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The best books on Handel

recommended by Andrew Gant

The Making of Handel’s Messiah by Andrew Gant

The Making of Handel’s Messiah
by Andrew Gant

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George Frideric Handel was born near Leipzig, became established in Italy, and ended life as England's national treasure. Andrew Gant—author of a new book on Handel's most famous composition—selects the five best texts for gaining an understanding of Handel's life and work, and explains why opera divas were the premiership footballers of the Baroque period.

Interview by Cal Flyn

The Making of Handel’s Messiah by Andrew Gant

The Making of Handel’s Messiah
by Andrew Gant

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You’re the author of a new book, The Making of Handel’s Messiah. To start us off, could you give us a sense of his significance as a composer?

That’s a big question. His significance in the development of music, and I think particularly English music, is unparalleled. I mean, alongside Purcell, Elgar, Britten he holds pre-eminence, no doubt about that. And I think his significance lies in so many different fields.

The Baroque was very much an era that began with national styles of music, and part of Handel’s great skill was to fashion them into something coherent, which was uniquely his own. You know: Italian opera, English oratorio – which was essentially something he invented – church music and his wonderful ability to set the English language, something that he certainly inherited from Purcell.

He was a German man – born in Halle, Saxony, in 1685 – who was later naturalised as a British citizen. Do you think this international origin story, and the amount that he travelled around in his youth, was the source of his power of synthesis?

Yes, without question. He was probably the ultimate example of an international synthesis. I mean, he only took legal British nationality towards the end of his life, but he lived in England for most of his adult life from around 1712, when he first came, and it was very much his centre of operations. He was an international figure; he travelled where reputation and opportunity took him as a young man – very keen to get away from his provincial upbringing, firstly to the neighbouring big cities, and then on to this famous trip to Italy, where he met everybody, was extremely successful, and then settled in England where the opportunities were good for him, both in the opera and for his position at Court.

The first book on Handel that you want to recommend gives a great overview of his life: this is Jonathan Keates’s Handel: The Man and His Music. This magisterial biography was first published in 1985, and was revised in 2008.

That’s right. This is a really good book. I mean, it goes without saying that there are lots of books about Handel. He has been tremendously famous and popular — in his day, and from then on.

You asked about his significance. One of the fascinating things about Handel is the way that his reputation has travelled through time, because he and his great contemporary Bach were born only about six weeks apart, and quite close together geographically.

Yes, Bach’s birthplace Eisenach is only around eighty miles from Halle, where Handel was born.

Yet they never actually met. They tried on a couple of occasions, but it never actually happened.

But their reputations form a fascinating overview of how history works, or how music history works. Handel, during his lifetime, was a working professional composer, tremendously successful but with his share of problems, troubles and professional rivalries. Then, towards the end of his life and afterwards, he became this sort of national totem, which to a large extent misrepresented his work. The fascinating history of Messiah itself is the way it turned from an 18th century oratorio into this huge nationalistic celebration performed by choirs of hundreds, then later thousands, and re-orchestrated by everyone from Henry Wood to people with brass bands.

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So it’s fascinating to look at a writer like Jonathan Keates reviewing not just what Handel did, but what history has done to Handel – and how we, to a large extent, reclaimed him. He begins the update of this book: “Since 1985, when the first edition of this book appeared, Handel has been dramatically reclaimed.” That’s the context in which he wrote the revision of his book.

What does that mean, reclaimed?

Scholarship and the Historically Informed Performance movement has stripped away two hundred years of a performance tradition which cast Handel’s music in the form and sounds of its own time, and restored it to the kind of scale and style which he would have heard himself, with wonderful and revelatory results.

Am I right in thinking that we know a great deal about Handel’s career, and how that progressed, but very little about his private life?

Yes, that’s one of the things that is so fascinating about him. He was immensely well known, had a wide circle of friends, was extremely erudite. He clearly enjoyed company; his friends often talk about him attending dinner parties, and obviously music-making is an extremely sociable activity. But it seems that at the end of the day, when all of that was done, he would go home to Brook Street and shut the door. He was an intensely private man. There are very few letters by Handel which survive, and that’s the way history works. It’s largely the same with Bach, you know. You get a lot of administrative records, stuff like that, but very little where they write about their thoughts and feelings.

