The Handel Institute
The Handel Institute

Why We Love Handel

For years, all Britain had to mark Handel's 50-year residency was a blue plaque in a London street. Now there's a museum and, from next week, a new festival. Musicians, directors and writers explain his appeal

Interviews by Charlotte Higgins
Friday February 8, 2002
The Guardian

Emma Kirkby, soprano

I think Handel pays a price for being, perhaps more than any other composer, part of the musical awareness of the British. Because of this popularity, some sophisticated musicians write him off as obvious, facile, mercenary. Vivaldi gets a bit of this too, since both have been "musak-ed" in a lot of tawdry ways in tawdry places.

Of the works by Handel I've "lived with", I feel particularly close to the cantatas, which Handel wrote as a young man in Italy. It is phenomenal repertoire, which no one accesses enough - bold music from a composer who felt ready for anything. The super-sophisticated thing to say is that this early work was his best and that he went downhill from there. But he was a genius all his life.

Add to that the endless surprises you get in the trio sonatas, the Concerti Grossi, the operas; with Handel, along with Vivaldi and of course Bach, there is more than enough for a lifetime's exploration. Handel's music may not be enormously spiritual, but he opens your soul. There are some heart-stopping moments in the operas when he just clears everything away but a few strings and a single voice. It's just magic. Handel was an extraordinary master of mood.

Nicholas Hytner, director

When I directed Xerxes (Serse) in 1985 for English National Opera, what we found was an ironic, sophisticated theatricality that matched the musical discoveries spearheaded by the authentic-instrument movement. As soon as you hear Handel with the wit, the spring, the lightness of touch that today's conductors bring to him, you have to re-evaluate the way he sees the world in his operas.

Audiences respond to an easily grasped, strictly controlled theatrical form. So you can delight in Handel's constant manipulation of it, his inventiveness within it, and his occasional subversion of it. It's as far as it can be from naturalism, the preferred form of our era. So, paradoxically, it suits the opera house very well. Opera always hovers marvellously on the edge of the ridiculous. It topples over the edge when it pretends to be real.

I was nevertheless taken aback by the big popular success that Xerxes was. I shouldn't have been. In the end, Handel writes great tunes and provides great songs for great singers. You can't beat that as a formula for operatic success.

Nicholas McGegan, conductor

When I was young, I played the flute in local orchestras, and winters always seemed to be spent playing arrangements of Handel's Messiah. I associate those days with long, slow, heavy performances in the freezing cold, wearing Bob Cratchit-style fingerless gloves. A quintessentially Protestant experience.

It wasn't until I got to university that I realised Handel had written anything else, that there was a whole world of operas and oratorios out there - and that he was a wonderful painter of emotions. The characters in Handel, even if they are kings or queens, are absolutely human. He was particularly good at depicting women - living, breathing, real women. Being a worldly sort of person, I find that very attractive. He may not have the spiritual scale of JS Bach, but I am not very good up in the clouds. I'm happier dealing with human beings.

Ellen Harris, author of Handel as Orpheus

Everyone is saying that Handel as Orpheus is the "Handel is gay" book, which is ridiculous. What I have actually written about is Handel's cantatas, mostly written between the years 1706 and 1723, when he was a young man in Italy. The cantatas were written for a private audience, and his milieu at the time contained same-sex desire as well as heterosexual desire. The cantatas - works about longing and love - are wonderfully ambiguous as to the gender of the "beloved" who is addressed.

His style at this time became less rawly emotional and more distanced and ornamented. Not that I associate this tendency with homosexuality. The idea that the music somehow "sounds" homosexual doesn't go. Music doesn't work like that.

I love Handel because the music is so deeply felt. There is a poignancy and yearning that I find extremely moving, and I never tire of listening to it. I always say that Handel is my man, which my husband is very patient about. That does not sit very comfortably with the idea of his being gay, does it?

Charles Mackerras, conductor

I have always been interested, since after the Second World War, in the movement to try to get Handel's works performed more as their creator had experienced them. When I started getting into this, there was a wide gap between musicologists and mainstream performers. I was one of the first people who conducted a large repertory of 18th- to 20th-century music to put some of the theories about authenticity into practice.

At that time it was usually felt that the castrato roles in Handel's operas - often heroic figures such as Xerxes and Julius Caesar - should be recast as basses or tenors. We were groundbreaking in that we did the castrato roles using strong-charactered women such as Janet Baker, who sang Julius Caesar at English National Opera in 1979.

By the way, I think the suggestion that Handel was gay is ridiculous and totally without foundation. I think he was neuter. I am reminded of Lord Goodman, an old lawyer I knew. He was very clever and too fat, and not really interested in men or women. He was interested only in art. The cantatas depict friendships between men, of the old-fashioned sort, that used to exist between schoolfriends and army officers. It is nothing to do with homosexuality.

Gerald Barry, composer

I'd really like to know the exact details of Handel's opera stagings - the ones in which he was involved. Many of them now are so dull I find them unbearable. I'd prefer either a vivid reconstruction or a radical rethinking. But so many are middle-of-the-road nothings, and in those situations the music disappears for me. If what is happening on stage is boring, I find the music boring too. It's a betrayal of Handel.

