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The Cambridge Companion to Handel
Edited by Donald Burrows.
Cambridge University Press. 1997 [Third printing 2004]
(ISBN: cloth 0521454255 / softcover 0521456134)
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Germany: education and apprenticeship:- John Butt
Italy: political and musical contexts:- Carlo Vitali
Handel's London: political, social and intellectual contexts:- William Weber
Handel's London: the theatres:- Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume
Handel's London: British musicians and London concert life:- H. Diack Johnstone
Handel's London: Italian musicians and librettists:- Lowell Lindgren
Handel's English librettists:- Ruth Smith
Handel and the aria:- C. Steven LaRue
Handel's compositional process:- David Ross Hurley
Handel and the idea of an oratorio:- Anthony Hicks
Handel's sacred music:- Graydon Beeks
Handel's chamber music:- Malcolm Boyd
Handel as a concerto composer:- Donald Burrows
Handel and the keyboard:- Terence Best
Handel and the Italian language:- Terence Best
Handel and the orchestra:- Mark W. Stahura
Production style in Handel's operas:- Winton Dean
Handel's oratorio performances:- Donald Burrows

I must confess that I came rather late in life to Handel. And for this I blame my father. He was born and bred in Lancashire and had absorbed the Messiah tradition. In fact his father had conducted performances of this ubiquitous oratorio many times in the Manchester area in the nineteen-thirties. Unfortunately, my father bought a long playing record of the famous (notorious?) Huddersfield Choral Society version of the Messiah conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Forthwith I was subjected to this music from an early age – especially at Easter and Christmas. I did not really understand that ‘My redeemer liveth’ or that ‘He was despised’ was part of the Christian tradition, in spite of being brought up in a religious household. The music to me became purgatorial rather than a vision of ‘The Glory of the Lord.’ I buried my head in the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Yes. When I came to classical music this distaste for the Messiah was still there and I revelled in Bach rather than GFH.

It was not until I discovered Handel’s keyboard music that I began to become interested again. For some reason it appeared easier to get ones fingers round than the Preludes and Fugues and Partitas of Johann Sebastian, and that was encouraging to a neophyte pianist. Keyboard music led to the orchestral works then a few of the operas and finally back to the Messiah. So perhaps my father was right after all, although I still cannot listen to the ‘Huddersfield’ version – even though my Great Uncle Tom was singing bass in that particular recording. It has to be a little more ‘authentic’ for my tastes.

My interest in Handel has been hands-on. I have listened to his music and played it. But I have not really approached his life history or considered the compositional processes behind his works. I never really knew about the time spent in Italy or why the Chandos Anthems were so-called. I did know he lived in Brook Street in London, but had no idea of his career there. Apart from some obvious references I am unaware of influences, sources and parodies in his works – although I do know he lifted music from other composers – without acknowledgement.

It is easy to buy a biography of Handel. There are a number of them in secondhand bookshops. The Master Musician volume (also by Donald Burrows, the editor of these present essays) is an excellent read, covering both the man and his music. Further, in the musical libraries there are plenty of dissertations, monographs and theses on all aspects of Handel’s career – one need only glance at the bibliography provided in the present volume to see what is available. [Although if I am honest, I was a little disappointed with the bibliography in this book. It could certainly have been more extensive.] However it is the middle ground that is usually lacking in any analysis of a composer’s achievement. There are many listeners who want something a little more than a brief biography but perhaps a little less than the 500 page examination of the ‘Use of Plagal Cadences in the Early Operas’ type of monograph. This Cambridge Companion fulfils this wish with aplomb and distinction.

The book is conveniently divided into three sections. After a short introduction by the editor there is a section on the background to the composer’s life and works. Such topics as Handel’s training and musical apprenticeship are explored in a fascinating article by John Butt. One of the most interesting chapters examines Handel’s time in Italy and the influence of Italian opera. Of course Handel is an honorary Englishman and deserves to be seen within the context of London society and musical life –especially the theatre. There is a fascinating essay on ‘British musicians and London Concert life.’ Two more specialised articles look at both Italian and English librettists at work in contemporary London.

The second division of this book gets to grips with the music. The first essay I read for this review was Terence Best on ‘Handel and the Keyboard.’ This was particularly interesting to me as it was this music that led me back to GFH after ignoring him for a number of years. Plenty of musical examples bring to life this somewhat neglected aspect of the composer’s music.

Anthony Hicks considers Handel’s achievement with oratorio – for which most people probably consider Handel to be famous.

There is a section on the orchestral suites, but this is a little thin if the reader wants to know all there is to know about the background to the Firework Music or the Water Music. C. Steven LaRue considers Handel’s approach to the aria, noting that in the composer’s day it was the aria that were the most popular, whilst today it is the choruses that have taken that position. Malcolm Boyd presents a short but fascinating discussion of the little known chamber music.

The last section of the book concentrates on the performance aspects of Handel’s music. This perhaps is slanted from an historical perspective; however there is plenty of food for thought for today’s performers. The analysis of the Handelian orchestra in the 18th century is particularly fascinating.

There are extensive reference notes provided for each chapter and these give information for the most scholarly of readers. The book is illustrated with many musical examples and a few reproductions. The chronology provides a vital baseline for even the most cursory consideration of Handel’s works.

Finally it only leaves me to say that this book is an important addition to the literature on not only Handel, but 18th century British music in general. Having said this, it is hardly a book for the beginner. The average music listener will be content with Donald Burrows’ excellent earlier volume mentioned above. And of course there are other popular (but also learned) volumes dedicated to Handel. Paul Henry Lang has written a fine biography and then there is the ‘New Grove’ extract by Winton Dean.

But for the reader or listener who wants to explore current Handelian scholarship issues in some detail and who wants to get to grips with the history of his times and music, then this book is an ideal read. The text implies a reader with a wide understanding of musical theory and perhaps history to reveal its full potential. This may mean that some people will be daunted by the rather dense text. However it will hardly be read at a single sitting and will probably serve better as a reference book. The detailed index and chapter notes well serve this purpose.

John France



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