“Famously, there’s nothing about his emotional life, no hint of any kind of romantic attachment”

Partly that’s just what’s happened to survive, but yes – as a person – it’s difficult to get close to him. Famously, there’s nothing about his emotional life, no hint of any kind of romantic attachment. That’s fair enough, but it’s a bit of a puzzle, when you bear in mind how beautifully he wrote about those things in his operas and oratorios, and in particular about father-daughter relationships. It’s a curious thing; that’s something he never knew. Just part of the mystery of creativity.

Well, some suggest that he may have been homosexual, hence the silence.

All you can say is that there is simply no evidence. Of course, you then tie yourself in knots as to whether that’s because there’s no possibility of there being any evidence. But what can you say? I think we have to be cautious about that kind of inference.

Agreed. So, he became a British subject and worked for the British royal family. But do you think he was always seen to be German?

Not really, I don’t think so. I mean, I can’t recall offhand much reference to that kind of thing. When he arrived, the newspapers would refer to him as ‘the famous German composer Mr Handel,’ but after that he seemed to become fairly well absorbed.

There’s a lot of attention given to his Italian opera, which is a good indication of his internationalism. He was a composer who was German by birth, lived in London, and wrote most of his most celebrated music in Italian. It was an extremely international business. It’s easy to think that, while we hop around Europe all the time now, in past centuries people didn’t travel. Actually, they did. There was an awful lot of travel around Europe, and the singers in particular were, to a large extent, foreign stars who were brought in as attractions. A little like football clubs today.

“Singers were, to a large extent, foreign stars brought in as attractions. A little like football clubs today”

For example, one of Handel’s principal duties was to go around Europe touting for the best talent. And that’s when you got these very interesting mixtures of homegrown singers and foreign talents – often the men tended to be English, and the higher voices tended to be foreign, the women and the castrati as well. That’s not always the case. There was a singer called Reinhold, one of Handel’s basses who, like him, came originally from Germany but lived in London. But his celebrated tenor was a man called John Beard, who had been a choirboy at the Chapel Royal. Then you get starry Italian sopranos who were brought in – competing superstars.

Yes, I did hear of a very funny story about two Italian opera singers coming to blows on stage.

They did! They had a punch-up on stage: Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni.

So these are enormous egos, massive rivalries. Just like premiership footballers today, as you said. Do you think Handel himself had a big ego? I know it’s difficult to extrapolate his mental states, as we were discussing.

From the evidence that there is, I would say no. I think he was one of these people who took what he did very seriously indeed – but he didn’t take himself very seriously. It’s a good combination. He was clearly absolutely committed to his art, and to high standards; there are lots of stories about him being very impatient with musicians who didn’t do things the way he wanted them to. Of course, many of these stories will have been embellished over the years, but they must have elements of truth.

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There’s an occasion that I think is well attested where a singer was over-ornamenting a musical line and he threatened to throw her out the window. One of his collaborators was a violinist called Matthew Dubourg, who led the orchestra in the first performances of the Messiah. Part of the aesthetic of Baroque music was the performers would add ornament and embellishment and cadenzas to the line, and even then it was a matter of debate about how far you should go with this. Dubourg introduced a little cadenza into one of the pieces – which was expected – but he went off on a bit of a flight of fancy, and when he finally got back to the key of the piece, apparently Handel turned to him and said: ‘You are welcome home, Mr Dubourg!’

There’s another story where he was rehearsing a recitative in an opera, and the singer complained about the way he was playing the harpsichord and said to him: ‘Mr Handel, if you continue to play like that I shall jump on your harpsichord.’ He replied: ‘Well if you do, pray give me notice in advance and I will advertise, because I’m sure more people will pay to see you jump than to hear your sing.’

Ooh.

I think that’s probably not entirely true, but it’s a good story. All these anecdotes reflect aspects of character, of course.

Let’s talk about the second book you want to discuss: this is Handel and the English Chapel Royal, by Donald Burrows. Why is it important to look at this phase in Handel’s life?

