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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends by Ellen T. Harris

This is a video of the Royal Choral Society performing the CHORUS from Handel's Messiah- the entire piece is more than 2 hours long.

Gerorge Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends
 by Ellen T. Harris
Published September 29th, 2014
W.W. Norton & Company

   George Frideric Handel is where the history of the modern music industry begins. Prior to Handel, skilled musicians worked for a specific ruler, the church or both.  Handel essentially created the figure of the musician as artistic celebrity, and he did this in the early and mid 18th century, long before others followed the same path.  Ellen T. Harris has written a Handel biography that, while not harping on the subject, certainly acknowledges the importance of Handel's market-place activity in explaining his long term significance to future listeners.

  This is not to say that Harris, a professor at MIT, lacks the musical chops to explain the stylistic innovations that Handel brought to audiences- quite the opposite.  Some of the most engaging portions of the book involve Harris explaining the specific effects and techniques that grabbed the attention of the audience. For example, Handel used dramatic pauses to heighten the impact of the following music.

  Today, Handel is best known for his soaring "Messiah."  Harris calls it the most important classical work of all time, and I'm inclined to agree, or simply defer, to her expertise.  I don't think there is a single man, woman or child living in modern conditions who hasn't heard, and been touched by the Hallelujah chorus of Handel's Messiah.  In her "Very Select Discography" after the end of the book, she recommends the recordings by Harmonia Mubdi (HMU 907505.52), Chamber Chorus of the University of California, Berkeley, Philharmonia Barogque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan  (includes performances of many variants made by Handel.)

  Harris draws on the underutilized source of Handel's bank records to give a fuller account of the economic life of Handel.  In considering WHY Handel can be considered either the first or immediate precursor of Modern artist musicians, his financial independence from the patronage model of artistic contribution was critical.   His early career is marked by his struggle to free himself from dependence while remaining cognizant of the fact that such a relationship was the norm.  Here, Harris emphasizes the role that his time in Italy in convincing him that there was a new world of artistic freedom in England.

  The subtitle of "A Life With Friends" testifies to Harris' fascination with Handel's social milieu and I think it is clear from her strong academic background that she must be well advised of the interest in the role of social networks in the dissemination of ideas.   I thought that George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends by Ellen T. Harris was an excellent work, and likely the go-to for a reader looking for a sophisticated take on Handel's biography, short on the "artist hero" romantic bull shit and long on interesting source material and sophisticated writing style.  

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