The proceedings of a learned society can be arcane, comprehensible best only by hair-splitting academics sharpening their wits on pedantic arguments. However, when the learned society devotes itself to German-English composer George Frideric Handel, both town and gown can take part.
Every two years the 100-member strong American Handel Society, founded in 1986, puts on a festival where scholars discuss their research on Handel and the public can enjoy performances of his music.
This year the festival takes place on the Princeton University campus, organized by associate professor of musicology Wendy Heller, a member of the Handel Society Board. In addition, a special exhibit of Handel manuscripts from the James S. Hall Collection held by Princeton’s Firestone Library has been mounted by music librarian Paula Matthews. The Hall collection consists primarily of manuscripts of works by Handel and his contemporaries.
Performances open to the public occur on three successive nights. On Thursday, April 19, in Richardson Auditorium the Richardson Baroque Players present “Britannia’s Invitation,” a selection of Handel’s music integrated by the remarks of contemporary observers. On Friday, April 20, university organist Eric Plutz gives an organ recital in the university chapel. And on Saturday, April 21, in Richardson, the University Glee Club conducted by Richard Tang Yuk presents a concert version of Handel’s “Hercules” featuring Deanne Meek as Dejanira and Jason Hardy as Hercules. David Ross Hurley, editor of a forthcoming edition of “Hercules” gives a pre-concert talk at 7 p.m.
Of the three performances “Britannia’s Invitation” is particularly intricate. Three years in the making, the presentation calls for the efforts of 15 instrumentalists, three vocalists, an organist, a narrator, and costumed actors. Nathan Randall, director of Princeton University Concerts and John Burkhalter, 18th century scholar, devised the entertainment. The 13 musical excerpts range from “Rinaldo” (1710) to “Solomon” (1749). The principal background source is the correspondence of the lively Mary Delany (1700-1788), whose letters cover events within the horizons of aristocratic social and cultural life in both London and Dublin.
Musicians performing in “Britannia’s Invitation” include Laura Heimes, soprano; Daniel Gundelach, countertenor; Curtis Streetman, bass; the Richardson Baroque Players, Nancy Wilson, director; and Gwendolyn Toth, organ. Judith Pearce plays the role of Mary Delany; John Orluk appears as Mr. Peachum and Randall acts as narrator. Pearce, as Mrs. Delany, is seated onstage in an 18th century chair at an 18th century writing desk as she reads the letters.
Planners of “Britannia’s Invitation” Randall and Burkhalter were available for a joint telephone interview from the Princeton Concerts office. “There’s an 18th century song called ‘Britannia’s Invitation’ and we liked the title,” Randall says in a joint telephone interview with Burkhalter from the Princeton Concerts office. “The program attempts to evoke the world of Handel. It does not attempt to reconstruct an 18th century concert.”
“We want the audience to come away with the idea of how pervasive Handel’s music was,” Randall says. “We went through all six volumes of Mrs. Delany’s letters and lined up every letter that had to do with music and Handel. Then we tried to see how this would make a story. We finished the letters about two years ago. The letters refer to virtually all the pieces in the Richardson concert. Then we realized we had to tie things together. We needed a little glue. We went to other contemporary sources, London newspapers, acts of Parliament, and the Handel biography by James Mainwaring.”
‘Mainwaring’s biography of Handel was the first biography written in English of a composer,” Burkhalter says. “Mainwaring didn’t use the Delany letters but her letters are the staples of Handelian studies.”
“The letters were private until they were published in 1860,” Randall says. “Most of them were to her sister in the country, who probably saved them. You can see them tied up in sateen ribbon.
“We wanted a great deal more music than talk. Nobody goes to a concert to hear talk. But we wanted enough to give the flavor of the 18th century. We attempted to provide links between Delany’s letters and the music without any words of ours. Perhaps there are two sentences that I wrote. The rest of the text consists of contemporary accounts. We wanted to allow the quotations to stand on their own merits.”
“Delany was a brilliant letter writer,” Burkhalter says. “The letters provide rich examples, not only of music, but of her whole cultural world. She was a witness to the age. Her letters evoke its manners and morals. [William] Hogarth [British painter and printmaker] does this pictorially; Fielding does it in novels. Delany was a friend of Hogarth, and there’s evidence that he was her drawing teacher. She was conversant with all the etiquette of the day, which included conversation and letter writing. She played harpsichord and was musically literate. The pursuit of refinement for a woman in her class included drawing, needlework, and music; harpsichord was paramount.”
