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Harris gets grant for Handel work

Ellen Harris
Ellen Harris

Ellen T. Harris, the Class of 1949 Professor of Music, has been awarded a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to broaden her research on "Messiah" composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and develop a new book, "Mr. Handel and His Friends: Music in the Context of 18th-Century London Life."

"Mr. Handel and His Friends" takes up the study of Handel's career when he lived in London (1711-1759), where he composed "The Messiah" as well as numerous well-known oratorios and operas.

Harris' 2002 book, "Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas" (Harvard), explored Handel's use of silence in his cantatas, composed when he lived in Italy and was "very much embedded in the patronage system," Harris said.

"Orpheus" won the prestigious Otto Kinkeldey Award from the American Musicological Society and the Louis Gottschalk Prize from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

Harris described her new work on Handel as getting to know the renowned composer "without his wig."

"We know a lot about Handel within his wig -- in his role as composer of big public works, producer of 30 oratorios and 42 operas -- but little about how he lived his life. Unlike Mozart, he left few letters or other documents. But a turning point came when he moved to London: He had a home of his own; he made money from composing and, before he died, he wrote a will," Harris said.

Handel's music has inspired Harris for more than 30 years, she said, thanks to its richness, humanity and emotional power. But his will contained surprises that led to a wealth of material about how his music fit into 18th-century English society.

"Handel left money and all his scores to his manager for 40 years, John Christopher Smith. He left money to his librettists and to his extended family in Germany. He left all the performance materials for 'The Messiah' to the Foundling Hospital. You'd expect that.

"But he also bequeathed money to five 'mystery' people, unknowns whom he clearly had cared about. I tracked them all down. It was exhilarating to discover, for example, that Handel's music copyist, known in all his works as "S7" ("S" is for scribe), was his friend James Hunter," Harris said.

The life stories of Handel's friends and neighbors -- as revealed through documents Harris dug through at the British Library, National Archives, the House of Lords Library and other dusty storage sites -- yielded the details that Harris needed to get "outside the wig" in portraying the composer's character, particularly his capacity for sympathy.

"The 'mystery beneficiaries' in Handel's will had much in common with him and with one another. All were slightly on the edge of English society. Few were Anglicans (Handel was Lutheran). All but one were childless; most were unmarried; and most of them had up-and-down middle-class financial lives typical in England's market economy," Harris said.

Most revealingly, Handel's neighbors were amateur musicians, men and women who played his new works and heard him play at parties, she noted.

"Through his music, he was participating in English society, not just riding above it. His music was not just for kings. It was supported by the aristocracy, yet intended to be played in the home. A circle of music-loving friends and neighbors nourished this very human composer, and he repaid their affection," Harris said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 15, 2006 (download PDF).

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