june 2012

George Frederic Handel: ‘Handel is so great and so simple that no one but a professional musician is unable to understand him.’ (Illustration by Thomas Hudson, 1747)

Pleasures of Music


'He left us no school because he was a protest'

By Samuel Butler

samuel butlerTo the iconoclastic Victorian author Samuel Butler (author of the Utopian satire Erewhon and the semi-autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh), George Frederic Handel fulfilled the ideal of the good man and great artist. Handelian chords are quoted in Erewhon, Butler took composition lessons from Handel’s biographer, William Rockstro (1823-1895), and he fashioned the words and music of Handel-like cantatas that combine pastiche and parody.


As a boy, from twelve years old or so, I always worshiped Handel. Beethoven was a terra incognito to me till I went up to Cambridge; I knew and liked a few of his waltzes but did not so much as know that he had written any sonatas or symphonies. At Cambridge Sykes tried to teach me Beethoven but I disliked his music and would go away as soon as Sykes began with any of his sonatas. After a long while I began to like some of the slow movements and then some entire sonatas, several of which I could play once fairly well without notes. I also used to play Bach, and Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” and thought them lovely, but I always liked Handel best. Little by little, however, I was talked over into placing Bach and Beethoven on a par as the greatest, and I said I did not know which was the best man. I cannot tell now whether I really liked Beethoven or found myself carried away by the strength of the Beethoven current, which surrounded me; at any rate I spent a great deal of time on him, for some ten or a dozen years.

One night, when I was about thirty, I was at an evening party at Mrs. Longden’s and met an old West End clergyman of the name at Smalley (Rector, I think, of Bayswater). I said I did not know which was the greatest--Handel, Bach or Beethoven.

He said, “I am surprised at that; I should have thought you would have known.”

“Which,” I said, “is the greatest?”


I knew he was right and have never wavered since. I supposed I was really of this opinion already, but it was not till I got a little touch from outside that I knew it. From that moment Beethoven began to go back, and now I feel towards him much as I did when I first heard his work, except, of course, that I see a gnosis in him of which as a young man I knew nothing. But I do not greatly care about gnosis, I want agape; and Beethoven’s agape is not the healthy robust tenderness of Handel, it is a sickly maudlin thing in comparison. Anyhow I do not like him. I like Mozart and Haydn better, but not so much as I should like to like them.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sings ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ from the oratorio ‘Samso’" by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). With Australian Pops Orchestra, John Hopkins, conductor. Recorded at State Theatre Victorian Arts Centre Melbourne, Australia, 1993.

Handel and Domenico Scarlatti were contemporaries almost to a year, both as regards birth and death. They knew each other very well in Italy, and Scarlatti never mentioned Handel’s name without crossing himself, but I have not heard that Handel crossed himself at the mention of Scarlatti’s name. I know very little of Scarlatti’s music and have not even that little enough in my head to write about it; I retain only a residuary impression that is often very charming and links Haydn with Bach; moreover, that it is definitely un-Handelian.

Handel must have known and comprehended Scarlatti’s tendencies perfectly well: his rejection, therefore, of the principles that lead to them must have been deliberate. Scarlatti leads to Haydn, Haydn to Mozart, and hence, through Beethoven, to modern music. That Handel foresaw this I do not doubt, nor yet that he felt, as I do myself, that modern music means something. I know not what, which is not what I mean by music. It is playing another game and has set itself aims which, no doubt, are excellent but which are not mine.

Of course I know that this may well be all wrong: I know how very limited and superficial my own acquaintance with music is. Still I have a strong feeling as though from John Dunstable, or whoever it may have been, to Handel the tide of music was rising, intermittently no doubt, but still rising, and that since Handel’s time it has been falling. Or, rather, perhaps I should say music bifurcated with Handel and Bach--Handel dying musically as well as physically childless, while Bach was as prolific in respect of musical disciples as he was in that of children.

Handel’s Sarabande, performed by guitarist Inagaki Minoru

What, then, was it, supposing I am right at all, that Handel distrusted in the principles of Scarlatti as deduced from those of Bach? I imagine that he distrusted chiefly the abuse of the appoggiatura, the abuse of the unlimited power of modulation, which equal temperament placed at the musician’s disposition, and departure from well-marked rhythm, beat, or measured tread. At any rate I believe the music I like best myself to be sparing of the appoggiatura, to keep pretty close to tonic and dominant and to have a well-marked beat, measure, and rhythm.

Handel was a greater man than Homer (I mean the author of the Iliad); but the very people who are most angry with me for (as they incorrectly suppose) sneering at Homer are generally the ones who never miss an opportunity of cheapening and belittling Handel, and, which is very painful to myself, they say I was laughing at him in Narcissus? (1) Perhaps--but surely one can laugh at a person and adore him at the same time.


If you tie Handel’s hands by debarring him from the rendering of human emotion, and if you set Bach’s free by giving him no human emotion to render--if, in fact, you rob Handel of his opportunities and Bach of his difficulties--the two men can fight after a fashion, but Handel will even so come off victorious. Otherwise it is absurd to let Bach compete at all. Nevertheless the cultured vulgar have at all times preferred gymnastics and display to reticence and the healthy, graceful, normal movements of a man of birth and education, and Bach is esteemed a more profound musician than Handel in virtue of his frequent and more involved complexity of construction. In reality Handel was profound enough to eschew such wildernesses of counterpoint as Bach instinctively resorted to, but he knew also that public opinion would be sure to place Bach on a level with himself, if not above him, and this probably made him look askance at Bach. At any rate he twice went to Germany without being at any pains to meet him, and once, if not twice, refused Bach’s invitation.

