Why I Love Handel
Believe it or not, this has been the most difficult section to write. Although my personal Handel collection (see photo) will attest that I am no mean connoisseur of his works, it is difficult to convey to others what makes him different without sitting them down and playing them the music, commenting on each and every movement. But the following account will have to suffice.
I have heard it said that Handel wrote music for the ear, not for the theoretician. That though his music sometimes looks uninteresting on paper, it gains the most when heard. He certainly was an entertainer who loved to exert control over his audience. As Mozart said, he understood effect better than any of his rivals.
So what does this means in practical terms? What should one listen for in his music?
Basically Handel does not add more complexity to his music than a listener is able to parse and process. The Baroque obsession with counterpoint often created impenetrably thick layering where individual voices were lost. Inaudible variations might be fascinating to a reader of the score, but a member of the audience cannot be moved by what cannot be heard.
Handel’s changes are generally quite distinct. Listening to almost any chorus a few times through, one can memorize several major vocal entrances and the introductions of new themes, as well as which voice or instrument is prominent at any given moment. The absence of these distinct turns is a weakness of much Baroque music.
The works of Handel are also strong in dramatic progression. Over the three or four minutes that a movement lasts it tends to build steadily to a grand conclusion, through creative combinations of counterpoint and block harmony. Other composers from the time, though they begin with perfectly good melodies or fugues, fail to escalate the excitement. Often it is because they are unable (or unwilling) to intermingle any homophonic effects into the counterpoint, denying the ear any points of greater clarity or emphasis. In other cases, it is because they choose a single fugue, rather than two or three or four, as Handel often does. Hearing a single theme for too long can make it stale and unpleasant, especially when the voices never reinforce each other or join together for heightened effect.
Handel is not so prone to these mistakes. First off, he routinely uses multiple fugues for a given piece. Frequently he begins with only one melody, delaying the entrance of the second until the first has been established. When the second begins, the first falls silent to let the hearer better absorb it. Later on the initial theme rejoins to great effect. When both are finally heard together one realizes just how well they compliment each other.
Such a pattern underlies many arias, where the accompaniment and voice begin separatly, but end together. But it is also true of choruses, where the introduction of a new idea is made apparent by a temporary silence of the old one. In these ways he helps his audience to better absorb the counterpoint that he does include. Few Baroque composers were so thoughtful.
For me these other composer grow stagnant in their counterpoint, both for the above reason of never yoking multiple sections for greater emphasis (except perhaps at the very end), but also because they do not adequately explore the blending of slow and fast. A rapid melodic line over a slow bass line also grows stale if the voices never change roles. Handel allow his singers to take turns, with each section getting chances for fast and slow, and sometimes to hold a single note for long periods of time. A sustained note is a more powerful tool than many of his colleagues realized.
This interspersing of speeds may be another defining feature of Handel's style, both in arias and choruses. In a time when patterns and steadiness of speed were the fashion, by mixing speeds he added a strong element of spontaneity. And with the inclusion of sustained notes he opted for a kind of simplicity and minimalism when it was his most effective means of producing a beautiful effect.
Perhaps it was Handel’s blend of influences that allowed him such discretion. Consider his assimilation of national styles. An understanding of the boisterous and dramatic English music brought about his expertise in many settings, from pastoral to martial, from drinking songs to national anthems. In other words, outgoing music that speaks for a collective experience. The operatic traditions of Italy endowed him with showmanship and theatricality, but also expertise in characterization of individual emotions, and real dramatic pathos. Meanwhile his native German roots gave him a strong grounding in complex harmonies and counterpoint. These technical skills afford his music impressive and solemn moments, and insure that it stays interesting through multiple hearings.
The ability to use each style in moderation and conjunction with the others makes them sound fresher than any one alone could have. Each is stunning in the appropriate context, but no single style could ever encompass what great music entails. I find Handel to be the most well-rounded and continually pleasing to the ear.
Obviously this explanation is vastly simplified and generalized, and scholars have written many volumes on the subject for anyone so inclined. I give my summary as a layman and a fan, and implore the reader to hear the works, which are the best evidence anyone could present.
Do I suppose that everyone will fall in love as strongly as I have? Not really. But I am confident that anyone exposed to even a handful of the works mentioned on this site will better appreciate a composer who has too often been typecast.
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