When generations have been melted into tears, or raised to religious fervor--when courses of sermons have been preached, volumes of criticisms been written, and thousands of afflicted and poor people supported by the oratorio of "The Messiah"--it becomes exceedingly difficult to say anything new. Yet no notice of Handel, however sketchy, should be written without some special tribute of reverence to this sublime treatment of a sublime subject. Bach, Graun, Beethoven, Spohr, Rossini and Mendelssohn have all composed on the same theme. But no one in completeness, in range of effect, in elevation and variety of conception, has ever approached Handel's music upon this one subject.
--Rev. H. R. Haweis
"Did you meet Michelangelo while you were in Rome?" asked a good Roycroft girl of me the other day.
"No, my dear, no," I answered, and then I gulped hard to keep back some very foolish tears. "No, I did not meet Michelangelo," I said, "I expected to, and was always looking for him; but these eyes never looked into his, for he died just three hundred years before I was born." But how natural was this question from this bright, country girl! She had been examining a lot of photographs of the Sistine Chapel, and had seen pictures of "Il Penseroso," the "Night" and "Morning," the "Moses"; and then she had seen on my desk a bronze cast of the hand of the "David"--that imperial hand with the gently curved wrist.
These things lured her--the splendid strength and suggestion of power in it all, had caught her fancy, and the heroic spirit of the Master seemed very near to her. It all meant pulsating life and hope that was deathless; and the thought that the man who did the work had turned to dust three centuries ago, never occurred to this naive, budding soul.
"Did you see Michelangelo while you were in Rome?" No, dear girl, no. But I saw Saint Peter's that he planned, and I saw the result of his efforts--things worked out and materialized by his hands--hands that surely were just like this hand of the "David."
The artist gives us his best--gives it to us forever, for our very own. He grows aweary and lies down to sleep--to sleep and wake no more, deeding to us the mintage of his love. And as love does not grow old, neither does Art. Fashions change, but hope, aspiration and love are as old as Fate who sits and spins the web of life. The Artist is one who is educated in the three H's--head heart and hand. He is God's child--no less are we--and he has done for us the things we would have liked to do ourselves.
The classic is that which does not grow old--the classic is the eternally true.
"Did you meet Michelangelo in Rome?" Why, it is the most natural question in the world! At Stratford I expected to see Shakespeare; at Weimar I was sure to meet Goethe; Rubens just eluded me at Antwerp; at Amsterdam I caught a glimpse of Rembrandt; in the dim cloisters of Saint Mark's at Florence I saw Savonarola in cowl and robe; over Whitehall in London I beheld the hovering smoke of martyr-fires, and knew that just beyond the walls Ridley and Latimer were burned; and only a little way outside of Jerusalem a sign greets the disappointed traveler, thus: "He is risen--He is not here!"
* * * * * * *
In one of his delightful talks--talks that are as fine as his feats of leadership--Walter Damrosch has referred to Handel as a contemporary. Surely the expression is fitting, for in the realm of truth time is an illusion and the days are shadows.
George Frederick Handel was born in Sixteen Hundred Eighty-five, and died in Seventeen Hundred Fifty-nine. His dust rests in Westminster Abbey, and above the tomb towers his form cut in enduring marble. There he stands, serene and poised, accepting benignly the homage of the swift-passing generations. For over a hundred years this figure has stood there in its colossal calm, and through the cathedral shrines, the aisles, and winding ways of dome and tower, Handel's music still peals its solemn harmonies.
At Exeter Hall is another statue of Handel, seated, holding in his hand a lyre. At the Foundling Hospital (which he endowed) is a bust of the Master, done in Seventeen Hundred Fifty-eight; and at Windsor is the original of still another bust that has served for a copy of the very many casts in plaster and clay that are in all the shops.
There are at least fifty different pictures of Handel, and nearly this number were brought together, on the occasion of a recent Handel and Haydn Festival, at South Kensington.
When Gladstone once referred to Handel as our greatest English Composer, he refused to take it back even when a capricious critic carped and sneezed.
