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Composer Focus: Iestyn Davies on George Frederic Handel

Nothing Concrete text
13 Apr 2020
23 min listen

We revisit our Composer Focus series from November 2018, as Edward Seckerson and countertenor Iestyn Davies delve into the life and music of composer George Frederic Handel.

Anyone who doesn’t know Bach or Handel probably does, without realising they’ve heard their music at some point, whether it be on television or film, or just on the radio

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Composer Focus: Iestyn Davies on George Frederic Handel

We revisit our Composer Focus series from November 2018, as Edward Seckerson and countertenor Iestyn Davies delve into the life and music of composer George Frederic Handel.


Barbican: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican Podcast. This time we’re looking back into our archive to November 2018 and our Composer Focus series, as Edward Seckerson and countertenor Iestyn Davies delve into the life and music of composer George Frederic Handel.

ES: Hello and welcome, I’m Edward Seckerson and with me is countertenor Iestyn Davies. Our subject? George Frederic Handel.

Iestyn, it could have been considered bad timing to be born in the same year as J S Bach, if you were a composer. But Handel more than held his own in that era. I mean, you’re biased obviously because you’re a singer, but where do you put him in the pantheon of Baroque greats?

ID: I think certainly at the top, alongside Bach. Anyone who doesn’t know Bach or Handel probably does, without realising they’ve heard their music at some point, whether it be on television or film, or just on the radio. But I would say they both achieved that top ranking in Baroque music. In similar but also very different ways. Handel spent most of his time working in the theatre and working in the sort of secular world and Bach worked in the sacred world most of the time. We don’t believe that they ever met or were close to meeting. And I think just the nature of their jobs, and where it took them on that journey: in Handel’s case it was sort of via Italy to England, but in the theatre world, and via patrons who paid him to write music for their courts I suppose, and in England in particular for the court, and for what we’d call the ‘West End’ now.

ES: Yes, we tend to forget how practical these composers were of that era – they saw where the demand was and they went for it. Handel I mean created what, three opera companies in London? To provide for the rich, the elite and the opera-loving upper classes.

ID: Yes, and I think it’s important to remember that what we consider as a composer these days, or a musician in general, is very different to what was happening in the 18th century. You know, musicians weren’t necessarily just given one job or one job title. Today you might say ‘I’m a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra’, but a violinist back then might have also been a composer, might have also been a dancer. And so Handel was playing to his strengths, writing for the theatre, but so was Bach, writing for the church. And I think if they’d been alive today they’d have been the Thomas Adès, the George Benjamins of their day: their music would have been just as I suppose, inventive, as different, but would have been much more like the music that we’re used to hearing today. If you go back and listen to music not by Bach, not by Handel, by some of the minor composers of the Baroque period, it sort of sounds like a pastiche of Handel but not as good. So I think in a way, whilst their writing at the time in a style we associate with the 18th century, they are still, had you gone back then, they are the revolutionary composers who really made their business successful. But at the same time, it really comes from a true place; Bach and Handel came from a special place, whether it be in their soul or wherever, they had a gift.

ES: The statistics are staggering: 42 operas, 29 oratorios, 120 cantatas, I mean those are probably rough figures. There were the concerti grossi, the two organ concertos and the two greatest hits: the Water Music and the Fireworks music – the Music for the Royal Fireworks – which is especially sensational I think it it’s supersized wind version. But most importantly it was about the voice really, and so as a composer for the voice what sets him apart from a singer’s point of view?

ID: I think Handel had, without it sounding glib, he had a gift for a tune. Now that’s quite a difficult thing, as any pop musician will tell you, to come up with a good tune. Essentially pop music runs off tunes, without a tune there’s nothing. And there’s lots of Baroque music that’s very beautiful but doesn’t necessarily have a tune to remember it buy. As a singer when you’re given a tune, it just lifts everything off the page straightaway. What was great for me coming and singing, and learning how to sing, through Baroque music and through Handel, was the way in which he connecrts with you through the tune, and through that tune to the harmony underneath. So he is able to move you in a very suspicious way, you can’t quite work it out, but it takes you above and beyond any other composer of the time. He sets words well, in terms of he understands how the voice works, so in some of the fast arias you get to sing you have these runs, which are called coloratura runs, and he understands that certain vowels work better for a singer on these fast runs, and you find that out when you translate them into English, for example at English National Opera where they do everything in English, you have to find the right words to fit the technical demands, and you start to realise how Handel completely understood this. He also worked so closely with the singers in his companies, his opera companies, that he was able to tailor-make each aria for speicifc singers, so you have a broad repertoire written for a specific singer. I know for example, that if I sing an aria that’s written for the castrato Senasino that it’ll fit my voice, I don’t have to check up on it before. I know that if I open up this opera, there’ll be a load of arias I can sing. Likewide there are some castrati he wrote for that are higher in their voice than Senasino, so for me that’s not necessarily something I’d sing.

