'George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends' weaves an unusual tapestry from the music and friendships of a great composer

Ellen T. Harris uses Handel's music to analyze and contextualize his life and times, concentrating on the composer's interesting, albeit 'less famous' friends.

George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends, by Ellen T. Harris, W. W. Norton & Company, 496 pp.

I think it's fair to say that I didn't quite know what I was getting into when I opened Ellen T. Harris's George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends.

Classical music enthusiasts who see the words "George Fridric Handel" on the cover of a book are likely to anticipate a more or less a straightforward biography of the famed composer of "Music for for the Royal Fireworks," the opera "Alcina," and the oratorio "Messiah" (which includes the famous "Hallelujah" chorus). But in this case, they would be mistaken.

I have the admittedly bad habit of tending to ignore what's after the colon in the title of a biography, which is purely my fault. Still, I think one tends to assume that what comes first in the title of a nonfiction book is the important part. If that is true, the title of "George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends" really should have been "A Life With Friends: George Frideric Handel." Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.

George Frideric Handel was born in Germany in 1685. His father did not want him to be a composer, forbidding any instruments from entering the house. At the age of five, Handel defied his father's wishes by sneaking a clavichord, a small, quiet keyboard instrument into an unused room in their house and practicing in the middle of the night. After his father died, he abandoned the idea of becoming a lawyer and entered into composition full time, later moving to England and becoming one of England's greatest composers. He died in London in 1759.

Harris emphasizes right off the bat that this will not be a traditional biography. She says in the book's introduction that it is structured to imitate a musical form known as a "fugue." By this she means that although Handel's life is a main idea and guiding principle to the narrative, ultimately it is only a cog in a larger historical machine that chugs around him.

A musical fugue works much the same way. In a fugue – one of Handel's favorite musical forms – the main musical theme is introduced by itself, before gradually being taken up and added to by a number of other parts, which then interweave themselves into a greater whole, of which the theme is only a small (but important) part. Harris's stated goal is to apply this musical form to history, using Handel's life as the main theme.

While this is certainly an unusual approach to a biography, the non-traditional structure lends itself fairly well to Handel, due to the fact that there isn't nearly as much information about his personal life as there is about the lives of other great composers.  It's easy for a researcher to find a wealth of material on, say, Richard Wagner's personal political ideas, or on Ludwig van Beethoven's lack of cleanliness. Handel is a more mysterious figure. According to Harris, "it seems as if [Handel] made a deliberate attempt to keep his personal life private."

This is not to say that Handel's life is a complete blank. There are several personal details of his life that are presented in the biography, but by and large, these details come from observations made by his public and his friends. In order to grasp Handel, then, it is important to understand his "less famous" friends. Harris may have set out to do a more conventional biography of Handel initially, but it's no stretch of the imagination to see her becoming so caught up in the stories of his friends that the friends began to overshadow Handel until the "fugue-style" biography became all but necessary. And Handel's friends were more than interesting enough to keep me engaged in the narrative.

The structure of the book works like this: Harris suggests a theme present in Handel's life or music, gives it context, and then shows examples of that theme being played out in life, usually in the lives of Handel's friends, who serve as exemplars of their time period. For example, one section of the book describes the theme of love conquering convention in Handel's earlier operas. Harris delves into the nature of love in the early 1700s in Europe, focusing particularly on the fact that marrying purely for love was frowned upon in that era and decidedly against convention. She then tells the story – within a musical context – of the forced and unhappy marriage of Mary Delaney (a close friend of Handel's as well as a remarkable historical figure in her own right) whose experiences and thoughts relating to the experience may have influenced or been influenced by Handel's music. Harris goes on to give other examples of marriages, happy and unhappy, within a similar context. She then returns to Handel for some speculation on his possible interpretations of marital conventions. With this method, Harris manages to give an intriguing look into the influence of Handel's music and art on those who saw it. It is not so much about Handel as it is about how his music related to and shaped the spirit of the times.

Even though this thematic approach to history would be nothing without Handel, I found myself occasionally wondering where the composer was in all of this. There are parts of the book where Harris goes without mentioning the composer or anything musical for pages on end with no apparent path back to Handel. It's more than taking a break from describing Handel to establish context; rather, Handel is the context for a story that's ultimately not about him. More accurately it's Handel's music that is the context. Since the composer was so good at keeping his personal life secret, Harris relies heavily on ideas in his music, particularly his operas and oratorios, to explain the composer's thoughts and reactions to the world around him.

Overall, I can recommend this book to lovers of history and especially to those with a love of the time period to which Handel belonged. Those who want a straightforward biography of Handel as a composer may wish to look elsewhere. With the incredible revival of interest in Handel's work over the last couple of decades (particularly his operas), I imagine there is a strong demand for more traditional books about his life for beginners. This book is probably best suited to those who already have a fairly good grasp on Handel's life and music.

That said, any reader familiar with Handel's music will find this book a fascinatingly pure application of his music to history. The central theme of Handel's music in relation to history gives readers an overarching sense of the significance of art as a powerful actor in the course of human history. Reading from this perspective, Harris's biography is an interesting, unique, and significant work of nonfiction.

Weston Williams is a Monitor contributor.

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