We are Ourselves: a Thanksgiving Feast with Handel

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For those with means, there is always too much food at Thanksgiving. Overproduction and overconsumption go hand in hand, or perhaps from hand into mouth. As Sir Thomas Malory, didn’t put it, Enough is as NOT as good as a feast at America’s self-defining dinner held on the last Thursday of November.

Leftovers are an essential feature of this long weekend celebration of American excess.

Unless you were to invite Handel.

True, he was dead just more than a century by the time Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War in November of 1863, a feast to be celebrated in unison across the divided land.

Had Handel journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean to Boston in the North American Colonies in 1741 instead of only over the Irish Sea to Dublin to premiere what would become his most famous oratorio, he might have cadged an invitation to an ad hoc Thanksgiving table in the Land of the Pilgrims. After the feasting comes December. Nowadays that’s Messiah Time in North America. Handel’s Christian blockbuster is an outsized musical banquet to be gorged on in the run-up to more feasting come Christmas.

Invites in London might have been harder to come by, even though, as a German immigrant and lifelong bachelor with no family in England, he is just the kind of person who shouldn’t be left alone on this day of togetherness.

The problem was that his standing as a musician was shadowed by his reputation as a notorious glutton. One-time friends defamed his literally self-serving excess. The painter Joseph Goupy carved up his former pal in public a few years before Handel’s death, depicting the composer as a full-snouted, organ-playing swine surrounded by hanging fowl and bottles of booze, a gut-busting to-eat list spilling out of his jacket pocket. Handel appears as a beast to be carved up, in this case by public opinion, his calf bulging like behemoth sausages in white casing. Goupy titled the image “I am Myself Alone; or The Charming Brute.” The hedonist thinks only of himself, the kind of person who will swill the champagne in the backroom and leave the others to make do with the cheap stuff.

Along with this savaging image, vicious stories circulated claiming that when Handel hosted dinners at his house in London’s new and fashionable West End, now a supremely expensive shopping district, he would disappear in the midst of the evening to root around in a hamper in the kitchen and slug down the champagne alone. Handel was a binge-eater and a non-sharer—not ideal attributes in a Thanksgiving guest.

Handel’s own impressive infrastructure for feasting can now be seen London’s Handel and Hendrix House (actually two adjacent eighteenth-century houses: George and Jimi were “separated by a wall and 200 years,” as the museum’s tagline put it). Given the price of real estate in the neighborhood these days, the Handel House only acquired the ground floor of the composer’s residence a couple of years ago. It was here that Handel held musical rehearsals and dinner parties for as many as forty guests. The estate catalog shows an impressive food preparation and serving infrastructure, including “2 Standing Spitt racks and three spits / a Gridiron & 2 Trivetts / a Flesh Fork & Iron Scure.”

Surviving accounts from some of his many guests include reports of menus such as “rice soup with mutton in, petty patties, lamb’s ears, an eel pye” washed down with plenty of “French claret, rhenish wine, madeira.”

So aromatic was the gluttonous gossip wafting from Handel’s house on Brook Street that his first biographer John Mainwaring, who published his Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel in 1760, the year after the composer’s death, concludes the book with several pages defending the great man’s girth. The Anglican theologian Mainwaring was not an egalitarian: “Luxury and intemperance are relative ideas, and depend on other circumstances besides those of quantity and quality. It would be unreasonable to confine Handel to the fare and allowance of common men, as expect the merchant should live like a Swiss mechanic.” While the biographer was not quite willing to “absolve [Handel] from all blame on this article,” Mainwaring argued that “Nature had given him so vigorous a constitution, so exquisite a palate, and so craving an appetite; and that fortune enabled him to obey these calls.” Handel’s eating fed his art: “His incessant and intense application to the studies of his profession … rendered constant and large supplies of nourishment the more necessary to recruit his exhausted spirits.”

The parallel hunger for food and music continue to provide ample nourishment for generations of the ravenous.

In 1737 Handel suffered a stroke, though some now theorize that the quantities of continental wine, stabilized with traces of lead, lamed his right hand and arm. In response to this health crisis, he took the cure at Aix-la-Chapelle and enjoyed a recovery so speedy that, according to Mainwaring, the local nuns deemed it a miracle. His right hand back in action, Handel toweled off and went directly from the baths, where “his sweats were profuse beyond what well can be imagined,” to the chapel organ to demonstrate his art for all.

Thus recovered, Handel returned to London and, by all accounts, to nourishing his body and his art even more abundantly than before.

Handel treated his London audiences—and his twenty-first century admirers—to his most extravagant depiction of gluttony in 1744 in oratorio Belshazzar. The title character is the perfidious King of Babylon under whose boot the enslaved Jews suffer. During the Babylonian feast for the god Sesach, a drunken thanksgiving orgy, the king and his courtiers gorge and guzzle. Little do they know that, in spite of warnings from the king’s mother, Queen Nitocris, and the visions of the captive Jewish prophet Daniel that an invading force under the Persian King Cyrus will topple Belshazzar and free the People of Israel. The libretto for this tale of over-the-top feasting was prepared by Charles Jennens, who a few years earlier had assembled the text for Handel’s Messiah.

Jennens knew Handel to be notorious for his own appetite, so when he served up an aria text about gluttony he might have wondered how his musical collaborator might react to a vision that anticipates Goupy’s victualized caricature and other gossip that had Handel on his knees in his own kitchen while his bewildered guests wondered about his repeated absences in the dining room out front:

Behold the monstrous human beast
Wallowing in excessive feast!
No more his Maker’s image found:
But, self-degraded to a swine,
He fixes grov’ling on the ground
His portion of the breath Divine.

In the face of fat-shaming from his detractors and even some of devotees, undauntable Handel sharpened up his musical knives (a set of twelve was listed in his effects) and stuck his fork deep into the succulent dish served up by Jennens.

The aria is sung by the Assyrian nobleman Gobrias, who had secretly joined forces with a liberating the invading Persians. Gobrias watches the Babylonian revel with disgust, singing his appalled description of the King’s ongoing gorging and the lurching results of his guzzling. But in joining the ebulliently ravenous unisons of the strings, Gobrias can’t help but enact the very debauchery he condemns. He’s so good at decrying the glutton that becomes one in song.

We listeners can’t help but tuck into the feast too, gobbling up Handel’s greedy melismas on “wallowing” then descending to the bottom of the bass range on “Swine” to root around in wriggling, wringing figures “grov’ling on the ground.” Our own hands, forearms and even ears glisten with meat grease and mud. We can taste the music.

These revels are a festive mash-up of degradation and elation. The musico-culinary gourmet rides the knife-edge between disgust and pleasure. When he falls off that sharp edge, he lands in the deliciousness of his desire.

Handel becomes the monstrous beast: He is Himself, but not Alone. At this Thanksgiving table, we join the feast, laid out for merchants and maybe even a few mechanics.

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