Handel by Jonathan Keates

Book: Handel by Jonathan Keates Read Free Book Online
Authors: Jonathan Keates
this respect, with the latest French and Italian styles in opera and instrumental writing.
    Hanover itself, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, was Germany’s most sophisticated princely court. The Elector’s parents had patronized the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and created a miniature Versailles at Schloss Herrenhausen, designed by the Italian architect Giacomo Querini. French was the preferred language among the electoral family and French too was the idiom of the orchestral suites composed for the court band by its directors Jean-Baptiste Farinel and Francesco Venturini. At the opera, however, the bias was towards Italian composers. It was the Elector’s brother Ernst August who, in 1688, had invited Agostino Steffani, one of the leading contemporary operatic masters, to Hanover. A choirboy at St Mark’s in Venice, Steffani, aged thirteen, had been taken into the Elector of Bavaria’s service as a pupil of the Munich court kapellmeister Johann Kaspar Kerll. He visited Paris, where he heard Lully’s operas, and in 1681 his own debut took place with the Munich première of Marco Aurelio . Steffani’s skills were not merely musical. When he arrived in Hanover it was in the double capacity of composer and diplomat. By now he had assumed the status of an abbate (a priest in minor orders) enhancing his credit as the Protestant Duke’s envoy to Catholic courts. He became an important negotiator in the duke’s ultimately successful efforts to secure himself an electorate and was later made responsible,as Pope Clement’s Vicar Apostolic, for overseeing the welfare of Catholics in the various Protestant states and for sterling attempts to convert various wavering heretic royalties. Despite a handful of illustrious proselytes, he was doomed to almost constant failure in his drive to re-establish a Catholic presence in solidly Lutheran and Calvinist communities.
    As a musician Steffani has justifiably been termed ‘the greatest Italian master between Carissimi and Scarlatti’ and his stylistic cosmopolitanism significantly foreshadows Handel’s. There is no doubt that he used his enormous musical gifts as a diplomatic passport to places that might otherwise have been more impervious to him. The two composers may have met in Rome during the autumn of 1708, when Steffani, by now a fully ordained priest and engaged in mediation between Emperor Joseph I and Pope Clement XI, found time to sing at one of Cardinal Ottoboni’s concerts. ‘Such an acquaintance’, says Mainwaring, ‘[Handel] was glad to renew: for Steffani’s compositions were excellent; his temper was exceedingly amiable; and his behaviour polite and genteel.’ The mingled Franco-Italian idiom of Steffani’s operas written for Hanover during the 1690s had its impact on Handel’s style, but the older composer’s best-loved works were his chamber duets, abundantly expressive settings of Arcadian love poetry, demonstrating his contrapuntal skill. Handel, having acquired a collection of these during his stay in Hamburg, began making his own experiments in the genre while travelling through Italy and returned to it, presumably in emulation of the master craftsman, once established in Hanover. His poet here was Ortensio Mauro, a Venetian diplomat resident at the court, whose witty and graceful texts had already proved pleasing to Steffani. In Handel’s duets – he was to write several more during the 1740s – the combination of engaging conversational directness in the vocal exchanges, some effortlessly skilful counterpoint and an overall seasoning of ironic humour is irresistible.
    Apart from these pieces and a handful of keyboard works, Handel composed nothing of major importance during his stay in Hanover. The Spanish Succession War had made cost-cutting necessary and the Elector had been forced to reduce his musical establishment, so that there was no

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