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How a musical epiphany saved Handel from ruin and despair

Handel did not praise his own works but there was one that he loved, Messiah, because in it he had redeemed himself.


Consuming passions: Handel’s appetite was as great as his talent, as depicted in Joseph Goupy’s etching The Charming Brute. Image: Bridgeman Art Library.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was a prolific writer of fiction, journalism, biographies and plays. Born in Vienna to non-religious Jewish parents, he was a friend of Sigmund Freud, Richard Strauss and Theodor Herzl, among others. During the First World War, he became a pro-European pacifist; with the rise of Hitler, he fled first to England, then to New York and finally to Brazil, where he committed suicide with his wife in despair at world events. Zweig was fascinated by music and he provided the libretto for Strauss’s “Die Schweigsame Frau”, which, because Zweig was Jewish, was banned after four performances. Zweig also published a collection of “historical miniatures” about moments of genius and heroism, including this account of Handel’s composition of “Messiah”, printed here in a new translation – the first in over 70 years – by Anthea Bell.

On the afternoon of 13 April 1737, George Frideric Handel’s manservant was sitting at the ground-floor window of the house in Brook Street, very strangely occupied. He had found, to his annoyance, that his supply of tobacco had run out but he dared not leave the house. Handel had come home from rehearsal in a rage, his face bright red, the veins standing out like thick cords at his temples. He was now marching up and down on the first floor so vigorously that the ceiling was shaking: it was unwise to be negligent in his service on days when he was in such a fury. So the servant was seeking diversion from his boredom by puffing not elegant rings of blue smoke from his short clay pipe, but soap bubbles. He was amusing himself by blowing the brightly coloured bubbles out of the window and into the street.

Passers-by stopped, bursting a bubble here and there with their canes in jest as they laughed and waved, but they showed no surprise. For anything might be expected of this house: the harpsichord might suddenly play loud music by night; you might hear prima donnas sobbing as the choleric German, falling into a berserk rage, uttered threats against them for singing an eighth of a tone too high or too low. The neighbours in Grosvenor Square had long considered 25 Brook Street a madhouse.

The servant blew his bright bubbles silently and persistently. Then he suddenly gave a start of alarm as a dull thud made the whole house shake. The manservant jumped up and raced upstairs. He saw Handel lying motionless on the floor, eyes open and staring. The strong man was lying on his back groaning, or rather the groans were forcing their way out of him in short and increasingly weak grunts.

Now up from the floor below came Johann Christoph Schmidt, the master’s secretary and assistant. The two of them raised the weight of the man – his arms dangling limp, like those of a corpse – and laid him on the sofa. “Undress him,” Schmidt ordered the servant. “I’ll run for the doctor.”

Schmidt ran out without his coat, waving to all the coaches that trotted sedately by. At last, one of them stopped. Lord Chandos’s coachman had recognised Schmidt. “Handel is dying!” he cried out to the duke, whom he knew to be his beloved master’s best patron. The duke immediately told him to get into the coach, the horses were given a sharp crack of the whip, and they went to fetch Dr Jenkins from a room in Fleet Street where he was earnestly studying a urine sample. “It’s all the trouble he’s had that’s to blame,” lamented the secretary despondently. “They’ve plagued him to death, those damned singers and castrati, the scribblers and the carping critics, the whole wretched crew.”

In the house, the servant held the basin, Schmidt lifted Handel’s arm and the doctor cut into the vein. A jet of blood spurted up, hot, bright red blood, and the next moment a sigh of relief issued from the compressed lips. Handel took a deep breath and opened his eyes. They were still weary, faraway and unaware. The light in them was extinguished. Dr Jenkins bent lower. He saw that one eye, the right eye, was staring while the other looked livelier. He raised Handel’s right arm. It fell back as if dead. Then he raised the left arm. The left re­mained in its new position. Now Dr Jenkins knew enough.

When he had left the room Schmidt followed him to the stairs. “What is it?”

“Apoplexy. His right side is paralysed.”

“And will he – will he at least be able to work again? He can’t live without com­posing.”

Dr Jenkins was already on the stairs.

“No, he will never work again,” he said very quietly. “We may be able to save the man, but we have lost the musician.”

Schmidt stared at him with such despair in his eyes that the doctor felt stricken.

For four months Handel lived devoid of strength. The right half of his body remained dead. He could not walk, he could not write, he could not play a single note on the keyboard. He could not speak. When friends made music for him a little light came into his eyes and then his unwieldy body moved like that of a sick man in a dream. Finally the doctor, in desperation – for the maestro was obviously incurable – advised sending him to the hot baths at Aachen.

But under the frozen envelope there lived an incalculable strength. The huge man had not given up and, against the laws of nature, his will worked a miracle. The doctors at Aachen warned him not to stay in the hot baths for more than three hours at a time;  his heart would not survive any longer period, they said, and it could kill him. But his will defied death for the sake of life. To the horror of his doctors, Handel spent nine hours a day in the baths and with his will his strength grew. After a week he could drag himself around again; after a second week he could move his arm and he tore himself free from the paralysing toils of death.

