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Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians
by Walter Rowlands

Like many other children who grew up to fame, Handel was not intended by his parents to follow the art in which he is renowned. His father, who was body surgeon to the Prince of Saxony, wished him to become a lawyer.

All accounts of Handel's childhood "agree in representing him as bright, clever, energetic, and singularly tenacious of purpose. These qualities he inherited; the special genius on which they were brought to bear was all his own. Unlike Bach, the flower and crown of a race of born musicians, there seems no record in Handel's case of his having a single musical or artistic progenitor. From infancy, however, he lived in music, its attraction for him was irresistible, and he began to 'musicise' for himself (to quote Chrysander's expression) almost as soon as he could walk, and before he could speak. This inspired all the family and friends with wonder and admiration, in which his parents at first shared; but, as time went on, the thing began to wear a different aspect, and the father grew alarmed. The boy was a curiosity, no doubt, and music as a pastime was all very well, but it had never occurred to the worthy surgeon to look on it as a serious profession for a child of his, least of all for this, his last, most promising and favourite son. For the others he had been contented with situations in his own station of life; for this one he nourished more ambitious designs. He was to be a doctor of laws, a learned man, and the child's intelligence and thirst for knowledge favoured the hope.

"The father set to work to stifle his son's musical proclivities in every possible way, to separate him from musical society, to banish all music from the house, to prevent him even from going to school, for fear he should learn notes as well as letters there. He had set himself a difficult task, for the boy's inclination was obstinate, and among his doting admirers were some who conspired in his behalf so successfully as to convey into the house, undiscovered, a little clavichord, or dumb spinet. This instrument, much used at that time in convent cells, is so tiny that a man can carry it under his arm, and as the strings are muffled with strips of cloth, the tone is diminutive in proportion. It was safely established in a garret under the roof, and here, while the household slept, the boy taught himself to play. If the master of the house ever suspected what was going on, he connived at it, thinking that probably no very dangerous amount of art-poison could be imbibed under such difficulties. It proved, however, but the thin edge of the wedge, and resulted before long in a collision between the wills of father and son, in which the former sustained his first real defeat. He had occasion to visit Weissenfels, where a grandson of his first marriage was chamberlain to the reigning duke. George, who was seven or eight years old, and was very fond of this grown-up nephew of his, begged to be taken, too; but his father refused, turned a deaf ear to all his entreaties, and set off alone. Not to be baffled, the pertinacious boy followed the carriage on foot, and after a considerable time overtook it. The father's vexation and wrath were extreme, but futile; scolding and threats were thrown away on this child. He owned his fault, cried bitterly, promised endless good behaviour in the future, but stuck all the time to his original point, which was that this time he must go. The end was that the father had to give in and take him, and this journey practically decided Handel's career.

"Music at Weissenfels was held in high esteem. The duke, a generous and enlightened prince, was a friend to musicians. And though Heinrich Schütz had been twenty years dead, his long life and noble labours were fresh in the memory of his fellow townsmen, who were justly proud of their burgomaster's son. He, too, had been educated for the law, and not till after long doubts and severe struggles did he abandon it to follow his true vocation.

"Little Handel soon found allies. The choir of the ducal chapel admitted him to their practices, and encouraged him to try his hand at the organ. Finding him soon quite able to manage it, they lifted him up to the organ-stool, one Sunday afternoon at the conclusion of the service, and let him play away as best he could. This attracted the notice of the duke, who listened with astonishment to the performance, and, at its close, inquired who the brave little organist might be. On hearing the whole story from his chamberlain, he summoned father and son to his presence. With the former he expostulated on the folly of coercing a child in the choice of a profession, and assured him, with all due respect for his conscientious scruples, that to restrain the activity of a heaven-born genius like this was to sin against nature and the public good. As to the boy, he filled his pockets with gold pieces, and exhorted him to be industrious. Here was a change! Music was to be not only suffered, but furthered; his father was to lose no time in finding him a good teacher. Often as old Handel must have stopped his ears to these very same arguments before, he could not choose but listen, now that they fell from ducal lips. He did not change his mind, - a doctorship of law remained the goal of his ambition, - but he practically acquiesced, and, on his return to Halle, sent his son to study music with Zachau, organist of the Frauenkirche."

