Ellen T. Harris is the author of the new book George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends. Her other books include Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas. She is professor emeritus at MIT, and she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
Q: You’ve written about Handel before. Why did you decide to write about Handel again, this time with a focus on his friendships?
A: It started with research on his will, and realizing there were people to whom he left significant bequests who were unknown….Thus began my detective work, archive to archive, over a period of 12 years. It’s some of the most exciting research I’ve ever done!
As the material came together, I began to see it gave me a different picture of Handel; it was teaching me an enormous amount about his music.
Q: You write that there’s very little material left about Handel’s personal life. How did you manage to do your research?
A: I started with Handel’s will, and then the wills of his friends. They are in the archives in Great Britain. There’s the official chancery court copy, written by a scribe, and I discovered you could get the original wills with their own handwriting.
It led me to realize that one of his friends worked in Handel’s scriptorium; the scribe was never able to be [identified] earlier. Getting the handwriting tells you things.
There are legal documents; [the cases] last forever, which you know if you’ve read Dickens! In depositions, people say amazing things. I learned a lot about the painter [Joseph] Goupy. I felt as if I were hearing gossip. People don’t think of archives as fun, but the documents are fun.
[I looked at] bankruptcies. It took me to the Bank of England. You go to the front door on Threadneedle Street—that in itself seems Dickensian! The archives are in the basement, actually the sub-basement…
They have all the ledgers back to the bank’s founding, so I had access to all Handel’s bank accounts. People sometimes look at me cross-eyed and say, What is a musicologist doing looking at bank records? I say, Imagine what I could learn about you from your checking account! You actually learn a great deal when you follow the money.
I looked at the accounts of his friends. The women tended not to bank at the Bank of London; [going there] was a little rough-and-tumble. They had private bankers. Hoare’s Bank still survives. A lot of the others were gobbled up.
You can go to Barclay’s and get all the 18th century records there. There are wonderful tidbits—[Handel's friend] Mary Delany going to [friend Anne] Donnellan’s house to hear Handel try [a] new harpsichord; in Donnellan’s records, you find the new harpsichord. That’s the kind of community that existed in that neighborhood—it jumps off the page.
There’s another letter from Mary Delany to her sister, saying: I had just gotten to this part when in walked Mr. Handel. That gives you a really strong sense of that community. When Handel was playing the harpsichord at Donnellan’s house, he was completely blind. He kept up his social engagements even after he was completely blind.
After the bank, I began [researching] their houses [at the] Metropolitan London archives. I was able to get photos of them all, and was able to put the map [locating the houses] in the book.
Q: I was going to ask you about the images in the book—were they all from your research?
A: Yes. It was fun. The portrait of Anne Donnellan singing was painted by Hogarth, and [has been] in the Duke of Wellington’s private collection; it is not well known. To be able to put it on the cover of the book was terrific. [It provides] a sense of how the friends were musical; they were thought of as amateur musicians…
Q: In the book, you describe the popularity of the fugue during Handel’s time. Why did you decide to use a fugue-like organizational approach in the book?
A: In writing the book, the hardest obstacle was finding a layout that worked. I thought I could go decade by decade, but the material didn’t lay out right.
When you’re laying out material, it has to come at the right pace; it needs to be organized so the writing is similar in size. In a novel you can have [shorter and longer chapters] but in nonfiction there’s little excuse. This may be musical talk. There’s nothing about the decades that gave me the [flow I was looking for].
I thought I could do it by friend, but that didn’t work. I realized if I chose topics of enormous importance to Handel, I could move through the chronology by topic and keep the chronology going.
For a musician, you realize you’re talking about something fugal. You introduce a subject, and a second subject, and bring them into counterpoint with one another. I saw I could do that, even though there was chronology overlapping; it was typical of a fugue. It felt very comfortable to me. I’m very happy with how it turned out….
Q: What did you learn in your research about the composition and performance of Handel’s famous Water Music?
A: The anecdote about Water Music is that Handel wrote it as a means of returning to the good graces of George I because he had overstayed his leave when he was in George I’s service as Elector of Hanover.
The facts don’t support that. [Handel] was in the service of the Elector of Hanover, but part of his responsibility was to serve as an informant. In 1713 he was asked by Queen Anne to write a piece [to commemorate] the peace of Utrecht, which the [Hanoverians] opposed.
He accepted, and when the Elector found out, he had to find a way to separate himself from the celebration because he had opposed the peace. The only way he could do that was to fire Handel abruptly [but] there was no rupture and the relationship continued.
When the King came over [to England], Handel was one of the first to greet him. [Handel’s] Water Music was not written until three years later.
The anecdote was derived from the first biography of Handel, [published soon] after he died. I think it’s pretty clear when Handel told stories of his coming to London, there were aspects of the story he did not want to share with his British friends, one of which was that he was serving as an informant….
Q: You write about Handel’s belief in religious freedom. Did his religious beliefs have an impact on his music?
A: It’s a hard question to answer. My sense is that as a strong believer, that was part of his musical response when he wrote oratorios based on Biblical texts; there is a strong sense of spirituality in those pieces. You see it in the Messiah, and some of his late works [such as] Theodora and Jephtha, which were very personal to him…
Q: Are you working on another book now?
A: I’m not. When I do my research, I follow my curiosity; I see an issue that needs to be considered. I’m sure the next book, if there is one, will also grow out of a sense of my research interests. For the moment, I’m happy not to be working on another book. I need a little space.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Handel was an art collector…His very close friends had paintings of such quality that they are owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. This was the level of collecting that he and his friends were doing. That was an important tie with these friends.
Handel’s oratorios were not staged, but [he had] an intense sense of drama…He had a very potent visual imagination. One sees that in his art collection. That’s something I thought was important and new.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb