Reviewed Elsewhere: David Hunter, The Lives of George Frideric Handel.

Michael Berkowitz's picture
David Hunter. The Lives of George Frideric Handel. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015. xvii + 515 pp. £39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-061-3.
 
This substantial volume incorporates material from David Hunter’s numerous published articles and scholarly papers produced over the last two decades. The result is a work of impressive bibliographical control, in which sensitive and sometimes controversial topics are probed in the quest to ‘evaluate thoroughly the familiar, even over-familiar, story of Handel’s life’ (11). The author does more than merely scrutinize older biographies for accuracy and update them with fresh evidence and interpretations in order to construct a new ‘life’ of the composer, however. He also raises wider questions about the concept of biography itself, particularly how earlier ‘lives’ of Handel were constructed and disseminated, and how these historically contingent documents have fashioned our perceptions of him ever since. ...
 
Hunter takes a refreshing perspective on a number of issues, including the reasons for Handel’s so-called ‘oratorio turn’, that is, his move away from Italian opera in the late 1730s. Dissenting from previous views, he attributes this change of tack to the composer’s ill health at the time, an explanation I find quite convincing without wishing wholly to discount the influence of other factors. ...
 
As a work of scholarship, this book will be most valuable for readers who are already familiar with Handel biography and know that the arguments rehearsed therein represent the sometimes contentious views of its author. Since there is little by way of musical analysis, the text may be useful to a wider readership as a reference book, particularly for discussions of the social-historical environment in which Handel lived and worked. ... the author has set himself a laudable but difficult task: ‘to distinguish fact from fiction’ (1) and expose the myths surrounding Handel’s life for what they are. Unfortunately, so much speculation and suspect reasoning is applied in the process that he is in danger of replacing the old myths with new ones of his own.