Well, as there are so many books about Handel, I tried to choose ones that cover different bases. Jonathan Keates’s book is a wonderfully evocative portrait of 18th century London, as well as of Handel the individual. Donald Burrows is an absolutely world-leading scholar and academic, and this is a very serious scholarly book. Of course, they all have their part in trying to get a picture of the man.

Burrows took about 25 years to write this book, I think because Handel’s career encompasses so many aspects of music, and of performance style and context. Inevitably, there are bits that have got more attention than others. The vast majority of his music was dramatic in one sense or another – either operas or oratorios – but for the entire time of his life in London, his whole adult life from 1712, he was paid as a member of the royal household as composer to the Chapel Royal, as well as a separate pension as music master to the royal princesses.

“Handel was responsible for, if not inventing the oratorio, then fashioning it into its full form”

This wasn’t like when Purcell or John Blow held the same post; their job was to run the choir and to provide church music on a regular basis – Handel never did that, he didn’t write a huge amount of church music. He essentially only worked out music for special occasions: weddings, baptisms, memorials, thanksgiving services, things like that. But the relationship with the Chapel Royal provided him not only with a regular income, but with a source of singers. It was a very well-organised institution that provided great training for singers, and also for composers, and provided him with a source for choruses for his oratorios, but also soloists. A number of the men singers in his oratorios had been, and still were, members of the Chapel Royal.

So it was a very close relationship, and one that went on throughout his life. Donald Burrows has gone into the detail in a fascinating way. So it provides an important thread. Also, and this is something I’m particularly interested in, it links into the time before and indeed after Handel –because the Chapel Royal was the most important musical institution in England for many centuries, and it was the training ground for all sorts of people like Byrd and Tallis and Gibbons and Morley, and then after the English Civil War, you’ve got Purcell and Blow and others. It’s easy to think of the ages of Handel and Purcell as completely different, but Purcell died in 1895, which is less than 20 years before Handel arrived. So quite a lot of singers would have known Purcell, often as boys, who then worked with Handel – like John Beard, his famous tenor, and Bernard Gates. I find this really interesting, and I think you can hear it in the music.

In what way?

Some of the choices of text. For example: ‘O sing unto the lord,’ as an anthem, which sets the same text that Purcell set. Okay, it’s a psalm text, plenty of people set psalm texts, but I think you can hear the influence in his setting of the English prayer book words, which Purcell did so beautifully. The alternations of solos and choruses and little instrumental interludes… I think there’s a lot of Purcell in Handel’s writing.

There’s a wonderful anthem called As Pants the Hart, which Handel – typically – wrote no fewer than five different versions of, often with overlapping music. There’s a movement in there which uses a ground bass in a repeating pattern, which is a real signature of Purcell’s, and otherwise fairly unusual in Handel’s work.

Handel has this long-standing relationship with the Chapel Royal, and his initial fame was for his work in Italian opera. Is an oratorio what you get if you add those two things together?

Well, in many ways it is. You can’t oversimplify these things, but that’s a good way of putting it. I mean, the English 18th-century oratorio was a new thing, and Handel to a very large extent was responsible for, if not inventing it, then certainly fashioning it into its full form. You can see a progression of style through his English oratorios, I think.

I’ve chosen Ruth Smith’s book on Charles Jennens –

Which we’ll come to very shortly.

– but in addition she also wrote a very, very good book called Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought, which says that each of Handel’s oratorios is… not a new form, but a new iteration of that form in its own right. So yes, I think you’re right. They are to a large extent a combination of sacred music – choruses and solos, things like fugues, old-fashioned, rather academic type of things – with drama.

Of course we should remember that a large part of the reason for the oratorio coming into existence at all was the simple practical consideration that the theatres were closed in Lent, and the public wanted something to listen to. They couldn’t go to the opera because this was frivolous. So composers turned the wonderfully dramatic stories of the Old Testament – Saul and Samson and all those sorts of things –into dramas. Because they are dramas, there’s no question about that. If you listen to the last scene of Saul, with Saul visiting the Witch of Endor and the death of Jonathan… They are fantastically dramatic, personal pieces. They have often been staged.

