Book Review: Discover The World Of A Genius With Jane Glover's 'Handel in London'

Feb 20, 2019

Most people who experience George Frideric Handel’s operas do so as spectators, taking in the music and drama onstage from a comfy, velvet-wrapped seat in the audience. 

Conductor Jane Glover, however, knows Handel and his music from the inside out, having devoted much of her four-decade-long career to performing the composer’s music, and having now captured the details of Handel’s world in a new book.

Handel in London: The Making of a Genius (Pegasus Books, 2018) is a personally impassioned study of one of the world’s greatest composers by one of today’s most distinguished interpreters of his music.

In her foreword to Handel in London, Glover notes the certain kinship she feels with Handel. Beyond hearing her first – and life-changing – performance of Handel’s Messiah at age 9, performing Handel’s music has, Glover writes, “occupied a sizeable portion” of her career.

Moreover, Glover also notes many of the tasks of her work as a conductor have mirrored those of Handel’s own routine – accommodating the vicissitudes of the instruments and temperaments of elite singers, dealing with the financial and promotional aspects of performing operas and so forth.

“For me,” Glover writes, “(writing Handel in London) has been, as well as a detailed investigation into Handel’s activities and the context in which they happened, something of a personal process, for so much of what I do now is so similar to what he did then.”

Book cover for 'Handel in London: The Making of a Genius'
Credit Pegasus Books / amazon.com

As much as the book’s title, Handel in London, invites one to consider Handel the study’s main character, Glover’s work really has an ensemble cast, with the various individuals, institutions and traditions of Handel’s London deserving at least equal billing.

Handel in London shows the composer at the eye of the storm, with royal politics, the political and financial vagaries of running an opera company and the wildly volatile personalities of elite Italian opera singers all swirling about him.

As such, we learn less about Handel the person in Handel in London than we do about the rich contexts in which he worked, the individuals with whom he worked and the notable fruits of his labors. These contexts are hugely important for our understanding of Handel’s role in the history of music.

Handel was, of course, not unique in composing Italian operas – many other composers of his day wrote Italian operas according to the genre’s conventions, within which Handel also worked.

But, in addition to the dramatic and vocal sensitivity he brought to Italian opera, Handel was also able to help the genre take root in England – in the face of criticisms against the performance of foreign-language texts in an English-speaking land, and within ever-shifting high-stakes political and artistic landscapes in the English capital.

What emerges in Handel in London is a fascinating look at how one of the world’s truly great creative geniuses changed music in England, and the world, forever. In this sense, there is an epic sweep to Glover’s book.

Handel in London chronicles episode by episode and in lively prose how Handel brought Italian opera to England and, responding to some of the finest Italian singers of his day, created what remain some of the most important contributions to Italian baroque opera – and how, later in his career, Handel similarly changed the face of oratorio.

To this end, Glover’s study shows Handel in all his artistic versatility, changing tack as financial or political circumstances dictated and, through shrewdness and maybe more than a dash or two of luck, always seeming to end up on top.

When London tastes for Italian opera were seeming to dry up, Handel, as Glover shows us, shifts gears away from opera and devotes the bulk of his energies to composing oratorio, in the process creating nothing short of a masterpiece – Messiah – in that genre, as well.

Other books – for instance, Ellen Harris’ George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014) – can tell you more about who Handel was as a person.

But Glover’s Handel in London will enable you, through a deft and vigorous read, to experience the richness of the contexts of Handel’s London career, to learn about the role Handel played in bringing Italian opera from its birthplace to the English capital and to get to know some of the characters – on and off stage – in Handel’s colorful circle.