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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

In order to compose at the kind of speed required by the conditions under which they worked, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers frequently resorted to what have come to be called “parody” techniques—that is, to the reuse or recycling of older compositions in newer ones. Every church and theater composer indulged in the practice. There was really no choice. The only question involved the nature of the sources plundered and the specific means or methods employed. Was it only a process of “cannibalization”—eating one’s own young (adapting one’s own works)—or did it involve what would now be regarded as plagiarism? And if the latter, did the practice carry the ethical stigma now attached to plagiarism—or, for that matter, any stigma at all?

The question comes up with particular inevitability in connection with Handel, since he seems to have been the champion of all parodists, adapting both his own works and those of other composers in unprecedented numbers and with unprecedented exactness. Indeed, ever since the appearance in 1906 of a book (by one Sedley Taylor) entitled The Indebtedness of Handel to Works by Other Composers, the matter has been a cause for inescapable concern on the part of the composer’s admirers, and a whole literature on the subject has sprouted up—two literatures, in fact: one in prosecution of the case, the other in Handel’s defense.

The prosecutors have built an astonishing record. Several of Handel’s works consist largely—in extreme cases, almost entirely—of systematic “borrowings,” as they are euphemistically called. Israel in Egypt is among them. Of its twenty-eight choruses, eleven were based on pieces by other composers, some of them practically gobbled up whole. Three of the plagues choruses—including “He Spake the Word” and “He gave them hailstones,” both singled out for their epoch-making orchestration—were based on a single cantata (or more precisely a serenata, music for an outdoor evening entertainment) by Alessandro Stradella (1639–82), a Roman composer whose music Handel encountered during his prentice years. Compare, for example, Ex. 7-3 with Ex. 7-2d.

Other famous cases detailed by Taylor include a setting of John Dryden’s classic Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, performed in 1739, the same year as Israel in Egypt, based practically throughout on themes and passages appropriated from a then brand-new book of harpsichord suites (Componimenti musicali) by the Viennese organist Gottlieb Muffat. More recently it has been discovered that no fewer than seven major works composed between 1733 and 1738 draw extensively on the scores of three old operas by Alessandro Scarlatti that Handel had borrowed from Jennens. Perhaps Handel’s most brazen appropriation involved the “Grand Concertos” (concerti grossi), op. 6, familiar to us from chapter 5. They were composed in September and October of 1739 and rely heavily for thematic ideas on harpsichord compositions by Domenico Scarlatti, a fellow member of the Class of 1685, which had been published in London the year before.

Noticing how many of Handel’s “borrowings” involved works from the 1730s, and particularly the exceptionally busy years 1737–39, some historians have tried to connect his reliance on the music of other composers with a stroke suffered in the spring of 1737, brought on by overwork, that temporarily paralyzed Handel’s right hand and kept him from his normal labors. Whether as evidence of generally deteriorated health or as a reason for especially hurried work following his enforced idleness, the stroke has been offered as an extenuating circumstance by some who have sought to defend Handel from the charge of plagiarism.


ex. 7-3 Alessandro Stradella, Qual prodigio e ch’io miri, plundered for Israel in Egypt

Stronger defenders have impugned the whole issue as anachronistic. To accuse Handel or any contemporary of his of plagiarism, they argue, is to invoke the Romantic notion of “original genius” at a time when “borrowing, particularly of individual ideas, was a common practice to which no one took exception” (as John H. Roberts, one of Handel’s ablest “prosecutors,” has stated the case for the defense).8 Going even further, some of Handel’s defenders have claimed his “borrowing” to have been in its way a good deed. “If he borrowed,” wrote Donald Jay Grout (paraphrasing Handel’s contemporary Johann Mattheson), “he more often than not repaid with interest, clothing the borrowed material with new beauty and preserving it for generations that otherwise would scarcely have known of its existence.”9

The philosopher Peter Kivy, in a general discussion of musical representation, once cited a piquant example of such “improvement”: a bit of neutral harpsichord figuration from one of Muffat’s suites that Handel transformed into an especially witty “madrigalism” by summoning it to illustrate Dryden’s description, in the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, of the cosmic elements—earth, air, fire, and water—leaping to attention at Music’s command (Ex. 7-4).10 And surely no one comparing the choruses in Ex. 7-2 with their models in Stradella can fail to notice that everything that makes the Israel in Egypt choruses noteworthy in historical retrospect—the lofty trombone chords, the insect imitations, the storm music—came from Handel, not his victim.