Even at the time, there was a huge amount of controversy about the extent to which sacred words, the words of the Bible, should be turned into something as light-hearted and flippant as opera. There were lots of people who objected very strongly to this; Handel had to go through all sorts of contortions to pretend that he wasn’t writing opera, when basically that was exactly what he wanted to do!

Could you talk a little bit about Handel’s transition from Italian opera to oratorio? What was driving that change?

One of the things you need to remember about Handel is that he was absolutely a professional. This is what opera composers did, he was working to a market. In this, he is absolutely in distinction to a composer like Bach, who pursued what, even in his own time, was becoming a slightly old-fashioned model of having a job, and writing to the job. Bach did what all of his predecessors did, which was get a job with a nobleman, or at a court, or as a town composer, something like that, where the employer would tell you what to do, and you did that.

“There was a huge amount of controversy about the extent to which the words of the Bible should be turned into something as light-hearted as opera”

Handel was a freelance composer. And the fact is, by the 1740s, the fad for Italian opera was on the wane. That was for the usual reasons: it was partly to do with the factions within the royal family, who were always falling out with each other. If the king went to something, the Prince of Wales wouldn’t, and vice versa. It was also – that old standby in musical history – to do with money. Opera was very expensive, as it is now. You have these divas demanding enormous fees, you get various companies having financial crises from time to time and going bankrupt, one of the famous impresarios absconding with the profits and running off to Europe… That’s partly why.

Okay, great. Then we see Handel developing oratorio, making it his own. Perhaps that brings us to the next book – and indeed your own, which also deals with Handel’s Messiah. Your book recommendation is Ruth Smith’s Charles Jennens: The Man Behind Handel’s Messiah. A provocative title! I should note that this book can be tricky to get hold of.

So much of Handel’s music is setting of words – like all composers of drama. The pieces are very much collaborations, and how a composer chooses their wordsmiths – their librettists – is a key feature of musical history. Some have chosen to do it themselves, like Wagner, so they have complete control over the artwork. But most haven’t. In that case, they are to a certain extent at the mercy of their librettists, and composers haven’t always been as scrupulous as they might be about getting the best results. Handel’s librettists do vary, there’s no doubt about that.

Again, often this is a question of practicality. He worked with a man called Miller on Joseph and His Brethren, one of his lesser-known oratorios, but Miller then died. So he turned back to Jennens. Jennens was a fascinating character, again revealing a different side of 18th century thought. He was much more high class than Handel, he was landed gentry with a beautiful big house. He was well-travelled, highly educated, but he also had a rather checkered background: he was a Non-Juror, so he refused to accept the legitimacy of the Hanoverian kings, which meant he wasn’t able to have any official position in Court or anything of that kind; he was essentially a man of leisure.

“Jennens said Handel wrote Messiah too quickly, and that parts of it were no good, and the overture was no good”

He was also – though clearly you have to be a bit careful about making medical diagnoses from 200 years’ distance – probably a depressive. He clearly had significant mood swings, he was very prickly and his letters are kind of funny sometimes in how readily he takes offence. He sees plots against him all the time. Handel is well-known himself to be short-tempered and rather grumpy, but comes across in their correspondence as rather more diplomatic.

Jennens was a great letter writer. There’s lots of correspondence from Jennens to his friend Edward Holdsworth, who travelled to Europe a lot. On one occasion Jennens described Handel ‘having maggots in his brain,’ a great expression.

They worked together on an oratorio on the subject of Saul, which is one of my favourite Handel works. It’s absolutely wonderful. But Jennens said Handel wrote Messiah too quickly, and he would take a whole year over it, and parts of it are no good, and the overture’s no good, and ‘I told him what bits he needs to change,’ all this kind of stuff. Handel wrote to Jennens from Dublin, where Messiah was performed; he said ‘your oratorio Messiah has been a great success’ – being very diplomatic in referring to it as your oratorio.

But the important thing about Jennens was that he was a very good poet. The libretto of Saul is terrific, it’s very dramatic and it moves from this corporate universal expression to these moments of intense personal expression. In Messiah, he didn’t write the libretto, but he selected it from the scriptures. It’s important to recognise that this is completely unlike anything else, really, before or since. It’s called Messiah, and it tells the story of Christ. But it’s not a narrative; it’s not like the Passions of Bach. The name of Jesus is hardly mentioned at all.

It assumes that the listener already knows the story, and what it provides is a sort of commentary on the meaning and the significance of this story. And it does it in a beautiful, very moving and well-structured way. Which suited Handel’s musical genius perfectly. It is an extraordinary achievement. There’s lots of little details, like how he would combine together two bits of text from different parts of the Bible, and maybe he might have to change a verb… For example, in the alto aria, the emotional centre of the piece is –

He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

Then the middle section is:

He gave his back to the smiters

Which comes from a different place in the book of psalms, where it reads, “I gave my back to the smiters.” So he’s changed it to make it fit with the other piece of text that he’s chosen.

Fascinating. Forgive me, but how does it work, between a librettist and a composer? Practically speaking, I mean. Jennens compiled this selection of scriptural quotations in advance, then handed it over?

That’s right. Yes. He wrote it first, then sent it to Handel. There’s correspondence where Handel acknowledges receiving it, and says he will take it on a trip to Tunbridge Wells, of all places.

Got it. And Ruth Smith’s book, in particular – what do you admire about it?

Well, as I say, her background is that she wrote about 18th century thought. The oratorio is a crucial link into the whole current of Enlightenment thought. Presenting sacred stories as human dramas, I see that as a key aspect of Enlightenment thinking, rather than the older, more old-fashioned, wholesome, catholic – if you like – presentation of fixed texts. She describes the character of the man so well, his wide circle of friendship, and puts him in the context of the Enlightenment, politics and finance, his family. Also, she brings out the importance of Jennens to Messiah. It really brought home to me the extent to which this work is by Handel and Jennens, even though Jennens didn’t actually write the words – because the whole shape, the whole direction was Jennens’s creation. And it is a remarkable one.

That’s what that book has done so well. It’s also beautifully produced. One of the wonderful things about reading about the 18th century is that you have such an enormous wealth of visual artefacts that go with it. There are some wonderful portraits of Handel by Thomas Hudson – actually, one of them commissioned by Jennens, who could afford it – and indeed of Jennens himself, and pictures of the wonderful houses and the churches and the places that they worked. That’s important to me in a book, it brings the whole atmosphere of the kind of circles that these people moved in to life.

And, again, another contrast with Bach, actually, who lived in the small town of Leipzig. Therefore there is only one portrait of Bach, and it’s not very good. It affects how we think about him, because we can’t see him.

Yes, absolutely. And Handel himself, did he become very wealthy?

He was certainly well-off, yes. I mean, typical musician, he had his ups and downs, that’s for sure. He was very much at the mercy of fashion, and changes of pace, things like that. There were periods when his finances went into a bit of a tailspin, but by the end of his life, he was certainly comfortably off. His house in Brook Street, now a museum, is a very fine Georgian townhouse.

Okay, let’s move on to the next book on our Handel reading list. It’s A General History of Music by Charles Burney, the first volume of which was published in 1776. Burney was the foremost music historian of his day – and a contemporary of Handel.

That’s right, although he was younger than Handel. The reason I chose Burney was that, again, I wanted to cover the variety of sources that you have available when looking at Handel. The books we’ve talked about so far are written by modern scholars, but clearly contemporary sources are absolutely vital.

One of the interesting things about the 18th century is that it was the era which, in a sense, invented the idea of the music scholar, the music historian. The first serious attempts at writing scholarly music history and biographies of composers date from the 18th century. You have the biography of Bach written by Nikolaus Forkel, who didn’t know him personally, but knew Bach’s son. A friend of Bach’s called Johann Mattheson wrote an extremely engaging and witty series of accounts of contemporary composers. Not always reliable, but funny. He knew Bach and Handel, and lots of people. He’s the one who told the story of Handel and him having a duel; they had a row over who was supposed to be playing the recitative in the opera in Hamburg. If that story is true – it doesn’t sound terribly likely.

“Burney was probably the greatest of the 18th century musical historians”

Handel was, in fact, the subject of the first book-length biography of a composer ever published, which is an interesting indication. It was written after his death by John Manwairing. It’s a useful source, but unfortunately has been shown to be not very accurate. For example, it gets the year of his birth wrong, which also appears on the monument to him in the nave of Westminster Abbey.

