The Handel Institute

Handelian Anecdotes

This page contains quotations, stories, excerpts from letters, etc., all relating to Handel. As with all anecdotes, the reader is cautioned against overreading the significance of these accounts to represent historical evidence. At their most basic level, these anecdotes will hopefully entertain and provide the reader with a remote glimpse (albeit distorted) of the great composer's countenance and his impact on others.

For more on Handel's life, please visit the Handel chronology.


Quotes Attributed to Handel

When asked why he borrowed material composed by Bononcini, Handel is said to have replied,

"It's much too good for him; he did not know what to do with it."


An English singer (named, Gordon) complained of Handel's method of accompanying. If Handel persisted in accompanying him in this manner, he threatened to jump on Handel's harpsichord and smash it to pieces. Handel is said to have replied,

"Oh! Let me know when you will do that, and I will advertise it. For I am sure more people will come to see you jump, than to hear you sing."


When Francesca Cuzzoni (soprano) refused to sing her first aria 'Falsa imagine' from his opera Ottone, re di Germania, GFH threatened to throw Cuzzoni from the window. (1723) John Mainwaring, GFH's biographer, relates the anecdote as follows:

"Having one day some words with CUZZONI on her refusing to sing Falsa imagine in OTTONE; Oh! Madame (said he) je scais [sic.] bien que Vous êtes une véritable Diablesse: mais je Vous ferai sçavoir, moi, que je suis Beelzebub le Chéf des Diables. With this he took her up by the waist, and, if she made any more words, swore that he would fling her out of the window."

(translation: Madam, I know you are a veritable devil, but I would have you know that I am Beelzebub, chief of the Devils.)


According to Thomas Busby, Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes, 3 vols. London: 1825, 1: 148, "Handel being once asked why he did not take a doctor's degree, replied, 'Vat de dyfil! Trow my money away for dat de blockhead vish? I no vant to be von doctor.'"

W. S. Rockstro, The Life of George Frederick Handel (London: Macmillan, 1883), 200, echoes Busby as follows: "When offered a Doctor's Degree, the fees for which would have amounted to £100, he exclaimed, in his usual patois, 'What the Devil I throw my money away for that the blockhead wish. I no want.'"

C. F. Abdy Williams, Handel (London: J. M. Dent & Co.; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1901), 132, repeats that Handel "was offered the degree of Doctor in Music on account of this oratorio [i.e., Athaliah]. The degree fees in those days amounted to £100; and on being asked why he refused the honour, he is reported to have said, 'What the devil I throw my money away for that which the blockheads wish? I no want.' Chrysander, however, thinks that it was refused more courteously, and that it was offered as a mark of honour, without payment."

Richard A. Streatfeild, Handel, revised Second Edition (1910; reprint New York: Da Capo Press, 1964), 127, paraphrases his predecessors: "When Handel found that the degree would cost him £100, he lost his temper and declared he was not going to throw his money away to oblige a parcel of blockheads."

Commenting on a report in The Craftsman of 14 July 1733 that claims Handel refused the "Degree of Doctor of Musick" at Oxford as he had earlier declin'd the like Honour when tender'd him at Cambridge," Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Biography [London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955], 326, notes that "Handel was not really offered an honorary degree by Cambridge; he is said to have refused such a suggestion because Greene, his 'bellows-blower'at St. Paul's Cathedral about 1715, had received a Cambridge Doctor's degree, for setting Pope's 'Ode for St. Cecilia's Day' to music, and since 1730 had been Professor of Music there. Modesty and the fee (of one hundred Pounds?) asked for the honorary degree at Oxford are two other reasons given for Handel's refusal. Nothing is known for certain, however."

Percy M. Young, Handel, New Revised Edition (1947; New York: Collier Books, 1963), 75, states that the University of Oxford, "in honouring Handel, was paying lip-service to the house of Hanover and thereby giving the lie to its alleged Jacobitism. If Handel was offered a degree he refused it, possibly because tact forbade receiving the honour from a politically suspect institution or possibly because so many people of whom he disapproved, including Maurice Greene, were doctors. Handel preferred the less honorific Mr. to being associated with Greene."

