Handel wrote over 100 cantatas, compositions for voice and instruments that describe the joy and pain of love. In Handel as Orpheus, the first comprehensive study of the cantatas, Ellen Harris investigates their place in Handel's life as well as their extraordinary beauty.
The cantatas were written between 1706 and 1723--from the time Handel left his home in Germany, through the years he spent in Florence and Rome, and into the early part of his London career. In this period he lived as a guest in aristocratic homes, and composed these chamber works for his patrons and hosts, primarily for private entertainments. In both Italy and England his patrons moved in circles in which same-sex desire was commonplace--a fact that is not without significance, Harris reveals, for the cantatas exhibit a clear homosexual subtext.
Addressing questions about style and form, dating, the relation of music to text, rhythmic and tonal devices, and voicing, Handel as Orpheus is an invaluable resource for the study and enjoyment of the cantatas, which have too long been neglected. This innovative study brings greater understanding of Handel, especially his development as a composer, and new insight into the role of sexuality in artistic expression.
This book deserves triple applause: first for revealing a shockingly neglected portion of Handel repertoire--nearly a hundred cantatas, almost all overlooked--secondly for opening the door to the social and sexual context of this writing, and revealing, if not Handel's private life, at least the surrounding atmosphere and mores of his aristocratic patrons; and thirdly for enlivening it with the true enthusiasm of a musician as well as a musicologist.
In this soberly provocative study, Ellen Harris compels us to rethink how we understand the relation between sexuality and the music of one of the most significant composers in the Western classical tradition. Handel as Orpheus is exciting.
A remarkable achievement. Handel as Orpheus is a thorough study of Handel's chamber cantatas that situates the works within their social and cultural context. Handel's cantatas are arguably his most important works from the point of view of his development as a composer. Harris shows how Handel's stylistic development can be viewed in terms of his changing response to the ideas and interests of his patrons.
Harris has written numerous scholarly studies on Handel's music. Here, she restricts herself to a discussion of his chamber cantatas from a social point of view, exposing the exclusive and secret homosexual society in which they were created...Though well written and extremely interesting, this study is not for the casual reader; it includes extensive musical and textual analysis and requires some background in 18th-century social and music history. Suitable for large public and academic libraries.
Could George Frideric Handel have been gay? And if so, what, if anything, would that tell us about the music he wrote? These questions--equally challenging in their respective ways--have been around for a while, generally at the fringes of musical scholarship. Now they have been raised with fresh urgency by a provocative new book, Handel as Orpheus.
[T]his book is both the first comprehensive musicological study of Handel's cantatas and a homosexual interpretation of their texts and music, reflecting the same-sex activities of the aristocratic circles in which Handel worked...Offering a well-rounded view of the cantatas, she presents a thoroughly documented case for interpreting the encoding and restraint used to veil same-sex meanings, while meticulously presenting alternative or multiple interpretations and other historical information.
At the core of Handel as Orpheus is a study of Handel's continuo and instrumental cantatas, a subject Ellen Harris embarked on over 25 years ago. Marshalling the results of archival and manuscript research as well as her own musical and literary analyses, Harris offers a contextual interpretation of the cantatas and their musical development; grouping Handel's cantatas by time and place of composition, she explores the characteristics of each period.
A comfortingly humane work of scholarship. The topic of Handel's sexuality--very much germane to the Italian cantatas that are Ms. Harris's principle concern--is addressed with candor and sympathy. We come closer to the composer, partly by feeling the shape of doubt.
Ellen Harris demonstrates in this magnificent book how, on the one hand, not all the meanings of texts will submit to the authors' control (this I had expected), but also, on the other, how a meaning imparted by an author may be "true to life" insofar as it is concealed. This I had not expected to work so well: to have traced the author's voice in his musical as well as his biographical silences is an achievement for which Ellen Harris should be envied.
- 2003, Winner of the Louis Gottschalk Prize
- 448 pages
- 1-1/8 x 6-3/8 x 9-11/16 inches
- Harvard University Press
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