Wednesday 19 December 2007

Through a glass darkly

When the composer Handel is mentioned, what image comes into your head - a large, overweight, elderly man wearing a full-bottomed wig, prone to gluttony and attacks on recalcitrant singers and rather a-sexual? Of course, this owes something to reality, but even in his later years Handel was also a good raconteur, had a coterie of extremely loyal and devoted friends and was a keen connoisseur of art (the inventory taken at the time of his death is quite mouth-watering.)

But, of course, it is the lively anecdote and highly coloured images of the elderly man which stay in our mind. As there is an absence of personal material, it makes the real man difficult to re-create.

There is all the more problem when it comes to the young Handel. During his period in Italy he was in his early 20’s. Handel as Orpheus, Ellen Harris’s book about Handel’s Italian Cantatas includes a portrait of him done at the time. We see, not the overweight philosopher of the late portraits, but a young, vibrant, slender and attractive man. No wonder Handel was popular with his patrons, his improvising was dazzling, and his music was brilliant. Combine this with his entertaining personality and attractive person and you can imagine that some of his patrons were rather smitten. Harris detects something of a whiff of the homo-erotic about the texts of Handel’s cantatas and the general atmosphere in the salons where he was employed.

This all adds up to a very different picture to our standard one of Handel. But the composer suffers from the problem common to elderly and productive composers; we tend to view their output and their personalities through the distorting glass of their later persona.

A similar thing happens to Ralph Vaughan Williams. He lived to his late 80’s and remained productive until the end. RVW was 63 when his ground-breaking 4th symphony was premiered. His 3 major symphonies (nos. 4, 5 and 6) span the years 1935 to 1946, so that he was 74 when the last of these was premiered. With its remarkably pianissimo final movement, it was regarded as his swan-song. But the composer went on to write 3 more!

In the face of all this public acclaim, the composer created a gruff persona for himself, prone to startling announcements “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant”, and hiding his sophisticated talent in a miasma of apparent amateurism.

So we tend to view the early RVW through this smoke screen. It means that we miss out on the passionate young man, one whose musical voice was late in coming. But just look at the pictures where you see a slimmer figured RVW with dashing dark wavy hair. This is a young student who was briefly considered as a trainee Apostle whilst at Cambridge and who had links with a number of Apostles at a time when the group had a very homosexual cast to it. RVW also had strong links to the Bloomsbury group (his first wife Adeline was a cousin of Virginia Woolf’s), he and Adeline did a great deal of entertaining and participating in the social whirl and demi-monde whilst they lived in Cheyne Walk.

This is the man who wrote the passionate piano concerto (for Bax’s mistress, Harriet Cohen) and the remarkable ballet Job, works which lead to the 4th symphony. It is this personality which can be glimpsed in the letters which RVW exchanged with his contemporary Gustav Holst (collected in the book Heirs and Rebels). Holst died when the composer was in his early 60’s so had little influence on the late, Grand Old Man of Music image.

For both these composers, RVW and Handel, we have to take a step back and make an effort to discard their later persona and view their younger passionate selves. It is interesting to consider how this sort of view might easily apply to others. One obvious candidate is Elgar, whose passionate music is so at odds with the persona of the crusty old colonel which he constructed.

Conversely it is fascinating to play what if and consider what might have happened to composers who died young? What would our view of early and middle Mozart be if the composer had lived to a productive and ripe old age, similarly with Beethoven?

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