Friday, 19 October 2012

Another Short Handelian Anecdote: A Duel

Not many of the great composers have gone down in history as having taken part as one of the principals in a duel. Among them, perhaps this honour must be awarded solely to Handel. The cause of this affair was to be found in one of the curious customs of his day.
In the early part of the last century it was the custom for the director of an opera to play the accompaniments on a harpsichord which had its place on the stage. Distinguished personages who were present often claimed a seat on the stage and felt free to interpose a running fire of audible conversation and comment. This is now relegated to that part of the audience who have little musical understanding and less of good manners.
In the early part of Handel's career he was associated with a composer named Mattheson, [1] a man of talent, but of no great depth, but from whose writings we may catch some enjoyable glimpse of the customs of his time. On the occasion in question, in Matheson's opera of Cleopatra, the composer was acting the part of Antony, and Handel was seated at the harpsichord. When Antony died, early in the opera, Mattheson came into the orchestra and desired to take Handel's seat as director. There was some excuse for this wish as Mattheson had been the regular director of the opera. But Handel, with that irritability which characterized him later in life, crustily refused to give up his place, whereupon a violent quarrel ensued, and as they were leaving the theatre Matheson gave him a hearty slap in the face. Handel drew his sword, Mattheson defended himself, and a duel was fought then and there. Luckily, perhaps, for our musical literature, Mattheson's sword was broken against a metal button on his opponent's coat, and the honour of each was vindicated! Soon after, the two composers were at peace and hearty good friends again. This was a good example of a discord, prepared and resolved.

[1] Johann Mattheson was born in Hamburg on September 28 1681 and subsequently died there on April 17 1764. After a general liberal education as a law student his decided musical talent was developed by Braunmuller, Pratonus, and Kellner. At an early age he sang, composed, and played the organ and harpsichord. He entered the opera chorus 1690, and between 1697-1705 sang operatic tenor roles. He wrote at eight operas including Cleopatra. In 1705 he became tutor in the English Ambassador Sir john Wich’s family.  From 1715-28 he was musical director and cantor, at the Hamburg Cathedral.  In later life he suffered from deafness which led to his retiral from the Cathedral.  

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