Handel essentially belongs to England, for there his first battles were fought, and there he won his final victory. To be sure, he did some preliminary skirmishing in Germany and Italy; but that was only getting his arms ready for that conflict which was to last for half a century--a conflict with friends, foes and fools.
But Handel was too big a man to be undermined by either the fulsome flattery of friends, or the malice of enemies, who were such only because they did not understand. And so always to the fore he marched, zigzagging occasionally, but the Voice said to him, as it did to Columbus, "Sail on, and on, and on." Like the soul of John Brown, the spirit of Handel goes marching on. And Sir Arthur Sullivan was right when he said, "Musical England owes more to Father Handel than to any other ten men who can be named--he led the way for us all, and cut out a score that we can only imitate."
* * * * * * *
At the Court of George of Brunswick, at Hanover, in Seventeen Hundred Nine, was George Frederick Handel, six feet one, weight one hundred eighty, rubicund, rosy, and full of romp, aged twenty-four. George of Brunswick was to have the felicity of being King George the First of England, and already he was straining his gaze across the Channel.
At his Court were divers and sundry English noblemen. Handel was a prime favorite with every one in the merry company. The ladies doted on him. A few gentlemen, possibly, were slightly jealous of his social prowess, and yet none pooh-poohed him openly, for only a short time before he had broken a sword in a street duel with a brother musician, and once had thrown a basso profundo, who sang off key, through a closed window--all this to the advantage of a passing glazier, who, being called in, was paid his fee three times over for repairing the sash. It's an ill wind, etc.
Handel played the harpsichord well, but the organ better. In fact, he played the organ in such a masterly way that he had no competitor, save a phenomenal yokel by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach. These men were born just a month apart. Saint Cecilia used to whisper to them when they were wee babies. For several years they lived near each other, but in this life they never met.
Handel was an aristocrat by nature, even if not exactly so by birth, and so had nothing to do with the modest and bucolic Bach--even going so far, they do say, as to leave, temporarily, the City of Halle, his native place, when a contest was suggested between them. Bach was the supreme culminating flower of two hundred fifty years of musical ancestors--servants to this Grand Duke or that. But in the tribe of Handel there was not a single musical trace. George Frederick succeeded to the art, and at it, in spite of his parents. But never mind that! He had been offered the post as successor to Buxtehude, and Buxtehude was the greatest organist of his time. He accepted the invitation to play for the Buxtehude contingent. A musical jury sat on the case, and decided to accept the young man, with the proviso that Handel (taught by Orpheus) should take to wife the daughter of Buxtehude--this in order that the traditions might be preserved.
Young Handel declined the proposition with thanks, declaring he was unworthy of the honor.
Young Handel had spent two years in Italy, had visited most of the capitals of Europe, had composed several operas and numerous songs. He was handsome, gracious and talented. Money may use its jimmy to break into the Upper Circles; but to Beauty, Grace and Talent that does not shiver nor shrink, all doors fly open. And now the English noblemen requested--nay, insisted--that Handel should accompany them back to Merry England.
He went, and being introduced as Signore Handello, he was received with salvos of welcome. There is a time to plant, and a time to reap. There is a time for everything--launch your boat only at full of tide. London was ripe for Italian Opera. Discovery had recently been made in England that Art was born in Italy. It had traveled as far as Holland, and so Dutch artists were hard at work in English manor-houses, painting portraits of ancestors, dead and living. Music, one branch of Art, had made its way up to Germany, and here was an Italian who spoke English with a German accent, or a German who spoke Italian--what boots it, he was a great musician!
Handel's Italian opera, "Rinaldo," was given at a theater that stood on the site of the present Haymarket. The production was an immense success. All educated people knew Latin (or were supposed to know it), and Signore Handello announced that his Italian was an improvement on the Latin. And so all the scholars flocked to see the play, and those who were not educated came too, and looked knowing. In order to hold interest, there were English syncopated songs between the acts--ragtime is a new word, but not a new thing.