But Burney, I think it’s fair to say, was probably the greatest of the 18th century musical historians and took his subject extremely seriously. He was himself a composer and musician, a little bit younger than Handel – the people he knew were more of the circle of Mozart, later in the 18th century. He was a member of a very musical family. His sister Fanny Burney was a celebrated performer. He travelled widely and he wrote a large number of books about music in Europe and an extremely important book for Handel scholars about the centenary celebrations when Messiah was performed in Westminster Abbey, along with some other works.

But his General History, which is extremely long, detailed and pretty engaged in the written history of music, talks about Handel’s life and work in London, and is an extremely useful source. Not just about the details, but about the reception of the music, which I think is extremely interesting.

You talked about the beginnings of the field of the study of music history, of musicology. Do you think that Handel and his colleagues would have considered themselves in this context – as the latest in a line of musicians, carrying the field onwards?

I think this is where someone like Burney became significant, because there is a sense that this is something that hadn’t been done before. The answer to your question is that, to a large extent, Handel and Bach regarded themselves as professionals, as serious composers, but what they were doing was writing music for now. The assumption that was implicit was that in 10, 20 years’ time, somebody else would be doing something new. It was assumed that each generation would move on from the one before.

Handel would revive old pieces, but this idea about writing for posterity is quite a new idea, and not really one that I think was in the forefront of their minds. It’s the late 18th century that really started to do this. In London, you had something called the ‘Society for the Performance of Ancient Music’, which was set up deliberately to keep old music in the repertoire. Before that, it was assumed that each generation made its own music and would move on from the music of the past.

Interestingly, ‘ancient’ music was defined as anything more than 20 years old. So, you know, if you’re in the 1780s or 1790s, and you’re listening to J.C. Bach and Haydn, then the music of Handel and J.S. Bach is ‘old music.’ Why would you listen to that? It would be like, you know, travelling by horse and cart when you could get the train. What would be the point of that? Why would you play an old fashioned recorder when you could play on a modern flute? It would just be a daft thing to do.

“‘Ancient’ music was defined as anything more than 20 years old”

But people began to take the idea of looking at the past seriously. This is a very interesting moment in music, because it then also affects the role of new music. You’re no longer assuming that each generation moves on and progresses from one to the other. In which case, what does new music do – what is it for?

There’s another 18th century writer called Sir John Hawkins who was a very good, interesting writer about music, who said something like: ‘It is axiomatic that you search for perfection in music. Each generation will make improvements on the one before.’

Interesting.

I’ll just mention one more thing before we go on. Burney did claim to have met Handel once, when he was a schoolboy in Chester, and actually it was when Handel was on the way to Dublin to perform Messiah. He has this rather good story about Handel’s boat being delayed by bad weather, and he was laid over in Chester for a few days. He had the manuscript of the script of Messiah with him, so he got in touch with the local cathedral organist, and gathered some singers together for a sing-through.

The bass, apparently, was a good singer but couldn’t sight-read. Burney tells a story about how Handel lost his temper and shouted, ‘you told me you could sing music at sight!’ And the singer said, ‘Yes! So I can, sir. But not at first sight.’

Burney writes this in this comic mock-German accent – it was said that Handel never lost his accent – although I should say that quite a lot of people question whether that anecdote is actually true or not. But it’s a good story.

It is! Let’s move on to this last text you want to discuss, which is the autobiography and correspondence of a Mrs Delany. A facsimile first volume of the two-volume 1879 edition can be found online here, or there’s a six-part modern edition from the Cambridge Literary Collection.

The thing about Delany is that she lived pretty much the whole of the 18th century. She was born in 1700, and she died at a great age. She was also a voluminous letter writer, very well-educated, absolutely passionate about music, but also personally well connected.

She was a neighbour of Handel’s. She knew him well and was a great supporter and friend. So was her brother, Bernard Granville. The two of them corresponded about Handel. She was married twice and her second husband was a man called Patrick Delany, the Chancellor of Christ Church Cathedral at the time of the first performance of Messiah. So her links with Handel were very close, and she’s a wonderful first-hand witness.