On the last day before he was to leave Aachen, fully in control of his body, Handel stopped outside  the church. He had never been particularly devout, but now, as he climbed to the organ loft, he felt moved by something ineffable.

He touched the keys with his left hand. The notes sounded, ringing clear and pure. Now he tentatively tried the right hand that had been closed so long. And behold, the silver spring of sound leaped out. Slowly, he began to play, to improvise, and the great torrent of sound carried him away with it. Down below, anonymous, the nuns and worshippers listened. They had never heard a mortal man play like that before. Handel, his head humbly bent, played on and on. He had recovered the language in which he spoke to God, to eternity, to mankind.

“I have come back from Hades,” said George Frideric Handel proudly. The battle lust of old had returned to the 53-year-old musician. We find him now writing an opera, a second opera, a third, the great oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt; he writes L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; his creative desires well up as if from a long-dammed spring. But the times are against him. The queen’s death halts theatrical performances, then the Spanish war begins, the theatre remains empty and debts mount up. Such cold falls over London that the Thames freezes over. Next the singers fall ill.

Handel’s financial difficulties grow worse and worse. His creditors are dunning him, the critics are scathing, the public remains silent and indifferent, and gradually the struggling composer loses heart. A benefit performance has just saved him from im­prisonment for debt, but what a disgrace, to buy back his life as a beggar! Handel becomes more and more reclusive, his mind grows ever darker. In the year 1740 he feels a beaten, defeated man once more. His former fame is dust and ashes. Why, he sighs, did God let me rise from my sickbed if men are to bury me once more? A lost man, weary of himself, Handel wanders London by night. Sometimes he stops outside a church, sometimes he sits in a tavern, and sometimes he stares down from a bridge over the Thames and wonders whether it might not be better to cast off all his cares by making one determined leap.

One night he had been wandering in this way again. It was 21 August 1741 and the day had been warm and sultry. No one was still awake in the house in Brook Street. He used to come home from every walk with a melody, but now his desk was empty. There was nothing to begin, nothing to finish. Or no: not bare! There was a package and he quickly broke the seal. A letter lay on top from the poet Charles Jennens, who wrote to say that he was sending Handel  a new poem and he hoped the great genius of music, phoenix musicae, would look graciously on his poor words and carry them up on his wings through the ether of immortality. Handel started as if something terrible had touched him. Did this man mean  to mock him? He tore the letter in two. “The blackguard! The scoundrel!” he bellowed. Tears broke from his eyes and his body trembled with impotent rage. The disturbed, ruined man lay heavily on his bed.

But he could not sleep. Handel rose, went back into his study and once again lit the candle. Messiah, read the first page. He turned over the title leaf and began to read. At the first words he started up. “Comfort ye,” began the libretto. It was like magic, that phrase – no, not a phrase, it was an answer divinely given, the cry of an angel calling from the overcast skies to his heart. Handel heard the phrase as music, as hovering, calling, rushing, singing notes.

His hands shook as he turned page after page. Yes, he had been called, summoned. Every word entered into him with irresist­ible force. All his weariness was gone. Never before had he felt his powers so strongly, never before known the joy of creation streaming through him like this. Again and again the words poured over him like warm, redeeming light. And suddenly he shivered, for there, in the hand of poor Jennens, he read: “The Lord gave the word.”

He held his breath. Here was the truth: the Lord had given him the word; and behold, there the word was written, there it rang out, a word that could be repeated and transformed for ever: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

Tears blurred Handel’s eyes, so mighty was the fervour in him. Hastily, he picked up his pen and began setting down notes. He could not stop. It carried him away, like a ship with all sails spread, running before a stormy wind.

When his manservant cautiously entered the room the next morning, Handel was still sitting at his desk writing. He did not reply when Schmidt timidly asked whether he could be of any help in copying the music, just uttered a low growl. No one ventured to approach him again and he did not leave the study for three weeks. Handel knew nothing of the hour in those weeks. He lived entirely in the sphere that measures time only by musical beat and rhythm; he moved only with the current that surged from him as the work flowed closer to the sacred rapids of its conclusion.

At last, on 14 September, the work was finished. What before had been only dry, sere language now  blossomed and sang, never to fade. The miracle of the will had been worked by the inspired soul, just as the paralysed body had once worked the miracle of resurrection. Handel rose to his feet, with difficulty. The pen dropped from his hand. The strength had gone out of him. His body was tired, his mind confused. He fell on his bed and slept like the dead.

His manservant knocked softly at the door three times that morning but no sound could penetrate the depths of that sleep. Handel lay motionless, like a dead hero on the field of battle after gaining the victory. When Handel still would not wake in the evening – he had been lying there for 17 hours – Schmidt went for the doctor again. He did not find him immediately, for Dr Jenkins had gone out to fish on the banks of the Thames. At last, though, the pony trotted off to Brook Street with the pair of them.

