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THE MAGNIFICENT MR HANDEL (article first published : 2008-03-21)

The annals of classical music, perhaps more than of any other branch of the performing arts aside from the acting fraternity, are dotted with figureheads one might dub ‘Eccentrics on the Grand Scale’. For many of the world’s older generation of concert-goers, a recognizable example of this phenomenon is the British conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. Anthologies of his biting wit, spawned at the expense of hapless orchestral players over a span of half a century, have been celebrated in more than one compilation of outrageous Beecham anecdotes.

Taking the spotlight in Durban this week is an even more famous Eccentric whose social and professional foibles have reigned supreme in the lore of classical music for more than three centuries. This is George Frederick Handel, the German-born Baroque composer whose magnum opus, Messiah, springs to life for the umpteenth time this evening in the Durban City Hall, and again in the Playhouse Opera on Sunday afternoon.

Born in Halle, the young Handel took cultural circles in Italy by storm during the first decade of the 18th Century, before he triumphantly adopted London as his city of residence in 1710, becoming a subject of the British crown in 1727. During his lifetime, Handel’s musical genius, entrepreneurial skills, and his forceful personality made him a legendary presence in English society, which accorded him the honour of burial in Westminster Abbey in 1759.

In dealing with the tantrums of opera stars he introduced to the London stage during his early years in the British capital, Handel employed an uncompromising approach. A famous example of this relates to the prima donna, Francesca Cuzzoni, who refused to sing an aria he composed for her debut - until the composer, a giant of a man, threatened to suspend her upside down by her ankles, and drop her from the upstairs window of their rehearsal room. The diva swiftly submitted to his will, and, as the composer’s muse, went on to inspire the creation several great roles, not least his Cleopatra.

Handel was equally adept at curtailing emotional ‘spill over’ from his tenors. Christopher Hogwood, in his tercentennial book on Handel, recounts how a Scottish singer, a Mr Gordon, assigned to a leading role in his opera Flavio, objected to the composer’s flamboyant style of accompanying one of his arias. He threatened to jump into the harpsichord if Handel persisted. Handel famously replied: “Let me know when you will do that, and I will advertise it: for I am sure more people will come to see you jump, than to hear you sing.”

Portraits of the composer in later life suggest a hedonistic preference for the Good Life. Presented with two bottles of fine vintage wine, the composer, according to a close associate, laid up these treasures for his own exclusive consumption. Shortly afterwards, while entertaining dinner guests, he excused himself repeatedly from the table, murmuring “I heff ein tort” before slipping out of the room, leaving his guests to marvel at the maestro’s supposed compositional inspirations behind the scenes. The story goes his habitual German accent grew markedly thicker as the evening progressed…

Over the past 30 years the world has seen a great revival of the huge body of music Handel left posterity, not least his many beautiful operas, while his most famous work remains Messiah, set to texts from the King James Bible.

His musical legacy was treasured by his successors, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The latter so revered his predecessor’s genius that he declared in 1824. "Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave".

Of the 29 oratorios Handel wrote in the latter part of his career, Messiah stands out as the only one that celebrates a New Testament text. Following its first performance in Dublin in 1742, it passed swiftly into the mainstream of world music, and has long since been regarded as the greatest masterpiece of music composed in England.

Tickets are still available for this evening’s KZNPO performance of Messiah in the Durban City. This starts at 19h30. Tickets are extremely limited for Sunday’s performance in the Playhouse Opera, which starts at 15h00. Book through Computicket on 083 915 8000. - William Charlton-Perkins




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