Edinburgh International Book Festival
Sparks Theatre, George Street
20:45 (21 August only)
🌟🌟🌟🌟 (Four Star)
I can cope with the knowledge that someone has never been to, nor listened to the music of, an opera by Handel: but I found it staggering to discover that the person interviewing the notable Handelian expert Jane Glover had never been to a performance of Handel’s best-known, best-loved and most enduring work… It did provide a sort of running joke throughout the hour we spent with Ms Glover, who has been in love with Handel’s music since she first heard Messiah in Lincoln cathedral when she was only nine years old, and held out the hope that, after hearing her enthusing about the man and his music, he would put himself out to attend a performance and make the acquaintance of a work that has been known and loved since its first performance in Dublin in 1742.
Jane Glover’s new book Handel in London does what it says on the cover. I’ve known and sung Messiah virtually all my life, and have been in love with Handel’s operas since the 1970s and 80s when people suddenly discovered that they weren’t dreary and repetitive and completely incomprehensible but are extremely human and heartfelt. They suddenly became “sexy” and now it’s taken for granted that any reputable opera house will always have some Handel in its repertoire. The plots adapt well to contemporary settings – Agrippina, about Nero’s mother and her machinations to get her son on the imperial throne, worked wonderfully set in an age of paparazzi, with a twitchy coke-snorting wannabe emperor and a very media-savvy mum: Giulio Cesare was an absolute delight in Glyndebourne’s Bollywood production; I could go on and on….but we weren’t there to concentrate on Handel’s operas, though they were a major part of his output during his time in London, and featured in the closing Q&A session.
We heard about the man, his huge heart, his extraordinary energy; the quasi-industrial production line on the ground floor of his house in Brook Street which dealt with copying and producing orchestral parts for the constant stream of music he poured out; his brilliant writing and his genius for finding extraordinary singers and writing to suit their voices even when he didn’t get on with them personally; and his extraordinary compassion for those less fortunate than himself led him to begin the organisation which later became the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund, and to give an annual concert for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital in Coram’s Fields.
Much was made of Handel’s special relationship with the Hanoverians who were his employers when he was in Germany and then came to rule his new home of England – and the enduring quality of his music, including the coronation anthems composed for George II one of which, Zadok the Priest, has been performed at every subsequent British monarch’s coronation. Handel didn’t seem fazed by any challenge thrown at him – music to be played on the river as the king and his party went down to dine at Richmond, music to accompany – and not be drowned by – a royal fireworks party, producing music which combined majesty, ceremony, propriety and intimacy, and, and, and… Jane Glover’s comment – “he somehow gets it right an awful lot of the time” – goes a long way to explain his music’s brilliance and its enduring appeal.
There was much, much more, and all of it fascinating: so much so that I rushed out to buy Handel in London and queue up to get it signed, both to show my appreciation of an hour which went past all too quickly and to give me many happy hours in the company of this great man of music.