Handel: the Tebbit test

He was born and trained in Germany, fine-tuned in Italy. So, asks Bayan Northcott, exactly how English was Handel?
Click to follow
Very well, supposing he had not come - or not lingered beyond his first London visit of 1710. Supposing that, after his solid Germanic studies in Halle and the flamboyant assumption of the Italian manner of his early twenties in Rome, he had plumped instead for the refinements of French court culture and settled in Paris? Would we really now be hailing such figures as Maurice Greene, Thomas Arne and William Boyce as truly major British composers, and the first half of the 18th century as the period in which a burgeoning culture of English opera saw off the Italian fashion and the post-Purcellian choral ode flourished instead of the oratorio?

But, of course, he did come and - apart from a few brief Continental forays - for keeps: labouring ceaselessly to entertain and uplift the London public over some 40 years, being granted British citizenship in 1727 and dying at his house in Brook Street in 1759 already a national institution.

So why has the status, achievement and, still more troublous, the posthumous influence of George Frideric Handel continued to exercise British musicologists and cultural historians more or less ever since? We do not, for instance, consider the operas of Lully or the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti any less seminally French or characteristically Iberian because both were born in Italy. Yet in Radio 3's Composer of the Week from next Monday, Simon Heighes will be pursuing the question, yet again, of just how English was Handel?

Part of the problem must surely be that, by nature and circumstances, he embodied in his own time a new artistic phenomenon altogether. Admittedly, we know strangely little of his private life and character, beyond his well-attested appetite for the pleasures of the table and connoisseur's interest in picture-collecting (he eventually owned two Rembrandts). The new gender-orientated musicology may titillate itself with such titles as "Was Handel Gay?", but there seems little evidence one way or another.

His public persona is more fully documented, however. And even if some of the evocations of his strong German accent and tales of his threats to defenestrate tiresome prima donnas may be exaggerated, the impression emerges of a liberal, sometimes turbulent but essentially self-motivating temperament.

It is difficult to imagine such a figure putting up indefinitely with the patronage of some German elector or town council as his contemporary J S Bach had to; still less with the fickle favour of the Roman cardinals or the elaborate formality of the Court of Versailles. Dynamically expanding, mercantile 18th-century London, by contrast, was not only relatively free- thinking but - for better or worse - far ahead of the rest of Europe in developing a newly commercialised culture of public concerts and opera.

We tend to think of Mozart 50 years later as the prototype of the artist rejecting servant status and attempting to set up as a free entrepreneur, and Handel's early London years were duly sustained by the hospitality of patrons and sundry court stipends. But he seems to have recognised the unique opportunities London offered for self-promotion soon enough, effectively operating from the 1720s as impresario to his own output.

Physically tough though he evidently was, keeping up with his public and resisting the intrigues of rivals took their toll and at 52 he suffered the first of his "paraletick disorders" (probably strokes). Unlike Mozart, though, he had a canny grasp of finance and, despite more than one monetary crisis, died a wealthy man.

The singular conjunction of personal gifts and socio-economic trends that bound Handel to London was to have long-term cultural implications, too. Because he was less and less beholden to the need of court and aristocracy for a stream of occasional pieces - and more and more dependent upon the satisfaction of paying audiences - he tended to recycle works that found favour, so that by the time of his death, a number of the oratorios were already established as long-term repertoire, and Handel remains about the earliest great composer never to have gone out of fashion.

He was also the first in history to have a substantial biography published about him (by John Mainwaring in 1760); the first to be celebrated at his centenary, in the great Handel Festival of 1784 (actually, a year too soon); and the first to be enshrined in a collected edition (started by Dr Samuel Arnold in 1786). Such was Handel's ever-growing prestige that by the mid-19th century, monster Messiahs in the Crystal Palace had virtually become acts of Protestant worship and paeans of imperial power.

Naturally, there were reactions. "I dare not say what I have long thought," confided the ostensibly Handelian music historian, Dr Burney, to his notebook towards the end of the 18th century, "that it is our reverence for old authors and bigotry to Handel, that has prevented us from keeping pace with the rest of Europe in the cultivation of Music."

A century on, the young composers of the so-called English musical renaissance were more likely to be complaining of the Continental hegemony over British music that they felt Handel had instigated (and Mendelssohn had perpetuated) - and, in particular, of the tenaciousness of Handelian bad habits in English word-setting which it was to require the rediscovery of folksong by the Holst-Vaughan Williams generation, and of Purcell by Britten and Tippett, to exorcise.

Yet the very fact that Handel's influence has, at various times, been considered at once too insular and too foreign only serves to remind us what a remarkable cross-cultural synthesis his output originally represented - serves also to remind us that notions of national style, of nationalism itself, were rather different in the High Baroque from what they have evolved (or degenerated) into more recently.

As to how English Handel ultimately became, next Thursday's culminating concert in the current Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music offers a nice test. In January 1740, during one of the worst frosts ever recorded in London, the 54-year-old composer shut himself away for 17 days and composed a full-scale setting of Milton's celebrated manic-depressive diptych L'Allegro ed il Penseroso, with the eminently Augustan addition of a third part entitled Il Moderato, hymning the middle way.

Charles Jennens, crusty but not unskilful subsequent librettist of Messiah, has been mocked for this sub-Miltonic appendage. But it seems Handel himself requested it in order to bring the soloists who had alternated Milton's two temperaments together in a clinching final duet, the blandly beautiful "As steals the morn upon the night."

Immediately successful, the work has always been praised for its detailed evocation of the English scene, with its country dances, nightingales, distant curfews, and so on. Evidently Handel had enjoyed those brief holidays out of London he liked to take each summer.

But, for once, he also seems quite consciously to have subjugated his penchant for Italianate melodism and Germanic counterpoint to the prior demands of the English tradition of Purcellian ode. Arias are often strikingly asymetrical, suddenly running into orchestral ritornelli or choral apostrophes just when one expects a da capo; continuity and timing are exceptionally lively and tight.

Some might argue that Handel's residual oddities of verbal stress betray the work's un-English provenance. But one suspects that most of those who catch the up-coming performance under Ivor Bolton will readily concede that, for the most part, Handel's imitation of, and tribute to, his adopted tradition sounds virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

n Composer of the Week: Monday-Friday 9.00am BBC Radio 3

n 'L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato': Thurs 7 pm St James's Church, London W1 (Booking: 0171-437 5053)