Credit: Todd Gilman


Handel and Maurice Greene's (composer/organist) friendship soured when Greene befriended Handel's archrival Bononcini. Bononcini and Greene set up a rival society - "The Apollo Academy" (named after the great Apollo Room at the Devil Tavern) whose music mainly focused on its three leading composers: Greene, William Boyce and Michael Festing (d.1752). Handel is believed to have commented:

"Dr. Greene has gone to the devil!"


Charles Burney noted "[Maurice] Greene had the misfortune to live in the age and neighborhood of a musical giant, with whom he was utterly unable to contend, but by cabal and alliance with his enemies. Handel was but too prone to treat inferior artists with contempt; what provocation he had received from Greene, after their first acquaintance, when our countryman had a due sense of his great powers, I know not; but for many years of his life, he [Handel] never spoke of him [Greene] without some injurious epithet."

Source: Charles Burney. A General History of Music, Vol. 2 (Dover edition) p. 489. (Credit: Todd Gilman)


On composing the 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Messiah, Handel is said to have remarked (1741),

"Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows."


On composing Messiah, Handel is said to have remarked (1741),

"I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself."


Charles Burney (1726-1814; English music historian and initiator of the 1784 Handel Commemoration) relates the following anecdote:

When Handel travelled through Chester, on his way to Ireland, this year, 1741 (to give the first performance of Messiah), I was at the Public School in that city and very well remember seeing him [Handel] smoke a pipe, over a dish of coffee, at the Exchange Coffee House; for being extremely curious to see so extraordinary a man, I watched him narrowly as long as he remained in Chester, which, on account of the wind being unfavourable for his embarking at Parkgate, was several days. During this time, he applied to Mr. Baker, the Organist, my first music master, to know whether there were any choirmen in the cathedral who could sing at sight, as he wished to prove some books that had been hastily transcribed, by trying the choruses which he intended to perform in Ireland. Mr. Baker mentioned some of the most likely singers then in Chester, and, among the rest, a printer the name of Janson, who had a good bass voice and was one of the best musicians in the choir...

A time was fixed for this private rehearsal at the Golden Falcon, where Handel was quartered; but, alas! on trial of the chorus in the Messiah, 'And with his stripes we are healed,' poor Janson, after repeated attempts, failed so egregiously, that Handel let loose his great bear upon him; and after swearing in four or five languages, cried out in broken English,

Handel : "You shcauntrel [scoundrel]! tit not you dell me dat you could
sing at soite [sight]?"
Janson : "Yes, sir, and so I can, but not at first sight."

Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


One night in Dublin (1742), the violinist Matthew Dubourg (1703-67), having a solo part wandered through complex modulations in an improvised cadenza and eventually returned to the tonic. Handel is said to have cried out loud enough to be heard in the most remote parts of the theater,

"You are welcome home, Mr. Dubourg."

Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


When Messiah was first performed in London (1743), when the chorus struck up, 'For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth' ['Hallelujah Chorus'), reportedly the audience and King [George II] stood and remained standing untill the chorus had ended. Some days after the first performance, Handel visited Lord Kinnoul. His lordship paid him compliments on "the noble entertainment". Handel is said to have remarked,

"My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better."

Sources: Biographica Dramatica: "On the authority of the Earl of Kinnoul"; quoted in G. Hogarth: Musical History, Biography and Criticism (1838) and James Beattie (1780)


Handel is said to have asked Prince George (later King George III), then a young child, if he liked the music Handel was playing. The Prince expressed pleasure. Handel is said to have replied,

"A good boy, a good boy! You shall protect my fame when I am dead."


Handel is said to have remarked about the tune "Lumps of Pudding" in The Beggar's Opera,

"Ballad opera pelted Italian opera off the stage with Lumps of Pudding."


Handel is said to have remarked to Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787) who wanted Handel's opinion of his opera La Caduta dei giganti,

"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."


Charles Burney relates the following anecdote about Handel and the composer Gluck:

When Gluck came first into England in 1745, he was neither so great a composer, nor so high a reputation, as he afterwards mounted; and I remember when Mrs. Cibber, in my hearing, asked Handel what sort of a composer he was; his answer, prefaced by an oath - was,

"he knows no more of countrapunto [counterpoint], as mein cook, Waltz" [referring to Handel's bass, Gustavus Waltz].

Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


A young singer in the choir of Worcester came to London with [a] recommendation to Mr Handel as [a] great genius. Handel asked him to sing; he did so. Handel said: "This is the way you praise God at Worcester?" "Yes", he answered. "God is very good" [replied Handel], "and will no doubt hear your praises at Worcester, but no man will hear them at London."

Source: "The beginnings of provincial concert life" by Michael Tilmouth, in the book 'Music in Eighteenth-Century England', ed. Christopher Hogwood & Richard Luckett, Cambridge University Press, 1983.


The first time the serpent [a large, serpentine horn] was used in concert, at which Handel was in the habit of presiding, he was so disgusted with the powerful coarseness of it tones, then he called out with rage,

"Vat [What] de diffil [devil] be dat?"

On being informed that it was an instrument called a serpent,

"O!" he replied, "de serpent! - aye - but it not be de serpent vat [that] seduced Eve."

Source: Original source unknown


I heard him [Morell] say that one fine summer morning he was roused out of bed at five o'clock by Handel, who came in his carriage a short distance from London. The doctor went to the window and spoke to Handel, who would not leave his carriage. Handel was at the time composing an oratorio. When the doctor asked him what he wanted, he said,

"What de devil means de vord [word] billow?"

which was in the oratorio the doctor has written for him. The doctor, after laughing at so ludicrous a reason for disturbing him, told him that billow meant wave, a wave of the sea.

"Oh, de vave",

said Handel, and bade his coachman return, without addressing another word to the doctor.

Source: John Taylor, Jr., Records of My Life, 2 vols. (1832)


Charles Burney relates the following anecdote:

In 1749 [recte 1750], Theodora was so very unfortunately abandoned, that he was glad if any professors, who did not perform, would accept tickets or orders for admission. Two gentlemen of that description, now living, having applied to Handel, after the disgrace of Theodora, for an order to hear the Messiah, he cried out,

"Oh your sarvent, Mien-herren! you are tamnapble tainty! you would not co to TEODORA - der was room enough to tance tere, when dat was perform." [Oh your servant, my lords! You are damnable dainty! You would not go to Theodora -- there was room enough to dance there, when that was performed.]

Sometimes, however, I have heard him, as pleasantly as philosophically, console his friends, when, previous to the curtain being drawn up, they have lamented that the house was empty, by saying,

"Nevre moind; de moosic vil sound de petter". [Never mind, the music will sound the better]

Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


When Handel was blind, and attending a performance of the Oratorio of Jephthe, Mr [William] Savage, my master, who sat next to him, said,

Savage : "This movement, sir, reminds me of some of old Purcell's music."
Handel : "O got ter teffel. If Purcell had lived, he would have composed better music than this."

Source: R.J.S. Stevens, 1775


Of his boyhood, Handel is quoted by Charles Burney to have said,

"I used to write like the devil in those days."

Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


On his friend and fellow composer, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), Handel is reported to have said,

"He could write a motet for eight voices more quickly than one could write a letter."


While being shaved, Handel was reportedly approached by a Mr. Brown for his subscription to a set of organ concertos by the Rev. William Felton. Handel, putting the barber's hand aside, got up in a fury, and with his face still in a lather, cried out with great vengeance,

"Tamn your seluf and go to der teiffel! A barson make concerto! Why he no make sarmon?" [Damn your self and go to the devil! A parson compose a concerto! Why doesn't he compose a sermon?]

Brown, seeing him in such a rage with razors in his reach, got out of the room as fast as he could.

Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


Handel is said to have remarked about the contemporary English musical establishment,

"When I came hither first, I found, among the English, many good players and no composers; but now, they are all composers and no players."


Rev. Thomas Morell (1703-84), the librettist of many of Handel's oratorios, recalls a conversation with the composer,

Handel : "Damn your iambics!"
Morell : "Don't put yourself in a passion, they are easily trochees."
Handel : "Trochees, what are trochees?"
Morell : "Why, the reverse of iambics, by leaving out a syllable in every line."


