The Deconstruction of a Myth

The Deconstruction of a Myth


A writer’s perspectives on Handel’s life

An Essay

started on 14 April 2016

As a writer I try to imagine my characters’ lives from an every-day perspective that then expands to embrace basic feelings such as love, fear, and anger, feelings that in the arts of the Baroque age played such a vital role. One of the major characters in my stories and in my current play is Georg Friedrich Händel or Georgio Friderico Hendel or George Frideric Handel. As he is such a major artist of the above-mentioned epoch I feel that it would be of interest for you, the readers of this essay, if I share my thoughts about the way his life is presented to the public today and how I approach my story telling.

From a writer’s perspective the lack of information about Handel’s private life is striking and intriguing. Numerous letters that must have existed apparently disappeared in flames. Those few letters that we have give only a tiny (but inspiring) glimpse of Handel’s personality. Other contemporary (that is 17th and 18th century) material is necessary to create a whole and round personality in my imagination. Of course, projections take place. Nobody can avoid it and if you have so few autobiographic material, even more.1

Since I do not want to fight with the various biographers’ projections and since the writing process is very personal I tend to avoid reading Handel biographies and keep my information impact to primary sources. Therefore I’m very happy that all mostly relevant primary sources have been collected now, which is an immense help. Thank you, Donald Burrows, Helen Coffey, John Greenacombe, Anthony Hicks!2

However, one biography cannot be avoided by me, but needs to be treated with caution and this is Mainwearing’s work on the life of Handel. With caution I mean that we have to keep in mind that his primary aim was not to tell the truth as we in the 20th and 21st century expect. His biography meets certain standards of artists’ biography going back to the 17th, such as a story about parental opposition to a young artist’s inclination.3 The idea of Handel as a genius is the underlying base of his biography and to create this image he has no problems creating fictional legends and anecdotes which lack plausibility and common sense. Yet not all is invented. Mainwearing did interview Handel and there is certainly authenticity here and there, but covered by 18th century fiction. Later on I will give an example how inspiringly authentic material can emerge, if it is combined with factual primary sources.

Mainwearing created a myth of Handel, a written monument,4 which in our times, 300 years later, is still revered by the general public, still told in museums, concert programmes and books. Surprising. There seems to be no wish to see and present Handel as a highly complex person beyond the genius myth. Things have, however, been changing among musicologists, that is among experts on music theory and history, and even among not musically related researchers. In recent years works have come out that try to show Handel from different perspectives and historical research has been going on to show the complex cultural contexts in which he lived his life. A very recent example for this is Julia Semmer’s work on Handel.5 She approaches his life not only from a musicologist’s point of view, but from a cultural perspective as well.

However, for academic researchers those above-mentioned gaps in Handel’s life pose a problem nevertheless. It is difficult to keep oneself from projections and the fewer information we have, the more we speculate. Unfortunately, speculations are a danger in scientific fact-based approaches and due to the immense status and authority academic researchers have speculations can quickly turn into facts as far as the general public is concerned.6

In writing fiction speculations are allowed. I turn them into bridges of imagination that connect the facts and by doing so I may create a more complete picture of Handel’s life enabling me to perhaps achieve an inner truth (or not – every reader may judge this for herself/himself), but in any case it is more lively than the mythical monument that currently makes the round. It is, however, essential to define which speculations took place and therefore I would like to propose a new kind of book: fictional stories first, followed by little texts explaining what is fact in them and what speculation.

The other problem of the academic approach is the necessity to prove everything with documents. In its abstraction music cannot be so easily used for autobiographic interpretations as novels or poems by writers and so the current music interpretation seems to rarely establish a connection between Handel’s personal life and the emotions evoked by his music,7 while biographers focus on those periods of his life that are well documented. This leads to a distortion, as the gap years and periods in Handel’s early life are as meaningful as the later period in England which is well documented by letters and other sources.

To express an accurate life story I think it is important to identify certain continuities that need to be emphasised and that need to serve as starting point for every perspective from which we look at a person’s life. For Handel’s life I would like to suggest three continuous aspects that connect all my stories and are inseparably intertwined:

  1. A passionate and existential commitment to dramatic music forms, especially the opera and the cantata (and in its miniature form the chamber duet), and also the oratorio.

