Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. Second stop: Buckingham Palace.
As I walked from Handel’s house to his grave in Westminster Abbey, I more or less passed Buckingham Palace. So, although I hadn’t planned to, I decided to take a closer look.
In Handel’s time, it was a lot smaller and nothing more than the townhouse of the Duke of Buckingham. Today, it’s the London residence of the British monarch and a honeypot for swarms of tourists from all over the world.
It’s fascinating to see how the monarchy has become Britain’s most successful export product. Not bad for what is essentially a German import. After all, it’s been only a hundred years since the family changed its name from ‘Saxe-Coburg und Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’.
You know who else is a piece of German import? Britain’s greatest composer, George Frideric Handel – who changed his name from Georg Friedrich Händel the moment he set foot on English soil.
Coincidence? Not at all.
“If Bach wrote music to please God, Handel was born to sing the praise of royalty.”
Long live the king
You probably know this tune of Handel’s:
It’s Zadok the Priest, an anthem Handel wrote for the coronation of George II, the second English king from the German house of Hanover. It’s played at every coronation since. And you might also recognize it from the shameless rip-off that is the UEFA Champions League Anthem.
Zadok the Priest is one of those pieces of music that you think you know, until you realize you don’t. Listen to it again and you’ll be amazed at how good it is. Yes, it’s big and solemn – just as a composition for such an occasion should be. Yet it’s also very clever and original. With its teasing introduction breaking off the rising tension for a few times before the triumphant chorus finally comes through. And the satisfying balance that comes from the alternation between the pompous ‘God Save the King’ parts in unison and the delicate ‘Hallelujah/Amen’ flourishes, set as a fugue.
If Bach wrote music to please God, Handel was born to sing the praise of royalty. Even in his most famous religious composition – Messiah – the image of the suffering savior is dwarfed by the triumphant ‘king of kings’ in the Hallelujah chorus.
Handel had every reason to be enthusiastic about monarchic power. After all, it was the generous financial support of George I and George II that allowed him the rock star lifestyle that most other musicians of his days could only dream of.
And maybe it wasn’t just money that endeared him to the Hanoverian royal family.
Made in Germany
If you have any taste in television, the first image that comes to mind when you think of the Hanoverian Dynasty is this guy from Blackadder:
He’s the hilarious culmination of more than two centuries of anti-Hanoverian propaganda, which started under the Victorians and got worse – for obvious reasons – after the first world war. These German kings and princes were generally considered stupid, gluttonous and perpetually power-hungry.
The real story is very different. When the dukes of Hannover inherited the British crown, their Duchy was one of the most enlightened in Europe. And unlike their absolutist Stuart predecessors, they were clever enough to govern more by influence than by force. Most historians now think that they invented the modern monarchy.
But maybe it isn’t so much the Hanoverian men who deserve that honor.
George I received the British crown because his mother Sophia was a granddaughter of James II. It’s largely due to Sophia that the Hanoverian court became one of the most sophisticated in Europe. She especially took an interest in philosophy – reading Descartes and Spinoza and striking up a lifelong friendship with Leibniz.
Her daughter Sophia Charlotte married Frederic I of Prussia. She inherited her mother’s interest in philosophy and combined that with a passion for music.
Around 1696, she took an orphan princess into her home: Caroline of Ansbach. Apart from food and a roof over her head, Sophia Charlotte gave Caroline a proper enlightened education and the opportunity to meet some of the most illustrious philosophers and artists of that time, including the young Georg Friedrich Händel – on a visit in Berlin from his hometown of Halle.
* Girl power
In 1705, another dashing young gentleman visited the court of Frederic I: Georg of Hanover, who would later become George II of England. After some time at the court in Hanover, she followed her husband to England to become princess of Wales and finally Queen Caroline.
From the moment she arrived in London, Caroline made it clear that she had no intention of limiting her new role to posing for portraits and looking good at parties. She actively interfered in politics, mainly through her husband and her close friendship with prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.
As an enlightened soul she saw it as her duty to promote modern science and the arts. One of the first persons she visited was Sir Isaac Newton. She asked him to recommend math and astronomy teachers for her children.
Of course, there was never any question about who would become the music teacher at the princely and royal courts: her old friend Handel.
You only need one story to realize what an extraordinary women Caroline was. In the 1720s, a promising new medical procedure against smallpox was widely discussed in England: inoculation, an early form of vaccination. To demonstrate her belief in modern science, Caroline had her own children inoculated. Thereby proving that:
- Inoculation is effective and completely safe.
- As an 18th century woman, she had more sense than an alarmingly large portion of present-day Americans and Europeans.
Queen Caroline died in 1737. Her husband realized his extraordinary luck in marrying this woman. At her deathbed, he promised her that he would not marry again but “would only take mistresses.” Apparently, that’s about as close to true love as you could get in the 18th century.
Handel in love?
In his magnificent book The Lives of George Frideric Handel, David Hunter toys around with the idea that there was more to the relationship between Handel and Queen Caroline than that between a generous patron and a talented artist. Although he admits there’s no proof for his theory, he presents a powerful case by matching their timelines since their first meeting, when they were practically still teenagers.
True or false, the story of the lifelong romance between the princess and the musician is absolutely irresistible. Hollywood, if you’re reading this, don’t miss this opportunity to turn this story into a blockbuster. Personally, I’m thinking a cross-over between The Piano and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But you’re the experts of course.
Requiem for a queen
As I said, there is no smoking gun for this theory about Handel’s love life. But there is an extremely reliable witness. And I can listen to its testimony over and over again: Handel’s Funeral Ode for Queen Caroline.
You’ll never convince me that Handel wrote this music out of respect and gratitude for a dynastic family. This is the sound of true grief for someone he greatly admired. Maybe, even, loved.
I wouldn’t call the Funeral Ode an obscure piece. But it certainly isn’t an audience favorite either. Strange, since funeral music has been a very popular niche throughout the ages. And a lot of that death music can’t hold the candle to Handel’s composition. Yes, that includes Mozart’s/Süssmayrs Requiem which, by the way, doesn’t even try to hide the influence of Handel’s Funeral Ode:
Of course, monarchies caused a lot of misery throughout history. But their patronage, just like that of the church, did produce some amazing works of art. And Handel’s Funeral Ode for Queen Caroline is certainly one of the greatest jewels in the British crown.
No wonder that this work is played at every funeral of a member of the British royal family, especially if she’s female, right?