The Reverend Morell relates the following anecdote:

The 2nd night of Theodora was very thin indeed, tho' the Princess Amelia was there. I guessed it a losing night, so did not go to Mr Handel as usual; but seeing him smile, I ventured, when, "Will you be there next Friday night," says he, "and I will play it to you?" I told him I had just seen Sir T. Hankey, "and he desired me to tell you, that if you would have it again, he would engage for all the Boxes." "He is a fool; the Jews will not come to it (as to Judas) because it is a Christian story; and the Ladies will not, because it [is] a virtuous one."

(Note: This account was previously thought to have been published c.1764; however, manuscript evidence suggests a more likely date of 1775.)


After Dr. Maurice Greene (1695-1755; composer & organist, Master of the King's Musick from 1735) asked Handel for his opinion of a solo anthem he had composed, Handel invited Greene to take coffee with him the next morning. The Doctor was punctual in his attendance, the coffee was served, and a variety of topics discussed; but not a word said by Handel concerning the anthem. At length, Greene, whose patience was exhausted, said, with eagerness, and an anxiety which he could no longer conceal,

Greene : "Well, Sir, but my anthem -- what do you think of it?"
Handel : "Oh your antum - ah - why I did tink it vanted air, Dr. Greene?"
Greene : "Air, Sir?"
Handel : "Yes, air; and so I did hang it out of de vindow."


Charles Burney relates the following anecdote in a letter to Lord Mornington, 30 March, 1776:

[A Lady] being very musical, was invited by him [Handel] to a private Rehearsal of the Messiah, and being struck with the Exceeding dignity of expression in the Chorusses, and other parts of ye oratorio so inimitably sett to the sacred works, after the musick was over she asked him how it was possible for him who understood the English Language but imperfectly, to enter so fully into the sublime spirit of the Words. His answer is I think a lesson to all Composers, at least of Sacred Musick,

"Madam, I thank God I have a little religion."


In gratitude for the favor shown him by the public, and actuated by motives of benevolence, Handel performed Messiah for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital; and this he not only continued to do for several years, but, by this composition, gave them such a title to it as seemed to import an exclusive right to the performance of it. This act of bounty was so ill understood by some of the governors of the foundation, that they formed a resolution for an application to Parliament to establish their supposed right; in short to prohibit, under penalties, their performance of Messiah by any others than Mr. Handel and themselves. To facilitate their passing of a law for the purpose, Mr. Handel's concurrence was asked. Upon the bare mention of it, he broke out into a furious passion,

"For vat sal de Foundlings put mein oratorio in de Parlement? Te Teuffel! mein musik sal not go to de Parlement." [For what shall the Foundlings place my oratorio before Parliament? The Devil! My music shall not go before Parliament.]


Finding it convenient to dine at a tavern, Handel ordered dinner for three. The wait became so long, he became impatient and sent for the host. "Why do you keep me so long waiting?" he asked, with the impetuosity of a hungry man. "We are waiting till the company arrives," replied the innkeeper.

"Then bring up the dinner, prestissimo, said Handel, "I am the company."

Source: Original source unknown


About the time Handel became blind, his surgeon, Samuel Sharp (eye surgeon, Guy's Hospital), asked him if he was able to continue playing the organ in public, for the performance of oratorios. Handel replied in the negative. Sharp recommended John Stanley (a blind composer and performer), as a person whose memory never failed; upon which Handel burst into a loud laugh, and said:

"Mr. Sharp, have you never read the Scriptures? do you not remember, if the blind lead the blind, they wil both fall in the ditch?"

Source: William Coxe, Anecdotes of G.F. Handel and J.C. Smith, p. 44 (1799)


Quotes Attributed to Others concerning Handel

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727; physicist) is said to have remarked on Handel's keyboard ability,

"I found...nothing worthy to remark but the elasticity of his fingers."


Dr. John Arbuthnot (1667-1735; mathematician & physician) is said to have remarked,

"Conceive the highest you can of his abilities, and they are far beyond anything you can conceive."


Johann Sebastian Bach is attributed with the following remark:

"[Handel] is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach."

Upon hearing the above statement, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is said to have exclaimed:

"Truly, I would say the same myself if I were permitted to put in a word"


William Boyce (1711-1779; English composer) is believed to have said concerning Handel's numerous borrowings of others' music,

"He takes other men's pebbles and polishes them into diamonds"


The composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787) is said to have remarked about Handel,

"The inspired master of our art."


