November 6-8, 1981

Handel at Maryland

by Howard Serwer

In 1969, the University of Maryland Libraries purchased the personal research collection of the late Dr. Jacob Maurice Coopersmith. Coopersmith, who for many years worked as music cataloguer for the Music Division of the Library of Congress, had earned his Doctorate in Musicology from Harvard University with a dissertation on the subject of Handel's instrumental music, and at the time of his death, he had almost completed a thematic catalogue of the composer's works. To support his research for the catalogue, Coopersmith had acquired, over the years, a superb library of literature about Handel and his music along with a small number of valuable eighteenth-century Handelian manuscripts and prints. The acquisition of this collection gave the University of Maryland the bibliographical resources needed to support further research into the life and works of one of the eighteenth century's greatest composers -- but an artist whose works had been rather neglected by scholars, performers, and by the general public.

"Neglected by the general public?" you ask. "Surely you must be mistaken. Everyone knows Handel's music; Messiah is done all the time." To which we reply that of course Messiah is done all the time, but the same music lovers who know Messiah would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three other oratorios by Handel out of some fifteen, and they might not be able to name any of Handel's thirty-nine operas. Music lovers know, and some of them play, the keyboard music of J. S. Bach quite well, but how many of them know any of Handel's keyboard music?

Sic transit gloria! Handel, lionized by the Princes of the Church in Rome and recipient of Royal pensions in England, is remembered today by one work. Yet this is the man who was acknowledged as the best composer of opera of the day, recognized in his own time as the inventor of English oratorio, and known to his contemporaries as one of the age's greatest improvisors on the keyboard. This is the composer of some of the most memorable tunes of any era: "I know that my Redeemer liveth," "Ombra mai fu," and a host of others. Why has so much of his music been neglected until quite recently?

In a way, the answer lies in the fact of Handel's great fame in his own lifetime, for soon after his death a kind of Handel-cult grew up in England. One feature of the cult was performance of his music, oratorios in particular, with bigger and bigger choruses and orchestras so that by the middle of the 19th century we find the Crystal Palace phenomenon with choruses of 500 or more and an orchestra to match. Musicians forgot how Handel's music was to be played; as the choruses and orchestras grew, the tempi became slower. The Victorian editors bowdlerized passages in oratorio texts thought to be blasphemous or in bad taste for the church, forgetting that the oratorios were designed as theatrical entertainments and not as church services. The operas disappeared from the repertoire entirely, while an occasional symphony orchestra might lumber through one of the orchestral works as a dutiful introduction to a concert program whose real business was Brahms or Tchaikovsky. The chamber music (when it was attempted) had pianos instead of harpsichords and flutes instead of recorders, all played in the manner of Mendelssohn or Schumann. No wonder performers and audiences found Handel's music uninteresting. Besides the operas, other entire classes of works disappeared from view, most notably the chamber cantatas and duets, an enormous repertory of pieces full of challenges to today's singers and delights for today's audiences.

Even with the revival of interest in baroque music after World War II, Handel was more or less neglected. Only a small number of scholars like Coopersmith and a few performers in England and Germany paid much attention to his music. In the last few years, however, the pace of Handel scholarship has accelerated and more of his music is being performed than before. With the acquisition of the Coopersmith collection, the University of Maryland, College Park is becoming a center for Handel studies. In addition, the presence of the Coopersmith Collection has stimulated an increasing number of performances of Handel's works on the College Park Campus, and Dr. Paul Traver's University Chorus has been adding numbers of Handel's works to its repertoire.

In 1975 Dr. Traver suggested that my seminar in baroque music prepare an edition of Handel's Esther, his first and the world's first English oratorio. As the result of this work the University Chorus and the Smithsonian Chamber Players gave what were certainly the first Washington-area performances of the work, and these may have been the first American performances as well. Dr. Traver brought this production of Esther to the 28th annual Handel Festival in Halle, East Germany, the composer's birthplace, where it received its first performance at the festival.

Like all music more than one hundred years old, the works of Handel are easily spoiled by anachronistic or self-indulgent performance. At Maryland scholars and performers work together to insure that the music we perform is done to the highest artistic standards and in a way which respects the work of the composer. Recently, our work in restoring our cultural heritage of baroque music has received new impetus with the establishment of a Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies. We are proud and grateful that the Center and the Center's sponsor, Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny, have encouraged our efforts.

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