I feel blessed to have had a chance to interview a hero and one of the most popular of all composers.
“Popularity”? Let’s set aside the 21st century understanding with the weekend “box-office champion”. When a work of art survives and is loved long after the death of its creators (whether we’re speaking of a painting, an opera or oratorio, a film, a play, or a dance-piece), it becomes part of the collective unconscious. Humanity at its best is the sum of works such as Messiah. Life is never better than when we’re enjoying one of those great works.
How universal is Handel?
- This month Handel will be brought to the stage by Against the Grain Theatre in their new transladaptation BOUND.
- Various versions of Messiah are performed in and around Toronto every year including Electric Messiah from Soundstreams (in its third incarnation), the Toronto Symphony’s Messiah December 18-23 at Roy Thomson Hall led by Matthew Halls, and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir December 13-16 at Koerner Hall led by Ivars Taurins.
- And on December 17, a week from today, Herr Handel returns for his annual visit to lead the Sing-Along Messiah with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, plus soloists at Massey Hall, (and because of the upcoming renovation, it will be the last time at this venue until at least 2020).
Herr Handel indulged me with answers to a few of my questions.
Are you more like your father or mother?
My father died at age 75 just some days before my twelfth birthday. That made me, as you say, “the man of the house”, taking care of my dear mother and my two younger sisters, aged seven and ten. My father, who had been a surgeon, wanted me to become a lawyer, and have an honourable, well-paying, and socially well-regarded profession, rather than dabble in music. He forbade me from pursuing music in any form. (My dear friend and colleague Georg Philip Telemann was in the same predicament when we first met – I was sixteen then, studying in Halle, he was twenty – where he was reluctantly enrolled in the University of Leipzig to study law. Well, we all know how that turned out!).
It was my dear mother who, understanding my keen desire for music, secretly conspired to aid me, and procured a clavichord (a very quiet instrument perfect for this subterfuge), which we secreted up to an unused garret in the house, and there I spent many nocturnal hours eagerly learning and playing music to my heart’s content! I was, and remained devoted to her, and drew strength and inspiration from her strong, independent disposition and keen intelligence.
What is the best thing about what you do?
Well, since meeting my Creator and entering the Celestial City, I have been able to enjoy life – or should I say the after-life – and pursue my music without all the – how you say – “hassles” of my career on Earth. No more ignorant critics and nay-sayers, or having to curry the favour of noble and wealthy patrons. No more vain, preening, and dim-witted singers (Mein Gott – those castrati!) who interested themselves in nothing more than showing off their artifice rather than their art. Now I can enjoy the extraordinary company of philosophs, artists, musicians, poets and writers, and perform my music sung and played by angels … for eternity!
Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Here in the Celestial City we have the opportunity to hear the ongoing work of poets and musicians and philosophs; we enjoy some – how you say – “smoking” evenings of chamber music … well, jam sessions actually. And seeing Shakespeare and Moliere going at it on their improv nights is hilarious.
When you’re just relaxing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
As always in my life, and quoting my friend John Keats: “Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather (which we always have here) and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.” … Though I prefer my own music, or at least that of my most talented colleagues.
But there is no greater enjoyment to me than contemplation, smoking my pipe, and sipping a fine claret (as Martin Luther said: “Beer is made by men, wine by God”).
I also have taken to doing crossword puzzles in five languages.
When you first arrived in 21st-century Toronto, what was the most disorienting thing?
It has been 36 years since my first descent to Toronto for Tafelmusik’s Sing-along Messiah. It was quite the experience – I would have to say it was the enormity of the bustling humanity that overwhelmed me… the noise!! Then at the turn of the century, in the early 2000s, we were inundated with the plague of youPhones and Blueberries… and then mePads, and all the texting and twitching and selfies… even during my concerts!
Of all the places you have lived in [cities in what we now call “Italy” and “Germany”, and of course England] what was your favorite place for the food, the climate, the musicianship, the singers, the appreciation of your music?
In a word: Italy. When I traveled to Italy at the age of 21, the Italian people opened my eyes to music, art, fine food and wine, and a love life, all done with gusto! My experiences in Italy inspired and influenced my creative muse. I used to write like the devil in those days!
Other than your own music, who is your favorite composer?
I recall, near the end of my life and totally blind, listening to a performance of my oratorio Jephtha. My colleague William Savage commented that it reminded him of old Purcell’s music. I replied: “If Purcell had lived, he would have composed better music than this.”
… and my dear friend Telemann could write a motet for eight voices more quickly than one could write a letter. I recall that as students, Telemann and I were constantly occupied in fashioning melodic movements and examining them, frequently visiting each other as well as writing letters.
And although circumstances prevented us from meeting on Earth, I now enjoy the company and music of Johann Sebastian (and that of his talented son, Wilhelm Friedrich). Though you wouldn’t know it from his portraits, Johann enjoys an evening of lively debate, and a hearty repast. Wilhelm tends to overindulge, … though, in the Celestial City, we don’t experience o̶v̶e̶r̶h̶a̶n̶g̶s̶ hangovers.
Does the church appreciate what you accomplished with Messiah?
I wrote Messiah for my Creator, not to please the Church. Though many people claimed it to be a “fine Entertainment,” I should have been sorry if I only entertained them – I wished to make them better.
Is there a teacher or mentor you might care to mention?
Agostino Steffani was my predecessor as Kapellmeister at Hanover. He was my mentor as a youth, and urged me to study in Italy. He was a master at the Italian duetto, and his fine music was an inspiration to me.That he remained virtually unknown after his death until this century is both lamentable and remarkable. I am glad to see that in the last few years the cognoscenti have come to their senses, and we are now able to appreciate his music – especially his operas – through many fine productions and concerts.
On Sunday December 17th, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir present their annual Sing-Along Messiah at Massey Hall at 2:00 p.m. led by ‘Herr Handel’ with Joanne Lunn, soprano, James Laing, countertenor Rufus Müller, tenor, and Brett Polegato, baritone.