Jonathan Swift is said to have remarked (Dublin, 1742) while waiting for Handel to visit him,

"O pray let me see a German genius before I die!"

NOTE: Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) - Irish-born English author of Guliver's Travels.


Upon hearing the 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Messiah, Joseph Haydn is said to have "wept like a child" and exclaimed:

"He is the master of us all."


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is said to have remarked,

"Handel understands effect better than any of us -- when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt... though he often saunters, in the manner of his time, this is always something there."


Ludwig van Beethoven is said to have exclaimed,

"Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived... I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb."

Source: Edward Schulz (English musician who visited Beethoven in 1816 and 1823), "A Day with Beethoven", The Harmonicum (1824)


Ludwig van Beethoven, when asked to name the greatest composer ever, he is said to have responded,

"Handel, to him I bow the knee."


Ludwig van Beethoven, on his deathbed, in his referring to an edition of Handel's works, is reported to have said,

"There is the truth."


In 1819, Beethoven told Archduke Rudolph:

"not to forget Handel's works, as they always offer the best nourishment for your ripe musical mind, and will at the same time lead to admiration for this great man."


Hector Berlioz is said to have remarked about Handel,

"A tub of pork and beer."

NOTE: Louis-Hector Berlioz (1803-69). Composer of the Symphonie fantastique


Alexander Pope wrote:

"Strong in new arms the giant Handel stands,
Like bold Briareus with a hundred hands."


Source: William Coxe, Anecdotes of G.F. Handel and J.C. Smith, p. 31 (1799)


Contemporary Descriptions of Handel

He was in his person a large made and very portly man. His gait, which was ever sauntering, was rather ungraceful, as it has in somewhat of that rocking motion, which distinguishes those whose legs are bowed. His features were finely marked, and general cast of his countenance placid, bespeaking dignity attempered with benevolence, and every quality of the heart that has a tendency to beget confidence and insure esteem. Few of the pictures extant of him are to any tolerable likenesses, except one painted abroad, from a print whereof the engraving given of him in this work is taken : in the print of him by Houbraken, the features are too prominent; and in the mezzotinto after Hudson there is a harshness of aspect to which his countenance was a stranger; the most perfect resemblance of him is the statue on his monument, and in that the true lineaments of his face are apparent.


Source: Sir John Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776)


Handel's general look was somewhat heavy and sour; but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humour, beaming in his countenance, which I hardly saw in any other.


Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


Handel, with many virtues, was addicted to no vice that was injurious to society. Nature, indeed, required a great supply of sustenance to support such a huge mass, and he was rather epicurean in the choice of it; but this seems to have been the only appetite he allowed himself to gratify.


Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


The figure of Handel was large, and he was somewhat corpulent, and unwieldy in his motion; but his countenance, which I remember as perfectly as that of any man I saw but yesterday, was full of ire and dignity; and such as impressed ideas of superiority and genius. He was impetuous, rough, and peremptory in his manners and conversations, but totally devoid of ill-nature or malevolence.


Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


[Handel] was large in person, and his natural corpulency, which increased as he advanced in age, rendered his whole appearance of that bulky porportion, as to give rise to Quin's inelegant, but forcible expression, that his hands were feet, and his fingers toes. From a sedentary life, he had contracted a stiffness in his joints,which in addition to his great weight and weakness of body, rendered his gait awkward; still his countenance was open, manly, and animated; expressive of all that grandeur and benevolence, which were the prominent features of his character. In temper he was irrascible, impatient of contradiction, but not vindictive; jealous of his musical pre-eminence, and tenacious in all points, which regarded his professional honour.


Source: William Coxe, Anecdotes of G.F. Handel and J.C. Smith, pp. 26-27 (1799)


Handel contracted few intimacies, and when his early friends died, he was not solicitous of acquiring new ones. He was never married; but his celibacy must not be attributed to any deficiency of personal attractions...On the contrary, it was owing to the independence of his disposition, which feared degradation, and dreaded confinement. For when he was young, two of his scholars, ladies of considerable fortune, were so much enamored of him, that each was desirous of a matrimonial alliance. This first is said to have fallen a victim to her attachment. Handel would have married her; but his pride was stung by the coarse declaration of her mother, that she never would consent to the marriage of her daughter with a fiddler; and, indignant at the expression, he declined all further intercourse. After the death of the mother, the father renewed the acquaintance, and informed him that all obstacles were removed; but he replied, that the time was now past; and the young lady fell into decline, which soon terminated her existence. The second attachment, was a lady splendidly related, whose hand he might have obtained by renouncing his profession. That condition he resolutely refused, and laudably declined the connection which was to prove a restriction on the great faculties of his mind.


