Georg Frideric Handel was a Lutheran, and a determined one. He resolved, according to his early chronicler John Mainwaring, “to die a member of that communion, whether true or false, in which he was born and bred”. His background on his mother’s side stretched through several generations of Saxon pastors. And the spiritual works for which he is best known – not least, Messiah – addressed Protestant audiences in Protestant terms. In later life he was a regular attender at St George’s, Hanover Square. And he was buried among the great and the good of 18th-century Anglicanism in Westminster Abbey.
But there was a time when things might have worked out differently. In 1706, aged 21, he took himself to Italy and spent the next three-and-a-half years writing Catholic liturgical music at the behest of a group of princely cardinals who gave him generous patronage. And the commissions would have come with expectations: in the 18th century, as now, free meals were rarely what they seemed.
Handelian music from that period is often overlooked: it doesn’t fit the broader picture. But a new CD has just been issued that explores this repertoire. Called Handel in Italy Vol 2 (volume one came out last year), it’s the work of the ensemble London Early Opera, directed from the harpsichord by Bridget Cunningham, who insists that “the importance of those three-and-a-half years was actually enormous”.
“They opened Handel’s ears to things he’d never have experienced in Saxony,” she says. “He met Arcangelo Corelli, whose high-energy string writing became a major influence. He had access to the world’s finest libraries, organs, harpsichords and singers. And there was Catholic liturgy, the veneration of Mary – all very alien to what he’d known as an adolescent organist at Halle Cathedral, which wasn’t even Lutheran. It was Calvinist.”
How Handel managed this considerable cultural transition isn’t documented, but the speed with which he managed it suggests it was no problem. Almost on arrival he was swept into the grandest circles and adopted by three cardinals – Pietro Ottoboni, Benedetto Pamphili and Carlo Collona – who took it in turns to commission works from him, get them performed and (when required) write the texts.
They were, of course, men of the world, these cardinals, from noble families with great wealth. Ottoboni was a serious patron of the arts who lined his bedroom walls with portraits of his mistresses posing as saints (he was reputed to have 60 children).
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