In Search of the Black Mozart: A revealing look at Handel's investment in the slave trade

The programme slowed palpably to accept the age-old information that people who create beauty aren’t always good and frequently don’t even come close.

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In Search of the Black Mozart
BBC Radio 4

Two programmes talked about Handel in shockingly opposing ways. On 30 May The Tokens and the Foundlings (8pm), about the Foundling Hospital (the Holborn home for deserted infants, 1741 to 1953), assured us that Handel had been a very generous governor, donating an original score of Messiah to the Hospital choir and committedly conducting benefit concerts. In fact, had it not been for a successful second performance of Messiah in the Hospital chapel, the composer – known for unsentimentally ditching work that hadn’t immediately ignited public and critical enthusiasm – may well have shelved the cherished oratorio indefinitely.

But In Search of the Black Mozart (26 May, 11.30am), about 18th-century black composers and performers, turned up something far less palatable: that Handel invested not just once in the slave trade, but repeatedly. A music librarian at the University of Texas made the discovery: “It was quite by chance that I came across Handel’s name in the ­investors of the Royal Africa Company – the main slave traders in the 1710s.” Then to a list of investors in the national archives at Kew; four of the stock transfer ledgers had been signed by Handel. In fact, a third of the board of the Royal Academy of Music had invested. Encouraged by Handel? He was master of the orchestra at the time.

It was stressed that no music historian had ever looked into this. For the presenter, the double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku, it all came as such a shock that she had to go over it several times. We’re talking about the Handel, right? George Frideric? Not some rotten cousin. Was he aware of the implications, the conditions on the plantations? But how widespread was such knowledge, bearing in mind that the anti-slavery movement at that time was still only nascent?

The programme slowed palpably to accept the age-old information – of a kind we are particularly reluctant to let penetrate our ivory domes – that people who create beauty aren’t always good and frequently don’t even come close. The fierceness with which we long for our great artists to be separate, isolated by a kind of sanity not available to the rest of us! Yet here Handel is, signing misery on the dotted line. And then (very possibly, I calculate, given the dates) sitting down to write The Water Music.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta