Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Ellen T. Harris's "George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends"

Ellen T. Harris is Professor Emeritus of Music and Theater Arts at MIT and President of the American Musicological Society. She has written widely on Handel, Baroque opera, and vocal performance practice. Her previous books include Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas (2001) and Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" (1987).

Harris applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends, and reported the following:
Hearing about the Page 99 test, I was tempted to dismiss it out of hand, and looking at page 99 of George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends only confirmed that view. After all, despite my book being about Handel, there is no mention on page 99 of the man or his music. But after some consideration, I thought again: maybe the lack of the composer’s presence on page 99 really is representative of a book that takes the approach of finding Handel, who has remained so elusive as a person, in his friends and the culture of eighteenth-century London. And, after still further thought: maybe the topic on page 99 of the East India Company does point to Handel, the composer of Italian opera, as no less an importer of luxury items from abroad as the great eighteenth-century British trading companies. In fact, the Royal Academy of Music, established to bring Italian opera to London, was founded on exactly the same financial basis as both the East India and South Sea Companies.

What started me on this search for Handel the man was the realization that he had left bequests in his will to friends and neighbors about whom we knew nothing. By pursuing these friends through the Bank of England accounts, legal cases in the Court of Chancery, and private correspondence, a picture began to emerge of Handel and his London friends whose real lives parallel the fictional lives found in Handel’s music (and are not dissimilar to those created more than a century later by Dickens).

As I write on page 11 (88 pages before page 99):
Handel’s operas set in the Middle East (Rinaldo, Tamerlano), for example, would not have seemed remote to James Hunter, who was an international trader and later in life worked directly with the British East India Company. The tension between a forced marriage and true love (Floridante, Imeneo) was not limited to exotic or fantastical climes but common to many: Mary Delany had both experiences. False accusations and legal problems (Solomon, Susanna) plagued Delany and her husband, while Hunter and Goupy both endured long court battles. Issues of religious toleration (Esther, Judas Maccabaeus, Theodora) touched them all.
Learn more about George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue