Handel loved Britain – but that doesn't mean we have to love him back

Hallelujah! 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of Georg Friedrich Handel's death. In the UK, which has produced perhaps five musical geniuses in 350 years, the domicile of this German giant in London from 1712 is taken as something of a national triumph; he's been deified ever since. To question his supremacy is to blaspheme against three centuries of opinion. But does his music deserve such status?

Compare him with JS Bach, his contemporary and antithesis, who signed his works "Soli Deo Gloria" – "for the glory of God alone". Bach's job as kappelmeister at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig gave him the freedom to compose according to the truths of his own soul. Handel went commercial. He travelled widely, hobnobbed and wheeled and dealed. To please the wealthy, the powerful and the masses, he wrote for maximum impact and maximum income. Had he lived in the 1980s, his chief rival could have been Andrew Lloyd Webber.

His commercial instinct was first-rate. When the young Gluck asked his advice on a new stage work, Handel allegedly replied: "You have taken too much trouble over your opera. Here in England that is a mere waste of time. What the English like is something they can beat time to, something that hits them straight on the drum of the ear." Later, Mozart cottoned on: "Handel understands effect better than any of us," he wrote.

Handel was prolific. At times, he was paid to churn out multiple operas, at others he ran his own operatic seasons (at a huge loss). So he cut corners, recycled and borrowed from other composers. "He takes other men's pebbles and polishes them into diamonds," gasped the composer William Boyce.

Many of his operas' plots are impossibly convoluted, their stop-start action carried forward in a plodding succession of recitatives and "da capo" arias that turn up in a variety of operas, with different words. Occasionally, a gifted director will work their magic – such as David McVicar's Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne. But in lesser hands these operas can feel interminable, and today they are regarded as sacred, so cuts are frowned upon.

Our worshipping at the shrine of baroque potboilers is misplaced; that attitude was invented in another era, namely by Wagner, for Wagner. In Handel's time, business meetings, illicit trysts and so on took place in the theatre throughout; when you went to the opera, it wasn't for the music. Though you could – unlike now – enjoy throwing the odd vegetable.

Handel wrote stirring choruses, damn good tunes and enough instrumental pieces to occupy music students for centuries. But did he compose anything that has the intense, sublime, genuine spirituality of Bach's St Matthew Passion? Where can we find the degree of perception and compassion Mozart showed in Don Giovanni? And Handel's pleasant chamber and orchestral works are reduced to muzak when you encounter Beethoven's.

Beethoven said: "Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived." He was wrong: he deserved that epithet himself. Handel can't hold a candle to Bach, let alone Beethoven. A one-man baroque-and-roll hit factory, he compromised his art by selling out. Even if he did move to Britain.

Download free BBC Music Magazine Awards podcasts at independent.co.uk/classical

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory