Voices from the 18th Century: Mattheson attacks Handel



In his early twenties, George Frideric Handel lived in Hamburg, Germany, and worked at the opera house, where he played in the orchestra—as a violinist and as a harpsichordist. He also composed music for some of its productions.

Like any collaboration, working on an opera can have its tense moments.

Recounted by John Mainwaring in 1760, Handel found himself in the middle of a power struggle with his colleague Johann Mattheson, who had seniority at the opera and deserved the “first place.”

“…and [Mattheson], to whom the first place seemed of course to be due, was constrained to yield it to his stripling competitor. But how much he felt the indignity, may be guessed from the nature and degree of his resentment; more suited to the glowing temper of an Italian, than to the phlegmatic constitution of a German: For, determined to make Handel pay dear for his priority, he stifled his rage for the present, only to wait an opportunity of giving it full vent.

As they were coming out of the orchestra, he made a push at him with a sword, which being aimed full at his heart, would forever have removed him from the office he had usurped, but for the friendly Score, which he accidentally carried in his bosom; and through which to have forced it, would have demanded all the might of Ajax himself.

Had this happened in the early ages, not a mortal but would have been persuaded that Apollo himself had interposed to preserve him, in the form of a music-book.

From the circumstances which are related of this affair, it has more the appearance of a assassination, than of a rencounter: if the latter, one of Handel’s years might well be wanting in the courage, or the skill to defend himself: if the former, supposing him capable of making a defense, he could not be prepared for it.

How many great men, in the very dawning of their glory, have been planted, like him, on the very verge of destruction; as if Fortune, jealous of Nature, made a show of sacrificing her noblest productions only to remind her of that supremacy to which she aspires!”

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