I began and ended my column last week by rhetorically conjuring Handel’s ghost, but had no idea then that his house in Brook Street was actually haunted. A Counterpunch reader informs me that in the summer before reopening as a museum to the composer in November of 2001, a ghost was sighted twice in Handel’s bedroom. A number of London newspaper’s reported that one Martin Egglestone, a fundraiser for the Handel House Trust, claimed to have had a two encounters with the unidentified spirit: “Suddenly, the air got very thick and I saw a shape, higher than me, like the imprint on the back of your retina when you close your eyes, having been looking at the sun for too long,” the London’s Daily Telegraph quoted Eggelstone as saying. One might wonder whether the testimony of someone who stares at the sun for any time at all is reliable, but Egglestone went on: “It seemed to be that of a woman. There was no malevolent feeling. It felt like the pressure you get when you brush past someone in the Tube and they are too close to you.”
The Telegraph story from 15 July 2001 went on to say that other staff members at the Handel House repeatedly detected a whiff of perfume in the same room. This, too, sounds more than a bit suspect given that the Handel’s residence, next door to the Jimi Hendrix’s House in London, is at the end of South Molton Lane with its Prada and Gucci franchises and other upscale boutiques. At the intersection air is always thick over-priced scent.
This fellow Egglestone hypothesized that among the very few women to visit the male-oriented Handel at home, the most likely candidate for the ghost was one of the Italian divas, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, whose personal rivalry and rabid partisans so enlivened the opera scene in the London of the late 1720s.
In light of some of the recent scholarly work on Handel’s sexual inclinations, research I surveyed in a column kicking off this year of Handel celebrations, I’m surprised that no one seems to have made the much more obvious inference from these supernatural comings and goings: Handel’s ghost is a cross-dresser with a taste for expensive perfume and for feeling people up in the subway.
The Telegraph story also relates that a Catholic Priest was called to perform the exorcism rite, in case the apparently benign ghost might have discouraged visitors from coming to the museum. To the contrary, I’d think that they’d be queuing around the block for a roll in the hay with Handel’s ghost in full lady’s rig. The Handel House is in the middle of Mayfair after all, where the quaint red phone booths are filled with calling cards for the district’s niche prostitutes servicing every imaginable fetish. The Westminister Council tried to crack down on this form of advertising in the 1990s, but the smutty cards flourished again under the aegis of “Red” Ken Livingstone’s London ma. Still without a cell phone, I am forced to use these old-fashioned phone boxes now and again in London, and at those times of telephonic need I stoke my puritanical outrage by I perusing the offerings. My favorite over the years is “Have a Cruel Yule: Leather Rumpus with Madame Misteltoe.” Here’s the way to kick-start the chronically underfunded Handel House: “Hallelujah! Let Saxon Slave Make the Crooked Straight.”
But more distressing than the fundraising opportunity missed by the fundraiser Eggelstone, was the commission of Roman Catholic Priest to rid the place of the ghost. What an affront to this unwavering Lutheran—not to mention that he was also a loyal parishioner at his local Church of England outlet, St. George’s Hanover,and committed anti-Jacobite—to have a papist cleric in his house! The Anglican church has its own religious procedures for chasing away demons. Consider this paragraph an open letter of complaint to the Handel House Trust from the Musical Patriot on behalf of Handel’s kinky spirit!
Fortunately, the spirit of his music will not be exorcised from modern culture with the ease of his ghost’s apparent removal from its former dwelling. There are no recent sightings. It seems Handel in drag is now made to the walk the streets instead.
A renowned visitor to the hotspots of European entertainment in the 18th-century when the opera stage was the equivalent of the big screen, Handel would turn up in search of star material in Naples, the Hollywood of his day. Glamorous Dresden was also a key destination, as were rehab centers for the rich and famous, from England’s Bath and Tunbridge Wells to the continent’s Aix-la-Chapelle. Unafflicted by the demeaning body searches of modern travel, the spirit of his music now flits about with the ease of celebrity.
Just this week one of Handel’s most famous arias turned up on the red carpet at Cannes in the company of Danish director Lars von Trier. “Lasica ch’io pianga,” from Handel’s first London opera, Rinaldo of 1711. According to scornful reports emanating from the French Rivieria, the song, whose first line translates as “Let me weep over my cruel fate,” accompanies the opening scene of the middle-aged enfant terrible’s latest movie, demurely entitled, Anti-Christ. In that scene a child accidentally falls to his death in slow motion to the plaintive, indeed heart-wrenching, strains of Handel’s aria. The movie then chronicles the descent into sexual degradation and what looks like insanity of the dead child’s parents. After Monday’s screening for critics, many heaped scorn on the movie, guffawing throughout, and booing its conclusion. The showing for general audiences that followed on Tuesday was punctuated by shocked gasps and bizarre laughter. Von Trier remained unfazed, calling the movie the most important of his career.
Marooned in the wilds of Upstate New York, I hastened to the film’s official website to watch the trailer, which is itself introduced by Handel’s soaring aria and then follows Willem Defoe (“he”) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (“she”) as they hike up towards an isolated cabin, the site of their subsequent tortures. The movie then seems to twist itself into a supernatural horror-pic descended into the bowels of nature.
Would Handel’s ghost want one of his greatest hits exorcised from the Anti-Christ? I doubt it. Like von Trier, Handel was a master at manipulating his audiences. If in his lifetime, the private Handel, didn’t hold to the current truth that all publicity is good, his ghost can certainly adapt to the relentlessly self-promoting entertainment culture of the 21st century.
Handel was also an inveterate recycler of his own material, and plagiarist of other composer’s music, so I don’t see that he’s got much of a claim to plant his own stake on the moral high ground when others go using his music for their own purposes, however dubious.
“Lasica ch’io pianga” is a perfect example of Handel the recycler. It began life as instrumental piece in Handel’s very first opera composed for Hamburg in 1705. A few years later this music was heard in an Italian oratorio, where it was shifted from the minor mode to the major and fitted with a text about the thorns and perfume of roses. Perhaps this was the same scent detected three hundred years later in the Handel House. Not long after its performance in Italy, the music got still another set of words— “Lascia ch’io pianga”—for the London stage.
Possessed of a towering ego and outsized ambition, Handel nonetheless had a gift for self-deprecation. One well-known anecdote relates how Handel was strolling through Covent Garden, when his walking companion complained that the buskers were playing drivel. “I agree,” came Handel’s response. “And I thought so when I wrote the music twenty years ago.” This latest von Trier appropriation would doubtless have elicited a similarly ironic shrug.
In its first form, the Hamburg music for what eventually became “Lascia, ch’io pianga,” was a dance interlude; its halting rhythm and poignant dissonances became the perfect vehicle for conveying the currents of despair and hope swelling in the character Almirena, who sings the piece in Rinaldo. At that point in the opera she is imprisoned by the Saracens, and the aria comes as a plea for freedom. But a happy ending awaits her, and she is duly rescued by her betrothed, the title character, Rinaldo. The infidels are converted and everything comes up, well, roses.
Not so in von Trier’s films, which unfailingly sound depths only he can hear. The “Lascia ch’io panga” getting some play on the Riviera and in the showbiz world sends a timely message to the Handel House on Brook Street to summon back its guiding spirit! While Handel didn’t shy away from the dark side in his own theatrical oeuvre—the terrifying Witch of Endor scene from his oratorio Saul, or the suicide of Bajazet in his opera Tamerlano come to mind—he never did a full-on horror flick. Until now.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org