LOVE HANDEL audio version
words CAROLYN SWARTZ
Statue of George Frideric Handel
at Market Square in Old town of
Frideric Handel occupies an exalted place in the pantheon of great composers— revered not only by centuries of music lovers, but also by generations of composers.
Bach is said to have called his esteemed contemporary “the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only one I would wish to be—were
I not Bach.”
Mozart allegedly seconded the remark. “Truly, I would say the same myself were I permitted to put in a word.” Years later, Beethoven referred to Handel as “the greatest composer that ever lived.” And Joseph Haydn “wept like a child” during the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Messiah—later proclaiming Handel “the master of us all.”
Enter Hector Berlioz, born a good half century after Handel’s death. When he described Handel as “a tub of pork and beer,” it is likely he was referring not to the music, but to the man.
Handel’s excesses—along with his girth—were well documented by his contemporaries, some of whom were kinder in their corporeal depictions than others. The British organist, composer and renowned music historian Charles Burney (1726–1814) described a face “full of ire and dignity” but a body that was “somewhat corpulent and unwieldy in motion.”
Circumspect in assuring readers that Handel had neither addiction nor vice “injurious to society,” Burney still felt compelled to acknowledge the “great supply of sustenance” required “to support such a huge mass,” adding delicately that Handel was “rather epicurean in the choice of it.”
A published satire by librettist Paolo Rolli, Handel’s contemporary, offers a more vulgar and insulting view. In it, Rolli imagines an 18th century version of what today would be a rap battle between a testy, defensive Handel and the Swiss impresario John James Heidegger, who delivers these lines to the composer:
How amply your Corpulence fills up the Chair
Like mine Host at an Inn, or a London Lord-May’r,
Three Yards, at the least, round about at the Waist,
In Dimensions your Face like the Sun in the West;
But a Chine of good Pork, and a Brace of good Fowls,
A dozen-pound Turbut, and two Pair of [soles]
With Bread in proportion devour’d at a Meal,
How incredibly strange, and how monstrous to tell!
Needs must that your Gains and your Income be large,
To support such a vast unsupportable Charge!
In fact, Handel’s gains and income were large. In his adopted London, he remained a court favorite throughout his life, even as he moved from operas to the less flashy oratorios, and suffered through bouts of inactivity caused by recurring and ever-worsening illness.
According to David Hunter, music librarian at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Lives of George Frideric Handel, what Handel’s contemporaries felt compelled to ridicule was not his girth but his “bad behavior.” “Corpulency,” Hunter points out, “refers only to size.” But gluttony was considered both an offense and a sin.
For this, Handel was lampooned not only in words but in images—most notably “The Savage Brute,” a retribution-by-caricature at the hand of his erstwhile friend, the artist Joseph Goupy.
The caricature depicted a bloated Handel with the head of a hog, seated at the organ on a wine barrel, surrounded by rich food and bags of money. When it was published—first in 1742 and again in 1754—Goupy gave no public comment. Forty years later, his daughter, the writer Laetitia Hawkins, offered an explanation through a story her father had confided to her “with reluctance”:
One afternoon, Goupy and Handel met by chance on the street near Handel’s residence. The composer invited Goupy to come by for a meal, with the caveat that “only plain food” could be served, due to a lack of funds. Goupy accepted; the two men dined together. At the end of the meal, Handel excused himself—leaving the room, he said, to record some musical passages that had come into his head. Minutes passed. Goupy, wondering “what had happened to his host and friend,” got up and walked into an adjacent room. There, through a window, he saw Handel in a back parlor stuffing himself with “such delicacies as he had lamented his inability to afford his friend.”
Not surprisingly, this marked the end of their friendship. Goupy stormed out; the caricature soon followed.
David Hunter, in his enlightened biography, offers a more charitable view of Handel. Experts he consulted about the composer’s reported behavior have speculated that these excesses were probably less a sign of a failure of character than evidence of compulsive eating disorder. Despite their reluctance to offer a firm posthumous diagnosis, contemporary writings and illustrations suggest a pretty good fit.
No question, Handel’s binge eating and drinking ultimately did him in. From his early 40s he suffered debilitating, recurring bouts of digestive woes, rheumatic pain, palsy, fainting, gout and paralysis, and later cognitive issues and blindness.
The cause was likely the double whammy of obesity and lead poisoning. In an effort to prevent adulteration, the British government prohibited the importation of estate-bottled wine from Portugal, Italy and Spain. Instead, wine from those countries was transported in huge vats and subsequently transferred to casks—all lined with lead. To make matters worse, wine merchants of the time infused the element directly into the wine, both to inhibit bacterial growth and to improve its flavor.
Handel’s ingested burden of lead was surely exacerbated by absorption from powders he would have used to whiten his wigs and prevent them from slipping off his scalp.
Over the last two decades of his life, the state of Handel’s health went up and down: improving after visits to spas in Aachen and Aix. This, and his particular form of “saturnine” gout, lend credence to the theory of poisoning by lead, which can—at least temporarily—be flushed out of the system. And so, Handel would experience “miracle cures,” followed by a return to prodigious composing of glorious music now treasured around the world, until his compulsive consumption—against all good advice—caught up with him yet again.
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Sources: Edward Schulz, "A Day with Beethoven", The Harmonicum (1824); Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances...in Commemoration of Handel (1785)) William Coxe, Aneccdotes of G.F. Handel and J.C. Smith (1799), gfhandel.
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Story courtesy of The American Classical Orchestra (ACO): Described by the New York Times as a “mainstay” of New York City’s music scene,The American Classical Orchestra (ACO) is devoted to preserving the great music of the
17th, 18th, and 19th century, Led by its founder, Maestro Thomas Crawford, ACO’s world-class musicians, playing on period instruments and using historical performance techniques, invite listeners into the sound world of
the great composers.
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Oboe Concerto No. 3 in G Minor
American Classical Orchestra performs the Fourth Movement of Handel’s Oboe Concerto No. 3 in G minor, with Principal Oboist Marc Schachman and the ACO, under the direction of Thomas Crawford.
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Handel: Ombra mai fu
Certain pieces of music stand the test of time in and of themselves, while others become famous because of a particular performer. This performance of “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s 1738 opera Serse offers a perfect marriage of literature and interpretation. —Thomas Crawford