Source: William Coxe, Anecdotes of G.F. Handel and J.C. Smith, pp. 28-29 (1799)


Literature, Letters, Stories, & News Articles concerning Handel

Of Burlington House:

There Handel strikes the strings, the melting strain
Transports the soul, and thrills through ev'ry vein.


Source: John Gay, Trivia (1716)

(NOTE: In collaboration with Pepusch, Gay produced The Beggar's Opera)


Yet as thy volant touch pursues
Through all proportions low and high
The wondrous fugue, it peace renews
Serene as the unsullied sky.
Source: Daniel Prat, Ode to Mr Handel, on his Playing the Organ (1722)


The contemporary British satirist John Byrom (1691-1763) wrote with reference to the Handel-Bononcini rivalry (This feud put the Bononcinists against the Handelists. The Duke of Marlborough and most of the nobility favored Bononcini; but the Prince of Wales, with Alexander Pope and Dr. John Arbuthnot, supported Handel) :

    Some say, compar'd to Buononcinny
    That Mynheer Handel's but a Ninny.
    Others aver, that he to Handel
    Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle:
    Strange that this difference there should be
    Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

    (NOTE: The last two lines have been attributed to Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.)


[Handel's] oratorios thrive abundantly -- for my part, they give me an idea of heaven, where everybody is to sing whether they have voices or not.


Source: Horace Walpole, Letter (1743)

NOTE: Horace Walpole 1717-1797 (4th earl of Orford) British writer and historian whose correspondence and memoirs (>3000 letters) provide valuable information about his era. He was the Son of Sir Robert Walpole (regarded as Britain's first prime minister)


The late Mr. Brown, leader of the majesty's band, used to tell me several stories of Handel's love of good cheer, liquid and solid, as well as of his impatience. Of the former he gave an instance, which was accidentally discovered at his [Handel's] own house in Brook-street, where Brown, in the Oratorio season, among other pricipal performers, was at dinner. During the repast, Handel cried out - "Oh - I have de taught;" when during the company, unwilling that, out of civility to them, the public should be robbed of any thing so valuable as his musical ideas, begged he would retire and write them down; with which request, however, he so frequently complied, that, at last, one of the most suspicious had the ill-bred curiosity to peep through the key-hold into the adjoining room; where he perceived that dese taughts, were only bestowed on a fresh hamper of Burgundy (in another version of the story, told elsewhere, referred to as 'champaigne'), which, as was afterwards discovered, he had received in a present from his friend, the late lord Radnor, while his company was regaled with more generous and spirited port.


Source: Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)


Baron Gottfried von Swieten (son of Empress Maria Theresa's personal physician) wrote in a letter to Wolfgang Mozart after the latter re-orchestrated Messiah (ca. 1790):

"He who is capable of dressing Handel with such solemnity and taste so as to please the slaves of fashion, on the one hand, and yet still show himself, on the other hand, depsite all, to remain eminently noble, this man, I say, has sensed his value; he has understood it, and has reached the source of that which makes his expression, and will be able, and capable, of making his own creation of it. This is how I see the result you have attained."


I have heard it related, that when Handel's servant used to bring him his chocolate in the morning, he often stood silent with astonishment (until it was cold) to see his master's tears mixing with the ink as he penned his divine compositions; which are surely as much the pictures of a sublime mind as Milton's words.


Source: William Shield, An Introduction to Harmony (1800)


A friend, called upon Handel when he was in the act of setting to music the words, 'He was despised and rejected of men.' The friend reports that he "found him absolutely sobbing."


Source: Original source unknown


Handel has set up an Oratorio against the Operas, and succeeds. He has hired all the goddesses from farces and the singers of Roast Beef from between the acts at both theatres, with a man with one note in his voice, and a girl without ever an one; and so they sing, and make brave hallelujahs; and the good company encore the recitative, if it happens to have an cadence like what they call a tune.