Dramatic music forms always include connections to other art forms.8 This means that cooperation with those representing other art forms was a constant in Handel’s life as well.

As a writer I also ask myself how this commitment has developed and when and where it had its origins.

  1. A complex inner conflict created by various group identities (becoming apparent in roles with different expectations) and a strong personal identity; here I would like to name three vital group identities:

– Handel, the musician and composer (professional identity)

– Handel, the foreigner (cultural identities)

– Handel, the Protestant (religious identity)

There is a tendency to look at Handel’s life and works in terms of the countries he lived in, so we hear about the Italian Handel or the later the English Handel. These are artificial concepts which do not apply naturally to a person’s life. Handel’s three “national” identities were all part of his adult life and all at once (as soon as he arrived in England), but with various proportions in different life phases.

  1. Lifelong friendships and cooperative relationships, which are hardly documented by letters and sources, but certainly had an enormous impact on Handel’s life. I would like to mention three friends and colleagues who stand for others: fellow composer Georg Philipp Telemann, singer Margherita Durastante and also violinist Pietro Castrucci.

In her Handel biography “George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends”, Ellen T. Harris9 mentions Telemann as a lifelong friend, but then only mentions him briefly several times in her entire book. Almost the same goes for Durastante, while Castrucci is not mentioned at all. I will try to perceive Handel’s life more in parallel to the lives of his closest friends and colleagues from Germany, Italy, and Britain and elsewhere equally in order to paint a balanced and accurate mental tapestry of his life in my imagination.

As I research the life and career of Margherita Durastante I would like to illustrate the above-mentioned points in focusing on her role in Handel’s life. Durastante got to know the young Handel very early during his Italian sojourn, that is in 1706, and soon they were working for the same patron, Marchese Ruspoli, in Rome. His task was to compose cantatas and to accompany her singing at regular meetings of Ruspoli’s friends called conversazioni. They even provided musical entertainment at Ruspoli’s countryside estates, that is in Cerveteri, Civitavecchia and Vignanello.10

Ruspoli’s accounting books show their expenses listed under each other revealing that both consumed a lot of wine and food delicacies.11 Thus, with interruptions, they work together for almost two years (until mid-1708 or so) and he also composes the Easter oratorio “La Resurrezione” with her as Maria Maddalena. In 1709 composer Caldara replaces Handel at Ruspoli’s court, while the latter gets a commission for an opera in Venice. There is an early cast list with Elena Croce in the title role, but eventually it is Durastante – surprise or not – who leaves her well-paid job at Ruspoli’s behind to work in Venice and to sing the title role in Handel’s opera ”Agrippina”.

Nine years later they see each other again in Dresden in June 1719. Handel is looking for singers to work for the newly founded opera company London and his first choice is Durastante, but there are problems with her contract and so he stays in Dresden until December, when the contract for her arrives eventually. They work together in London from 1720 to 1724 (interrupted by Durastante’s absence in the season of 1721/1722) and their collaboration results in several famous arias, such as Vieni, o figlio, e mi consola (in Ottone) or L’angue offeso mai riposa (in Giulio Cesare). Durastante then leaves London to reappear in 1733 for one season, when Handel has been deserted by the majority of singers. At this point she has been knowing Handel for almost 30 years, as long as no other singer who worked with him.

From this alone it seems likely that their relationship went beyond a professional cooperation. It is surprising that only few biographers see this, among them Jonathan Keates:

The two of them were much in each other’s company during this Roman spring and summer, and it is not inconceivable that their relationship was more than merely professional, though documents are silent on any such liaison.“12

There might be no documents now (letters were, especially if they had a love relationship, most probably burned), but Handel’s music tells us of their relationship. He composed numerous cantatas13 tailor-made for her vocal and musical abilities and later in his life kept coming back and re-using his Italian material for his London works. I would, however, like to give two more specific examples. In the above-mentioned oratorio “La Resurrezione“ Handel composed the catchy and Corelli-inspired aria “Ho un non so che nel cor“ for Durastante in 1708. When it turned out that Durastante would sing Agrippina in Venice and not Croce he included this aria in his score, specially for her, as it seems. The aria became a “hit“ and was soon heard in England. Handel included the aria in his opera “Il Pastor fido“ in 1712 (while he might have missed his colleague from Italy he certainly wanted to cash in from the aria’s success, too) for the character of Dorinda. 22 years later, when Durastante came to London for the last time, Handel revived “Il Pastor fido“, but rearranged the arias so that Durastante, who sang Eurilla, got “Ho un non so che nel cor“ to sing again. Nostalgia for sure and it seems to have been romantic nostalgia. If you are not convinced, here comes the second example. At the end of her first season in England Durastante had a benefit concert and one of the cantatas she sang was composed by Handel (they certainly remembered old times): “Crudel Tiranno Amor. It is about a woman who longs for her lover to come back and is comforted by hope that it will happen one day. After that concert Durastante returned to Italy14 and came back only one year later. While she was on her way back Handel composed a new opera, “Floridante“, with a role tailor-made for Durastante’s voice and acting abilities. He refused to re-compose arias for her replacement, which caused considerable complaint. I will not go into detail here, but the circumstances of this opera are very interesting and will certainly be subject of a future essay. In any case, “Floridante“ was revived when Durastante was back and Handel integrated all three arias of the cantata “Crudel Tiranno Amor“ in his updated score so that she could sing them in her new role (not the one Handel intended for her in the first place). There is even more to one of the arias from “Crudel Tiranno Amor“. The melody of the aria expressing the woman’s hope to see her lover, “Dolce mia speranza“, features as “alla siciliana” in Handel’s recorder sonata in F major (HWV 369)15 and in the organ concerto opus 4, No. 5 (HWV 293). The first two arias of the cantata loosely echo in the andante part of the recorder sonata in D minor (HWV 367a) as well, and the entire cantata appears again in 1737/38 in a neatly-written score in Handel’s handwriting found in Munich in 2006.16 These are all strong indicators that Handel was romantically attached to this cantata, but a final proof in form of a non-musical document can of course not be given.

The facts described above make it very likely that Durastante played a major role not only in Handel’s professional but also in his private life, but she remains relatively unknown and tends to feature only marginally in Handel biographies (with exceptions to the rule). What are the reasons? Well, in the imagination of musicologists (not necessarily in real life 300 years ago!) she had and still has a very strong rival: Vittoria. In 18th century sources this lady has no surname. Let’s quote the three sources in which Vittoria is connected to Handel:

Mainwearing, John: Memoirs of the Life of Late George Frederic Handel, London 1760 p. 50 and p. 53:

Vittoria, who was much admired both as an Actress, and a Singer, bore a principal part in this Opera.17 She was a fine woman and had for some time been much in the good graces of his Serene Highness. But from the natural restlessness of certain hearts, so little sensible was she of her exalted situation that she conceived a design of transferring her affections to another person. Handel’s youth and comeliness, joined with his fame and abilities in Music, had made impressions on her heart. Though she had the art to conceal them for the present, she had not perhaps the power, certainly not the intention, to efface them.”

This Opera drew over all the best singers from other houses. Among the foremost of these was the famous Vittoria, who a little before Handel‘s removal to Venice had obtained permission of the grand Duke to sing in one of the houses there. At Agrippina her inclinations gave new lustre to her talents. Handel seemed almost as great and majestic as Apollo, and it was far from the lady’s intention to be so cruel and obstinate as Daphne.”

Electress Sophia of Hanover to Sophia Dorothea, Princess Royal of Prussia

A Herenhausen le 14 de juin 171018:

…que L’Electeur a pris un maitre de chapelle qui sappelle Hendel qui ioue a mervelle du Clavesin dont de Prince et la Princesse Electorale on beaucoup de ioye, il est assez bel homme et la medisance dit qu’il a este amant de la Victoria.”

From “a list of names of the family, guests and staff at Vignanello in May/June 1707”:19

A fu 18 Maggio 1707

Villeggiatura di Vignanello

Sig[no]ra Margherita

Sig[no]ra Vittoria


For the average 18th century reader, who did not have the means to travel abroad, Mainwearing’s Vittoria was a distant and therefore slightly exotic lady (there was no Italian singer with the name Vittoria in London), a character that invites the reader to dream himself/herself away to Italy, to imagine the most beautiful singer in lush landscapes and to admire Handel that he could win her favours, although she was in an “exalted situation”.

If we read this text against facts it becomes clear that Vittoria is not one lady, but in fact two. There is on the one hand the singer in the service of Duke Ferdinando de Medici and wife of composer Jean-Baptiste Farinel, Vittoria Tarquini who was called La Bombace.20 She had her stage debut in the 1680s, sang at the court of Hanover in the early 1690s and was afterwards the prima donna in Naples, starring with Nicolini, singing in operas by Alessandro Scarlatti, before said Ferdinando invited her to sing at his court around 1700. In 1707 she did not sing in Handel’s opera “Rodrigo”, which was staged in Teatro di Cocomero,21 but in Pratolino, at the court of Ferdinando, to which Handel needed a letter of introduction.22 With this first false information it becomes clear that Mainwearing is not a reliable source. In his second mention of Vittoria he introduces the singer of the title role in Handel’s opera “Agrippina” under a false name. We today know that this singer was in fact Margherita Durastante, who was known to be a good actress as well.23 She needed Prince Ruspoli’s permission to go to Venice, as she was employed by him receiving such a generous monthly payment and enjoying such privileges that she was also in an “exalted situation”. Mainwearing presents her move to Venice as a proof of love defying the Daphne impulse in her. As Handel composed the cantata “Apollo e Dafne” at the very time of the opera, this information might be from Handel himself.24

Harris understands the first passage from Mainwearing as a reference to the dangers such a liaison might have had for both of them because Tarquini was Duke Ferdinando’s mistress.25 Considering Tarquini’s age – she must have been about 40 in 1708, if not older, and was approaching the end of her career, also as the Duke’s mistress– it was rather damaging for Handel’s reputation only.26 In fact, this is what Electress Sophia of Hanover means when she writes about the bitching that went on at the Hanover court. There was obviously a number of people envying the young successful composer and therefore they gossiped about a relationship between him, the handsome young man, and the aging opera singer they all remembered from the time when she was young. Vicious gossip may have also derived from the fact that Handel replaced Tarquini’s husband Farinel in Hanover. Those gossiping were probably implying that Handel replaced his older colleague not only professionally, but also in more private matters.27

In Vignanello near Rome, the two singers, who are merged into one by Mainwearing, were together with Handel28 and we can only speculate what happened in that spring 1707. In any case, Durastante was victorious, as Handel was obviously very interested in working with her again in London. Also, her appearance in “Agrippina” was certainly, as Mainwearing confirms, understood by contemporaries as a demonstration of her affection for Handel. Relationships between composers and singers were anticipated by the public, quite common and often resulted in marriages.29 Harris describes in her book how difficult it was for composers and musicians to find a match with a young woman of good reputation, as fathers refused to marry off their daughters to unstable artists. All this was even more complicated, if they were foreigners like Handel.30 It was, however, no problem for composers to marry singers, who as “theatrical folk” had a rather dubious reputation as well. Almost all composer colleagues of Handel were, if not priests or monks, married to a singer or actor:

Composer: married to:

Tomaso Albinoni

Margherita Raimondi, singer

Johann Sebastian Bach

Anna Magdalena Wilcke, singer (second marriage)

Giovanni Bononcini

Margherita Balletti, dancer and actor

Antonio Caldara

Caterina Petrolli, singer

Johann Adolph Hasse

Faustina Bordoni, singer

Antonio Lotti

Santa Stella, singer

Johann Christoph Pepusch

Margherita de l’Epine, singer (former lover of composer and musician Johann Jakob Greber )

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Marie-Louise Mangot, singer and musician

Pietro G. Sandoni

Francesca Cuzzoni, singer

I could not find any definite information about Alessandro Scarlatti’s wife Antonia Anzaleone. But she may well have come from a family with musical background, as Scarlatti senior surrounded himself with musical folk.31 Handel’s friend Telemann first married a composer’s daughter, the court lady Amalie Louise Juliane Eberlin and after her death married down the social ladder: the marriage with Maria Catharina Textor, daughter of a council clerk, proved to be an unhappy one and ended in a separation.

