Handel is not the first guy most people think of when bikini season rolls around each year. Nor does his music necessarily start up on the internal soundtrack when spying gym-sculpted and digitally enhanced female bodies on the London Underground like that in the ads for Protein World’s weight-loss dietary supplement that ask rhetorically “Are You Beach Body Ready?” Galvanized by London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, the city’s transport authority has just banned the campaign as “body-shaming” and potentially dangerous to the health of teenage girls.
There are probably many who will miss the sight of scantily clad models with breasts of steel. The bereft likely include the execs who dreamed her up as well as the parallel demographic of middle-aged and old men who welcome some perking up in the crowded subterranean zones of London and their own unconscious.
Handel was the first modern composer, not beholden to princes, but instead his own master. Responding to—and shaped by— the music market of his time, Handel was the first capitalist composer—entrepreneur, speculator, occasional copyright infringer, sometime bully, and musical genius. He died wealthy and a bachelor.
In some forty operas and thirty oratorios totaling more than 2,000 hours duration, Handel often turned to matters of love and sex, topics that sold then just as they sell now. The exploits of the ancients and the goings-on of the Old Testament were rich in these subjects—from Cleopatra to the Queen of Sheba.
In this enormous treasure-trove of heroism and villainy, faithfulness and lust, can be found a few beach bods and old man oglers. Admittedly the naked women that attract notice in these musical works are of a rather different physical type than the now-infamous paragonette of Protein World. She hails from a separate species than, say, Handel’s women singers or Rembrandt’s Bathsheba. (Handel was a collector of paintings; the largest sum he ever paid for a picture was for one attributed to Rembrandt.)
Among these beauties is Susanna, one of Handel’s late oratorios, composed when he was well into his sixties. By then he was fat, had suffered a stroke (or a condition now thought by some to be the debilitating effects of drinking too much lead-stabilized wine), and was losing his eyesight. He was no poster boy for protein powder.
Susanna was composed in 1748 in the summer, a fitting season for these themes since the crux of the work pictures in song the young and beautiful title character cooling herself naked in her garden pond. In content, Handel’s oratorios were much like his operas, though there were important differences: the oratorios were sung in English not Italian and featured the sublime choruses on which so much of Handel’s late-life and posthumous fame came to rest. In Handel’s day these works were performed without sets, costumes or acting, though in modern times the practice of presenting them either fully and partly staged has become increasingly popular. Handel, however, did not stage Susanna’s bathing scene, instead bringing it to life in sound.
The story of the oratorio is a simple one taken from the Book of Daniel. Susanna is happily married to a wealthy man, named Joacim: hence the gardens that surround their house and the chance these grounds offer for (apparently) secluded bathing. The libretto is held by most commentators to be one of the weaker ones Handel ever set. After the opening Chorus of Israelites, who bemoan the enslavement of the Jews during the Babylonian Captivity, we meet the happy couple. They spend the dramatically inert first act declaring their love for each other within the bounds of matrimony, as Joacim sings in his first aria, an upbeat one in spite of its downcast opening line “Clouds o’vertake the brightest day” (Each of the aria titles mentioned in this article can be clicked on in the 2009 live broadcast from Les Arts Florissants under William Christie found here). The doting husband hymns the virtues of wedded love, though the orchestral ritornello that introduces the aria is studded with doubting rests that show Joacim to be a crepehanger who can’t help reminding himself that even the Babes of Babylon, including his own wife, will one day become old and haggard:
Clouds o’ertake the brightest day,
Soon submit and feel decay;
But true faith and wedded love
Banish pain and joys improve.
In spite of such dour premonitions, the pair is soon joined in an aroused duet:
When thou art nigh,
My pulse beats high,
And raptures swell my breast.
Search, search my mind,
And there you’ll find
Your lovely form impress’d.
It’s not only in his wife’s mind that Joacim would like to impress his form, and the buoyant back and forth is followed by erotic embrace of the young and the fit. (Susanna is a soprano part; that of Joacim an alto, sung in 1748 by the rising Italian star, Caterina Galli. This gender confusion was not a concern for eighteenth-century audiences. Nowadays a counter-tenor generally sings Joacim.)
On through the act the couple sing paeans to their fidelity. The music is all very lovely and Handelian: but the sentiments too good, the music almost too graceful.
It’s with crimes of voyeurism and false accusations of adultery that things get interesting. Joacim has to leave town, but even away on business he fantasizes about his beloved, if not poolside, then riverside “On fair Euphrates’ verdant side.”
With the husband out of the picture for a few days two randy Elders find themselves enflamed by Susanna’s beauty. The first of these old lechers gives vent to his lustful desires in “Ye verdant hills, ye balmy vales,” the psychological stirrings of the aged libido and the physical ones of the metaphorical “wounded oaks” captured brilliantly by the elderly Handel in restive yearnings emanating from the long wooden column that is the bassoon. The result is a sumptuous, lurid musical creation, as sonorous as it is creepy.
The second Elder joins his fellow lecher for some mutual therapy, bemoaning the fact that there is no cure for “the pains” they endure. Of course, it is the woman who is to blame for lighting their fires.
The second Elder similarly sings of the mighty tree of the forest, but also thinking of his own trunk:
The oak, that for a thousand years
Withstood the tempest’s might,
Like me, the darted light’ning fears,
And flames with sudden light;
In a darkly comic masterpiece of sexual dysfunction Handel evokes the stirrings of this fitful member with melodic lurches, sudden halts, and then proud unisons fighting upwards against gravity and age.
The randy geezers than peep at Susanna bathing and singing “Crystal streams in murmurs flowing,” the flutter and flow of the strings depicting both the waters that welcome her naked body, and the palpitations the sight of her causes in the voyeurs. With the most pleasing of tones and shapely of melodic contours Handel miraculously conveys the dark urges lurking in the glades of the pastoral.
When Susanna resists the old guys’ advances they accuse her of adultery, but the evil scheme is undone by the young prophet Daniel, and matrimonial order is restored with a closing duet in praise of the heroine’s chastity, an exclamation point supplied by the chorus.
What Handel showed in this remarkable piece is that beach bodies can be as dangerous to the old as to the young.