George Frideric Handel: Collected Documents, Volume 1, 1609–1725
Edited by Donald Burrows, Helen Coffey, John Greenacombe, Anthony Hicks
Cambridge University Press; 855 pp. $180
Handel research is booming as the once-essential 1955 "documentary biography" by Otto Erich Deutsch has given way to the five-volume George Frideric Handel: Collected Documents. Recently unearthed material, plus a thorough reexamination of surviving documents, has resulted in a treasure trove of social, musical, theatrical, financial and legal material referencing Handel and his career.
The hefty first volume covers the period from 1609 — when the composer's grandfather registered as a citizen of the town of Halle, Germany — to 1725, the year of Rodelinda's premiere. Material ranges from the lengthy charter for the 1719 creation of the Royal Academy of Music as an Italian-opera production company to a brief listing in the Sewer Tax Rate Book of August 8, 1723, upon purchase of the house in Brook Street where Handel lived until his death in 1759. Entries include the personal (a poem the twelve-year-old Handel wrote on the death of his father) and the professional (receipts and production expenses for Amadigi, 1715, which include entries for a barber, glover, tin man, printing and starching, in addition to a hefty sum for candles — both tallow and wax).
Scholars make use of this material in various ways — lighting was indeed a large theatrical expense, and candles were often trimmed and changed mid-scene — but the general reader, dipping and grazing, can find poignancy and resonance as the documents tell their stories in rich detail. Among material related to Handel's Italian stay (for example, the cantata Diana Cacciatrice was performed after an actual stag hunt, and amid major renovations for the performance of La Resurrezione, a tiled floor was broken up and windows removed) are documents proclaiming the marriage back home of Handel's older sister, the burial of his younger and the baptism of his niece — events the composer, on his way to international superstardom, missed.
Representing the pivotal 1711 London premiere of Rinaldo are the word book's dedication and prefaces, names of cast and orchestra personnel, newspaper articles, the subscription announcement ("Tickets and books will be delivered out of Mr. White's Chocolate-House in St. James's-Street"), diary entries and letters, copyists' bills and performance reviews. The Spectator gave a summary of the action, noting, "By the Squeak of their Voices the Heroes are Eunuchs."
Legendary singers come to life here — Senesino in his polite requests for travel money, Nicolini in the large expense noted for his backstage coffee consumption. Even though a comic poem complains that, for all any Londoner would know, they could be singing High Mass, the arrival and departure of Italian singers were given the sort of press attention now accorded to film stars. On December 29, 1722, The British Journal noted, "Seigniora Cutzoni is expected here with much Impatience, for the Improvement of our Opera Performances; and, as 'tis said, she far excells Seigniora Duristante, already with us." Encouraging diva rivalry has always been great publicity, and the new soprano (variously Cotzani, Catzona, Cozzuna, Cutzoni, Carsona) was mentioned daily in the papers. After her success in Ottone, a published ode began, "Little Syren of the Stage, / Charmer of an idle Age." When Margarita Durastanti did "quit this Kingdom," in 1724, several newspapers printed the text of her farewell cantata, "Happy Soil, adieu, adieu, / Let old Charmers yield to new."
Handel (or Handle, Hendel, Hendell, Hendals and Händel) writes in French, even to his German brother-in-law, and completes Floridante "à Londres ce 28 de novembre, 1721." Newspaper warnings that "neither Director nor Subscriber will be admitted on the Stage" remind us of that custom. Flute arrangements of "All the Favourite Songs with their Symphonies, in the Opera Radamistus" were rushed to print because, as the announcement states, "some Ignorant Person was Transposing the said Opera." Lady Mary Wortley Montagu writes to her sister, "The new opera [Tamerlano] is execrable," offering a dissenting view. The book ends with the tantalizing announcement that "a famous Chauntress" would be coming from Italy, and — even though Faustina Bordoni actually arrived from Vienna and was paid less than the newspaper stated — Volume Two awaits.
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