Handel Reborn

Beethoven said Handel was the greatest who ever composed—so why do we only seek him out at holidays? Marking the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death with a guide to all the life in his music.

A view of fireworks, May 15, 1749

Easter’s come and gone, which means it’s time to put George Frideric Handel back in his coffin until Christmas, when his phoenix-like Messiah makes its annual return. That particular oratorio—along with a handful of watered-down tunes—was all I knew of the man for years. I sat in a music hall one day, looking at major composers’ names painted around the ceiling, and couldn’t imagine how Handel had earned his place with so few recognizable masterpieces. His fellow composers knew. Mozart said, “Handel understands effect better than any of us; when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” Beethoven agreed, saying, “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.”

Put aside “Hallelujah” and the Water Music and anything that makes you think of British period films or PBS fund drives, and think of the night you woke up unexpectedly panicked about death. Think of the first sunny day of spring when all the extra Vitamin D and bumblebees rolling in pollen make you want to lie in the grass, making hundreds of babies with someone you love but can’t have. Think of the time you were driving along and everything clicked for one minute—the temperature, the bend of the trees, your place in the world and all your counted blessings—and the instant when anxiety blew it back to smithereens.

There’s no emotion Handel can’t distill, no limit to the time you can spend exploring his music. He wasn’t merely a man of God or a fancy-wigged composer on the king’s royal boat. He wasn’t just a fat man carved into marble, or a supernatural genius, or a hardworking self-promoter. He wasn’t a failure in his lifetime, and he wasn’t a lifelong success. He was, weirdly, all these things—a populist for connoisseurs, an angel with a temper—but you’re better off forgetting the whole mess of associations today, the 250th anniversary of his death, and listening instead to the words of Samuel Butler: “Handel is so great and so simple that no one but a professional musician is unable to understand him.”

He wrote more than 70 operas and oratorios, most of which fell into obscurity for almost two centuries before reemerging, around his 200th birthday in 1985, in an eruption of recordings and performances. The long neglect of these works may be attributed to anything from Messiah’s overshadowing popularity to a simple change in musical taste, but it’s ultimately as mysterious as their eventual resurrection. Whatever the reason, there’s plenty of treasure out there, and his popular pieces are only the shiniest coins.

Handel drew his dramatic material from the Old and New Testaments, world history, mythology, and classical literature. His characters ranged from Hercules and Alexander the Great to shepherds and prostitutes. There’s no telling who, at any moment, will sing the truest song you’ve heard in a month. “Qual Nave” (Radamisto) floats with mesmerizing calm, “Ombra Pallide” (Alcina) swirls in frenzy and fear, and “Haste Thee, Nymph” (L’Allegro) is lusty joy. Cleopatra disguises herself as Virtue, sings a song of seduction so ravishing that Caesar doesn’t recognize the ruse, and even the listener, who knows better, is beguiled. Saul’s a jealous old beast plotting to kill the savior of his people, but it’s he, like Lear or Salieri, who commands our pity.

I’ve been an addict for a couple of years now and haven’t come close to completion, let alone exhaustion; I’ve listened to many arias countless times, and there are dozens of operas and oratorios I haven’t heard at all, to say nothing of his sonatas, cantatas, and concertos. With such a wealth of music, it’s difficult knowing where to begin—you don’t want to gamble on a $50 opera—but certain works and recordings stand apart, capturing Handel’s essence and serving as excellent introductions to his other major masterpieces.

Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt), HWV 17

Royal purple, desert sand, razzmatazz, flesh…Giulio Cesare’s a four-hour kaleidoscope with a strong libretto and enough A-list material to give Messiah a decent run for the money. I once spent a whole Saturday dry-locking the basement with this baby playing in the background and had myself a pretty fine time.

You don’t expect to identify with a narcissistic witch, but she’s startlingly human in her seductions.

There’s a DVD production that looks like Lawrence of Arabia in Bollywood, a perfect visualization of the huge exotic canvas Handel’s painting. The music is a world. Savagery, power, magnificence, sensuality, armies at the pyramids, and harems in the palace—it’s a spectacle befitting one of history’s great love stories. Cleopatra charms Caesar with viola da gamba, harp, and theorbo, Caesar is spellbound in a delightful birdsong aria, and later, desperate and alone, he sings a plea to celestial fate that seems to contain its own seed of redemption.

