Spend some time and rock a rhyme / I said, It’s not that easy

Wow, Jessica Duchen sure doesn’t like Handel very much.

But did he compose anything that has the intense, sublime, genuine spirituality of Bach’s St Matthew Passion? Is there a single Handel aria remotely comparable to its heartbreaking ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben?’ Not even the beautiful ‘Ombre mai fu’ is on that level. Where in those operas can we find the degree of perception and compassion that Mozart showed in Don Giovanni? And Handel’s pleasant chamber and orchestral works reduce to Muzak the minute you encounter Beethoven’s.

Beethoven said: “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived.” He was wrong: he deserved that epithet himself. Handel can’t hold a candle to Bach, let alone Beethoven. A one-man baroque-and-roll hit factory, he compromised his art by selling out.

The problem with comparing Handel and Bach is that, while Handel is a flashy composer, the thing he does better than Bach is something distinctly non-flashy: mixed emotions. Irony, regret, resignation—Handel is astonishingly good at this sort of thing.

Bach does the grip of despair extremely well—”Seufzer, Tränen,” for example. But has there ever been a better portrayal of the exhaustion of despair than “Lascia ch’io pianga”? “O sleep, why dost thou leave me?” from Semele is a touchstone of bittersweet. Even “Ombra mai fù” is more than it seems because it’s supposed to be funny—but the sheer, simple beauty of it shows Xerxes’ lovesick loneliness as well. No wonder Beethoven would exalt Handel that way: Fidelio mines much of the same territory (particularly the first act). And no wonder Handel is at his best—something I think he never gets enough credit for—with the complicated characters of older women, usually powerful, but afraid of the passage of time. Give me Alcina over the Marschallin any day. There, I said it.

But opinions are just opinions. (God knows I purse my lips at enough music that other people love not to get too upset over it.) There’s something else about this anti-Handel barrage that’s interesting, though.

Occasionally a gifted director will work magic – David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne was a case in point. But in lesser hands these operas can feel interminable, and today they are regarded as sacred country, so cuts are frowned upon.

Duchen seems to be criticizing Handel because his music has a low immunity to bad performance. Perhaps she’s been lucky enough never to sit through a really poor St. Matthew Passion—I have, and trust me, it’s as brutally relativistic an experience of the passage of time as any mediocre Baroque opera. But should that even be a criterion? Is great music, by definition, foolproof? I have a higher tolerance for badly-performed Shostakovich than badly-performed Verdi—but I don’t think that really means Shostakovich is the better composer.

In fact, a lot of my favorite pieces and composers are particularly tricky to pull off in performance: Tippett operas, Sibelius symphonies, Sondheim musicals. Berlioz is a continent unto himself in this regard. A spectacular rendition of Kontakte can convince you of Stockhausen’s asserted greatness, but how many spectacular renditions of that are you likely to get? A first-rate performance of Carter is thrilling—a second-rate performance leaves the audience downright sullen. Is that Carter’s fault? I would be the first to admit that I’m attracted to works of emotional subtlety and ambiguity, and bad performances of those make for long evenings indeed. But if a piece of music has demonstrated its potential to be an amazing experience, I’m less concerned with how often that amazement is likely to happen. Some pieces have a high batting average, but never hit it out of the park. In this case, I prefer the possibility of the long ball.


  1. <>In this case, I prefer the possibility of the long ball<>Ha! You’re a Cubs fan, you’re probably used to balls flying out of that bandbox called Wrigley. 🙂Damn, I can’t wait for baseball to start again. Go Angels….I sympathize with Ms. Duchen, I find Handel’s operas to be beyond the pale. I think her piece is more about how critical consensus congeals and to buck that is to be seen as either a) not getting it or b) being a contrarian for contrarian’s sake. The 20th century equivalent of Handel would be Shostakovich. His biography, in my experience, has been used a cudgel on those of us who think his music is no better than third rate Mahler (pace Boulez).

  2. <>I would be the first to admit that I’m attracted to works of emotional subtlety and ambiguity…<>–and I would be the second. But be honest–do you really think the postmodern classical-music audience is looking for emotional subtlety, ambiguity, irony, regret, all the good things you can get from a Handel opera? Or are they looking for something so emotionally obvious as to hit them over the head, just like the audience for action-adventure blockbusters? I read a lot of what passes for classical-music discourse on the Internet, and I wonder…

  3. A professional classical music commentator who doesn’t appreciate Handel on one level or another is somebody whose opinion I’m not going to trust on anything. Why “Jephtha,” Handel’s last oratorio, isn’t outrageously overplayed is one of those weird mysteries of life.Thanks also for the citation of a boring Bach “St. Matthew’s Passion” performance as an excruciating, endless experience. I went through one about thirty years ago and it’s taken me almost that long to finally rediscover Bach and his cantatas on account of it. (The loss was mine.)

  4. Interesting what you write about bad performances of the Matthew Passion. There have been many of those… near perfect works (in my opinion) are the hardest to pull off. Think of bad performances of Cosi or Figaro. I was one of the few people to really admire Katie Mitchell’s staged version at Glyndebourne two years ago. Some found that interminable and distracting. It proves that Jessica’s comments are entirely from a personal standpoint and that grander value judgments are misplaced. I’m not a great admirer of the Handel opera catalogue, but I feel that is my failure, not Handel’s!

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