We tend to look back at great talent and forget the ambition and business acumen that let artistry shine through the ages. Nobody should ignore George Frideric Handel’s (1685-1759) eye for the main chance.

The young German kapelmeister was already on leave-of-absence in England when his boss Prince George, the Elector of Hanover, became King George I of Britain. The king, speaking no English, surrounded himself with Germans and young Handel found himself inside a closed circle, vastly talented and fairly immune from local competition. But income from royal commissions was insufficient. Fortunately, his youthful studies in Italy left him able to write Italianate operas similar to what the rich had seen on their Grand Tours of continental Europe and which they later craved in London.

But operas were expensive to mount with costumes and sets, the operatic divas fought constantly and had to be imported from Italy, and audience tastes were changing. Possibly due to trade, economic growth, nationalism and an aspiring upper middle class, London concert-goers began to desert “foreign” (and dangerously Catholic) classical operas for home-grown performances in English, particularly after John Gay’s sensational “Beggar’s Opera” (1728)—which wasn’t an opera at all, rather a parody mocking opera, featuring the alleged underclass belting out new lyrics affixed to popular songs. Handel responded by introducing another Italian import, oratorios but in English, without complex plots to cast and direct, with the lyrics taken from the King James Bible and Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. His oratorios had the sophisticated classical music that the ballad-operas lacked, but also saved him fortunes by avoiding scenery and costumes and quite so many egotistical Italian fat ladies. It worked, began to recoup his losses from investing in the South-Sea Bubble, and by 1733 Oxford students purportedly sold their furniture for tickets to his performances.

Handel caught on to another trend, charity fund-raising concerts, and over a fairly typical 24 days in 1742 he wrote his sixth oratorio, which was performed in Dublin to pay the debts of imprisoned misfortunates. Jonathon Swift, Anglican dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, tried to stop the performance on the grounds that a religious-themed oratorio (sung by an alleged floozy no less) had no place in a common hall; but he’d already suggested the vulgar storyline for Beggar’s Opera to his chum John Gay, so his moral superiority didn’t count for much. From there Handel’s show went to England where it did only middling well until 1740, at a charity benefit for London’s Foundling Hospital for abandoned infants, for which Hogarth, another celebrity, donated his paintings. There Handel’s Messiah achieved immortality when King George II rose to his feet during the Hallelujah Chorus. Protocol made everyone else stand too, and it has been beloved ever since.

The oratorio, beginning with God’s promises through the prophets, proclaims Christ’s Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, ending with His glorification in Heaven. It opened in New York in 1770. London’s Telegraph reports: “The numbers taking part expanded beyond reason. Handel never had more than 70 performers all told, orchestra and chorus, but in the 19th Century the numbers reached 5,000 at the Crystal Palace.”

But Handel’s self-assessment elevates him from superstar status alone. “Congratulated on providing audiences with such fine entertainment, he supposedly replied: ‘I should be sorry if I only entertained them. For I wished to make them better.’”

Intentionally crafting art that both delights and improves or instructs is what separates a talented artist from one who is additionally an imaginative conservative. For Handel, it was not enough to imitate Gay and his ragtag army of copiers, celebrating whores and ruffians in low tunes. In music and topic Handel knew he could cause delight in better fare, and moral improvement too. Rare then and now, a statue was put up commemorating Handel in his own lifetime. Even if our work is meagre and our audiences small, like Handel’s, our efforts can try to “make them better.”

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*”The Messiah: Handel’s Gift to the Poor of London,” The Telegraph, April 16, 2014.

The featured image is “The Chandos Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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