I’m no Handelian. As a teenager studying with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam, I was shocked when he refused to listen to a Handel suite. Why, I asked? “He was a lazy dog who misused his gift.” So that was that. Over the years I’ve come to see how right that comment was, even though it didn’t give enough credit to the “gift” part. So many doldrums, so much cheap trash churned out for quick cash — and then those occasional, sometimes sustained strokes of genius…
Case in point: the oratorio “Israel in Egypt”, which I had last heard when I turned pages for a harpsichordist at Carnegie Hall a year before I went to Amsterdam. I vaguely remember being impressed by the powerful chorusses in this work, which is more dominated by the choir than any other of Handel’s works for the stage. Then yesterday I attended a very respectable performance in Holland, undertaken by an amateur group with some professional support, led by a well-informed and inspiring conductor, with a daughter of mine in the first violins.
The musical jests inspired by the plagues sent by Moses over the captors of the Hebrews were diverting; I was irritated by the jubilation over the natives of Canaan “melting away” and the “horse and rider thrown into the sea”; but the most lasting impression was of an odd potpourri or pasticcio. Handel’s usual bedrock of Halle-Hamburg-Carissimi-Corelli with a dash of contemporary Venice was evident, but there was clearly more going on beneath the surface. Back in my hotel I wasn’t surprised to find a list online of about a dozen composers Handel had “borrowed” from during the month-long rush job in 1739 after an operatic collapse, ranging from Delphin Strungk to Rameau and including a complete canzona by Kerll. Handel had also apparently time-travelled, and used the first theme from Mozart’s Requiem in the oratorio‘s opening chorus.
But back at the concert, the thing that had me suddenly sitting up in my chair was a passage that sounded for all the world like a late-16th-century galliard. It came in Part I, a lament on the death of Joseph, which, as I should have known but didn’t, is in its entirety a lightly re-texted version of Handel’s “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline”. Charles Burney thought this the finest thing Handel ever composed — an opinion I can’t share.
More common knowledge: the passage in question was lifted from a motet by Jacob Handl published in 1587: Ecce quomodo moritur iustus — a responsory for Holy Week which was set by composers from Gesualdo to Poulenc. But Handl’s setting was so beloved in central Germany that it came into general use for Lutheran funerals, and was even printed with a German text by Gottfried Vopelius in Leipzig (1682).
The Queen’s funeral anthem texts were chosen by the sub-dean of Westminster Abbey; one of them, from the apocryphal Book of Sirach, must have reminded Handel of similarities to the German translation of the end of Handl’s responsory which he knew from his homeland:
“Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth evermore.”
-- so he simply inserted his own adapted version of Handl’s setting at that point in the anthem. The adaptation consisted mostly in the added orchestration. The second clause gets the tempo marking “allegro”, which destroys the serene tempo unity of Handl’s original setting — but it does underline what I think actually inspired this strange procedure.
The similarity between the surnames Handl and Georg’s original “Händel” is obvious. It’s actually the same word — little rooster — in slightly different dialect spellings. I think that GFH’s choice of precisely this passage from his eponym can only mean that he wished to apply the text to his own name, which he rightly judged would live “evermore”.
Sacrilegious? Yes. Disrespectful of his late sovereign? Certainly. A brilliant private joke from a massive ego to his own persona? Absolutely.
Somebody has probably already commented on this somewhere in the vast Handel literature, but I am too much of a lazy dog myself to run the check. I like being in on the joke, if that is what it really is, and I like sharing it with the gentle reader even more.
October 16, 2022