David Hunter: The Lives of George Frideric Handel

The Boydell Press, 2015. xvii + 515pp, £30.00.
ISBN: 9781783270613.

I wasn’t too impressed at the start of this volume, but it grew on me. I started making notes, but realised that I couldn’t write in any great detail, and anyway it wasn’t easy to make notes while reading on a ship in the Caribbean. Each chapter has an individual subject, which includes a large amount of information that is not just checking all the details of what is known about Handel or how he fitted into England. Handel’s position there was very much of the upper circle: he was attached to royalty (who paid him £200 a year) before he was famous. He had written a few operas and also spent some time with James Brydges, Duke of Chandos, producing 11 anthems before 1720 and two works not called oratorios – Acis & Galatea  and Esther. His first London opera was Rinaldo, though it isn’t as important as most Handelians have thought: much of it is adapted from previous sources, but Agrippina  (1706 perhaps) is a more impressive opera in a very different style. He was strongly involved in the Academy planned in 1719 with the first performance of Radamisto  in 1720. For 21 years, he maintained his activity in the theatre, though his financial “success” was dubious. The clientele was a small element of the top members of society. In the early 1720s, however, Handel had significant respect, and Orlando  and Alcina  of the mid 1730s are now particularly popular – at least, to my taste!

His health deteriorated in the latter part of the 1730s. There are various reasons, one being his excess of food and drink, the other the ubiquitous danger of lead, whether drinking water or wine. Whatever his earlier health (which probably wasn’t particularly good), in 1737 he was struck by saturnine gout, and used spas at Tunbridge Wells and Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen); he also suffered with a palsy in Dublin in 1741-42. His final weakness was blindness, one eye being weak in 1751 and lost in 1752; the other eye failing (or ruined by his oculist) in 1758.

Handel probably didn’t have much of a different clientele for the oratorios. Finances were low, since he only performed in Lent. However, from 1723 till his death he received £600 per annum. (He wasn’t renowned for spending more than the normal fees for performers, but the charity for the Foundling Hospital Messiah  from 1754 was not connected with Handel.) He had invested finances abroad, and, despite problems, on his death he left aroud £20,000. Hunter assumed that Handel held responsibility for slavery in 1720, but I wonder whether he just offered money for income without considering whether slavery was mentioned when experts laid out a good scheme –more information is needed.

I wasn’t too happy about Chapter 1 –The Audience: Three Broad Categories, Three Gross Errors. The rest are mostly fine, though some are longer than necessary:

2. The Audience: Partner and Problem

3. Musicians and Other Occupational Hazards

4. Patrons and Pensions

5. Musical Genres and Compositional Practices

6. Self and Health

7. Self and Friends

8. Nations and Stories

9. Biographers’ Stories


Here are just a few comments:

  • Hunter hasn’t realised (pp. 215-6) that The Ways of Zion do Mourn  (subsequently Act I of Israel in Egypt) isn’t just taken direct from Handl/Gallus, published in the 1580s. In fact, Ecce quam modo  was familiar in Germany, and no doubt elsewhere, for funerals. Queen Caroline was German but came to London at almost the same time as Handel. The funeral was in Westminster Abbey on 17 December 1737 with a large number of performers (around 130) but not for the public. It is rarely performed, but there was an excellent day’s rehearsal and run-through in Cambridge in October last year, with Peter Holman at his best.
  • Hunter concentrates on the public rehearsal at the pleasure gardens of the Music for the Royal Fireworks  at Vauxhall. All the relevant numbers are exaggerations, including the travel from north of the Thames. Incidentally, there’s a nice story of John Byrom, who was sitting under one of the trees on St James’s Park on the night of the Fireworks, writing a letter to his wife. He saw the fireworks, but didn’t mention the music. He was also the writer of Christians, awake, salute the happy morn…
  • A more general point is that the oratorios from the 1730s are based on the Old Testament, except for two exceptions. Handel took Theodora, a Christian martyr, from around 304 AD, based on a more recent source that was borrowed from what we would now call a historical novel. It has become popular over the last few decades, and is sometimes staged. The other is Messiah, which is mostly Old Testament but has a few direct quotes from the New and is unlike any normal oratorios.

I leave it to the readers to judge the book for themselves though £30 is certainly very good value for so substantial a book!

Clifford Bartlett