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Divine artifice

Handel, that powerhouse of Baroque music, has become a 21st-century superstar

Two hundred and fifty years after his death, everybody suddenly needs Handel. Each of his 39 Italian operas is being broadcast, in the appropriate chronological sequence, by the BBC. Covent Garden’s new staging of Acis and Galatea and Glyndebourne’s revival of Giulio Cesare are both hot tickets. So, too, was the London Handel Festival’s production of Alessandro, a more than slightly preposterous confection originally designed as a circus act for two rival prima donnas. Even a new triple-CD box of Faramondo, the composer’s least successful stage work, has turned into a runaway bestseller.

“The old buck”, as one of his friends affectionately called him, now rivals Mozart as composer of choice for on-hold phone lines and kwalitee ambient background sound in shopping malls, airport lounges or the sort of cafe that likes to give its patrons a classier sheen to their skinny lattes. The other day my local bookshop was running just such a Handelian compilation, treating browsers to a whole Opus 6 concerto grosso, a bite-sized chunk from a keyboard suite and the gutsy arrangement of the heroine’s man-hunting aria from the exquisite erotic comedy Partenope.

Evidently, matters are getting out of hand. Somebody at the Independent, spotting a niche for party-pooping, commissioned the music journalist Jessica Duchen to tell us “why we should not deify Handel”. Wrong-headed though it was, Duchen’s article had at least the merit of stopping Handelians in their tracks to ask themselves why a composer, nine-tenths of whose work was totally ignored for two centuries following his death, should now have become such a universal star. While Brits whip up the Handelmania for which Duchen berates them, American opera houses, it seems, can’t do without him, the French, characteristically, have turned “Monsieur Haendel” into an honorary Gaul and the infection is spreading unchecked across Spain, Greece and Japan.

A world beater, then, this German writer of Italian music who spent most of his life in England, but why such stratospheric popularity? As so often, it’s easier to start from why not. Handel emphatically does not fit our post-Romantic cliché of the typical composer as a neurasthenic aesthete, waiting for the muse’s visitations while some long-suffering wife or mistress keeps vulgar intruders at bay. Far from shutting the door on worldliness, Handel, expert social and professional schmoozer that he was, positively relished it. A chancer and an opportunist from an upwardly mobile family, he was a businessman as much as an artist, playing the stock market, living in a fashionable Mayfair townhouse and dying a millionaire. Apart from a brief spell as court composer for the Elector of Hanover, later King George I of England, he was either self-­employed or working on negotiated contracts, keeping one step ahead of those notoriously wayward London audiences that flocked to him one season, only to stay away in droves the next.

Superficially, none of these features makes Handel attractive to us. Besides, we are wary of him being, like many Baroque composers, so astonishingly prolific. Twenty-five oratorios, three dozen concerti, more than one hundred cantatas – such abundance may have earned him his contemporaries’ respect but nowadays the integrity of any artist cranking up so heavy a production line is open to question.

Fortunately the edges of this modern fewer-equals-better ethos are flaking away as we grow readier to accept Handel’s period on its own terms. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s current “Baroque: Style in the Age of Magnificence” exhibition reveals the whole era, in painting, ­architecture or design, as a kind of artistic volcano, whose cauldron made of rules and con­ventions can barely contain the bubbling lava of creativity and imagination. Such restraints certainly challenged Handel’s tireless inventiveness. His gift for rising to every occasion – a royal wedding, fireworks for a peace treaty, a king’s boating trip, amateur theatricals at a country house – was irrepressible.

His frequent impatience with accepted forms and styles makes him that much more engaging to 21st-century audiences. Reckless in borrowing material from other composers, he made recycling the basis for several of his finest works. Serse, a comic opera using a classic Venetian libretto, plunders many of its themes from an earlier setting of the same text by Giovanni Bonon­cini, formerly Handel’s fellow composer at the King’s Theatre in London. Israel in Egypt, one of the greatest achievements in the history of choral music, loads up a veritable supermarket trolley with ideas from the dashing Italian virtuoso Alessandro Stradella, Handel’s fellow German Johann Kaspar Kerll and the Milanese choirmaster Dionigi Erba, whose relative obscurity was, to say the least, convenient.

This bad-boy persona appeals more strongly because of the unfailing skill with which Handel improved on his originals. There is an unscrupulous panache, a “for my next trick, ladies and gents” quality about his improvisatory resourcefulness that captivates the modern listener. If his musical effects are breathtaking, so also is the confident simplicity with which he conjures them into being. No wonder Wagner, Rossini and Liszt, three of music’s consummate ringmasters, hailed him as a kind of patron saint.

Each of them grasped, in different ways, how much the worldliness of the streetwise entertainer was underpinned by a profoundly humane wisdom. This sense of Handel’s infinite knowingness, his compassionate understanding of who we are, lies at the heart of one of modern culture’s weirdest paradoxes, the jubilant rediscovery of his Italian operas after age-long neglect. Theoretically Baroque opera seria is a planetary distance away from our cherished notions of the visceral and spontaneous in musical theatre. A cast of six characters, none of them beneath the rank of duke or princess, plays out an intrigue of private passion versus public duty, with civil war or dynastic strife rumbling in the background. Arias calculated to show off stellar voices are linked by hanks of recitative dialogue sung to harpsichord accompaniment, and the strictly regulated three-act drama always has to climax on a happy ending.

We oughtn’t to like it, but we do. Directors adore Handel opera because whatever wacky concept you tack on to it – Giulio Cesare with al-Qaeda-style turbans and Kalashnikovs, Rode­linda as Hollywood film noir, Theodora in a US penitentiary – the piece refuses to lie down. Singers luxuriate in vocal writing unsurpassed for intensity and eloquence. We audiences, however, love Handel for his passionate absorption with us as human beings, for the extraordinary range of moods, emotions and predicaments his music depicts and the way in which his boundless empathy transcends the maddening artifice of the operatic genre in which he works.

He himself once declared that his purpose, so far from merely entertaining people, was “to make them better”. I treasure a line from a modern poet, Peter Porter: “Handel makes us gods and constant stars”. That is why we continue to deify the composer whose music unerringly acknowledges that little fragment of the divine in each of us.

Jonathan Keates is the author of “Handel: the Man and his Music” (Bodley Head, £25)
Glyndebourne Opera:
Royal Opera House:

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009