I'm a bit nonplussed by the competitive spirit that's appeared in some recent blogs. Rick says in his posting 'Bonduca and Phantasm': "If the four composers currently being celebrated by BBC blogs were made to fight or entered in a composing competition, Purcell would win every time." Meanwhile Jessica has titled one of her postings "Mendelssohn is top prodigy - official!"
Enthusiasm for one's 'own' composer is one thing, but to treat Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn like rival football teams in some kind of BBC playoff seems a bit bizarre. Given the differences in musical language and cultural expectations over the 200-year period our four composers (more-or-less) cover, it would be (to use Rick's analogy) like staging a battle using military hardware from the different periods and seeing what happened. General carnage and confusion, and nothing much of productive value would result.
Of course, Handel was not unfamiliar with competition. Early in his career composing for London's opera company, the Royal Academy of Music, he found himself competing with Filippo Amadei and Giovanni Bononcini, in Muzio Scevola (1721), with each composer required to set one act of the opera. Handel's act was the last of the three, and according to contemporary report, it "easily triumphed over the others". Dispute over the different styles of Bononcini and Handel continued, however, prompting John Byrom's verse:
Some say, compar'd to Bononcini,
That Mynheer Handel's but a Ninny;
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a candle:
Strange all this Difference should be
'Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!
Competition was rife amongst singers as well. On Thursday of this week, the Handel opera broadcast will be Siroe (1728), written for the last season of the Royal Academy before it folded due to insolvency. That financial collapse was at least partly due to the Academy's decision to employ not one but two 'prima' donnas in this period. The infamous rivalry that resulted between Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni is the subject of many a colourful anecdote of dubious credibility - the long-lived story that they fought on stage, for instance, is just that: a story.
Nonetheless, I think the rivalry (and the audience's intense factionalism about it) did shape the nature of the operas written while the women were in London. In June1727, at the height of the rivalry, an Italian insider wrote that "the directors, who are mainly for Faustina, have thought of censoring operas", and we might see that censorship in the way some of the works were constructed. In an attempt to maintain a balance between the women, for instance, there was a careful alternation of which one got the leading man (always played by the castrato Senesino). In Siroe, that honour went to Faustina's character, while in the next work, Tolomeo (also by Handel), it belonged to Cuzzoni.
Even while maintaining equality in terms of status and share of the action, Handel differentiated the women in musical terms. Indeed, they were famous for their contrasting styles. In 1723 the singing teacher Pier Francesco Tosi write: "The pathetic of the one [Cuzzoni] and the allegro of the other [Faustina], are the qualities the most to be admired respectively in each of them." He added that they "make us sensible that two women would not be equally eminent if the one copied the other". In Tosi's view (and as Handel showed in his music for them), variety was the raison d'être of musical enjoyment - a lesson we might apply to the current fashion for comparison and competition.