George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends.
Little is known of Handel's private life, and in spite of much speculation about his relationships, and indeed his sexual orientation, the surviving documentation remains sparse. Without extensive correspondence to and from the composer himself, the researcher must cast a wider net. Ellen Harris has done precisely this, delving into a broad range of sources and following some tangential lines of enquiry to discover and present a wealth of information about Handel's circle of friends and associates. Taking as her starting point the legatees in Handel's will, the author presents a good deal of contextual information about London life, in particular the business transactions and processes of the eighteenth century, and the social expectations and status of musicians and society.
Readers should not expect to find new information about Handel's life, but rather a detailed investigation of some of his close friends, their extended families, social positions, financial dealings, and interactions with both the musical life of London and the world of commerce. At times, the story wanders far from Handel, into the realms of social expectations of marriage, complex financial transactions, political machinations, and travels around the globe. Focusing on a core group of six friends, Joseph Goupy, Mary Delany, James Hunter, Elizabeth Mayne, Anne Donnellan, and Elizabeth Palmer, and their lives and their own associates, Harris depicts a complex social scene. Individuals are connected in many ways and the precarious nature of professional and personal status can change dramatically, as it did for Handel and this circle of friends. There is much new information presented about James Hunter in particular, based on extensive research in archives of private collections, public institutions, and record offices. Although the circle of six friends includes many others by their connections, one would have liked to read more about Handel's amanuensis and secretary, John Christopher Smith, who surely played as significant a role in Handel's life as the friends highlighted here, and with whom there must have been more than a purely business relationship over such a long period of time working together. Harris extrapolates from existing information to construct various possible scenarios and motivations; she cautions in her introduction that her conclusions are often 'educated guesses based on extensive research' (p. 10), although for the elegance of the text she does not continue to use 'probably', and the reader can easily forget that hypotheses are just that, especially when one hypothesis is built upon another.
The author describes this book as a 'biography ... a fugue with four separate themes'. These themes are Handel's life, the culture and context of the period, the lives of Handel's friends and legatees, and Handel's music. It is not a chronological account but rather a sequence of layers of information and analysis, and in true fugal style we find repetition, cross-referencing, and complicated secondary themes. The complex approach can be confusing when the reader is taken back and forth in time, and the timelines at the beginning of each chapter, while a good idea, could have been presented by the publisher in a more helpful layout, rather than across several pages. The musical descriptions and analyses are interspersed in chapters investigating the various social aspects of Handel's friends, and frequently include speculative theories linking the experience of friends to the themes of the work in question. For example, the many operas in Eastern settings are linked to Handel's associates who travelled or traded in the region, such as Hunter, or to contemporary political events for which the Eastern staging may be used to remove the story from being too close to home. While the author does acknowledge that 'drawing a direct line from a composer's work to his life is always hazardous' (p. 205), she speculates on possible connections between Handel's circle and the themes of many of his works. The stories of forced marriages and unrequited love are related to life experiences of Handel's friends, perhaps a little ingeniously, as they reflect plot-lines from across the centuries. The recounting of the plots is frequently extensive, as are the possible associations with contemporary events. There are no musical examples; however, the music is described in some detail and with great enthusiasm. The reader may well feel inclined to listen to the operas again with a new perspective, whether or not they accept the proposed hypotheses.
The audience for this book is not clear; while the musical analysis of some operas, for example, is clearly aimed at the Handel scholar or musicologist, and the footnotes and bibliography indicate a serious academic work, the author also explains what is meant by an 'opus number' and a 'round' in a musical context. This aside, the book is an interesting, if occasionally digressive read, and accessible to the specialist and the general reader with an interest in eighteenth-century cultural and commercial life. The bibliography, dramatis personae, and elements of the index are all organised in an unconventional style, grouped by theme, which requires some second-guessing as to the method employed. The author includes an impressive range of primary sources in the bibliography, particularly of official papers and archives, which themselves comprise a useful resource. The 'select discography' will inevitably date quickly, but the appendix on 'Currency, living costs, wages and fees' will be a valuable aide-memoire for those wanting to contextualise the music business with the domestic expenses of the period.
Harris's expertise and knowledge of Handel's social circle and of the commercial aspects of musical life in eighteenth-century London are reflected in this book. The title suggests that it is a biography of Handel, although the author herself describes it rather as 'an attempt to uncover the private person behind the public persona'. I am not sure that this is achieved; I would suggest that it is more a study of the social, political and commercial world in which Handel lived and worked, and his response to his environs, and as such it offers a wealth of new and useful information and ideas.
The Gerald Coke Handel Collection, The Foundling Museum, London