Handel was very wise in this world's affairs. He assured England that it was the most artistic country on the globe. He wrote melodies that everybody could whistle. Airs from "Rinaldo" were thrummed on the harpsichord from Land's End to John O'Groat's. The grand march was adopted by the Life Guards, and at least one air from that far-off opera has come down to us--the "Tascie Ch'io Pianga," which is still listened to with emotion unfeigned. The opera being uncopyrighted, was published entire by an enterprising Englishman from Dublin by the name of Walsh. At two o'clock one morning at the "Turk's Head," he boasted he had cleared over two thousand pounds on the sale of it. Handel was present and responded, "My friend, the next time you will please write the opera and I will sell it." Walsh took the hint, they say, and sent his check on the morrow to the author for five hundred pounds. And the good sense of both parties is shown in the fact that they worked together for many years, and both reaped a yellow harvest of golden guineas.
On the birthday of Queen Anne, Handel inscribed to her an ode, which we are told was played with a full band. The performance brought the diplomatic Handel a pension of two hundred pounds a year.
Next, to celebrate the peace of Utrecht, the famous "Te Deum" and "Jubilate" were produced, with a golden garter as a slight token of recognition.
But Good Queen Anne passed away, as even good queens do, and the fuzzy-witted George of Hanover came over to be King of England, and transmit his fuzzy-wuzzy wit to all the Georges. About his first act was to cut off Handel's pension, "Because," he said, "Handel ran away from me at Hanover."
A time of obscurity followed for Handel, but after some months, when the Royal Barge went up the Thames, a band of one hundred pieces boomed alongside, playing a deafening racket, with horse-pistol accompaniments. The King made inquiries and found it was "Water-Music," composed by Herr Handel, and dedicated in loving homage to King George the First.
When the Royal Barge came back down the river, Herr Handel was aboard, and accompanied by a great popping of corks was proclaimed Court Musician, and his back-pension ordered paid.
The low ebb of art is seen in that, in the various operas given about this time by Handel, great stress is made in the bills about costumes, scenery and gorgeous stage-fittings. When accessories become more than the play--illustrations more than the text--millinery more than the mind--it is unfailing proof that the age is frivolous. Art, like commerce and everything else, obeys the law of periodicity. Handel saw the tendency of the times, and advertised, "The fountain to be seen in 'Amadigi' is a genuine one, the pump real and the dog alive." Three hours before the doors opened, the throng stood in line, waiting.
* * * * * * *
But London is making head. Other good men and true are coming to town. Handel does not know much about them, or care, perhaps. His wonderful energy is now manifesting itself in the work of managing theaters and concerts, giving lessons and composing songs, arias, operas, and attending receptions where "the ladies refrain from hoops for fear of the crush," to use the language of Samuel Pepys.
In shirt-sleeves, in a cheap seat in the pit, at one of Handel's performances, is a big lout of a fellow, with scars of scrofula on his neck and cheek. Next to him is a little man, and these two, so chummy and confidential, suggest the long and short of it. They are countrymen, recently arrived, empty of pocket, but full of hope. They have a selfish eye on the stage, for the big 'un has written a play and wants to get it produced.
The little man's name is David Garrick; the other is Samuel Johnson.
They listen to the singing, and finally Samuel turns to his friend and says, "I say, Davy, music is nothing but a noise that is less disagreeable than some others." They would go away, would these two, but they have paid good money to get in, and so sit it out disgustedly, watching the audience and the play alternately.
In one of the boxes is a weazened little man, all out of drawing, in a black velvet doublet, satin breeches and silk stockings. At his side is a rudimentary sword. The man's face is sallow, and shrewdness and selfishness are shown in every line. He looks like a baby suddenly grown old. The two friends in the pit have seen this man before, but they have never met him face to face, because they do not belong to his set.
"Do you think God is proud of a work like that?" at last asked Davy, jerking his thumb toward the bad modeling in courtly black.
"God never made him." The big man swayed in his seat, and added, "God had nothing to do with him--he is the child of Beelzebub."
