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"A man who seeks truth and loves it must be reckoned precious to any human society."

- Frederick the Great

Thursday 28 July 2011

Music Lessons with Mr Handel

Last week I was on assignment for MI6 in Syria, a very unpleasant affair indeed.  When I returned, my human friend Brian began asking questions about the business of international espionage, as he is a great fan of spy movies and was wondering if the reality is anything like the fiction.  Since MI6 doesn’t take kindly to their secrets being revealed to outsiders, however, I politely refused to go into detail, except to say that spying in repressive dictatorships is always a risky undertaking, even for a werewolf.

“Of course I understand that you can’t say anything about your current assignments,” said Brian, “but surely you can tell me something about your experiences in the past, spying for William Pitt and Frederick the Great, for example.  They’ve been dead long enough that they shouldn’t mind.”

“That’s a good point,” I agreed.  “Very well, it won’t hurt to tell you a few things.  First of all, the most important principle of espionage – whether in the eighteenth century or the present day – is to have a good cover.  It’s much easier to hide in plain sight, behind a profession or activity which arouses no suspicion, than to fight your way out after being discovered.”

“Yes, I’m familiar with the principle from watching Alias,” said Brian.  “So you were the Sydney Bristow of the eighteenth century?  You do faintly resemble Jennifer Garner…”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.  Unlike your television heroine, however, I only used one cover during all my years of service as ‘private correspondent’ to Pitt and the Prussians.  My profession was that of a travelling harpsichord virtuoso, which gave me access to the highest circles of the nobility.  Invitations came from all the royal courts, and naturally I used my concert appearances to gather intelligence about the goings-on behind closed doors in the great European palaces of state.  No-one ever suspected me – ‘a mere woman’, as Frederick the Great often said – of political and military espionage.”

“But weren’t musicians generally regarded as servants in those days?  How did you gain acceptance at the courts of kings and emperors?”

“Don’t forget that I was a duchess myself, though the Duchy of Caerfyrddin was rather insignificant by Continental standards.  In addition to my title, I also had impeccable credentials as a musician, since I had studied with Mr Handel in my youth.”

“Handel was your teacher?”  His eyes went wide in astonishment.

“He actually pronounced it Hendel,” I said.  “After all, he was German, even though the English like to believe otherwise.  And yes, I began studying composition with him in 1749, shortly after I arrived in London to live with my aunt.  Handel rarely accepted pupils, so I was very fortunate that he agreed to teach me.”

“This is incredible,” said Brian, “I know several professors of musicology who would give anything to interview you and learn about Handel’s teaching methods.  It could shed new light on his entire creative process…”

“Sorry, but you know the rules.  No interviews and no public appearances.  I’m sure that there are professors in many fields who would love to interview a centuries-old werewolf.  Some would doubtless like to dissect me as well.  But as I’ve told you repeatedly, this little experiment of ours must retain the appearance of fiction.  No-one must ever suspect that I really exist.”

“Well, can you at least tell me something about your studies with Handel?”

“All right, I’ll let you read a passage from my memoirs.  But you must agree not to reveal anything on to your academic friends.  Otherwise, I will have to eat you.”

* * *
London, May 1749 - January 1749/50
My first music lesson with Mr Handel came about a month after the festivities celebrating the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, when his Musick for the Royal Fireworks had been performed for the first time.  I was not quite fourteen at the time, yet despite my lack of formal musical training, I was already a very good harpsichordist.  Since I hoped to become a better one, I went to Mr Handel for instruction in the art of improvisation.  He was intrigued more by my determination than my talent, I think, and agreed to accept me as his pupil.

“Ah, Duchess Llewellyn,” said Handel, as I entered the Composition Room at his house in Brook Street for the first time.  “I have been thinking about your course of study.  You are an intelligent child, it seems, so I think we will only need to spend six months on the foundations of sixteenth-century counterpoint.  Here is something I bought for you, Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, which is an excellent primer on the subject.  You do read Latin, I hope?  If you apply yourself assiduously, you should be able to write a four-part motet in the style of Palestrina by the end of this year.”

I was horrified and began to protest.

“But sir, why must I spend months learning dreary mediaeval counterpoint?  I want to make music, not compose Popish ditties!  Please just teach me how to improvise at the harpsichord.”

“It’s not quite as simple as that, Your Grace.  Let me give you an analogy.  Suppose you wanted to write poetry in Chinese.  How would you go about it?”

“Well, since I cannot speak Chinese, obviously I would have to master the language first, before I could write poetry.  But it’s not the same.  I already know the language of music.”

“Do you?  Please sit at the harpsichord and play for me a chord-progression corresponding to this bass line.” 

He hastily scribbled some notes on a paper and handed it to me.  I had never done anything like this before, but was certain it could not be very difficult, so I asked for the quill that I could notate the appropriate harmonies.  Handel shook his head. 

“Child, you cannot write an improvisation on paper.  And you cannot improvise unless you know the underlying harmonies.  You cannot understand the harmonies without knowing the rules of voice-leading.  And the rules of voice-leading are derived from the study of sixteenth-century counterpoint, which you will learn from Herr Fux.  Quod erat demonstrandum.”

Handel beamed with a pedantic expression reminiscent of Mr Smythe, my old schoolmaster in Wales.  I just stared at him and pouted.

“It won’t be so bad,” he said, patting me on the head as if I were five years old.  “If you progress well enough with the counterpoint, perhaps in the autumn we can begin with thorough-bass.  By next year at this time, you should be a fairly good continuo player.”

I continued to pout.

“Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, I’ll teach you to compose a sonata in the style of Corelli.  Only when you are firm in the art of composition will you be ready to improvise.”

My pout lessened, but I felt very discouraged. 

“Sir, I don’t mean to be difficult, but it’s just that I hadn’t realised how much work would be involved.  I am not sure that I have the patience to do everything which will be required of me.  Is there no easier way?”

“No, my dear, there is not.”

For the next six months, therefore, I was drilled in the foundations of sixteenth-century counterpoint until it was coming out my ears.  Finally, in the autumn of 1749, Mr Handel judged my command of the Palestrina style sufficient that he allowed me to begin the study of thorough-bass, the harmonic basis for all of our modern music.  Though I was still very far from learning to improvise, I held my tongue and did as the Maestro demanded.

As thorough-bass was considerably easier than counterpoint (at least to me), I made rapid progress.  Mr Handel was so pleased that, just before Christmas, he said I was ready to compose my first violin sonata.  To guide my efforts, he gave me a copy of Corelli’s Opus 5, saying that I was to use these works as a template.  He would offer me no additional help during the composition process, but once I had finished the sonata, we would play it together and he would offer his criticism.  I was given four weeks’ time in which to complete the assignment. 

My analysis of the Corelli sonatas revealed that they were constructed entirely according to principles I had already mastered: there was nothing which could not be explained by the rules of counterpoint and thorough-bass.  Therefore, I set about creating something similar, using my own invention of melody and harmony. 

I was very proud of my work.  When the appointed day arrived for me to present it, however, Mr Handel seemed entirely preoccupied with another matter.  He was pacing back and forth between the rooms of his house, looking at the walls and shaking his head.  All the while, he kept repeating “Verdammt, wo kommt es bloß hin?  Das Bild paßt doch nirgendwo...” 

I asked him which picture did not fit on the wall, but Handel only said I should wait and see.  Presently the bell rang, and two porters carrying a very large rectangular crate climbed the stairs.  Hurriedly, space was made on a wall in the sitting room by removing several small pictures, while the labourers set about opening the crate.  After they had laid free the contents, Handel turned to me and pointed to the most extraordinary landscape painting I had ever seen. 

“It’s by Rembrandt van Rijn,” said Handel.  “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of him, but he was without doubt the greatest painter of the Dutch school from the last century.  This has cost me a pretty penny, yet I imagine that in twenty years’ time its worth will have doubled at least.  Ah, but I am forgetting my manners, Lady Llewellyn.  You have come to deliver your own masterpiece today, have you not?” 

Handel motioned that I should accompany him to the Composition Room, where I saw that he had not entirely forgotten me, as his violin lay ready beside the harpsichord.  After the usual ritual of tuning the fiddle, we played through the sonata.  Handel made no comment until we had finished all four movements.

“Your Grace,” he began slowly and in a neutral tone, as if considering how most delicately to convey bad news.  “You have created a remarkably good imitation of Corelli.  Everything is in its proper place.  Your command of the counterpoint and harmony is not to be faulted.  But I have to say that were a machine capable of generating a violin sonata, the results would hardly be much different…”

Since I had thought my sonata to be very good, I felt crushed by his criticism and found myself close to tears.  Seeing my distress, Mr Handel continued in a kinder tone.

“Lady Andronica, please do not take this harshly, for it is not meant so.  As a first effort, I could not have expected more, and indeed this is certainly equal to much of what Corelli’s lesser-talented contemporaries produced.  But where are you to be heard in this music?  Where is your own individual voice?  Come back to the sitting room with me for a moment and look at the painting again.  Can you see what makes it so extraordinary?  Compare this to the Ruisdael landscape there on the opposite wall – what is different here?”

I contemplated the canvas for a moment. 

“Well, the painting by Ruisdael is like looking through a window onto the real world.  And this is…more dramatic somehow.  The painter – Rembrandt you said? – has used light and shadow to an extreme wholly unnatural.  It is almost as if I am seeing through another’s eyes, one who perceives the world much differently than I do.”

“Exactly,” said Handel, “and this is the key to all great art.  In music, counterpoint and thorough-bass are like the Laws of Nature, and you must learn to bend them to your will.  If your will is strong enough, the notes will follow you to places where they have never been before.  And your listeners will follow as well – not because what they hear is well-crafted, but because they hear something which has never before been said, and which only you can say.  They will hear the state of your soul, and may either be attracted to it or repelled by it, according to their nature.”

I nodded silently, wondering how my music would sound were I to bend the notes so far as to reveal the state of my lycanthropic soul.  Surely my listeners would flee in terror…

“Now let us play your sonata again, and pay particular attention to the inflections I put onto your melody – a Neapolitan second here, an augmented fourth there.  As you listen, you will hear how I make Handel out of Corelli.  Your next task will be to make Llewellyn out of Corelli.  You must find your own voice.”

During the carriage-ride home, I pondered Handel’s words.  Just who is this Llewellyn he wants to hear?  The young woman?  The wolf?  The monster?  Who and what am I really?

When I later looked at the score to my violin sonata, it no longer seemed to be “mine” in any sense of the word, so I simply tossed it into the fire without a second thought.  To clear my mind, I shifted and went for a run in the woods south of our Brompton Lane estate, carefully avoiding the human settlements, as I was hungry and doubted my will-power to resist eating a few peasants. 

I did allow myself a good howl, however, and listened carefully to the sound.  The closer I heard, the more complex the sound became, like the howling of many wolves, though using the voice of only one.  As I focused upon it, I recognised that mine was the voice of the entire Sisterhood, containing the cries of all my Sisters, of my Mother and her Mother before her, and of all the Mothers who have ever been or ever would be.  This was my true voice, and through it I was connected to an existence much greater than myself.

Now I knew what to do.  By the end of the week, I had composed an entirely new sonata, and sent word to Mr Handel asking if I might call on him to present it.  My note was quite simple:


I have found some musical hues of light and shadow which you might find interesting, if perhaps not to your liking.  At your convenience, I would very much like to submit my new ‘canvas’ to your honest and unstinting criticism.

Kindest regards,

Within the hour, Mr Handel’s own coachman arrived at the door to fetch me.  Upon my arrival in Brook Street, the composer demanded to see the score immediately, which he perused already as we ascended the stair.  He grunted several times, but said nothing.  After we had played through the sonata, Handel put down his violin and began to applaud. 

“Extraordinary,” he began.  “I absolutely detest every note, but it is nonetheless magnificent.  Whatever did you have for dinner before writing this?” 

Anticipating a withering critical attack, I had shrunk back against the edge of the harpsichord, but now Handel began to laugh.  Soon I was laughing as well.

“Do you really hate it so much,” I asked after regaining my breath, thinking him to be facetious.  He stopped laughing and gave me an earnest look.

“I loathe it completely,” he replied in all seriousness, “but your music is brilliant.  You see, Lady Llewellyn, it is entirely unimportant whether I like your music – what counts is that you have something to say and that you express it with passion and conviction.”

I was unsure whether to have just received an insult or a compliment.

“Lest there be any misunderstanding,” said he, sensing my uncertainty, “though your work is not to my personal taste, it is original and very forceful in expression.  Unpolished, to be sure, but with great potential.  May I ask you to leave this score with me, so that I may study it?”

Dumbfounded, I could only nod. 

“Don’t look so surprised.  An old man can learn something even from a young child, if he still has his wits about him and is humble enough to accept that inspiration can come from unlikely places.”

“Sir, surely you flatter me now,” I replied.

“Not at all, my dear.  You still have much to learn, but I think your lessons will come more from yourself now than from me.  Nevertheless, I would be happy to accompany you along the way, as it will give me joy to see your gift develop.  Even if your music does sometimes sound like the howling of wolves.”

* * *

“Are there more accounts like this in your memoirs,” asked Brian after he had finished reading, “meetings with other famous composers?”

“Of course.  Let’s see, there was Telemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and his younger brother Johann Christian.  I met Haydn in Vienna in 1754 and helped him secure his appointment as court composer to Prince Esterházy.  Nearly ten years later I encountered the young Mozart for the first time.  There was much more to him than met the eye.  Too bad that Antonio Salieri succeeded in poisoning him with the silver nitrate…”

Silver nitrate?  Surely you don’t mean to suggest that Mozart was a…”

“Indeed he was.  Why do you suppose his first name was Wolfgang?  But that’s a story for another time.”

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