Handel’s Royal Banquet

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Handel at the Organ. “I Am Myself Alone” by Joseph Goupy, 1754

(I’ll be playing an organ recital next Sunday, March 5th at 4:00p.m. at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. In another bit of shameless PR for the gig, here is an excerpt from the program notes.)

Praised by contemporaries as one of the greatest organists of his or any time, Handel was pictured at the King of Instruments only once and in far from flattering fashion. The expatriate French artist Joseph Goupy produced his infamous caricature of Handel as a hog-headed organist after having been invited to the composer’s London house for supper.  The guest was not much impressed by the fare and was even more nonplussed by Handel’s frequent disappearances from the dining room. Goupy eventually sneaked after his host and found him in the kitchen stuffing his face with far better food than he’d offered his visitor. The artist’s damning image of Handel was a thank-you card for a bad time. Not surprisingly the friendship between the men came to a speedy end.

Goupy’s engraving pictures a long-snouted and abundantly bewigged Handel seated on a hogshead of ale with wine bottles lined up behind it.  A long shopping list of delicacies spills from his coat pocket. A once-proud rooster hangs from the side of the organ; a trussed-up goose rests on a table in front of a saucepan of turtle soup; 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.

At the bottom of the image, a motto spreads across a snaking ribbon: “I Am Myself Alone.”  This is the hedonist’s creed, not simply a tautological statement but a declaration that the epicurean organist will follow his own lusts unimpeded by the dictates of society and is unlikely even to bother heeding the basic social graces of a good host.  In a pointed comment on 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.

I want to mobilize Handel’s feet not for purposes of parodying a gourmand but for indulging in a different kind of excess: extravagant, four-limbed performance at an organ a lot bigger than the one Goupy has Handel bellied up to. I am unconcerned whether the virtuoso is virtuous or not. I want him to feast at the banquet that is a large and powerful organ laden with sonic delights and surprises.

But how to construct the menu since Handel left only a slender volume of solo organ music and these pieces are for hands alone? That he provided no pedal parts reflected the fact that the organs of his adopted country, England, were almost universally without a keyboard for the feet.

As a boy, Handel played the organs in his native Halle in Saxony with their full pedal divisions, also impressing dukes and kings at the splendid instruments in their courtly chapels. From the age of 18 he spent some three years in Hamburg, pursuing his career as an opera composer, but he also must have held forth on occasion on those city’s colossal organs, Europe’s richest assemblage of such sounding monuments.

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Jacobikirche, Hamburg. Organ by Arp Schnitger, 1689-1693

We know Handel also travelled to the Hanseatic capital of Lübeck to see if he might succeed the venerable Dieterich Buxtehude as master of St. Mary’s two organs, that in the west end gallery a richly decorated color machine with a massive pedal division.

The foundation of the German organist’s art was the pedal: in flashy solos in which the hands did nothing but grip the bench for balance; the feet had also to pull off tricky fugue subjects first introduced by the fingers; and even manage two parts at once (one in the left foot and one in the right) while the hands were simultaneously involved in thick contrapuntal textures.

But Handel’s career path led away from Germany, first to Italy where he also made organ pyrotechnics a crucial feature of his Saxon brand of showmanship. On his arrival in Rome in the first days of 1707, he played the towering, ornate organ in St. John Lateran before “an extraordinary crowd of prelates, cardinals, and aristocrats… to the amazement of all.” These Italian organs had small pedalboards without independent stops: however opulent, they were not the medium for demonstrating the dazzle of German feet.

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Baroque organ façade in St. John Lateran, Rome

After 1710, Handel settled in London, where only the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral had a pedal board, though it was a much smaller one than those in Germany. Of a Sunday afternoon he would nonetheless hold forth at the cathedral, happy to get “the exercise [the organ] afferded him, in the use of the pedals.”

In an archly mixed metaphor that has buckled shoes peeking out of the cuffs of a laced shirt, Johann Mattheson, the haughty Hamburg music theorist and sometime friend and dueling partner of Handel, praised him (along with Bach) for unsurpassed brilliance “at pulling from his sleeve all that belongs to manuals and pedal.”

The comparisons with Bach were—and remain—inevitable and ubiquitous. Writing in 1788, C. P. E. Bach (Johann Sebastian’s second son, and then one of the most revered composers in Europe) chided Handel for renouncing his pedal patrimony: “Should not Handel have disposed at least one piece among his organ works in such manner that masters across the sea, too, could tell that he measured up to their higher art? Should he not have written and left behind in Germany a single work worthy of the German organ?” This meant a composition with vigorously independent pedal.

On his occasional return trips to the mighty organs of the continent Handel surely played pedal-rich solos. These improvisations vanished with their echo in the cavernous interiors of churches like St. Bavo in Haarlem, The Netherlands. That instrument was one of the largest and most famous organs on the continent, and Handel played it in 1740 when it had just been finished and again in 1750. For his own enjoyment and “to the amazement” of those down in the church, he must have had his way with the impressive pedal resources with the antics of his slender youth adapted to those of his corpulent maturity. Here’s betting his girth didn’t slow him down at the organ bench.

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St-Bavokerk, Haarlem, The Netherlands. Organ by Christian Müller, 1735-8

How to get Handel his organist’s feet back? With imagination and without inhibition! Handel was the most inspired and dedicated of musical plunderers, adept and unapologetic at lifting themes and even whole sections of music from teachers, competitors, and colleagues. He almost always put his inimitable spin on what he stole, “paying back the loan with interest,” in Mattheson’s memorable phrase. The organ, as Handel knew better than anyone, is the instrument of instruments—a symphony unto itself. To sit at an organ like that at Notre Dame’s Reyes Organ Hall, an instrument that would have seemed like a long-lost friend to Handel, is to have the world of 18th-century music (and beyond) at the tips of one’s fingers and toes. Let Handel steal from Handel, with Yearsley as the accomplice. Guilty as charged, your Honor!

Organ by Paul Fritts from 2004 in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, Notre Dame

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com