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My Handel Year - Looking Back

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Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 12:04 UK Time, Friday, 8 January 2010

handel_talk_at_the_proms.jpgAs the Christmas/New Year leftovers diminish (and so too, one hopes, the Christmas/New Year waistline), and we endeavour to return to the routine even amidst snow and ice, it's hard not to feel that last year was a long time ago.  But certain musical memories from the fabulous past year of our four great composers remain fresh.  Perhaps the freshest are those that came at the time as a surprise or revelation - when we learned something, in other words.

Any teacher will know the educational truism that we learn best by doing, and so the 'learning' moments of the past year that spring most readily to my mind are those in which I was actively involved.  One that so struck me, I subsequently used it in my lectures at Oxford, was the process of going round London recording snippets about Handel's life for Radio 3's participation in the EBU Handel day.  The idea was to record a few minutes' commentary 'on location' about places that Handel would once have visited; we recorded over two days, and got to almost all our locations on foot - and that was the eye opener, because, as tube-travelling denizens of the modern city, we don't realise just how close the important bits of Old London were to one another. To be able to walk from Handel's house on Brook Street to the Earl of Burlington's palace on Piccadilly in just 10 minutes, on to the site of the opera house in another 7, the royal residences in yet a few more ... all that impressed forcibly the sense of intimacy 18th-century London must have held - like a very large village.  That, certainly, was a great learning experience for me, and I was delighted that the BBC took the trouble to put up a map of the city c.1750 with the locations of the various places we visited marked, so that others could follow the route too. 

The EBU concerts themselves were also ear-openers: it was terrific to hear the stylistic variety of performances from around Europe - despite the seeming uniformity and ubiquity of the 'early music' sound on our CD shelves, there's still a great deal of room for individuality, and even regional variety, as the performances made clear.

Another learning experience that stands out for me concerned the Handel opera cycle.  First, there was simply the novelty of being able to hear all of Handel's operas (plus some which weren't operas, or included music by others!).  As a Radio 3 producer observed to me, it's only in the past few years that running a 'full' cycle has become possible, because interest in Handel's operas (and in recording them) has only recently really taken off.  My involvement in introducing two of the operas, Almira and Sosarme, also prompted smaller epiphanies.  I hadn't properly listened to Almira, Handel's first extant opera, in full before; I really enjoyed the musical variety displayed by the youthful composer, and in particular the strong presence of north German characteristics, including the influence of Reinhard Keiser.  Although Handel formed his compositional style early (in many ways, it changed little after he reached England), it is clear that he absorbed musical influences cumulatively, and the young composer has a very distinctive sound even prior to his Italian travels. 
Sosarme, an opera from Handel's London maturity, was thought-provoking in another way, because the version broadcast was entitled Fernando.  We speculated on air about possible political reasons for the title change, but far more interesting in a way is the fact that Handel was happy to redraw the work.  Actually, this was commonplace at the time: it may seem paradoxical to us, but the really successful operas and oratorios were the ones that survive in multiple different versions, because Handel re-worked them each time he revived them.  (Hence the confusing range of options for Messiah.) 


I shall miss Handel year, but I hope that what this past year has particularly taught all of us is that, pace Messiah, Handel's for life, not just for Christmas!  And that leads to a request or two, for coming years: now that we've had the full run of Handel's operas - and what a treat it was! - what I'd really like next is an afternoon (or more) dedicated to discussing and hearing different versions of the same opera, so that we can really get under the skin of the composer's creative thinking in a particular work.  And it would also be good to hear Handel's music alongside that of those who influenced him - Keiser, Scarlatti and others. 

Really, even after a year of great musical riches, when it seems we've explored every nook and cranny of a composer's output, it's rather exciting to think there's still more to discover.  I shall certainly look forward to doing that with Radio 3, and with other listeners, who, I've discovered in the year it's been my privilege to serve as Composer of the Year blogger for Handel, are every bit as insightful and able to provoke new learning experiences as the music we've so enjoyed discussing. 


  • Comment number 1.

    so much handel, so little time

  • Comment number 2.

    Happy New Year to the Dubliner, Jason, and the Handelian, Suzanne, too!


    It seemed to me that 2009 saw Handel's operas largely up against Haydn's symphonies on Radio 3, although I would have liked to have seen a few of Haydn's more obsure operas, too, as Denis suggested in his last post.


    As for Suzanne, you, too, have been an erudite champion of Handel, and your suggestions above would make fascinating programmes on Radio 3 (although perhaps we need a bit of a rest). I, too, would like to get under the skin of one of Handel's operas, comparing various recordings and productions, if not quite Building a Library on CD Review. Perhaps you could give us an online masterclass!

    I think that it is also useful to put these selected composers in context, so an Early Music Programme about Keiser, Scarlatti and Handel's great contemporaries would be invaluable. I cannot always tell when I am listening to Handel. My distinguished fellow messageboarder, Reiner, was full of praise for the ways in which you managed to put Handel's music into context, and as he is sometimes involved in putting on such productions, he could provide a practitioner's insight. As a Londoner, I also enjoyed going through Handel's Calling Cards on the Radio 3 website:


    Donald Macleod did much the same for Composer of the Week some time ago, with a series of five Handel walks around the capital:


    We turned it into an illustrious pub crawl, although fortunately, Jason, we did not end up in Covent Garden drinking far too much port (again). Roger Scruton was there in Inigo Jones's classical masterpiece, championing Joseph Haydn with some classical buskers, and much as I can see the elegant beauty of the father of classical music, there is something larger than life about Handel (and the baroque), which may have given him the edge in the popular vote. I should also like to hear from Jessica Duchen about Felix Mendelssohn, and perhaps also about some of the more obscure composers, whose anniversaries were not celebrated in 2009.


  • Comment number 3.

    They have a Handel pub here in Dublin, I must pop in, for a quick drink, sometime, though not often near it.


    They even have a hotel named after the chap as well.

    I rather enjoyed 'not the messiah' on 3 at christmas, very funny, though unsure about real Handel highlight, the messiah at Cadogan was rather superb, especially it being the full version and with interesting program notes.

    But still, I think the Handel highlight, for me, must have been Agrippina at the ENO, a few years ago.


    The bar scene was superb...

    "Poppea's aria 'I shall punish' includes an extended harpsichord solo. McVicar places the harpsichord player on stage - within the setting of a bar - and presents him, cigarette in mouth, in the 'Play it again, Sam' Humphrey Bogart mode. The irony of repetitions in the harpsichord solo is heightened by repeated movements of jolly (possibly somewhat tipsy) dancers. "

    ... Felix is interesting, must say, enjoy his stuff, when it pops up, on 3.... am rather busy at the moment, have to grab bits of 'composer of the week' when I can, but hurrahh for it bringing us rarer treats :)


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