George Frederic Handel, Rodelinda
“Then you should have known Dr. Burney who wrote the history of music. I knew him exceedingly well when I was a young man.” That made Ernest’s heart beat, for he knew that Dr. Burney, when a boy at school at Chester, used to break bounds that he might watch Handel smoking his pipe in the Exchange coffee house–and now he was in the presence of one who, if he had not seen Handel himself, had at least seen those who had seen him.”
–Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh ch. xxxvii (1903)
When I first read Butler’s semi-autobiography and all its Handel-obsession (honestly, can it be fair musical criticism to judge every composer on the basis of “how much is he like Handel”?), I thought he was a bit crazy. However, that was back in the days when the Handel repertory I knew consisted of the Messiah, The Water Music, and a handful of concerti. Then I started reading Johnson, Smollett, Goldsmith, Swift, Pope and listening, of course, to their friend Handel. I realized that Butler wasn’t crazy at all. When in London, I’d wind my way to Handel’s house, just off Oxford and Bond Streets, and I’d hunt for operas, the more obscure, the better. After a while Handel becomes a sort of default choice. One listens to other things, certainly, but doesn’t it always start with Handel?
And now Handel has undergone, for nearly a decade, a tremendous revival. His works are performed almost everywhere, including many that hadn’t been heard for a century or more, but prove a delight. The contemporary rediscovery of Handel focuses on a good understanding of the Augustan Age, and that essential rule: never take an artist too seriously, and if the artist forgets to laugh from time to time, shame on him. The performances of the New York City Opera get this right. They do so brilliantly. Still the Met’s recent staging of “Rodelinda” (1725) was magnificent, and that’s my pick for today. This is music for the Age of Scandal, and much worth listening to today. Especially, “Vivi, tiranno!” perhaps the greatest of all Handel arias.
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