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A Life with Friends
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An author of scholarly works about George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) returns with a more general work about the prolific composer and his milieu.

Harris (Emeritus, Music/MIT; Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, 2004) notes from the beginning that Handel left few documents—letters, journals—about his personal life, so she elects to reconstruct the various worlds in which he moved. In this lushness of context, she argues, Handel will appear—and so he does. The author also elects to write her text in the fashion of a fugue; she presents themes (Handel’s life, the culture, his friends, his music) and revisits them continually—a very effective way of reminding readers about key points and people. Harris begins with family and then charts Handel’s quick rise in the music world (so little is known about his youth) and his decision to move to England, where he lived the majority of his life and endeared himself both to the royals and the commoners. She examines the vagaries of his financial situation (he did well, for the most part), his various patrons, the composition of his operas (which he stopped doing in 1741) and his sex life—did he have one? He never married, but most of his operas, notes the author, culminated with marriage. After his opera career, Handel shifted to oratorios, and Harris writes engagingly about Messiah, which he premiered in Dublin in 1742. The author tells us much about the lives of his intimates, some of whom were more assiduous about letter- and journal-writing. So, indirectly, we learn some about Handel’s reading, collecting (art, books about music) and his health, which featured some occasional “paralytic attacks” and a final blindness that ended his composing and playing. Harris also includes helpful timelines scattered throughout the text.

Musical in structure, tone and emotional effect.

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-393-08895-3
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2014


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