The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia
Edited by Annette Landgraf & David Vickers
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. £120, 844 pp.
Reviewed by Pierre Degott
Université Paul Verlaine (Metz)
The year 2009, the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, saw the publication of The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia, edited by Annette Landgraf and David Vickers. One need not expatiate here on the particularly opportune nature of this tribute, obviously meant to celebrate the most popular “European” composer of his time, a man born in Saxony and trained in Italy but whose career mainly developed in England, the country of which he was to become a citizen as early as 1727. The recent rediscovery of Handel’s work, of which only a few “blockbusters” such as Messiah, Water Music, or Royal Fireworks had remained in the staple repertory until the first half of the twentieth century, has naturally led to a renewal in public interest and academic scholarship.
The present volume is thus the first compendium to gather the full range of present knowledge about one of the most influential composers of his time. It contains 716 extensive, well-documented and usually illuminating entries, written by 88 international scholars, some of whom are among the leading Handel specialists of the day. No stone seems to have been left unturned, including the little-known aspects of the composer’s life and personality. The result is an amazingly comprehensive A-Z dictionary giving insight into every single aspect of Handel’s life and work and covering virtually all areas of Handelian scholarship. Entries range from places, venues and people to, no doubt more importantly, the musical works themselves – concisely, but always pertinently analysed –, not to forget most of the current aesthetic issues directly or indirectly related to them. Far from dealing with only the background and contexts of Handel’s musical pieces, the volume offers a fascinating spectrum of the major aspects of eighteenth-century European cultural life, from the military to the architectural, from the artistic to the political, from the geographical to the historical. Each entry contains its own bibliographical data; leaving the reader with the possibility of enlarging his own vision by consulting further appropriate material.
That being said, it would be misleading to regard this volume as a mere digest of current Handel scholarship. Indeed, it is also teeming with well-researched new information and ideas, particularly in the still unexplored fields of Handelian knowledge such as iconography and the composer’s recently rediscovered pasticcio works. New information is also provided on venues and cities, on types of audience and, generally speaking, on reception. The book also tries to clarify a few uncertainties about those musical pieces whose attribution or circumstances have somehow remained mysterious, and for which some of the various entries provide valid and well-grounded speculation. As such, the book testifies to the far-reaching and wide-ranging aspects of Handelian scholarship, a universe in perpetual evolution.
Among the precious appendices, some will be found more useful than others. The catalogue of works, which follows the order and classification of the recent HHA (Hallische Händel-Ausgabe) edition, is thus a welcome addition to the volume, but one may wonder at the relevance of including such an extensive version of the composer’s family tree... More subjective, perhaps, is the overview of distinguished Handel performers of the last fifty years, not only because such a selection is bound to become soon outdated, but also because it seems unfair to have left aside certain “pioneers” of previous decades such as, to name but a few, Richard Lewis, Alexander Young, Heather Harper, Sheila Armstrong or Teresa Stich-Randal. A welcome inclusion might have been a selection of entries on some of the leading Handelian critics and scholars of the past, with a few words on their academic records and achievements.
All in all, these are very minor omissions considering the amount of inspiration that this elegantly written volume, an endless source of Handelian lore for many generations to come, will no doubt bring not only Handel students, scholars and performers, but also the music-loving public in general and to anyone who has a particular interest in eighteenth-century life and studies.
Cercles © 2010