was characterized by Händel concentrating on his own affairs and ignoring Arne, while Arne was highly conscious and jealous of Händel. Their fortunes fluctuated, the one prevailing in public taste and then the other, but the spectacular performance of Händel’s 1749 Music for the royal fireworks, HWV 351, and the triumphant revival of his Messiah the next year finally established him as London’s pre-eminent composer. When he retired from the music scene in 1759 neither Arne nor any other English composer managed to achieve comparable public acclaim.

The 1784 commemoration of Händel at Westminster Abbey featured some 275 singers and an orchestra of about 250. Johnson chose to go to Oxford that week, but Boswell, having accompanied Johnson there, returned to London after three days to attend the event. Although Johnson died that year, he had lived to see the victory of a composer whose work would prove as enduring as his own.

This according to “Music in Johnson’s London” by Bruce Simonds, an essay included in The age of Johnson: Essays presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 411–420).

Below, Händel’s 1749 work with appropriate visuals.

Related article: Operatic degeneracy


Filed under Baroque era, Literature

Fitzwilliam Handeliana

In 2009 the music publisher Edition HH launched Fitzwilliam Handeliana, a series of publications of Handelian music inspired by manuscript holdings in The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The first volume in the series, Compositions for harpsichord and organ, is a collection of works by the founder himself: Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion (1745–1816). Edited by Gerald Gifford, the museum’s Honorary Keeper of Music, the volume presents rarely seen works by one of Händel’s ardent champions.

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Filed under Baroque era, New editions, New series

Operatic degeneracy I

An anonymous pamphlet from around 1733 titled Do you know what you are about? or, A Protestant alarm to Great Britain rails against the egregious inroads that Roman Catholic degeneracy, not least in the form of Italian opera, were making in England.

Händel and Senesino are particularly singled out for “playing at the dog and bear, exactly like the two kings of Poland contending for the Empire of Doremifa” in contrast to the humble, hardworking John Gay, whose praiseworthy Beggar’s opera reached the stage only through his own admirable toil and steadfastness.

This according to William Charles Smith’s “Do you know what you are about?: A rare Handelian pamphlet”, an article in The music review no. 98 (2 April 1964, pp. 114–19); the issue, which honors the 70th birthday of the English librarian, bibliographer, and honorary curator of the Royal Music Library Cecil Bernard Oldman (1894–1969), is covered in our recently published Liber Amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.

Above, a satirical depiction by John Vanderbank from around 1723 of Senesino, Francesca Cuzzoni, and Gaetano Berenstadt performing in a Händel opera (probably Flavio, re di Longobardi).

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Dramatic arts, Humor, Opera, Reception