Historical distance affects the case in other ways as well: Handel and his quarries being equally dead, it may no longer be of any particular ethical or even esthetic import to us whether Handel actually thought up the themes for which posterity has given him credit. (Nor could he, or any other composer of his day, have had an inkling of the eventual interest posterity would take in his reworkings.) Indeed, comparing Handel’s dazzling reworkings with their often rather undistinguished originals can even cast some doubt on the importance of inventio (as Handel’s contemporaries called facility in the sheer dreaming up of themes) in the scheme of musical values, and cause us to wonder whether that is where true “originality” resides.


ex. 7-4a Gottlieb Muffat, Componimenti musicali, Suite no. 4

And yet it does considerably affect our view of Handel and his times to know that recent scholarship, and particularly John Roberts’s investigations, have pretty well demolished the foundations of the old “defense.” Roberts has shown that what we call plagiarism was so regarded in Handel’s day as well; that, while widespread, “it frequently drew sharp censure”11; and that Handel was often the target of rebuke. One of his critics, ironically enough, was Johann Mattheson, so often cited in Handel’s defense, who openly and angrily accused Handel of copping a melody from one of his operas. Another was Jennens, of all people, who wrote to a friend (in a letter of 1743 that came to light only in 1973) that he had just received a shipment of music from Italy, and that “Handel has borrow’d a dozen of the Pieces & I dare say I shall catch him stealing from them; as I have formerly, both from Scarlatti & Vinci.”12

We know from chapter 4 that Leonardo Vinci, unlike Alessandro Scarlatti, was a contemporary and a rival of Handel’s. Handel “borrowed” from Vinci as a way of making his style more up-to-date, which is to say more profitable. This begins to sound like a familiar plagiarist’s motive for “borrowing,” and Roberts has discovered a unique case where Handel both borrowed from a Vinci score (Didone abbandonata, first performed in 1726) and “pastiched” it as well—that is, arranged it for performance in London under its original composer’s name. Sure enough, Handel rewrote the passages he had borrowed for his own recent operas so as to obscure his indebtedness to Vinci’s.


ex. 7-4b George Frideric Handel, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day

If the old defense—that borrowing carried no stigma—were correct, there would have been no reason for Handel to cover his tracks. And that may also explain why, of all the borrowings securely imputed to him, Handel altered the ones he made from Domenico Scarlatti the most. It may well have been because, of all the music he borrowed, Scarlatti’s keyboard pieces were most likely to be recognized by the members of his own public.

In the case of Messiah, Handel’s known borrowings were of the “cannibalistic” kind—the kind that even now entails little or no disrepute. Self-borrowings, which do not raise any question of ownership, can be called borrowing without euphemism. They are generally regarded, even in the strictest accounting, as a legitimate way for a busy professional to economize on time and labor. And yet they, too, can be revealing in what they tell us about Handel’s (and his audience’s) sense of what was fitting—in a word, about their taste.

Several of the most famous choruses in Messiah are of an airy, buoyant, affable type that contrasts most curiously with the “sublime” and monumental style of Israel in Egypt. Ornately melismatic, they require a kind of fast and florid, almost athletic singing that is quite unusual in choruses, and they sport an unusually light, transparent contrapuntal texture, in which the full four-voice choral complement is reserved for climaxes and conclusions only. Their virtuosity and their trim shapeliness of form are completely unlike anything one finds in the actual sacred choral music of the day—that is, music meant for performance in church, whether by Handel (who, never having an ecclesiastical patron, wrote very little) or by anyone else.

They are, however, utterly in the spirit of latter-day “madrigalian” genres—genres based on Italian love poetry—such as the chamber cantata pioneered by Carissimi and Alessandro Scarlatti (a genre in which Handel especially excelled during his Italian apprenticeship), and related breeds like the serenata or the duetto per camera.

The last-named (the “chamber duet” as it is sometimes called, rather stiltedly, in English) was simply a cantata for two voices. It became popular enough by A. Scarlatti’s time to be regarded as a separate genre—replete with specialist composers, like Agostino Steffani (1654–1728)—partly because in matters of love, two, as they say, is company. Of all the postmadrigalian genres, the duetto was likeliest to be explicitly pagan and erotic. A typical text for such a piece might address or reproach Eros (Cupid) himself, the fickle god of amorous desire:

No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,

cieco Amor, crudel Beltà!

