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As the ghost of Handel clanks through this 250th year since his death, he must look on in astonishment at how the living have updated his legacy. The Handel of today is gay, a binge eater, and a chemical abuser, not just in the form of far too much wine, but also, and unwittingly, too much of the lead that was used in the 18th as a preservative in the liquid Handel consumed in vast quantities. In those days bottles could not be sealed as tightly as today and lead was used to prevent fine wines from the continent from going bad. According to Handel expert David Hunter writing most recently in the catalog for the exhibition “Handel Reveal’d” now at the Handel House in London’s Mayfair district and running until October of this, lead poisoning was the cause of the paralysis of the right hand and incipient dementia that beset Handel in 1737. Like a rock star served cocaine cut with some deadly compound, this substance abuser of the 18th-century was imbibing bad stuff.
By all reports, many doubtless exaggerated, the quantities of Handel’s intake of food and drink were enormous. Along with the haughty and talented Italian opera stars with whom he worked, and who nearly ruined him financially, Handel was one of the first international musical celebrities. In this respect he is perhaps most modern of all. His own appetite for fodder was itself fodder for the appetites of the raucous London media. These journalists, coffee-house gossips, pamphleteers, and cartoonists stoked and dampened the public’s fire for opera on which Handel’s musical and financial fortunes depended.
Then as now the lurid image is the fastest way towards notoriety. The expatriate French artist, Joseph Goupy, produced the most damning and memorable visual rendering of Handel’s excesses. Not surprisingly, this cartoon is scrupulously avoided in Donald Burrow’s still-definitive though hardly riveting biography, first published in 1994. All Goupy gets in this book is a prim foonote dismissing the engraving as “cruel in intent.” Not so Christopher Hogwood, whose excellent Handel biography, revised in 2007, is much richer in lively detail and human texture. One of the great exponents of Handel music as a conductor, player, and scholar, Hogwood is also the curator of the Handel House exhibition, and maintains that the best way to celebrate the composer’s death is to find out how he really lived.
Goupy’s infamous caricature was prompted by an evening at Handel’s in which the Frenchman was invited back to the composer’s Brook Street house for supper. The guest’s elevated palette was not much impressed by the fare, and he was also puzzled by Handel’s frequent disappearances from table. Goupy eventually found his host in the kitchen stuffing his face with far better food than he’d offered his visitor. The damning picture of Handel was Goupy’s thank-you card for a bad time. The friendship between the men came to a speedy end. The cartoon is the pre-digital ancestor of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps caught sucking at his bong.
Goupy’s engraving pictures a pig-snouted and bewigged Handel seated on a hogshead of ale with wine bottles lined up behind it. A long shopping list of delicacies spills from the hog’s red coat. Dead, unplucked fowl are in abundance: a rooster hangs from the side of the organ; a bigger bird of indefinite species sprawls belly-up on a kettledrum, itself dwarfed by Handel’s massive left leg encased in white hose like a giant sausage; a trussed-up goose rests on a table in front of a saucepan of turtle soup.
At the bottom of the image, a motto spreads across a snaking ribbon: “I Am Myself Alone.” This is the hedonist’s creed—to follow ones lusts unimpeded by the dictates of society, or even the basic social graces of a good host. In a clever representation of the self-destructive nature of gluttony, Goupy places Handel’s bulging shoe right above the word “myself.” Slave to his lusts, Handel threatens to stamp himself out.
Yet the pig plays, he does not eat. His dimpled fingers are at the keyboard not wrapped around a mutton leg. How much crueler and simpler it would have been for Soupy to have the hog with a ham hock in hand while at music? Surrounded by the temptations that have bloated his body, this Handel stares impassively ahead at the pipes in front of his snout. This, too, is pure self-delight, for the organ sings his music alone: wallowing in one’s own improvised harmonies apparently counts as just another form of self-indulgence. Is music just another addiction or can it alone hold Handel’s others appetites at bay? It would be most modern to say that both are true, that feast and famine are the twin engines of celebrity, a state of being defined by the rowdy night out in alternation with the weeks in rehab. Indulgence and resistance are front and back of the musical epicure’s menu, delayed gratification the spice of life. Put in more modern terms: Goupy gives us a Handel in whom the great musicians and gourmand are co-dependants.
