Handel's Scores

THE FIRST requirement for judicious performance is a good score. The task of restoring an old and abused score, to provide an unexceptionable, “definitive” musical text, is always difficult, calling for sound scholarship, a high sense of responsibility and integrity, and profound musicianship, In Handel's case the difficulties dwarf anything an editorial board ordinarily has to face. The historian is dealing with a Bruckner magnified a hundredfold. But while Bruckner patched endlessly, it would not have occurred to him to make a quodlibet of his symphonies, shifting the trio of the scherzo in the Second Symphony to the Seventh or vice versa; yet this is exactly what Handel did in his oratorios. Every revival changed the physiognomy of the work, sometimes radically. The editors must decide where to find a resting place for the eternally peregrinating pieces. It is easy to excise a Chandos Anthem from an oratorio, but what about a chorus that everyone knows, let us say, from Judas Maccabaeus, which in reality belongs in Esther? What shall be its fate? Another difficulty in preparing artistically correct editions is created by the frequent absence of figuring in the bass. Since Handel was his own performer, he needed only “reminders,” which we must interpret and elaborate.

“The concealment of truth is the only indecorum known to scholarship,” said Westermarck, but the editors of Handel's works did not honestly try to be decorous. Friedrich Chrysander was a distinguished musical scholar; in his day there were few to equal his learning and none even to approximate his industry and his devotion to the cause. He dedicated his whole life to the collection and publication of Handel's works, and his tenacity, his refusal to bow before superior forces, and his courage in adversity were of Handelian proportions. But he was an autocrat, a law into himself, who often made his selection according to his desires, who altered and revised at will, and who even falsified documents to suit his purposes. The old Händelgesellschaft edition is anything but complete and reliable, as anyone who browses in the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum soon discovers. Chrysander could not, of course, acquire the original manuscripts, which were in the King's Music Library, but he did acquire a set of copies, the so-called conducting scores, later deposited in the Hamburg Library. These are of course very valuable, but only if collated with the originals, the sketches, and other copies (of which there are several), as well as with the various editions of the librettos; for the other sources contain many modifications by Handel himself, and they also contain additional music which, of course, is of exceptional importance. All these sources were available to Chrysander and he consulted many, yet both he and Seiffert relied too much on secondary sources, as have, indeed, even present-day German editors.

The conducting scores in Hamburg convey largely post-Handelian practices fostered by John Christopher Smith, Jr. While Smith undoubtedly acted from authentic first-hand experience, his performances inevitably reflected the conceptions of one a generation removed from the original scene. Larsen, who examined this question thoroughly (Handel's Messiah), came to the conclusion that the Hamburg scores, while undeniably copies that served for actual performances, “were not used by Handel himself.” One discovers repeatedly that Chrysander, though mentioning autograph scores, proceeded from some later edition without using the manuscript score. In addition, the heroic editor of the hundred-volume Händelgesellschaft set was quite arbitrary in his decisions as to what to accept and what to reject. One of his worst failings was his bland disregard of Handel's own directions. If he did not like an adagio marking he changed it to andante or vice versa, inserting his own directions, furthermore, without distinguishing them from Handel's. Therefore the old collected edition, though a magnificent achievement, and in part of excellent quality, is badly in need of replacement. It is not without irony that this cavalier editor had his own troubles with his sub-editors. The preparation of the first volume of the Händelgesellchaft edition was entrusted to Julius Rietz, a fine cellist and reputable conductor. Chrysander's discovery that Rietz, a stranger to the scholarly process, paid little attention to Handel’s instructions, even “considered them worthless,” earned Rietz a sour epitaph in the preface to the very first volume of the Gesamtausgabe. Chrysander resented any form of criticism but was always ready to upbraid others.

The Novello scores are so lacking in elementary care that they cannot be considered, and as to the vocal scores Oskar Hagen concocted for the Göttingen Handel performances, they are wildly incongruous specimens of German theatrical Expressionism of 1920 vintage. The trouble with Hagen was that, though a distinguished art historian, he was an amateur musicologist and musician, unfamiliar with operatic history and dramaturgy, who approached the Baroque from the point of view of the 20th-century theatre. This led to frightful mangling of the scores; the da capo arias were left hanging in the air, the tonal scheme was dislocated, recitatives were cut to the bone in the mistaken belief that they were insignificant connecting links, and so on. The unfortunate Göttingen “reconstructions” were abandoned as their falsity was recognized, and the initiative passed from the amateurs into the hands of professionals, who are presently engaged in the editing of a new critical collection of Handel's works. It remains to be seen in practice how the new Hallische Händelausgabe will cope with the many problems, prejudices, and malpractices that for two hundred years have obscured the life and works of Handel.

(after Lang)

George Frederick Handel