Considering the marriage conventions above and Handel’s obvious musical devotion to La Durastante, the last question to be discussed here is why she did not become Madama Hendel. For their London years the answer is straightforward: Durastante was married to someone else. However, as to Handel’s Italian soujourn, things are more complex, as she seemed not to have had a husband then.32 At this point Handel’s religious identity seemed to have played a significant role. A marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic was an impossibility in the 18th century, as there was no chance of them to make a living (this seemed difficult enough without religious impediments). Hence, one of them would have had to convert to the other’s faith. For Durastante this step must have looked like the end of her career (as the field of her professional activities would have been restricted to North European courts and fully dependent on Handel’s career, which would perhaps have been hampered as well) with no return to the country of her birth and upbringing. No wonder she felt dismissive as Daphne at these prospects. The other way round seemed the more promising solution and Mainwearing indeed mentions attempts of converting Handel to the Catholic faith.33 In the table above we have one composer who did exactly this: converting to Catholicism and then marrying his Italian singer. I think you have already guessed that I mean Johann Adolph Hasse, the other celebrated Sassone, called Il Divino Sassone. Handel’s nickname Il Caro Sassone might have been coined specifically for Mainwearing’s biography, because Handel felt challenged by the younger colleague. Hasse was in some ways Handel’s magic mirror, showing him what his life could have been. Unlike Hasse, however, Handel decided to stay faithful to his Protestant origins and this remarkable decision and its consequences are at the core of all my stories and plays featuring him.

One last word about the secrecy in Handel’s life. It is, according to my opinion, related to politics, that is the delicate nature of patronage and the volatile political situation in Britain, marked by the gulf between the Georgians, the supporters of the Hanoverian kings (whose music life was rather linked to Florence and Modena), and the Stuart supporters, who wanted to establish a “true” English king (they connected more to the music scene in Rome, it seems – Burlington, for example, invited Rolli from Rome to London), and also by quarrels within the Royal family from Hanover. Handel was obliged to George II and his wife, Queen Caroline, as they were his patrons, but, as it seems, loved and/or was loved by a musically talented woman from Rome, Margherita Durastante, la cantarina romana. 34 She will feature in my next essay…

1Even if there is a lot of autobiographic material, as in the case of the writer Kafka (the other artist whose life I have studied extensively), projections are very common.

2Donald Burrows, Helen Coffey, John Greenacombe, Anthony Hicks: George Frideric Handel, Collected Documents, Cambridge, 2015. Factual information in this essay is based on this work, if not stated otherwise.

3Cf. Dabbs, K. Julia, Life Stories of Women Artists, Farnham, 2009, p. 118ff. Dabbs quotes Kriz and Kurz, who have studied life stories of male artists (Kris and Kurz: Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist, 1934, New Haven/London, 1979).

4Ellen T. Harris speaks of Handel’s “sanctification“ in her biography: George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends, New York, 2014, p. 157/158

5Semmer, Julia: Ein Hallenser in London, Hasenverlag, Halle (Saale), 2016

6Without any source indication Kirkendale for example suggested that Handel’s motteto Donna, che in ciel“ was performed in Rome at the anniversary of the 1703 earthquake and now many think this is a fact. Cf. Burrows, Coffey, Greenacombe, Hicks, p.78/79

7The libretti texts are highly standardised and thus make it difficult to use the autobiographic method.

8The totality of the arts is in particular apparent in the opera and this is the music form that Handel was most devoted to in terms of quantity.

9Cf. Harris, p. 21.

10Cf. Burrows, Coffey, Greenacombe, Hicks, p. 82

11 Additionally, also the serenata “Clori, Tirsi and Fileno” with her most probably singing the female role.

12Jonathan Keates: Handel: The Man & His Music, London, 2009, p. 33, and also p.16.

13There are about 100 of them, some still waiting to be recorded.

14The reasons for her return are mysterious. The official reason was illness, but it may have been a pregnancy as well.

15This recorder sonata goes back to Italian or post-Italian times (1706-1712), see:

It might be that the lyrics of the respective aria were written to fit the melody.

