- The Lives of George Frideric Handel by David Hunter
The latest book by David Hunter, densely written and very well documented, appeared after the author, who is the music librarian at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote almost thirty entries for The Cam bridge Handel Encyclopedia (edited by Annette Landgraf and David Vickers [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009]). These are interesting, very vibrant years for scholarly research on Handel, which is benefitting from publication of the first volumes of the immense opus George Frideric Handel: Collected Documents (compiled and edited by Donald Burrows, Helen Coffey, John Greenacombe, and Anthony Hicks [Cam bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014–]; see my review in Notes 73, no. 3 [March 2017]: 564–65). Both English and German-language scholarship is showing more interest in autobiographical and biographical documents of musicians (two notable examples are The Musician in Literature in the Age of Bach by Stephen Rose [Cam bridge: Cam bridge University Press, 2011] and Melanie Unseld’s Biographie und Musik geschichte. Wandlungen biographischer Konzepte in Musikkultur und Musikhistoriographie [Köln: Böhlau 2014]). Hunter’s book moves in this direction. After carefully re-reading documents (both familiar and new), he poses questions that challenge prejudices and “facts” about Handel that are often taken for granted as truth. Through close study of the newly published documents, he is able to reinvestigate the familiar stories of Handel’s life. Hunter is not merely interested in setting straight a few minor details or events that are peripheral to Handel’s biography. His aim is to examine major questions. For example: what did Handel’s popularity really mean in his own time? How relevant was the audience to Handel? Did Handel really compose for the middle class, and why? To address the question of the historical significance of Handel’s famous public rehearsal of Music for the Royal Fireworks, Hunter analyzed newspaper sources to determine the size of the Vauxhall Garden at the time. In this instance, Hunter answers a central question that other historians failed to ask.
Hunter also explores how storytelling gave shape to the popularity of Handel and his own biographical narrative. The main purpose of his book is to separate fact from fiction, but he also explores the larger concepts of biography and dissemination by drawing on diverse assessments of Handel’s life. As the title of Hunter’s book suggests, at the hands of his biographers, Handel lived many different lives. In the last, magnificent chapter, “Biographer’s Stories” (pp. 394–429), Hunter explores whether there were as many Handels as Handel biographers. He also asks who was largely responsible for the salient conception of Handel. Different, sometimes contradictory aspects of Handel’s multifaceted personality emerge from a variety of documentary sources—bank and personal accounts, visual representations, membership lists of societies, correspondence, newspapers and pamphlets, commentaries by opponents, supporter and patrons—and even gossip. In the author’s words (which convincingly synthesize his own work), “Handel’s life and lives and their story-tellers will be seen from new angles but as part of a continuous whole” (https://twitter.com/handelscandal [accessed 6 January 2017]). [End Page 725]
Hunter’s book excels in its exploration of what is fact, fiction, or trope. Previous writings about Handel were concerned not only with factual accuracy but also imagery, import, and meaning. In his close examination of biographies and music histories, Hunter carefully analyzes the different images of Handel—the prodigy, the genius, the profoundly religious man, the master of musical styles, the distiller into music of English sentiment, the glorifier of the Hanoverians, the sexless, the pious, the successful, the wealthy, the bankrupt, the heroic, the devious, the moral exemplar. His approach is both thematic and chronological when addressing questions regarding Handel’s class status, nationality, political affiliations, religion, gender issues, publications, finances, friends and family, occupation, compositional practice, and sense of self.
By investigating a topic that has been ignored or avoided by...