Only God and Martha Stewart know what brought me to the Williams-Sonoma store in the Beverly Center in Los Angeles on that Tuesday afternoon in the fall of 1995, but it was there that I finally ran into George Frideric Handel. I rounded a display of expensive cast iron pots and pans and suddenly there he was not more than two feet in front of me. Without his wig and wearing a knit sweater, the Great Man held a stainless steel container. It had a small crank, which he turned a couple of times. “A popcorn popper,” he said, half as a question. He handed the thing to me then disappeared behind some brightly colored Italian ceramics, perhaps not so different, save the modes of industrial production that yielded them, than those he might have seen at the palaces he frequented during his Italian sojourn in the first decade of the 18th century.
My Handel was in fact the excellent Dutch actor, Jeroen Krabbé, who just the year before had been Handel in the European film, Farinelli, a lavish though often unbearable biopic about the Neapolitan castrato who was the most famous performer of his age, and, as the movie would have, yearned to sing Handel’s music. Krabbé played Handel with relish and according to the Handel legend: imperious, unyielding, massively talented – in sum, a full-dress egoist.
The same year Krabbé gave us his gloriously gruff Handel in Farinelli, Gary Thomas published an essay entitled “Was George Frideric Handel Gay” in the 1994 collection of musicological essays by various authors devoted to gender and sexuality, Queering the Pitch (the second edition of the book came out in 2006 from Routledge). “Yes” is Thomas’ answer, though he barely pauses to consider how anachronistic the category of “Gay” itself is to 18th century life.
Yet, as Thomas pointed out, the lack of women in Handel’s life had prompted all previous biographers either to ignore issue or to explain it away. Only two years before Thomas outed Handel, Donald Burrows’ “definitive” biography had, as it were, skirted the issue entirely. A decade later, in the award-winning 2004 book, Handel as Orpheus, Ellen T. Harris demonstrated with great skill and nuance the nature of Handel’s homosocial world, both in Italy and in London, and the way this culture was reflected in some of the poetic texts he set in his chamber cantatas. Refusing to titillate by pronouncing Handel’s attachments purely Platonic or sometimes sexual, Harris presented Handel nonetheless as a lover of men.
Handel’s romantic relationships with women—or, more accurately, the lack of them—are not only a modern concern, however. Handel’s first biographer, the clergyman John Mainwaring, deals with the “problem” near the beginning of his account, published in 1760, the year after Handel’s death: “In the sequel of his life [Handel] refused the highest favors from the fairest of the sex, only because he would not be confined or cramped by particular attachments.” Handel, it seems, was married to his art. Yet his contemporary J. S. Bach was even more prolific than Handel in ever sense: Bach fathered more notes of music and some twenty kids. There was indeed a “problem.”
Mainwaring’s tactic informed many subsequent attempts at explaining away Handel’s bachelorhood. The most transparent and fragile of such attempts, especially for all its over-confidence of denial came in Columbia Professor Paul Henry Lang’s 1966 biography. Lang admitted that his subject’s sexuality had “puzzled his biographers for two hundred years” but then tries to cover all bases by claiming that although Handel had no “time for serious engagement with women,” he was nonetheless “attracted to women in all stages of his life.” Lang grasps frantically at the flying sheets of tautology, asserting without evidence that Handel was of “normal masculine constitution.”
Like all other music historians, Lang made abundant use of Mainwaring, whose source for much of his biography was likely Handel himself, and one can imagine the aged, blind composer recounting the appetites and affairs of his youth in a code both palatable to him and to the much younger cleric.
There is coy talk in Mainwaring’s biography of a youthful liaison with a beautiful singer Vittoria Tarquini. The alleged affair took place in Florence in 1707 during the production of Handel’s opera, Rodrigo. According to Mainwaring—and one can only hear Handel’s voice in all this—Vittoria was then the mistress of Handel’s patron, Ferdinand de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Mainwaring writes that “Vittoria was a fine woman, but from the natural restlessness of certain hearts, so little sensible was she of her exalted situation, that she conceived a design of transferring her affections to another person.Handel’s youth and comeliness, joined with his fame and abilities in Music, had made impressions on her heart. Tho’ she had the art to conceal them for the present, she had not perhaps the power, certainly not the intention, to efface them.” This seems to say in the most round about way, that Handel wet his quill in something other than ink in debauched Italy. The pair later hook up in Florence. According to this story, Vittoria’s affair with Handel would have been secretive and highly risky because she was Grand Duke’s lover.
In fact, this Medici was a sexual omnivore whose appetites inclined steeply towards men; he infamously sampled at least one castrato as well, and probably many more.
Reading the large, flashing print between Mainwaring’s lines one can pretty easily infer that the affair was more likely between the Grand Duke and the young German Orpheus.
Mainwaring mistakenly believed—again, likely relying on Handel’s faltering and selective memory—that Ferdinand had encouraged Handel to make his obligatory trip to Italy. Ferdinand’s reasons were purely musical, of course. What would the history of art and music be without lecherous patrons? Ferdinand would then have been Florentine ambassador in Hamburg, where Handel was just getting his start in the world of international opera. Handel vows to make the journey, but refuses Ferdinand’s offers to fund it. Instead, Handel insists sending himself “thither on his own bottom”— an 18th century phrase whose polymorphous meaning now elicits from the modern reading a knowing wink or a foolish snigger.
In fact, Mainwaring had the wrong Medici. Ferdinand was never in Hamburg. The Medici in question was Ferdinand’s younger brother, Gian Gastone, also homosexual. When Ferdinand died of syphilis in 1713, Gian became Grand Duke, and continued the late Medici course towards their historical cul-de-sac. Both he and Ferdinand were forced into childless marriages of convenience, and the Medici line died with them.
Mainwaring tells us that as a reward for Handel’s Rodrigo, Ferdinand “presented [Handel] with 100 sequins, and a service of plate.” The stylish Grand Duke thus nurtured his young charge’s taste for the finer things. Like his cinematic embodiment, Krabbé, the real Handel had a thing for quality dinnerware and accessories.
Whereas Handel’s sexuality was a problem for two hundred years of biography, it may now be an asset for the first time in the long history of Handel anniversary celebrations. BBC 3 is mounting a major Handel commemoration, along with year-long programs devoted to other composers whose births or deaths are also being marked: Purcell, Haydn, and Mendelsson. But Handel’s is a special relationship with the BBC: ironically, since Handel was a naturalized Briton, no composer has been more crucial to the formation of Britishness and to the BBC’s classical music mission.
The BBC Handel web-site offers broadcasts, videos, blogs, and other internet enticements. The centerpiece of the celebrations will be the broadcast every Thursday of each of Handel’s 42 operas. The series begins on January 8 with Handel’s first Hamburg opera, Elmira, a piece heard and admired by Gian Gastone de Medici.
A Roy Lichtentstein-style comic book image of Handel greets the web surfer to the BBC site. This Handel is not afraid to wear pastels. The promotional video featuring conductor and broadcaster Charles Hazelwood, the host of all the BBC’s anniversary commemorations, invites us to a year-long look at Handel and his music. One of the central questions, posed rather archly by Hazelwood, will be how it was that Handel “remained an enigma in his personal life” even while his music was so popular. Aside from the stage works, the BBC will also be offering oratorios and instrumental music, but it is significant that the operas, many of them now firmly established in the modern repertoire, should be the focus of the BBC’s Handel Year. Every Age creates its heroes anew: whether he likes it or not, one of the greatest men of the theater has finally come out of the closet.
For The BBC Composer’s Commemoration Site go to:
DAVID YEARSLEY,a family man, teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org