16In the estate of Heinrich von Riehl a new version of this canata, for a singing voice and keyboard (with optional additional instruments), hand-written by Handel after his stroke, was found in 2006. Cf.

17This refers to Handel’s first Italian opera Rodrigo“ or Vincer se stesso è la maggior vittoria“ in autumn 1707.


The English translation on this website is, however, misleading. It should be translated as he has been the lover/favourite of Victoria. Also, “medisance“ is not just gossip, it means “bitching“, a very negative expression.

19Cf. Burrows, Coffey, Greenacombe, Hick, p. 92.

20It is interesing to see how Mainwearing’s myth of Vittoria still catches the imagination of biographers. Jonathan Keates imagines Tarquini as a singer who possibly could have had “flossy blond hair“ because her nickname was La Bombagia“, cf. Keates, p. 34. It was actually “La Bombace“, but in the chronicle telling the life of Ferdinando di Medici (cf. Pagano, Roberto: Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Hillsdale, 2006, p. 55) her nickname is obviously changed to mythologise her and her alleged beauty. For Tarquini’s life see:

21Cf. Burrows, Coffey, Greenacombe, Hick, p. 109.

22Cf. Burrows, Coffey, Greenacombe, Hick, p. 109/110.

23Cf. Lindgren: “Musicians and Librettists in the Correspondance of Gio. Giacomo Zamboni” in Research Chronicle, London 1991, p.33. In his reference for Durastante the Dresden librettist Pallavicini praises her acting abilities as exellent.

24Ruspoli, Handel’s main patron in Rome, is not mentioned in the Mainwaering memoirs. It seems that Handel and/or Mainwearing wanted to keep this connection and therefore also his relationship to Durastante a secret. Hence pseudonyms may have been used. Durastante had also earlier served a Duke Ferdinando, not de Medici, but Gonzaga, as she had been “Virtuosa e Serva Attuale” di Ferdinando Carlo Gonzaga in Mantua around 1700 (cf. Besutti, Paola: La Corte Musicale di Ferdinando Carlo Gonzaga Ultimo Duca di Mantova, Mantova, 1989, p. 84).

25Cf. Harris, p. 157/158

26 Probably Tarquini could afford to be “little sensible”, while for Durastante the move to Venice may have had repercussions for her immediate career. She remained prima donna at the Teatro San Grisostomo in Venice after Handel left Italy, but was replaced a year later by Lotti’s future wife Santa Stella. Durastante, however, continued as a member of the theatre’s troupe and also returned to sing for Ruspoli, however, with a much lower monthly income.

27Cf. Thielen, Hugo: „FARINEL(LY), Jean-Baptiste“, in: Hannoversches Biographisches Lexikon, Hannover 2002, S. 115.

28Kirkendale identified “Signora Vittoria“ as Tarquini. Cf. Burrows, Coffey, Greenacombe, Hick, p. 93

29An example for this is the interest of the librettist Rolli and the diplomat Riva in the love life of Pietro Sandoni, cf. Lindgren, p. 30 and 35 and cf. Burrows, Coffey, Greenacombe, Hick, p. 442/443.

30Cf. Harris, p. 158. An example is Handel’s colleagues Thomas Roseingrave, who had mental problems after the father of his beloved lady refused to give his permission for their marriage. For the bad reputation of theatre people, including Handel, of course, see Lindgren, p. 59. In a letter to the diplomat Riva the doctor Chocchi expresses his dislike for the “gente teatrale”, who according to him have no manners.

31Cf. Pagano, p. 3: his best man was a singer.

32 It is not known yet, when Durastante married and it is not clear, if it can ever be established. As her husband, Casimiro Avelloni, may have been a nobleman (a count) there is the possibility that their marriage was not legal. The marriage between female composer Rosanna Scalfi Marcello, a commoner, and Benedetto Marcello, a nobleman, for example was not legally recognised. Cf.

34Cf. Besutti, p. 84. Besutti quotes the first reference to Durastante we have – a travel permission assigned alla cantante romana“ from Venice/Mantua. In the Ruspoli account books Durastante is referred to as La Canterina“, the female singer.

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