"Think 'ee so?" asks Davy. "Why, Mephisto has some pretty good traits; but Alexander Pope is as crooked as an interrogation-point, inside and out."
"I hear he wears five pairs of stockings to fill out his shanks, and sole-leather stays to keep him from flattening out like a devilfish," said Doctor Johnson.
"But he makes a lot o' money!"
"Well, he has to, for he pays an old woman a hundred guineas a year to dress and undress him."
"I know, but she writes his heroic couplets, too!"
"Davy, I fear you are getting cynical--let's change the subject."
It surely is a case of artistic jealousy. Our friends locate the poet Gay, a fat little man, who is with his publisher, Rich.
"They say," says Samuel, again rolling in his seat as if about to have an apoplectic fit, "they say that Gay has become rich, and Rich has become gay since they got out that last book." There comes an interlude in the play, and our friends get up to stretch their legs.
"How now, Dick Savage?" calls Samuel, as he pushes three men over like ninepins, to seize a shabby fellow whose neckcloth and hair-cut betray him as being a poet. "How now, Dick, you said that Italian music was damnably bad! Why do you come to hear it?"
"I came to find out how bad it is," replied the literary man. "Eh! your reverence?" he adds to his companion, a sharp-nosed man with china-blue eyes, in Church-of-England knee-breeches, high-cut vest, and shovel-hat.
Dean Swift replies with a knowing smirk, which is the nearest approach to a laugh in which he ever indulged. Then he takes out his snuffbox and taps it, which is a sign that he is going to say something worth while. "Yes, one must go everywhere, and do everything, just to find out how bad things are. By this means we clergymen are able to intelligently warn our flocks. But I came tonight to hear that rogue Bononcini--you know he is from County Down--I used to go to school with him," and the Dean solemnly passes the snuffbox.
Garrick here bursts into a laugh, which is broken off short by a reproving look from the Dean, who has gotten the snuffbox back and is meditatively tapping it again. The friends listen and hear from the muttering lips of the Dean, this:
Some say that Signore Bononcini, Compared to Handel is a ninny; Whilst others vow that to him Handel, Is hardly fit to hold a candle. Strange all this difference should be 'Twixt tweedledum and tweedledee.
The people are tumbling back to their seats as the musicians come stringing in. Soon there is a general tuning up--scrapings, toots, snorts, subdued screeches, raspings, and all that busy buzz-fuzz business of getting ready to play.
"The first time we came to the opera Doctor Johnson thought this was all a part of the play, and applauded with unction for an encore," says Garrick.
"And I heard nothing finer the whole evening," answers Doctor Johnson, accepting the defi, and winning by yielding.
"Why don't they tune up at home, or behind the scenes?" asks some one.
"I'll tell you why," says Savage, and he relates this: "Handel is a great man for system--he is a strict disciplinarian, as any man must be to manage musicians, who are neither men nor women, but a third sex. Often Handel has to knock their heads together, and once he shook the Cuzzoni until her teeth chattered."
"That's the way you have to treat any woman before she will respect you," interrupts the Dean. Nothing else being forthcoming, Savage continues: "Handel is absolute master of everything but Death and Destiny. Now he didn't like all this tuning up before the audience; he said you might as well expect the prima donna to make her toilet in front of the curtain"--
"I like the idea," says Johnson.
Savage praises the interruption and continues: "And so ordered every man to tune up his artillery a half-hour before the performance, and carry his instrument in and lay it on his chair. Then when it came time to commence, every musician would walk in, take up his instrument, and begin. The order was given, and all tuned up. Then the players all adjourned for their refreshments.
"In the interval a wag entered and threw every instrument out of key.
"It came time to begin--the players marched in like soldiers. Handel was in his place. He rapped once--every player seized his instrument as though it were a musket. At the second rap the music began--and such music! Some of the strings were drawn so tight that they snapped at the first touch; others merely flapped; some growled; and others groaned and moaned or squealed. Handel thought the orchestra was just playing him a scurvy trick. He leaped upon the stage, kicked a hole in the bass-viol, and smashed the kettledrum around the neck of the nearest performer. The players fled before the assault, and he bombarded them with cornets and French horns as they tumbled down the stairs.