Caesar and Cleo’s pinwheel of fortune is only part of the epic. Take “Cara Speme,” a young man’s hope of avenging his beheaded father, which manages to sound convincingly exquisite. Or “Tu Sei Il Cor,” sung by a general wooing a woman, “the heart of his heart,” by brutal intimidation. He tears her son away to punish her refusal, and the ensuing mother/son duet, “Son Nata a Lagrimar”—“I Was Born to Weep”—is one of the most heart-rending things Handel ever wrote.

I’m barely scratching the surface. For melodic and emotional variety, panoramic color, and sheer enjoyment, this is top-shelf.

Recommended Recording: Giulio Cesare: Jacobs, Concerto Koln, Larmore, Schlick, Rorholm, Lee Ragin. Currently it is out of print, but you can buy a new copy from one of’s third-party sellers, for example. I’ve had good experiences with Caiman.

Alcina, HWV 34

Alcina, an island sorceress à la Circe in The Odyssey, turns her lovers into stones, trees, and wild beasts, until she herself falls in love, is betrayed, and powerlessly watches as her palace and enchantments fall away.

The characters in most of Handel’s operas are wonderfully rounded, which is extraordinary given how often they’re potentially one-dimensional—famous leaders, Bible heroes or, in the case of Alcina, a mythic figure seemingly removed from mortal cares. You don’t expect to identify with a narcissistic witch, but she’s startlingly human in her seductions, cruelty, voluptuous tantrums, and futile grief. Her just deserts are a feast, and her volatility draws more genuine sympathy than any of her victims.

Romantic intrigues abound, and though the passions and dangers are real, the opera retains a bright spirit of fantasy. “Questo È Il Cielo De’ Contenti,” a balmy chorus sung as Alcina’s servants pamper their queen, is inducement enough for anyone to languish in her power. In “Ah! Mio Cor!,” Alcina swings from jilted love to vows of revenge and round again; God knows we’ve all been there. And in “Verdi Prati”—sung by the man who’s spurned her—the melodic restraint works like a physical weight, the ear expecting a lift that never comes, resulting in a sense of weariness and resignation, of the magical island—and the world—existing as a beauty doomed to fade.

Recommended Recording: Alcina: Fleming, Graham, Dessay, Kuhlmann, Robinson, Naouri, Lascarro, Les Arts Florissants, Christie.

Orlando, HMV 31

The opera starts with an overture that captures the grandeur of a champion’s strength and the superhuman passion. A magician reads the constellations and warns that love is a hero’s path to ruin. The mighty Orlando disagrees, then spends the next three hours making a cataclysmic mess of things.

He isn’t the only source of trouble. There’s a shepherdess who, in spite of herself, is charmed by her lover’s lies; a queen who feigns jealousy to hide her own infidelity; and dei ex machina that create as many complications as they resolve. Everything goes awry, and that’s before Orlando goes insane.

As with any good fantasy, the magnified passions are quintessentially human. Orlando suffers delusions, but his hell is real.

Handel wrote a lot of madness scenes over the years and the end of Act II is one his best. It’s a schizophrenic scene made sensible by Handel’s control of the music. Each revolution of Orlando’s turmoil—the sinister halo of strings when he hallucinates the underworld, the creeping tempo of the specters’ rise, a graceful melody whipping itself to fury—are so precise that we, as listeners, never feel confused.

The music sparkles, sounds the depths, rants and raves, and floats up miraculously clean. “Consolati o bella,” a trio in which two newly revealed lovers try to console the odd-woman-out, is a bittersweet harmony of injury, compassion, and the pitiless logic of triangles. In “Finche Prendi Ancora,” Orlando demands blood from a woman offering tears, and when their alternating songs intertwine, it isn’t a happy union but an agonizing tangle.

As with any good fantasy, the magnified passions are quintessentially human. Orlando suffers delusions, but his hell is real. The shepherdess and queen sing so many beautiful laments, Orlando’s rage feels rightfully impotent in comparison. Handel, the real magician of the opera, brings luxury and bliss to the (forgivably simplistic) happy ending.

Recommended Recording: Orlando: Bowman, Augér, Kirkby, Robbin, Thomas, AAM, Hogwood. Officially out of print, but ArchivMusic sells an excellent authorized reissue.