ES: Subsequently the public got to know these singers, they were the popstars of their day. They were hugely important and influential. That’s changed a bit, although there are still the opera superstars, but they were phenomenally famous.

ID: Yes, I think they were, I suppose you could say popstars, but more like film stars I think. Not everybody could go and see them in the flesh, because not everybody went to the opera, but they sort of held that place that I suppose celebrity gossip magazines would hold today of celebrity. Just because of the tales of their enormous fees, or diva tantrums, or in some cases just leaving the country altogether. Farinelli famously left the London opera scene after only two seasons to go and sing for the King of Spain, where he stayed for 20 years. So if you imagine that today, it’s like a footballer turning up to Manchester United having been paid £70 million or something, and then next season just disappearing and saying ‘Actually I’ve had enough, I don’t like Merino, I’m going’. And the difficulty for Handel was to hold onto these singers and to find replacements when they left, and again, that’s all to do with the business acumen. There were rival opera companies, and bums on seats really ruled the day, and when that didn’t happen opera seasons were ruined and careers were ruined, Handel lost money and theatres closed, and he had to change tactic, which he did.

ES: For the benefit of those who still find voice types in Baroque opera confusing, including us probably, the countertenor has assumed roles normally written for the male alto, or the female castrato. Is that a fair summation?

t’s a fair summation in a nutshell. Countertenors sing in their falsetto range, we know them really from cathedral and chapel choirs in this country, and the choral scene. Since the 1950s they’ve been much more prevalent on the operatic and concert stage, because of the interest in the music from the 18th and 17th century, and composers such as Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett bringing back the interest in this music and saying well ‘what kind of music were we hearing then, we certainly had a man standing on stage so we want to see a man and we want to hear a man, but we don’t have castrati anymore so we’ll use falsetto’. Now that’s led to people assuming that countertenors are the automatic choice for these roles, but they’re not, because as you said they were written for men who were castrated or women playing trouser roles. However, that leads me to add that Handel did work with countertenors, and in quite a few dramatic, as in operatic, situations in the later oratorios he wrote specifically for a countertenor, so Handel’s Jeptha; some of the Messiah arias he performed with countertenors; there’s a number of oratorios like Semele which a countertenor would have featured as a soloist. So it’s not completely inconceivable that had the castrati not been around, there would have been an equivalent in the countertenor range.

ES: This distinction between opera and oratorio has become less pronounced in the modern age, because we have whole range of creative directors, for better or worse, whose imaginations could run riot on a piece that would normally have been performed in concert. Is that a good thing?

ID: I think anything’s a good thing where it brings more light to a piece. In the case of Handel’s oratorios, actually I find them more dramatic than the operas, the operas to me feel very stop/start, very static in places. The arias themselves are wonderful and very moving, but as a whole throughly composed evening, I find them less convincing. Often they deal with slightly unbelievable subjects and the drama towards the end has to hurry up to find a moral, or to get everyone wedded off, or to bring back the dead people so they can sing in the final chorus. Whereas the oratorios generally are based on biblical stories, which are in themselves, stories of thousands of years of history, of storytelling. And Handel deals with them in a very different way. Perhaps that says something about his own religious convictions, I don’t know. But I find that for a modern director, to get their hands on the oratorios, gives them in a way more licence to bring theatrical directing styles to them, than you can do with the operas, I think they lend themselves to more interesting interpretations. 

ES: I mean you mention how ludicrous the plots can be, but always the emotions are very real, and that’s why they work so well still.

ID: And I think we put on a, that’s me putting a demand on opera based on a 21st century point of view, which is that I don’t think in Handel’s time they would have cared so much about the whole arc of the evening as we do when we look at a piece of theatre nowadays, we want to believe that these characters are actually there. And I think sometimes you can miss the point.

With Handel, it was about saying ‘here’s a character who in four minutes is going to express or investigate the emotion of grief, or love, or loss, but in a very under the microscope way. And what happens with the oratorios is that they’re a bit more through-ly composed, you might not get a style of aria called the da capo, where you go back and sing the opening tune again, which in opera happens all the time. Whereas in oratorio Handel started to move the drama on, there were a lot more choruses involved, perhaps a lot of the arias were shorter so that the emotion expressed is much more about getting the story onto the next section. Going back to what we were saying about his working with singers and understanding the voice, he understood also that by doing this and moving the drama on, he stopped the singers from indulging, because the singers tended to indulge, they ornamented too much, they tended to request arias that weren’t written for them for the opera to be sung and they’d come along and say ‘I’ll only sing if you bring this aria in, because it’s a successful one of mine’. And I think this eventually got in Handel’s wick and he really turns a screw when it comes to oratorio, he says it’s much more about the drama, which is something that later composers like Gluck understood completely and changed the form of opera.