Troppo siete menzognere,

lusinghiere Deità!

No, I do not wish to trust you,

blind Cupid, cruel Beauty!

You are too wily,

O flattering deities!

Altra volta incatenarmi

già poteste il fido cor;

So per prova i vostri inganni:

due tiranni siete ognor.

Another time you did manage

to net my trustful heart;

so from having experienced your tricks

I know you both for tyrants.

These are the words of a duetto by Handel himself, and as a glance at Ex. 7-5a will show, he wove his paired vocal lines into garlands that wrap around one another to illustrate the “netting” to which the text refers (and behind that, of course, the physical writhing for which the textual words are a metaphor). Should it surprise or dismay us to discover that this erotic duet became the basis for not one but two choruses in Messiah? Handel reworked the opening section into “For unto us a Child is born” (no. 12, Ex. 7-5b) and the closing section (not shown) into “All we like sheep have gone astray” (no. 26).


ex. 7-5a George Frideric Handel, duetto, No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi


ex. 7-5b Messiah, no. 12 (“For unto us a child is born”), mm. 1–14

In fashioning the chorus shown in Ex. 7-5b, Handel tossed the duet material as a unit between the high male/female pair (sopranos and tenors) and the low one (altos and basses). Only once, briefly, near the end, does Handel amplify the duet writing into a quartet by doubling both lines at consonant intervals. Elsewhere the choral tutti consists of a chordal outburst (“Wonderful Counsellor!”) that is newly composed for Messiah and caps every section of the chorus with a climax. In “All we like sheep,” we have another case where one of Handel’s happiest descriptive ideas (the wayward lines at “gone astray”) turns out to have been not composed but merely adapted to the words it so aptly illustrates.

The use of such material as the basis for an oratorio on the life of Christ has tended to bemuse those for whom the sacred and the secular are mutually exclusive spheres. One way of excusing the apparent blasphemy has been to declare that the duetti, composed during the summer of 1741, were actually sketches for Messiah, composed that fall, and that therefore the text was merely a matter of convenience—“little more than a jingle, words of no significance whatever, serving merely as a crystallizing agent for music which was later to be adapted to a text that had not even yet been chosen,” according to one squeamish specialist.13 Another writer, the influential nineteenth-century formalist critic Eduard Hanslick, used the apparent incongruity to argue that the expressive content of music was unreal, and that any music could plausibly go with any text!

These circumlocutions are easily refuted, for the esthetic discomfort that gave rise to them was not Handel’s. It is obvious, for one thing, that the main melody of “For unto us a Child is born” was modeled carefully on the Italian text, simply because the very first word of the English text is quite incorrectly set. (Say the first line to yourself and see if you place an accent on “for.”) But then, the texts (and, consequently the music) of the duetti will seem incongruous, something to be explained away, only if we regard Messiah as being church music, which it was not. Despite its embodying the sacredest of themes, it was an entertainment, and its music was designed to amuse a public in search of diversion, however edifying. The musical qualities of the duets, being delightful in themselves, could retain their allure in the new context and adorn the new text—and even, thanks to Handel’s “madrigalistic” genius, appear to illuminate its meaning.

The character of the entertainment Messiah provided—in particular, the absence of any contradiction between the oratorio’s means and aims and those of the secular shows with which it originally competed—is also clarified by its performance history. The aria “But who may abide the day of His coming?” (no. 6) was originally assigned to the bass soloist, and like many oratorio arias, was cast in a direct and simple two-part form that harked back to the earlier style of Alessandro Scarlatti. The Scarlattian resonance is especially marked in this aria (Ex. 7-6a) because of its slowish (larghetto) gigue-like meter and its rocking siciliana rhythms, relieved only by some fairly perfunctory coloratura writing on the word “fire.”

In 1750, Handel replaced the bass aria with a new one for alto that retained the original beginning, but regarded the two halves of the text as embodying a madrigalian antithesis, requiring a wholly contrasting setting for the part that compares God to “a refiner’s fire.” Here the music suddenly tears into a duple-metered section marked Prestissimo, the fastest tempo Handel ever specified, heralded by string tremolos and reaching a fever pitch of vocal virtuosity. A return to the larghetto seems to mark the piece as an operatic da capo aria, but a second prestissimo, even wilder than the first, turns it into something quite unique in both form and impact (Ex. 7-6b).