Theodora, HWV 68

The title character is a young Christian woman martyred by the Romans because she won’t honor Venus and Flora, and while the story’s as paint-by-numbers as one would fear, Handel delivers so many transfixing meditations it’s like staring at one vivid fire after another. I burst into tears—more than once—watching a DVD performance, and while I’m not a man who never cries at all, neither am I a big man-flower who cries at any old bit of Baroque. Overall, the oratorio works less as a dramatic narrative and more as a paean to mercy and devotion, transcending its libretto by evoking the purest beliefs of each character—a simplification that leads to depth instead of shallowness.

His crowning duet, “As Steals the Morn,” is so natural that the question of opposing halves vanishes altogether.

The unshakeable belief of Theodora and her closest friend, Irene, would be difficult to swallow (and frankly boring) if it weren’t for the pathos and clarity of their songs. “Oh! That I on Wings Could Rise” blends optimism and despair, Theodora’s prayer to escape a fate worse than death. “Bane of Virtue” is a good example of how Handel’s ebullience can overcome a dull lyric, and “As With Rosy Steps the Morn” is a gorgeous ode to both the real and metaphoric hope of dawn—something Romans and Christians would applaud.

Two Roman soldiers, Didymus and Septimius, offer a fascinating contrast. Both are charged with persecuting the helpless offenders, and though their consciences are torn, only Didymus rebels. His friend Septimius, who eventually witnesses the execution of Theodora and Didymus, is all the more compelling because of his failure to act. His luminous aria, “Descend, kind pity,” shows his truest self, and his pain is familiar to anyone who’s ever seen the light and turned away.

Recommended Recording: Theodora: Gritton, Bickley, Blaze, Agnew, A. Smith, N. Davies, Gabrieli Consort and Players, McCreesh.

L’Allegro, HWV 55

The full title is L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, which seems a tad excessivo. It’s probably my favorite, a pastoral ode based on poems by John Milton, with Mirth and Melancholy extolling their own virtues, contradicting each other, and conjuring a profound, seemingly irresolvable vision of human existence. Milton’s poetry makes for a fertile libretto and Handel’s powers are in full flower, summoning the netherworld’s brooding gloom, morning’s bath of light, day’s velocity and color, midnight’s prayers, and heaven’s mysteries and dreams. William Blake painted a series of watercolors based on Milton’s themes, and Mark Morris choreographed it all to international raves.

The ode is a whirl of opposites: light and dark, Venus and Saturn, body and soul, ecstasy and grief. A tenor curses sorrow, a soprano renounces frivolous cheer, and we’re off to the races. Nymphs and milkmaids revel in the fields; nightingales and constellations soften the night. “Populous Cities Please Me then” is a bear hug of worldly business and pleasure, with a radiant middle section about impressing the ladies. “Oft on a Plat of Rising Ground” is a lullaby to twilight and embers. L’Allegro celebrates everything from Shakespeare and honeybees to hearth crickets and cloisters.

Mirth and Melancholy are equally persuasive. Milton didn’t synthesize the two forces, but Handel gave it a shot, asking his librettist Charles Jennens (who later worked on Messiah) to write a reconciling third part for moderation. Jennens’ verses fall short—“Moderato, indeed,” one concertgoer quipped at the première—but Handel soars. His crowning duet, “As Steals the Morn,” is so natural that the question of opposing halves vanishes altogether. Yellow and blue turn green.

Note: The aria “O, Sad Virgin” is sometimes omitted because it gives il Penseroso too many songs in a row, but it’s a must-hear—a cascading soprano aria with cello accompaniment:

But oh, sad virgin, that thy pow’r
Might raise Musaeus from his bow’r,
Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing
Such notes as, warbled to the string,
Drew iron tears down Pluto’s cheeks
And made hell grant what love did seek.

Recommended Recording: L’Allegro ed il Penseroso; Tamerlano Ballet Music: Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists. Another great version (which includes “O, Sad Virgin”) is L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato: Gritton, McFadden, L. Anderson, Agnew, N. Davies; King.

One last note: Whenever you come across the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, pay attention, because she’s usually the best—that rare artist who didn’t channel Handel but the very forces Handel himself was channeling through music. Her two recordings of Handel’s arias are essential.