Rockstro says that Handel keeps much more closely to the old Palestrina rules of counterpoint than Bach does, and that when Handel takes a license it is a good bold one taken rarely, whereas Bach is niggling away with small licenses from first to last.

George Frederic Handel's Coronation Anthem: Zadok the Priest. performed at the Queen's Concerts, Buckingham Palace for her Majesty the Queen during her Golden Jubilee in 2002; BBC Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Chorus conducted by Sir Andrew Davis


People say the generous British public supported Handel. It did nothing of the kind. On the contrary, for some thirty years it did its best to ruin him, twice drove him to bankruptcy, badgered him till in 1737 he had a paralytic seizure which was a near as might be the death of him, and, if he had died then, we should have no Israel, nor Messiah, nor Samson, nor any of his greatest oratorios. The British public only relented when he had become old and presently blind. Handel, by the way, is a rare instance of a man doing his greatest work subsequently to an attack of paralysis. What kept Handel up was not the public but the court. It was the pensions given him by George I and George II that enabled him to carry on at all. So that, in point of fact, it is to these two very prosaic kings that we owe the finest musical poems the world knows anything about.


Rockstro told me that Sir Michael Costa (2), after his severe paralytic stroke, had to conduct at some great performance--I cannot be sure, but I think he said a Birmingham Festival--at any rate he came in looking very white and feeble and sat down in front of the orchestra to conduct a morning rehearsal. Madame Patey was there, went up to the poor old gentleman and kissed his forehead.

‘He Spake the Word,’ from Handel’s Israel in Egypt Biblical oratorio. Performed by Seraphic Fire.

It is a curious thing about this great singer that not only should she have been (as she has always seemed to me) strikingly like Handel in the face, and not only should she have been such an incomparable renderer of Handel’s music--I cannot think that I shall ever again hear anyone who seemed to have the spirit of Handel’s music so thoroughly penetrating his or her whole being--but that she should have been struck with paralysis at, so far as I can remember, the same age that Handel was. Handel was struck in 1737 when he was fifty-three years old, but happily recovered. I forget Madame Patey’s exact age but it was somewhere about this.


It cost me a great deal to make Ernest [in The Way of All Flesh] play Beethoven and Mendelssohn; I did it simply ad captandum. As a matter of fact he played only the music of Handel and of the early Italian and old English composers--but Handel most of all.

Minuets from Handel’s Water Music collection of orchestral movements, filmed at the historic Banqueting House in Whitehall, London (1987). Featuring the English Bach Festival Dancers: Sarah Cremer, Ursula Hageli, Alison Pooley, Angela Robinson, Chris Evan, Ray Holland, Rai Harell, Richard Slaughter. Choreography by Belinda Quirey. Dancers costumes from original designs, realized by Derek West. With the English Bach Festival Orchestra directed by solo violinist Christopher Hirons.


It takes as great a composer as Handel--or rather it would take as great a composer if he could be found--to be able to be as easily and triumphantly commonplace as Handel often is, just as it takes--or rather would take--as great a composer as Handel to write another Hallelujah chorus. It is only the man who can do the latter who can do the former as Handel has done it. Handel is so great and so simple that no one but a professional musician is unable to understand him.


After all, Dr. Morell (3) suited Handel exactly well--far better than Tennyson would have done. I don’t believe even Handel could have set Tennyson to music comfortably. What a mercy it is that he did not live in Handel’s time! Even though Handel had set him ever so well he would have spoiled the music, and this Dr. Morell does not in the least do.


Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, from Andre Rieu's ‘Live From Radio City Music Hall’ in New York City 2004, with the Johann Strauss Orchestra and the Harlem Gospel Choir.

Handel and Shakespeare have left us the best that any have left us, yet, in spite of this, how much of their lives was wasted. Fancy Handel expending himself upon the Moabites and Ammonites, or even the Jews themselves, year after year, as he did in the fullness of his power; and fancy what we might have had from Shakespeare if he had gossiped to us about himself and his times and the people he met in London and at Stratford-on-Avon instead of writing some of what he did write. Nevertheless we have the men, seen through their work notwithstanding their subjects, who stand and live to us. It is the figure of Hamlet as a man, and of Shakespeare as a man, which we value even more than their work. I feel the presence of Handel behind every note of his music. Neither was self-conscious in production, but when the thing has come Shakespeare looks at it and wonders, whereas Hamlet takes it as a matter of course.


Handel left us no school because he was a protest. There were men in his time, whose music he perfectly well knew, who are far more modern than Handel. He was opposed to the musically radical tendencies of his age and, as a musician, was a decided conservative in all essential respects--though ready, of course, to go any length in any direction if he had a fancy at the moment for doing so.

NOTE-BOOKS (c. 1890)

  1. A Handelian cantata, words and music by Samuel Butler and H.F. Jones (1888)
  2. Impresario and orchestra conductor in England (1808-1884)
  3. Thomas Morell (1701-1784), English theologian and lexicographer who wrote the text of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus.
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