One way of explaining the replacement is to regard the first version as unsatisfactory and the alteration as an implicit critique, motivated by sheer artistic idealism. In this variant, Handel, on mature reflection, decided that the aria demanded the change of range and character, and then went looking for the proper singer to perform it. If that is what happened, it was a unique occurrence in the career of a theatrical professional who always had to know exactly for whom he was writing in order to maximize his, and his singers’, potential effect.


ex. 7-6a Messiah, no. 6 (“But who may abide”), 1741 version, mm. 1–18


ex. 7-6b Messiah, no. 6 (“But who may abide”), 1750 version, m. 139–end

In the case of “But who may abide,” he knew, and we know, for whom the new aria was intended: the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni (1729–92), one of the great singers of the eighteenth century, who was then near the beginning of his career, and who had just come to England with a touring troupe of comic singers. Guadagni’s virtuosity, his histrionic powers, and his ability to improvise dazzling cadenzas had taken London by storm. Handel rushed to capitalize on his drawing power, transferring to him all the alto arias in Samson (his latest oratorio) and the perennial Messiah, and specially composing for Guadagni, in the form of the revised “But who may abide,” what his oratorios otherwise lacked: a true virtuoso showpiece for a castrato singer. “But who may abide” was the obvious candidate for this operation, since its “fire” motif gave Handel the opportunity to revert to his old operatic self and compose a simile aria in the old “rage” or “vengeance” mode typified by “Vivi, tiranno!” (Ex. 7-1).

It has been the great showstopper in Messiah ever since. And it all at once erased the distinction between Italianate sissification and manly British dignity that the institution of the English oratorio was supposed to bolster. For here a symbol of “Italian-Continental degradation,”14 as the cultural historian Richard Leppert puts it (or what Lord Chesterfield, in his famous “Letters to His Son,” would call “that foul sink of illiberal vices and manners”15), was holding forth in the very midst of what had even by then become an official emblem of proud British piety.

Handel must have loved the moment. He was getting his own back in many ways. By hiring the latest divine “ragazzo” or Italian boy, he was getting his own back against Farinelli, who had so disastrously snubbed him. By scoring such a hit with his new aria di bravura he was vindicating the exotic entertainments he had been forced so long ago to give up. And by making the British public love the infusion of Italian manners into the quintessential British spectacle (for the original “Who May Abide” was never revived, although the British have often rather incongruously tried to give the florid alto version back to the cumbrous bass), he may have been taking a sweetly secret personal revenge on the stolid tastemakers who had forced him to deny his predilections in more ways than one—for as many scholars now agree, Handel, a lifelong bachelor, was probably what we would now call a closeted gay man.

But what chiefly mattered was the success. Again the old theatrical entrepreneur had seized the main chance. His protean nature, his uncanny ability continually to remake himself and his works in response to the conditions and the opportunities that confronted him—that was Handel’s great distinguishing trait. It marks him as perhaps the first modern composer: the prototype of the consumer-conscious artist, a great freelancer in the age of patronage, who managed to succeed—where, two generations later, Mozart would still fail—in living off his pen, and living well.


(8) John Roberts, “Handel and Vinci’s ‘Didone Abbandonata’: Revisions and Borrowings,” Music & Letters LXVIII (1987): 149.

(9) Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (New York: Norton, 1960), p. 410.

(10) Peter Kivy, Sound and Semblance: Reflections on Musical Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 210–11.

(11) Roberts, “Handel and Vinci’s ‘Didone Abbandonata,’” p. 149.

(12) Quoted in John Roberts, “Handel and Charles Jennen’s Italian Opera Manuscripts,” in Music and Theatre: Essays in Honour of Winton Dean, ed. Nigel Fortune (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 192.

(13) Jens Peter Larsen, Handel’s Messiah (2nd ed., New York: Norton, 1972), p. 83.

(14) Leppert, “Imagery, Musical Confrontation and Cultural Difference,” p. 331.

(15) S. L. Gulich, ed., Some Unpublished Letters of Lord Chesterfield (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1937), p. 78.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07004.xml