Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Handel in London, by Jane Glover, pub. Picador 2018

Imagine, if you will, a biography of Shakespeare written by someone who, though perfectly competent to write historical biography, is by profession a theatre director. You'd get the normal biographical details, but also a fascinating slant provided by this area of expertise – in this time period we see comedies with two heroines, one tall, one short, so he's clearly got two boy actors of that description; from these lines we see that pocket-watches are coming into fashion: even the Globe is named for the new interest in world travel.

This is what happens when a conductor writes a biography of Handel. It focuses very much on his music, but not in the way a musicologist might; she is far more interested in how it gets staged, sung and received by the public. The extent to which Handel's writing, especially in his operas, was shaped by the availability of particular singers and what they could and could not do comes across very clearly; he seems to have been brilliant at showcasing the strengths of a singer or concealing their failings, as occasion demanded. Indeed he was basically a pretty good boss, who nurtured and believed in the talents of his staff: true, he was capable of dragging an un-co-operative soprano over to a first-floor window and threatening to throw her out, but when she squandered her vast earnings he was equally capable of helping her with a benefit concert. Handel did not like to waste money (he lived simply and got out of the South Sea Bubble well before the crash) but he was unfailingly generous to those in need and did a great deal of free work for the Foundling Hospital.

The London of Handel's era must have been a fascinating place; obviously in this book the facets of it that are thrown into focus are those that impinged most on Handel's career. This means the goings-on in the Hanoverian royal family, whose commissions for coronation odes, wedding marches and other celebratory music, not to mention a regular pension, provided much of his bread and butter, and the progress of the English musical world in his time. The resentment against the fact that opera was sung in Italian was clearly remarkably bitter, given that the practice then was, at what must have been considerable expense, to provide libretti in both English and Italian for the audience so that they could follow the plot. In fact, they probably understood more than I ever did in my opera-going days, for I could seldom make out what the Operatic Voice was saying even when it did speak English.

Though Handel's character in itself may not be the main focus, it comes across as well via his working life as by any other means: gruff, plain-spoken, kind, but above all absolutely driven when it came to his music. The man's work rate and output were phenomenal; his singers and musicians must have been exhausted by the end of each season but he seems to have been able to keep up this rate with no loss of quality.

This biography may not be so rich in anecdote as some of Handel that I have read, but two which, because of their musical connections, do make it in are unforgettable. One concerns the triumphant first performance of Messiah in Dublin, which was nearly hindered when the Dean of St Patrick's, whose singers were to take part, suddenly objected. This Dean was none other than Jonathan Swift, already showing signs of the dementia that would soon kill him. Luckily the Chapter had noticed the signs too, and quietly shelved his orders.

The second is the work Handel was engaged on when his sight finally failed: Jephtha, with its airs "Welcome as the cheerful light", "Therefore, tomorrow's dawn" and the one during which he laid down his pen, with a note that he was unable to go on due to his weakening eyes; "How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees, all hid from mortal sight".
Tags: book reviews, history, non-fiction
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