But there stood the manservant, waving to them with both arms. “He got up!” he shouted. “And now he’s eating like six porters. He ate half a Yorkshire ham in no time at all. I’ve had to pour him four pints  of beer, and still he asks for more.”

Sure enough, there sat Handel before a groaning board, like the Lord of Misrule. No sooner did he set eyes on the doctor than he began to laugh, and gradually it became a vast, an echoing, a booming, a hyperbolical laughter. “Devil take me!” cried Dr Jenkins in amazement.

Handel looked at him with a smile, his eyes sparkling. Slowly, he rose and went over to the harpsichord. He sat down, and softly, half speaking and half singing, began the melody of the recitative “Behold, I tell you a mystery” – the words from Messiah. But as soon as he brought his fingers down the music carried him away. On he played and on, singing, all the way to the final “Amen, amen, amen”. The room was almost shattered by those notes. Dr Jenkins stood there as if benumbed. And when finally Handel rose, the doctor remarked, with awkward admiration: “Good heavens, I never heard anything like that before. You must have been possessed by the Devil!” Handel turned away and said so softly that the others could hardly hear it: “No, I think it was God who possessed me.”

Several months later, two well-dressed gentlemen knocked at the door of the house in Abbey Street, Dublin, that he was then renting. They had heard that he meant to give the premiere of his new oratorio, Messiah here, even before London heard it. They had  come to ask whether the master might not  donate the takings of that premiere to the Society for Relieving Prisoners and to the sick in Mercer’s Hospital. But, of course, they  said, this donation would be the proceeds of the first performance only; profits from the others would still go to the master.

“No,” Handel said quietly, “no money for this work. I will never take money for it, never. It shall always go to the sick and the prisoners. For I was sick myself, and it cured me; I was a prisoner and it set me free.”

At last, on 7 April 1742, came the final rehearsal. The audience consisted of a few relations of the members of the chorus. A  couple here, a little group there sat dispersed  in isolation around the hall. But as soon as the choruses began to crash out like great  cataracts of sound, a strange thing happened. The separate groups involuntarily moved closer together on the benches, gradually forming a single dark block, listening spell­bound. When the “Hallelujah!” burst out for the first time it brought one man to his feet and all the others rose, too, as if at a signal; they felt you could not remain earthbound in the grip of such power, and stood to bring their voices a little nearer God. Then they went out to tell the news from door to door: a work of music had been written such as had never been heard on earth.

Six days later a crowd gathered outside the doors of the hall. The ladies had come without hoops in their skirts, the gentlemen wore no swords, so that there would be room for more people. Not a breath was to be heard when the music began. Then the choruses burst out with hurricane force and hearts began to tremble. Handel stood by the organ. He had intended to direct and conduct his work but he lost himself in it. The music became as strange to him as if he had never heard it before. And when the “amen” was raised at the end, his lips unconsciously opened and he sang with the chorus, sang as he had never sung in his life.

The floodgates were open. The river of music flowed on in him year after year. From now on, nothing could bow Handel, nothing could force the resurrected man back on to his knees. Once again the operatic society he had founded went bankrupt, once again his creditors came dunning him, but now he stood upright and survived all his trials. Old age gradually undermined his strength, weakened his arms. Gout afflicted his legs. At last his eyesight failed. But even with blind eyes, like Beethoven with deaf ears, still he wrote on.

Handel did not praise his own works but there was one that he loved, Messiah, because in it he had redeemed himself. Year after year he performed the work in London, always donating the proceeds, £500 each time, for the benefit of the hospital. On 6 April 1759, severely ill and 74 years old, he had himself led to the podium of Covent Garden once more.

There the blind man stood. He swung his arms in time. He sang as gravely and devoutly with the chorus as if he were standing, priestlike, at the head of his own coffin. Only once, when the trumpets sud­denly came in at the words “The trumpet shall sound”, did he start, looking up with his blind eyes as if he were ready now for  the Last Judgement.

Moved, his friends led the blind man home. They, too, felt it had been a farewell. On his bed, he was still quietly moving his lips. He would like to die on Good Friday, he murmured. This Good Friday would be 13 April, the date when the heavy hand had struck him down, the date when his Messiah was first performed. On the day when all  in him had died, he had risen again.

And sure enough, his unique will had power over death as well as life. On 13 April Handel’s strength left him. But as the empty seashell echoes to the roaring of the sea, so inaudible music surged within him, stranger and more wonderful than any he had ever heard. Slowly, its urgent swell freed the soul from the weary body, carrying it up into the weightless empyrean, flowing in the flow, eternal music in the eternal sphere. And on the next day, before the Easter bells began to ring, all that had been mortal in George Frideric Handel died at last. 

This is an edited excerpt from “The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel” in “Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures” by Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press, £14.99)

 

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)