Source: Horace Walpole, Letter to Horace Mann (February 24, 1743)


Handel is said to have detested hearing the tuning of instruments, and therefore, this was always done before he arrived at the theater. A prankster, stole into the orchestra, one night when the Prince of Wales was to be present, and untuned all the instruments. As soon as the Prince arrived, Handel gave the signal to begin, con spirito; but such was the horrible discord, that the enraged composer started up from his seat, and having overturned a double-bass which stood in his way, he seized a kettle-drum, which he threw with such violence at the leader of the orchestra, that he lost his full-bottomed wig in the effort. Without waiting to replace it, he advanced bare-headed to the front of the orchestra, breathing vengeance, but was so choked with passion that he was unable to speak. He stood there staring and stamping amidst the audience's laughter. The Prince went to him in person and with much difficulty appeased his wrath. Only then would Handel resume his seat at the instrument.


Source: Original source unknown


One Sunday, having attended worship at a country church, Handel asked the organist to permit him to play as the congregation departed; to which he readily consented. Handel, accordingly, sat down to the organ, and began to play in such a masterly manner, as instantly to attract the attention of the whole congregation, who, instead of vacating their seats as usual, remained for a considerable space of time, fixed in silent admiration. The organist began to be impatient and, at length, addressed the great performer, telling him, he was convinced that he could not play the people out, and advised him to relinquish the attempt; for while he played, they would never leave the church.


When John Christopher Smith (1712-95; Handel's assistant) played the organ at the Theatre, during the first year of Handel's blindness, Samson was performed, and (the tenor John) Beard sang, with great feeling,

Total eclipse - no sun, no moon
All dark, amidst the blaze of noon

The recollection that Handel has set this air to music, with the view of the blind composer then sitting by the organ, affected the audience so forcibly, that many persons present were moved even to tears.


Source: William Coxe, Anecdotes of G.F. Handel and J.C. Smith, p. 45 (1799)


According to Charles Burney, "from [Maurice] Greene's great admiration of Handel's manner of playing, he had literally condescended to become his bellows-blower, when he [Handel] went to St. Paul's to play on the organ.... Handel, after the three o'clock prayers, used frequently to get himself and young Greene locked up in the church together, and in summer often stript unto his shirt, and played till eight or nine o'clock at night."


On Handel's playing...

Silence, the truest applause, succeeded, the instant that he addressed himself to the instrument; and that was so profound, that it checked respiration, and seemed to control the functions of nature.


Source: Sir John Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776)


Remember Handel? Who, that was not born
Deaf as the dead to harmony, forgets,
Or can, the more than Homer of his age?


Source: William Cowper, The Task, VI (1785)


Commemoration-mad; content to hear
(Oh wonderful effect of music's pow'r!)
Messiah's eulogy, for Handel's sake.


Source: William Cowper, The Task, VI (1785)


One morning, after I had been singing with him [the composer Gluck], he said, "Follow me upstaires, Sir, and I will introduce you to one whom all my life I have made my study and endeavoured to imitate." I followed him into his bedroom, and opposite to the head of the bed saw a full-length picture of Handel in a rich frame. "There, Sir," said he, "is the portrait of the inspired master of our art. When I open my eyes in the morning I look upon him with reverential awe and acknowledge him as such, and the highest praise is due to your country for having distinguished and cherished his gigantic genius."


Source: Michael Kelly, Reminiscenes...of the King's Theatre, 2 vols (1826)


When jaundice jealousy, and carking care,
Or tyrant pride, or homicide despair,
The soul as on a rack in torture keep,
These monsters Handel's music lulls to sleep.

- anon. 1740


The Passing of G. F. Handel

Like most, it is a lonely end.
His cook, who (he'd said) knows
more of counterpoint than Willibald Gluck,
is sadly looking for other employment.
Though der Koch believes that none
will be as appreciative of his talents
as sein lieber Meister. (The meddling doctors,
in truth, had taken much of the savor
from the old boy's salt in these last years.)