"The audience roared with delight, and not one in forty guessed that it was not a specially arranged Italian feature. But since that evening all tuning-up is done on the stage, and no man lets his instrument get out of his hands after he gets it right."
"It's a moving tale, invented as an excuse for a man who writes music so bad that he gets disgusted with it himself, and flies into wrath when he hears it," says Johnson.
A subdued buzz is heard, and the master comes forth, gorgeous in a suit of purple velvet. His powdered wig and the enormous silver buckles on his shoes set off his figure with the proper accent. His florid face is smiling, and Garrick expresses a regret that there are to be no impromptu tragic events in way of chasing players from the stage.
"Would you like to meet him?" asks the sharp-nosed Dean.
Garrick and Johnson have enough of the rustic in them to be lion-hunters, and they reply to the question as one man, "Yes, indeed!"
"I'll arrange it," was the answer. The leader raps for attention. Johnson closes his eyes, sighs, and leans back resignedly.
The others look and listen with interest as the play proceeds.
* * * * * * *
The other day I read a book by Madame Columbier entitled, "Sara Barnum." Only a person of worth could draw forth such a fire of hot invective, biting sarcasm and frenzied vituperation as this volume contains. When I closed the volume it was with the feeling that Sara Bernhardt is surely the greatest woman of the age; and I was fully resolved that I must see her play at the first opportunity, no matter what the cost. And as for Madame Columbier, why she isn't so bad, either! The flashes of lightning in her swordplay are highly interesting. The book was born, as all good books, because its mother could not help it. Behind every page and between the lines you see the fevered toss of human emotion and hot ambition--these women were rivals. There were digs and scratches, bandied epithets in falsetto, and sounds like a piccolo played by a man in distress, before all this; and these are not explained, so you have to fill them in with your imagination. But the Bernhardt is the bigger woman of the two. She goes her splendid pace alone, and all the other woman can do is to bombard her with a book.
The excellence of Handel is shown in that he achieved the enmity of some very good men. Read the "Spectator," and you will find its pages well peppered with thrusts at "foreigners," and sweeping cross-strokes at Italian Opera and all "bombastic beaters of the air, who smother harmony with bursts of discord in the name of music."
These battles royal between the kings of art are not so far removed from the battles of the beasts. Rosa Bonheur has pictured a duel to the death between stallions; and that battle of the stags--horn-locked--with the morning sun revealing Death as victor, by Landseer, is familiar to us all. Then Landseer has another picture which he called "The Monarch," showing a splendid stag, solitary and alone, standing on a cliff, overlooking the valley. There is history behind this stag. Before he could command the scene alone, he had to vanquish foes; but in the main, in some way, you feel that most of his battles have been bloodless and he commands by divine right. The Divine Right of a King, if he be a King, has its root in truth.
One mark of the genius of Handel is shown in the fact that he has achieved a split and created a ruction in the Society of Scribblers. He once cut Dean Swift dead at a fashionable gathering--the doughty Dean, who delighted in making men and women alike crawl to him--and this won him the admiration of Colley Cibber, who immortalized the scene in a sonnet. People liked Handel, or they did not, and among the Old Guard who stood by him, let these names, among others, be remembered: Colley Cibber, Gay, Arbuthnot, Pope, Hogarth, Fielding and Smollett.
People who through incapacity are unable to comprehend or appreciate music, are prone to wax facetious over it--the feeble joke is the last resort of the man who does not understand.
The noisy denizens of Grub Street, drinking perdition to that which they can not comprehend, always getting ready to do great things, seem like fussy pigmies beside a giant like Handel. See the fifth act ere the curtain falls on the lives of Oliver Goldsmith, Doctor Johnson, Steele, Addison and Dean Swift (dead at the top, the last), and the others unhappily sent into Night; and then behold George Frederick Handel, in his seventy-fifth year, blind, but with inward vision all aflame, conducting the oratorio of "Elijah" before an audience of five thousand people!