“She was very intelligent,” Randall says. “She had a gift of communicating the essence of what she writes about. There was no blather. Her letters were terse. They were bull’s eyes. She knew how the pieces of the social scene went together. But her letters were very human. They had a newsy quality. Her personality comes through. There were no telephones, and she wrote long letters with information on weather, food, clothing, and people. I have the idea that she would have written E-mails if they had existed.”
As a 10-year-old Delany met Handel when he visited London in 1710. Born in Halle, Germany, in 1685, the composer studied in Italy from 1706 to 1710. When he arrived in England, Italian opera was becoming the rage and Handel was an immediate star. He took up permanent residence in England in 1712.
During their first encounter Delany heard Handel play harpsichord, and announced that she wanted to play the instrument as well as he did. The two later became neighbors on London’s Lower Brook Street and the composer invited Delany to attend rehearsals that took place in his house. “Handel had his confidantes attend rehearsals,” Burkhalter says, “and Mrs. Delany was one of his principal confidantes.”
In 1728 John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” eclipsed Handel’s Italianate opera. English replaced Italian as the language of opera. Characters from the seamy side of London society replaced mythological heroes. “The principal setting of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ was Newgate Prison,” says Randall “with its whores, pickpockets, thieves, and highwaymen, people destined for the gallows. Gay satirized the upper classes and implied that the standards of honor among thieves are higher than standards of honor among aristocrats. It was politically inflammatory.”
Delany was incredulous that comic opera had wiped out true art and was appalled at the success of what she called “burlesque.” However, Handel readily adapted. “As soon as `The Beggar’s Opera’ wiped out Italian opera, Handel had the bright idea of composing oratorios,” Randall says. “Essentially, his oratorios were Italian opera with English words, based on sacred texts and telling a moral story. He used the dramatic stories of the Old Testament — Samson, Solomon, and Esther.
“Handel gained ascendancy again,” Randall continues. “He allied himself not only with the government but with the clergy. Everybody could attend a Handel oratorio with an easy conscience. And since the compositions were religious and not secular they could be performed during Lent.”
Says Burkhalter: “Handel realized that the success he had achieved with mythological heroes could now be achieved with heroes of the Bible. Handel was deeply religious. He was a member of the Church of England and was deeply affected personally by religion. He elegantly and effectively set biblical texts.”
“The last and greatest of these was ‘Messiah,’ Randall says. “When Handel wrote ‘Messiah,’ he did so in an exalted religious state. It was written in 21 days. There are reports that he locked himself in a room and threw pages out the window to a copyist so he wouldn’t disturb his concentration. One of the reasons ‘Messiah’ is such a great piece has to do with Handel’s personal convictions.”
“Mary Delany was deeply affected when she heard it in London,” Burkhalter says.
“She wrote in her letters that Handel was much superior to other composers,” Randall says. “Even when she heard the work of a composer whom she considered good, she was disappointed when the composer was not Handel.”
With Judith Pearce as Mrs. Delany, advocating for her contemporary Handel, and live 21st-century performances by musicians attentive to 18th-century practices, the “Brittania’s Invitation” audience will be able to experience two centuries simultaneously. And that’s only the start of the American Handel Society’s public events.
Britannia’s Invitation, Thursday, April 19, 8 p.m. Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. The Richardson Baroque Players present the life and musical times of George Frideric Handel. Directed by Nancy Wilson, featured musicians include Laura Heimes, soprano; Daniel Gundlach, countertenor; and Curtis Streetman, bass. $20 to $40. 609-258-5000.
Also, Organ Concert, Friday, April 20, 6 p.m., Princeton University Chapel. University organist Eric Plutz.
Also, Princeton University Glee Club, Saturday, April 21, 8 p.m. Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Richard Tang Yuk directs a concert version of Handel’s “Hercules” featuring Deanne Meek as Dejanira and Jason Hardy as Hercules. Pre-concert talk at 7 p.m. by David Ross Hurley, editor of a forthcoming edition of “Hercules.”