The legend that accompanied, in the catalogue of the Royal Academy of 1893, Miss Dicksee's picture of the boy Handel, varied somewhat from the version just quoted. It says that the father forbade the child following his bent, and banished all the musical instruments in the house to the attic, where, however, the little musician discovered them, and, under cover of night, resumed his beloved pursuit. The sounds thus produced, and the flitting of the little white-clad figure over the stairs, started the story that the house was haunted, which was believed until the truth was revealed, as shown in the picture.

Miss Dicksee, an Englishwoman, and the sister of Frank Dicksee, R. A., has painted several deservedly popular pictures, having for their subjects episodes in the lives of those who have reared themselves above the common mass of humanity. Such are her "Swift and Stella," "The First Audience - Goldsmith and the Misses Horenck," and "Sheridan at the Linleys."

Handel, whom the Elector of Hanover had made his capellmeister, first came to England in the autumn of 1710, having been granted a year's leave of absence by his royal patron. In the following February his opera of "Rinaldo" was produced in London with great success, and at once established the composer's reputation with the English public. At the close of the season he returned to Hanover, where he remained over a year, but was back in England again toward the end of 1712. In July of the following year, his Te Deum and Jubilate, for the service of thanksgiving held in celebration of the Peace of Utrecht, was performed in St. Paul's, and Queen Anne bestowed a life pension of 200 pounds a year upon him. In August, 1714, the queen died, and Handel, who had long out-stayed his leave of absence from Hanover, felt some qualms of conscience while awaiting the coming of his master, who arrived within six weeks after Anne's death to be crowned as George I. George had some reason to be vexed with both "his principal musicians: with the capellmeister for neglect, with Farinelli, the concert-master at Hanover, for obtrusiveness. In the thick of all the bustle consequent on the court's leaving Hanover, this gentleman wrote and thrust into the elector's notice a composition to the words, 'Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.' Handel was somewhat afraid to go near his injured master, who, however, could not help hearing of him. The new royal family cared for music, and for no other form of art. They were not edified by entertainments in a language they did not understand, and the English drama drooped while the Italian opera revived, the Prince and Princess of Wales being present nearly every night.

"'Rinaldo' was remounted, with Nicolini, who had returned, in the principal part. 'Amadigi,' by Handel, was produced toward the end of the season, and repeated four times. At the second performance the concerto now known as the 'Fourth Hautboy Concerto' was played between the acts. A great deal of the opera is adapted from 'Silla;' the whole stands high among the series to which it belongs. It may be an indirect testimony to its popularity that parodies and burlesques in imitation of it drew crowded audiences to other theatres. Meanwhile, the awkwardness of the situation between the king and Handel increased every day. The account of the manner in which a reconciliation was at last brought about has been repeated and believed by every biographer since Mainwaring, including Chrysander, in his first volume, who, however, by the time he wrote his third volume had discovered some evidence tending to throw doubt on its veracity. The story goes that Baron Kielmansegge, the common friend of both king and capellmeister, took occasion of a grand water-party, attended by the whole court, to engage Handel to compose some music expressly for this festivity, the result being the celebrated 'Water Music,' of which Handel secretly conducted the performance in a boat that followed the royal barge. The king, as delighted as he was surprised by this concert, inquired at once as to the author of the music, and then heard all about it from Kielmansegge, who took upon himself to apologise most humbly for Handel's bad behaviour, and to beg in his name for condonation of his offence. Whereupon his Majesty made no difficulties, but at once restored him to favour, and 'honoured his compositions with the most flattering marks of royal approbation.'

"A water-party did take place in August, 1715, but the brilliant occasion when a concert of music was given, for which special music was written 'by Mr. Handel,' and when Kielmansegge was present, and when probably, therefore, the 'Water Music' was produced, only happened in 1717, when peace had long been made, and pardon sealed with a grant to Handel of 200 pounds a year. The ice was, perhaps, broken by Geminiani, the great violinist, who, when he was to play his concertos at court, requested to be accompanied on the harpsichord by Handel, as he considered no one else capable of doing it. The petition was powerfully seconded by Kielmansegge, and acceded to by George I."

Handel was not only honoured by those who were kings by birth, but also by the rulers in his own art. Beethoven always declared that Handel was "the monarch of the musical kingdom;" Haydn said of him, "He is the father of us all," and at another time, "There is not a note of him but draws blood." Scarlatti followed Handel all over Italy, and in after years, when speaking of the great master, would cross himself in token of admiration; and Mozart said, "Handel knows better than any of us what will produce a grand effect."


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