With Handel’s “Messiah” at hand once again — the Handel and Haydn Society’s annual performances are Friday through Sunday and Boston Baroque’s follow Dec. 12-13 — it’s worth pausing to consider how much we know about the composer’s life. The answer is: not much, in fact, and astonishingly little for so public a figure. Handel (1685-1759) left almost no correspondence, and precious few clues to his private life.
This is what makes Ellen Harris’s unconventional new biography so valuable. “George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends” (W.W. Norton) follows the lives of a number of the composer’s acquaintances, most of them little-known. The result is an illuminating, refracted portrait of Handel’s previously obscure inner life. The book is structured not chronologically, but as a large-scale fugue, with a series of themes that appear, metamorphose, and interact with one another. Harris, who is Class of 1949 Professor in the music program at MIT, spoke to the Globe from her home in Newton.
Q. Why is it that we know so much less about Handel than many other composers of his time?
A. It’s the lack of documents, obviously. One would have loved to have had a diary or more correspondence. For a man who ran his own opera company and later his own oratorio season, you would have expected there to be an active correspondence, there would have been account books, many things dealing with the kind of work he was doing. None of that survives. We have fewer than 10 letters and they’re all letters from Handel that someone saved. . . . All the music manuscripts were given to his amanuensis, John Christopher Smith, and they were preserved. That’s the godsend — we have all the music, not only Handel’s autograph scores but the performing scores that were copied out by Smith and others. Better that than financial documents.
Q. Was the unusual method in which you tell the story of his life a matter of necessity, because there was so little documentation?
A. I was doing research on Handel’s will, and I realized that we don’t know who these people were to whom he had left monetary gifts; they were referred to in the Handel literature as “mysterious people.” And I really thought that after 300 years, those of us who are really interested in Handel should be finding out who these people were that Handel cared enough about that he left them a bequest in his will. So I began hunting them down. That turned into something enormously exciting. I began to feel like a detective following these individuals.
One document would lead to another and to another — they were all chained together. And slowly a picture began to emerge of these people individually and as a group. They lived in St. George Hanover Square [London], which was Handel’s neighborhood. They went back and forth to each other’s houses. And this to me provided a picture of Handel that I don’t think any of us have seen. It also was revelatory in terms of his music — it became flesh and blood for me, because of these people.
Q. Can you give an example?
A. One of the obvious ones, in terms of culture, is the relation of his operas of the 1720s to the East India Company, and to the role of the directors of the company in trying to put Asian and Eastern and Oriental things in front of their audience because they were trying to vote provisions in the House of Lords, as well as in Commons. . . . The idea [is] that what you’re doing is bringing in luxury items from abroad — that is, opera — to sell to the upper levels of society, just as the East India Company is bringing objects from abroad to sell.
More personally, I think that the friendship of David and Jonathan in [the oratorio] “Saul” becomes enormously moving when you think that Handel’s closest friendships were with Joseph Goupy and James Hunter. And the sense that male friendship was so important and based on virtue rather than comeliness of faith, and the depths of emotion that Handel places in these friendships, both in “Saul” and in “Samson,” at a time when this was critical to his life, was extremely touching to me. It really was working with the friends and their lives that brought all that out to me.
Q. Explain the “fugal” structure of the book.
A. My great difficulty, after accumulating an enormous amount of material, was organizing it. I contemplated doing it simply by decade, and the material didn’t lay out well. Then I contemplated doing it by friend, but that didn’t work either, because it didn’t mesh well with Handel’s life. And I came upon this idea of focusing on specific topics that were really critical to Handel’s life at particular times. Politics — after all he came to England as an informant for Georg Ludwig the Elector at Hannover. . . . And then international trade, and the establishment of the Royal Academy, music at home . . . I began to see that following these topics in Handel’s life would give me the chronology moving forward, but would allow me to focus on specific ways of imagining the period, and bring in all the friends as they come into his life in what seemed a very focused and logical way.
But this involved some overlapping chronology, which I realized had a fugal basis. There would be a theme that would be introduced, and then there would be a new subject, but the other themes would come back. There is a counterpoint throughout the book. And yet I feel very strongly that there is a chronological trajectory moving forward, despite this overlapping.
Q. What’s the picture of the man that emerged at the end of the writing process?
A. I think our image of Handel had been [of] a somewhat pompous man, consorting with kings and queens and the highest aristocracy. I think what comes out of my research instead is a man who has very deep, abiding friendships that last his lifetime — he is still seeing these friends and sharing music with them right through to his last years. When he’s totally blind, these are still the people whose houses he’s going to. He’s a very shrewd man, he had a very clear-cut concept of his career, and he manipulated it beautifully. I take that as a positive; he knew what he wanted and he insisted on it. . . . And then, in addition to these abiding friendships, [there are] his wide-ranging artistic interests, which comes across from his collecting of art and his going to all these art auctions with these people. . . . I think Handel’s music is very visual, and you get a much better sense of that when you see his place in this wider community of art collecting. I don’t think anyone has discussed it in quite that way before.
Q. Because it’s that time of year, any illuminating connection to “Messiah” that emerged from your research?
A. Well, it is a very deeply felt religious work, and I think there is a very strong abiding humanity. “Messiah,” unlike very many of Handel’s works, does not have any characters. It has only soloists. However, the bass part is clearly the judgmental God, whether the Old Testament God in Part I or the God who sits in judgment on the Last Day in Part III. The soprano is clearly the heavenly figure who brings solace and light into the world. The tenor is the Evangelist, as in Bach’s passions. . . . And the alto voice, for me, is the human soul. “He was despised” is perhaps the highlight of that role — the sense of Mary at the Cross. There is a real sense there of the human side of this piece. And Handel makes it human through the alto voice, through the choruses. That is the human voice.