Anecdotes corroborating Handel’s mighty epicurean lusts circulated in his own time and after it. A later 18th-century vignette, which once again involves a gathering back at Handel’s Brook Street pad, brings to mind a Hollywood start repeatedly excusing himself from an already drunken table at the Chateau Marmont to go snort some lines alone.
“When Handel had once a large party to dinner, the cloth being removed, he introduced plain port. Having drank four or five glasses with his guests with his guests, he suddenly started up—exclaimed—I have a thought! and stalked out of the room, to which, after a short absence, he returned. Having drank a few more glasses, he uttered the same sentence—retreated, and again returned. It was naturally supposed that he wished to commit to paper some idea that struck him at the moment, and passed over; but when in less than an hour, he a third time started—growled out—I have a thought! and a third time left the company:—one of the gentlemen privately followed, and traced him into another apartment: where, on looking through the key-hole, he saw this great master of music kneel down to a hamper of champagne, that he might more conveniently reach out of a flask, which having nearly finished, he returned to his friends!”
Oh what a service the dubious informant would have rendered history had he had an iPhone and captured Handel on his knees to his addiction! But one also has to admire the refined intensity of Handel’s gluttony as portrayed in this account: drunkeness per se wasn’t the problem, since port was more alcoholic than champagne. Handel was keeping the good stuff for himself.
The celebrity’s jet-fuel mixture—stress and chemicals—threatened the fragmentation of a great creative mind. Handel’s official biographer, John Mainwaring published his account of the composer’s life the year after Handel’s death and took a moralistic view of his subject’s “excessive indulgence in this lowest of gratifications.” Mainwaring describes the physical and psychic troubles that piled on top of Handel’s financial woes as the composer threw his money down the pit of opera:
“His fortune was not more impaired, than his health and his understanding. His right-arm was become useless to him, from a stroke of the plays; and how greatly his senses were disordered at intervals, for a long time, appeared from an hundred instances, which are better forgotten than recorded. The most violent deviations from reason, are usually seen when the strongest faculties happen to be thrown out of course.”
An intervention is attempted by Handel’s friends: “”Tho’ he had the best advice, and tho’ the necessity of following it was urged to him in the most friendly manner, it was with the utmost difficulty that he was prevailed on to do what was proper.”
Finally convinced to save himself, Handel journeyed in the summer of 1737 to Aix-la-Chapelle to take the waters, like Gore Vidal removing himself to his favorite La Jolla spa to dry out. Even Handel’s appetite for rehab was enormous. In the famed recovery center, Handel took “recourse to the vapor-baths, over which he sat near three times as long as hath ever been the practice.” One wonders whether these warm venues also provided the opportunity for some same-sex encounters.
The waters worked. Handel’s recovery is usually referred to as miraculous, a result that would have been unlikely had Handel indeed suffered a stroke. The speedy improvement and subsequent relapse, leads David Hunter to postulate lead poisoning. Back in London, Handel returned to his old ways, as Goupy’s engraving and anecdotes like the above-cited, so evocatively remind us. Corpulence, dissipation, and blindness eventually ensued, but not before Handel had disgorged the great body of oratorios on which his posthumous fame now rests.
Hunter’s convincing theories about lead-poisoning and his goofily anachronistic diagnosis of binge-eating have the very modern effect of exonerating Handel from the charges of gluttony. The condemnation of sin is replaced by the sympathetic science of pathology. After all these centuries of hedonism, Handel, like everyone else, was merely a victim.
Denied the opportunity to make a full public disclosure of his sprawling appetites on Oprah, Handel’s ghost watches from the wings as his outsized undergarments are aired on history’s stage. I’m not sure if the ghost disapproves. His operas are full of timeless moments in which the soul is bared. Apparently unlucky in love, at least if measured against the monogamous—and heterosexual—standard of Christian marriage, Handel poured out his soul through his characters, especially his female ones. These will always be more interesting than the disclosures about the composer’s excesses.
And the Handel picture will certainly change. The ghost has many more costume changes to make as he trawls through the wardrobe of history. As an inveterate theater-maker, Handel knows that the next act will bring surprises. The opera isn’t over until the fat man sings.
DAVID YEARSLEY 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 email@example.com