ES: Can we conclude, Iestyn, by talking briefly about his most famous piece, which is the Messiah, which most singers of your ilk probably roll out a couple of times a year, or certainly at Christmas or whenever. Do you do it often, and do you ever tire of it? What makes it so, so iconic? 

ID: Well I do do it often, but it’s mostly in December. It is really a Lent or Easter piece, but that’s not the way it’s done now as such, traditionally it’s done at Christmas. It’s the only piece that I perform that I write inside the score how many times, or where I’ve done it and who with – I just decided to keep a record because I thought I’d be doing it quite a lot and it turns out that I’ve done it, I don’t know, probably about 100 times or something like that since 2005. But for that reason weirdly I don’t tire, because we don’t do it between January and November generally, if you do it’ll be once in March or something, so it’s nice, it’s sort of like seeing a best friend who you don’t need to talk to everyday, then you turn up in December and you sit down, and you remember old stories from last December and you chat about that. It’s very like that and it sort of sits in the voice without you having to do too much work. 

ES: Is it familiarity with the piece that makes it so loved by the public do you think?

ID: A bit, but I think you can go to it one or two times, maybe the second time you hear it, it’s the genius of Handel in which he very subtly draws you into the whole drama of the piece and I think it would be putting Handel down to say it’s just familiarity – I think that’s true of all Handel that familiarity, especially with his operas which are long and not always full of great operas, familiarity makes you think it’s a better piece. But for example, doing Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne – that’s my favourite of Handel’s oratorios, I absolutely love it – but I can understand why someone coming to hear it for the first time would say ‘OK, well a few listens and I might get it’, but there’s only one really famous aria in it – O lord we must in numbers – which thankfully I get to sing, but for me it’s the choruses that lift it, they’re absolutely wonderful, and I think it’s the same with the Messiah, it’s got that sort of rousing chorus element to it, which an audience feel like they’re singing along even though they’re not.

Especially in the Hallelujah chorus, which I expect most people are in their heads trying to sing along , and often audiences do try and sing along when they’re not invited to! But that’s absolutely wonderful, and nobody ever questions that. But it would be strange if people started doing that in, I don’t know, Elijah or something, it just sort of happens in Messiah and it’s accepted. We take it for granted and we shouldn’t, it’s something very special that Handel’s done there to make everybody feel part of it without them having to take part.

ID: One of wonderful things about the Messiah for me is it illustrates what Handel’s very good at, which is the way he manages drama and tension and climax and release. And you’ll find that in a lot of his pieces, but obviously in Messiah which is more familiar, he builds the music and the drama to a point where you think it’s the end, and then just as you’re about to climax he stops and puts in a beautiful aria such as ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ or ‘If God be for us’, just at these peaks and creates what you think is a trough, you think time is stopping, which is exactly what he wants you to think. He wants you to stop, he’s got you in the palm of his hand, and you listen to this most wonderful piece of text delivered to a most wonderful tune. And then he builds back into a big rousing chorus that’s not your, I suppose, fireworks and glitter, but a much more sincere piece of music which just sends you off on a huge high. And I think that always reminds me of how people describe a DJ, who plays a crowd and is able to manage a number of records and mix them in such a way that he builds a whole evening, and he or she plays it over several hours in a club, and you hear people saying that they like a particular DJ because they understand the crowd in front of them and yet they’re not speaking to them, they can just see a swathe of people. And yet they will build an evening around some climactic point – it might be 3 in the morning or 4 in the morning, but they very carefully manage all the beats, the speed of the music, the keys in which they’re playing things and then they cleverly mix them in such a way that they have highs and lows and highs and lows and then this very big high, and Handel in a way does exactly that. He manages all the expectations of the audience, and he manages to bring you in and let you down, and bring you back up again. Bach and him both have this fascinating way of doing that, and I feel that the chorus at the end of the Messiah, the big ‘Amen’ chorus for me is on a parallel with the end of the Bach B minor Mass, and the two pieces climax in such a way – the B minor Mass has the beautiful ‘Agnes Dei’ solo for the countertenor or the alto soloist, which in a way is that moment where the tension is released and held, and you’re left with this beautiful slow tune, and you just wanted the piece to finish and then he gives you gold. Then there’s this wonderful climactic sort of fugal chorus at the end. And the same thing happens with the Messiah, there’s a wonderful bar right at the end where this pedal seventh happens, and for me that’s just rather cheesily where Christmas begins, on the last page.

Barbican: Thanks to Iestyn Davies and Edward Seckerson. In the next episode of our Composer Focus series, baritone Roderick Williams joins us to talk about the one and only Benjamin Britten. 

RW: The first thing is that I come to him with my composer's hat on, rather than a singer's hat. I think of him as the first composer who woke me up to classical music in a way. 

Barbican: Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to help inspire more people to discover and love the arts. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts. And, if you can, leave us a review to help us inspire even more people to jump headfirst into the arts.  

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