The life of Handel was packed with work and projects too vast for one man to realize. That he deferred to the London populace and wrote down to them at first, is true; but the greatness of the man is seen in this--he never deceived himself. He knew just what he was doing, and in his heart was ever a shrine to the Ideal, and upon this altar the fires never died.
Handel was a man of affairs as well as a musician, and if he had loved money more than Art, he could have withdrawn from the fray at thirty years of age, passing rich.
Three times in his life he risked all in the production of Grand Opera, and once saw a sum equal to fifty thousand dollars disappear in a week, through the treachery of Italian artists who were pledged to help him. At great expense and trouble he had gone abroad and searched Europe for talent, and, regardless of outlay, had brought singers and performers across the sea to England. In several notable instances these singers had, in a short time, been bought up by rivals, and had turned upon their benefactor.
But Handel was not crushed by these things. He was philosopher enough to know that ingratitude is often the portion of the man who does well, and a fight with a fox you have warmed into life is ever imminent. At fifty-five, a bankrupt, he makes terms with his creditors and in a few years pays off every shilling with interest, and celebrates the event by the production of "Saul," the "Dead March" from which will never die.
The man had been gaining ground, making head, and at the same time educating the taste of the English people. But still they lagged behind, and when the oratorio of "Joshua" was performed, the Master decided he would present his next and best piece outside of England. Jealousy, a dangerous weapon, has its use in the diplomatic world.
Handel set out for Dublin with a hundred musicians, there to present the "Messiah," written for and dedicated to the Irish people. The oratorio had been turned off in just twenty-one days, in one of those titanic bursts of power, of which this man was capable. Its production was a feat worthy of the Frohmans at their best. The performance was to be for charity--to give freedom to those languishing in debtors' prisons at Dublin. What finer than that the "Messiah" should give deliverance?
The Irish heart was touched. A fierce scramble ensued for seats, precedence being emphasized in several cases with blackthorns deftly wielded. The price of seats was a guinea each. Handel's carriage was drawn through the streets by two hundred students. He was crowned with shamrock, and given the freedom of the city in a gold box. Freedom even then, in Ireland, was a word to conjure with. Long before the performance, notices that no more tickets would be sold were posted. The doors of the Debtors' Prison were thrown open, and the prisoners given seats so they could hear the music--thus overdoing the matter in true Irish style.
The performance was the supreme crowning event in the life of Handel up to that time.
Couriers were dispatched to London to convey the news of Handel's great triumph to the newspapers; bulletins were posted at the clubs--the infection caught! On the return of the master a welcome was given him such as he had never before known--Dublin should not outdo London! When the "Messiah" was given in London, the scene of furore in Dublin was repeated. The wild tumult at times drowned the orchestra, and when the "Hallelujah Chorus" was sung, the audience arose as one man and joined in the song of praise. And from that day the custom has continued: whenever in England the "Messiah" is given, the audience arises and sings in the "Chorus," as its privilege and right. The proceeds of the first performance of the "Messiah" in England were given to charity, as in Dublin. This act, with the splendor of the work, subdued the last lingering touch of obdurate criticism. The man was canonized by popular acclaim. Many of his concerts were now for charity--"The Foundlings' Home," "The Seamen's Fund," "Home for the Aged," hospitals and imprisoned debtors--all came in for their share.
Handel never married. That remark of Dean Swift's, "I admire Handel--principally because he conceals his petticoat peccadilloes with such perfection," does not go. Handel considered himself a priest of art, and his passion spent itself in his work.
The closing years of his life were a time of peace and honor. His bark, after a fitful voyage, had glided into safe and peaceful waters. The calamity of blindness did not much depress him--"What matters it so long as I can hear?" he said. And good it is to know that the capacity to listen and enjoy, to think and feel, to sympathize and love--to live his Ideals--were his, even to the night of his passing Hence.