A lost Handel score is discovered - or is it?

A new recording of a previously unidentified work by Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759), the composer of "Messiah," "Saul," "Israel in Egypt," and other beloved baroque hits, has the music world in a controversy that is nearly too hot to, well, handle.

In March, a manuscript score in the library of London's Royal Academy of Music was identified as that of a previously unknown work by Handel. The 16-minute "Gloria" for soprano and orchestra was found by Prof. Hans Joachim Marx of the University of Hamburg in Germany, in a collection of arias by different hands, including Handel. Experts date the score to about 1707, when Handel left his native Germany for Italy.

The score has been recorded for BIS records (on BIS-CD 1235 or see www.bis.se) and features veteran British singer Emma Kirkby accompanied by the Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra (www.ram.ac.uk).

Yet despite these joyous events, some dissident voices are being heard.

Penelope Rapson, leader of the British music group Fiori Musicali, which gave an early live performance of the "Gloria," finds the piece "a good one and well worth performing," but does not feel it is by Handel. Ms. Rapson explains that "it is curious" that this work should survive in the library of someone from Handel's circle without the composer himself having a copy, as Handel was "meticulous about keeping manuscript copies of his music."

Among other oddities, she notes that "the music lacks the sure touch of Handel. Even early Handel ... has a direction and harmonic drive, which this piece in places lacks. Handel's writing for the voice is more sympathetic." She observes that parts of the "Gloria" "are both ungrateful to sing and lacking in overall harmonic and structural direction."

Other listeners disagree. Curtis Price, a musicologist and Principal of the Royal Academy affirms, "Basically, every Handel expert that I know of believes this to be by Handel because the 'Gloria' includes passages that occur in other Handel works, because the style is right for Handel circa 1707, and because one of the manuscripts in the Royal Academy Library (hitherto overlooked by most scholars) actually attributes the piece to Handel.

"What convinced me, upon first looking through the manuscript several months ago, was the 'Qui Tollis' section. This is vintage Handel, even though he composed it when only 21 or 22!"

Indeed, the "Qui Tollis" movement is reminiscent of the well-known chorus "All We Like Sheep" from "Messiah."

Prof. Michael Talbot, a Handel expert at the University of Liverpool in England, says, "I was convinced of Handel's authorship by the style alone, and information from Professor Marx received since then ... makes me even more certain," Professor Talbot says. "The evidence should convince even the doubters."

The discovery has also opened the field to some energetic Handel bashers, mainly in France, where the disdain for Handel is unlikely to be altered by this new discovery. Eminent Parisian music critic and author Jacques Drillon says that even in Handel's most famous works, the composer was "a baroque version of the Spice Girls...."

Other, less wildly insulting listeners admire the "Gloria" as music, without worrying about who wrote it.

The soloist herself, Ms. Kirkby, agreed to record the "Gloria," she reveals, not because of the Handel attribution, but because the score looked "interesting, varied, and rewarding to sing, not unfamiliar in the context of other Handel church pieces I have sung."

Kirkby says that the piece has individuality and charm, good bravura moments, and, more important, some moments of depth, beauty, and poignancy.

"Everything, in short, that one might expect of a 'Gloria' in the hands of, at the least, a great craftsman," Kirkby says.

Kirkby finds the current controversy "partly amusing, partly regrettable [that] a 16-minute piece of fine music is burdened with the hopes and insecurities of so many people - academics, record companies, even journalists."

If someone manages to prove beyond doubt its authorship, Kirkby won't mind.

"I'll be delighted," she says, "either by the thought that we have one more piece of [his], or, if not, that the real composer will be identified after all this time."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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