How does Handel appear in her correspondence?

She’s clearly very fond of him. This is what’s so nice about reading these letters, you’re getting a sort of real-time experience because she’s writing a letter. She also wrote several autobiographical fragments, which are more formal, but where she’s just writing to her brother or a friend, she’s not thinking that anybody else is ever going to read this, it’s just chit-chat. Let me see if I can find one. Here:

I hope you find Mr Handel well. I bid compliments to him. He has no more real admirer of his great work than myself. His wonderful Messiah will never be out of my head.

This is just two friends, writing about another friend. When Handel lost his sight towards the end of his life, Mrs Delany writes:

Poor Handel. How feelingly must he recollect the ‘total eclipse’

This is a reference to the aria from the oratorio Samson, because Samson, of course, went blind, and there’s this beautiful aria reflecting on the loss of sight, which of course was a very personal thing to Handel. So it’s all there, he really comes across as a real person. And indeed so do many other friends. Here’s a bit from her autobiography:

In the year 1710, I first saw Mr Handel. He was introduced to my uncle Stanley by Mr Heidegger, the famous manager of the opera, and the most ugly man that ever was formed.

Ha!

Then she plays the spinnet to Handel, a small domestic keyboard instrument, and her uncle asks if she thinks she will ever play as well as Mr Handel.

‘If I did not think I should,’ cried I, ‘I would burn my instrument!’ such was the innocent presumption of childish ignorance.

A strong character.

She’s wonderful. This is the great thing about the 17th century. You get a lot of very colourful, feisty characters – men and women. There’s a vein of eccentricity and strong views. They’re great fun to spend time with.

You mentioned his going blind towards the end of his life. How much longer did he live after that?

The onset of blindness was, I think, towards the end of the 1740s, and he lived to 1759. So certainly by the last five years of his life, he was totally blind. There are accounts of him going to dinners, and people talking to him when he’s completely lost his sight. He had to give up active participation in performances, although he did still play the organ. But he could no longer direct performances, and handed over those duties to his assistants.

So it came on gradually, but over the last ten years of his life – and total loss of sight in the last five years or so.

After his death, as you’ve said, he was almost reborn as this national treasure. But was he accepted at the time of his death to have been a great genius?

Absolutely. Yes. There was a public monument to him in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which is not there anymore, and the same sculptor, a Frenchman called Roubiliac, made the one that was put up in the nave at Westminster Abbey. This is a good indication of his standing and his status at the time of his death.

You’ve just written a book about Handel’s Messiah. Is that your favourite Handel composition?

I don’t want to duck the question, but one of the most remarkable things about Handel is the range of his achievement. No two pieces are alike, which means that there are so many pieces which have a wonderful appeal in their own right.

Messiah is not like anything else. It has held its place at the absolute heart of… not just musical life, but of British culture since it was written. It has changed in that time, and the way we engage with it has changed, but the work itself has been able to encompass that. It’s one of the things that makes it so remarkable.

At the same time, think of the coronation anthems, one of which has been sung at every coronation since 1727. I’m immensely fond of the dramatic oratorios; I think the final scenes of Saul and Samson and Esther are among the most wonderful dramatic music ever composed, and they stand alongside Mozart and Verdi and Wagner as theatre, as drama. No question about that. Then the church music as well contains great beauties. But I think Messiah has earned its place at the heart of British culture.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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Andrew Gant

The musician and composer is a lecturer in music at St. Peter's College, Oxford. He was Organist, Choirmaster and Composer at the Chapel Royal for 13 years (until 2013), and directed music at many state occassions. He has published Christmas Carols, from Village Green to Church Choir, and O Sing Unto the Lord: a History of English Church Music. His book, The Making of Handel's Messiah, was published by Bodleian Library Publishing in 2020.

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Andrew Gant

The musician and composer is a lecturer in music at St. Peter's College, Oxford. He was Organist, Choirmaster and Composer at the Chapel Royal for 13 years (until 2013), and directed music at many state occassions. He has published Christmas Carols, from Village Green to Church Choir, and O Sing Unto the Lord: a History of English Church Music. His book, The Making of Handel's Messiah, was published by Bodleian Library Publishing in 2020.