The other great problem is the absence of castrati. I'm sick to death of seeing women and countertenors pretend to be strapping heroes or villains when they're clearly not. There are many good countertenors now, but the colour of the voice makes the proposition of countertenor tyrants challenging. Their fury is interesting and you know that if you were forced to accept their invitation to a dungeon, you'd have a good time.

In any other theatrical context, these women and men would raise hackles. Why should it be different in Handel operas? Why must women stand with their legs continually spread (must be tiring), hands on hips, and move as if they're being simultaneously translated? In this effort to solve the castrato question they are less, sexually, than castrati ever were. It would be a far more interesting solution to let women be themselves. Bring back feminine generals!

Denys Darlow, founder, London Handel festival

When I first became director of music at St George's Church, Hanover Square, London, I programmed some Bach. Someone said to me, "You've got a bit of a cheek, doing Bach in Handel's parish church." Handel had lived for over 30 years in Brook Street, just around the corner. Out of this conversation the London Handel festival sprang.

There's a line in Kipling's poem If that sums up Handel up perfectly: "If you can talk with kings nor lose the common touch". If you consider Handel and Bach together, they seem to encapsulate both sides of human existence. Bach is the composer of the mind and the spirit. Handel writes about the earth and characters and people, about the extraordinary situations in which men and women find themselves.

Christopher Hogwood, conductor and musicologist

It interests me that Handel was never a paid employee. Even when he lived in the homes of noble patrons he was treated as an aristocratic guest; he was on the right side of the baize door. He always worked on his own terms, and this Churchillian strength of character comes across in his music. He was fearless. He could tell the whole story of Christianity in a single oratorio; he could depict in music - using just a single line of strings - the sun standing still. And yet his music never has a "look at me" quality. There was never any sense of the ivory tower with Handel. They say he could swear in nine languages.

David Alden, director

On certain levels Handel's work is very stylised. The sort of opera he wrote, opera seria, was more or less a closed form: it was extremely standardised and organised by numerous rules. But he managed to achieve fantastic variety. How he broke the rules, subverted them, had a huge impact on how he told his stories.

The structures are fascinating. When you look at a Handel opera score it's almost frightening: all you see is an endless alternation of arias and recitatives. But if you look at what's actually happening, you find that there's real theatrical shaping. It's very exciting when you find these submerged forms while rehearsing. For me, Handel is one of the very greatest theatre composers.

Nicholas Payne, general director, English National Opera

Handel is the greatest composer to have become an Englishman. Whether he was the greatest British composer - greater than Purcell, the obvious competition - I couldn't say. Handel was more protean, and composed a massive amount in numerous ways; he was bloody good at it and I suspect the density of his achievement was greater.

When I was quite young, in the days of the annual Handel Opera Society season at Sadler's Wells, I became a Handel trainspotter; I'd tick off the operas I'd seen. There were wonderful singers such as Janet Baker and Joan Sutherland, but they were usually pretty dreadful productions. When I went to work at Welsh National Opera, I thought it was time to make a dramatic case for these works. We started giving Handel operas such as Tamerlano, which we did in 1981, pioneering modern treatments - we stirred Freud into the pudding.

These days a lot of serious directors want to do Handel. Deborah Warner told me the other day she was longing to direct a Handel opera, and David Alden, Richard Jones and Peter Sellars have all done wonderful productions, really mining the operas and finding Handel's potential as one of the great musical dramatists. It's a revolution.

David Daniels, countertenor

I came to Handel when, in 1992, I decided to start singing as a countertenor rather than as a tenor. Like most people, I knew Handel's Messiah, and a handful of arias recorded by people like Joan Sutherland and Kathleen Battle. But the day I became a countertenor this ignorance had to stop, and since then he has become a signature composer of mine.

But it was not until I sang Didymus in Peter Sellars's now-famous production of Theodora at Glyndebourne in 1996 that I realised what a genius Handel was. He is a singer's dream - his music is beautifully written for the voice, in contrast to, say, Bach's, which is rather instrumental.

Jacqueline Riding, curator, Handel House Museum

Many of us are brought up with Handel's great ceremonial music - Zadok, the Fireworks, the Water Music, Messiah. These justifiably popular pieces are an inroad to an astonishingly rich musical world. It was with some surprise that I discovered that the rather severe personage, in the equally severe wig, who looks out from Thomas Hudson's famous portrait in the Handel House Museum, also produced music of great subtlety and wit.

I have spent almost three years in the company of this great composer. Restoring his former home has been a fascinating and sometimes humbling experience. For decades, the only indication that Handel had resided in London - for almost 50 years - was a blue plaque on his house in Brook Street. I am proud that one of Britain's greatest adopted sons now has not a memorial or shrine, but a living testament to his fame and genius.

"The Discovering Handel" festival runs at the South Bank, London SE1, from Monday until April 10, 2002. Details: 020-7960 4242.

The London Handel Festival runs from March 10 to April 28, 2002. Details: 020-8244 3561.

David Alden's revival of Handel's Ariodante is in rep at the Coliseum, London WC2 (020-7632 8300), from March 6-27, 2002.

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