His favorite soprano, too, has her livelihood
to seek, and looks to Mr. Arne
and Dr. Boyce. They do not disappoint.
Besides, there is a new wind in the reed.
First of all, there is this Gluck,
who gives his singers less of busy stuff
to do--those coloratura wastelands that
stretch in endless arid leaps and shakes and runs--
more of work that's from the heart;
he will be heard again in England.
And then, there is one Herr Karl Abel,
master of both the gamba and clavier,
said to be the next great comet in London's
musical skies. Which, after all, are bright!

His manservant bathes and shaves him
this one last time, lathers the brush,
strops the razor, listening between
the dry strokes for the "Dead March"
out of Saul, the mighty fallen.
While at the Court Theater in Vienna,
Gluck rehearses a comic opera
by another hand, and daydreams of
Orpheus among the shades.

- Lee Passarella (2002)


Written Commentary on Handel


"Upon my mentioning to [Sir Isaac Newton] the rehearsal of the Opera to night (Rhadamisto) he said he never was at more than one Opera. The first Act he heard with pleasure, the 2d stretch'd his patience, at the 3d he ran away."

Source: The diary of the Rev. William Stukeley, M.D. (April 18th, 1720)

Contributor: Tony Davie


If ever there was a truly great and original genius in any art, Handel was that genius in music; and yet, what may seem no slight paradox, there never was a greater plagiary. He seized without scruple or concealment, whatever suited his purpose. But as those sweets which the bee steals from a thousand flowers, by passing throught its little laboratory, are converted into a substance peculiar to itself, and which no other art can effect, --- so, whatever Handel stole, by passing through the powerful laboratory of his mind, and mixing with his ideas, became as much his own as if he had been the inventor. Like the bee, too, by his manner of working, he often gave to what was unnoticed to its original situation, something of high and exquisite flavour: To Handel might well be applied, what Boileau, with more truth than modesty, says of himself -- Et même en imitant toujours originel.


Source: Uvedale Price, "Essays on Decorations," in Essays on the Picturesque as compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful, Hereford 1798, II, 196.


Raphael paints wisdom, Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakespeare writes it, Wren builds it, Columbus sails it, Luther preaches it, Washington arms it, Watt mechanizes it.


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)


Why, instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness of a Handel Festival does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah in St James's Hall with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die.


George Bernard Shaw's reviews of festival performances in 1877 and 1891.


We have all our Handelian training in church, and the perfect church-going mood is one of pure abstract reverence. A mood of active intelligence would be scandalous. Thus we get broken into the custom of singing Handel as if he meant nothing; and as it happens that he meant a great deal, and was tremendously in earnest about it, we know rather less about him in England than they do in the Andaman Islands, since the Andamans are only unconcious of him, whereas we are misconcious.


Source: George Bernard Shaw (1890)


It was from Handel that I learned that style consists in force of assertion. If you can say a thing with stroke unanswerably you have style; if not, you are at best a marchand de plaisir, a decorative littérateur or a musical confectioner, or a painter of fans with cupids and cocottes. Handel has this power...You may despise what you like; but you cannot contradict Handel.


Source: George Bernard Shaw (1913)


Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution. What is more, he is a sacred institution.

Source: George Bernard Shaw


Handel is only fourth rate. He is not even interesting.

Source: Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky


Handel is so great and so simple that no one but a professional musician is unable to understand him.


Source: Samuel Butler, Note-Books 1874-1902 (pub. 1912)


They buried Dickens in the very next grave, cheek by jowl with Handel. It does not matter, but it pained me to think that people who could do this could become Deans of Westminster.


Source: Samuel Butler, Note-Books 1874-1902 (pub. 1912)


If Handel...were confronted with the gigantic crowds of singers that now strive to interpret his music, he would at once cut them down to a quarter of their bloated dimensions or rewrite the orchestral portions of his scores for the largest combination of instruments he could lay his hands upon.


Source: Sir Thomas Beecham, A Mingled Chime (1944)


Bach invaded the Himmelreich; Handel founded Lebensraum on earth.


Source: Percy M. Young, Handel (1947)


Handel came from Germany, learned in Italy, adopted many things from France, and finally, became 'perfect' in Great Britain. A real cosmopolitan....


Source: Martin Kasper (2000)


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