Interview with 'Handel as Orpheus' author Ellen T. Harris

How ‘Handel as Orpheus’ Changed the Dialogue Around 18th-Century Sexuality

It was a fantasy, one where courtiers imagined themselves as shepherds and shepherdesses, not a care in the world beyond romance. And Ellen T. Harris was steeped in it. At the time of her doctorate, she had chosen to study operas about those idyllic pastoral stories, specifically the ones written by composer George Frideric Handel.

But while Handel’s operas occupied her attention, another genre kept cropping up in her research: Handel’s cantatas. There were more than 100 of these medium-sized narratives, made specifically to be sung.

Little was known about them. So once she finished her dissertation, Harris was determined to find out more. She started to research.

Thus began a book that scandalized the classical music scene, a book that seized headlines around the globe. A San Francisco Chronicle article asked: “Was Handel Gay?” The U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper was less equivocating: “Handel was gay — his music proves it, claims academic.”

At the center of it all was Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, a book that celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. In it, Harris — a former singer and MIT professor — analyzes both Handel’s cantatas and the social context in which they were created.

Handel destroyed many of his own drafts and correspondences. So Harris’s research instead took her inside the houses of Europe’s most prominent patrons: cardinals, lords, and dynasties of wealth and power.

What she discovered was an environment seemingly tolerant of same-sex love, though the outside world could be less forgiving: The law still punished such relations with death.

In Italy’s influential Medici family, brothers Ferdinand and Gian Gastone were both known to have male lovers. In England, rumors long surrounded Lord Burlington and the architect William Kent. Harris also believes the Roman cardinal Benedetto Pamphili may have fallen in love with Handel, coding his affections into a song about the Greek hero Orpheus, thus giving her book its name.

All these men took Handel in and supported him as he wrote his cantatas. Some of this music was written without gendered pronouns, leaving the lovers they describe a mystery.

Though Handel as Orpheus never actually labels Handel as gay, she concludes: “Although Handel’s love life remains veiled, the 18th-century context demonstrates, I believe, that a component of same-sex love and desire is far from untenable.” That alone placed her in the middle of a fierce battle over Handel’s legacy — and what his sexuality might mean for the field of classical music.

In a recent telephone interview, Harris opened up about her process and how she navigated the buzz that greeted her book.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You became interested in Handel’s cantatas while you were writing your dissertation. Can you take me back to that time?

ELLEN T. HARRIS: So little was known about the cantatas. No one had ever spent any time looking seriously at the cantatas. No one knew when the cantatas were written. They didn't seem to have a chronology, as opposed to his operas or his oratorios.

And I thought this it's such a vast repertoire from such an interesting time in his life. There were more than a hundred of them. I needed to find out more about them.

All of the cantatas were written within the period of 1706 to 1723, which is very distinct to a period of time because 1706 is when he arrives in Italy and 1723 is when he gets his own house in London and lives in that house for the rest of his life. But between 1706 and 1723, he is frequently living in the houses of his patrons.

So all of these cantatas were written for private patrons. That’s different from the rest his career. And then I realized that none of the cantatas were ever published in Handel's lifetime.

That's very unusual because everything else he wrote was. The operas were published, at least in part, almost immediately after they were performed. The oratorios were published almost immediately after they were performed. His keyboard works were published. His chamber music was published. His concertos were published. But his cantatas? Not a one.

So I thought: Oh, here we have a very private repertoire written for private patrons that apparently Handel feels is not his, that it still must be owned by the patrons in some way. Or he doesn't want it public. It's gotta be one of these two things.

At that point I felt that what I really needed to do was begin looking at the patrons in more depth. And when I looked at the patrons in more depth, I discovered that for a good number of them — not all of them, of course, but a good number of them — an important part of their life was same-sex love in one way or another.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In Handel’s time, there were castrati, and men could play women, and women could play men. But for the average person, the idea of gender fluidity probably strikes them as something relatively new, something modern. Does that inhibit the public's understanding of your work at all?

HARRIS: Yes, it did affect the understanding of the book in some circles. The book was widely criticized. It was pilloried, probably. But it also received very high praise and major awards. It was a very controversial book.

I think that there is a difficulty in understanding this, from the point of view of the different centuries. Many people said to me, “Well, you're just reading 20th century mores into the 18th century. And it would never have been like that in the 18th century because you're looking at it from our culture today.”

In fact, it's quite the reverse because our culture today, despite the greater acceptance, has an overlay that is more rigid, that is less fluid. It's a kind of either/or: People lead a gay life or they lead a heterosexual life. There's a kind of choosing that goes on with a lot of people, though not everyone of course. But I don't think that the kind of gender fluidity that existed in the 18th century exists at all today.

I think what happened is that the Victorian era happened in between. And the Victorian era made everything basically taboo. Any discussion of sex became taboo. And of course, we then got these words, homosexual and heterosexual, which we didn't have in the 18th century.

I use those terms and, maybe in retrospect, I should have avoided those terms altogether. Because it implies things that, again, didn't exist in the 18th century. Sometimes I like to just say, “Really, what the pastoral cantatas are about is human love.” It's just about what it feels like to love another person or to be deserted by another person or to long for another person.

When you listen to what the cantatas to say, they are about something we all have. We all have this longing. We all have this love. We all suffer from loss or departures, and the cantatas are about all those things. They're talking about lovers leaving, lovers dying, longing for a lover that you can't have, having unrequited love and the joy of requited love. I love the cantatas because they don't force you to choose.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: One of the things that you address in your book is about how any writer brings their own prejudices and mindset to their writing. When you're writing books about Handel, how do you go about addressing the preconceptions you might have?

HARRIS: Yes, I had to think about that. I also was aware that battle lines had already been drawn about Handel. There were people who thought clearly he was gay and there were people who felt that under no circumstances was that possible.

People would say, “Well, just because Handel didn’t marry doesn't mean that he's gay.” Everyone that I know of who was actively engaged in male love — including the mollies in the molly houses [18th-century gay hangouts] — when they're brought before court, they're all married. The fact that he wasn’t married has absolutely nothing to do with it. Nothing whatsoever.

All sorts of assumptions were made. Going into it, I was a little more naive, because I didn't realize that the reaction would be as fierce as it was actually. Which was sort of stupid, but it's true.

When the book came out and I first spoke about it, frequently one of the first questions I would get at a book talk was what was my sexuality, because I hadn't said in the book what it was. People wanted to know what my agenda was.

If, in fact, I was someone who had chosen a gay lifestyle, then I think that the work would have been easily discredited by some people. And the fact that I wasn’t confused people in some ways.

When I did this work, I was doing it because I was interested in the history. I thought that was important. The question for me really was: Do I tell what I find or do I suppress it?

There is no way I would have done the second. The one thing I do say is being a woman made this easier because I didn't identify with Handel personally. And I think many men in the field do.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Why does that present a limitation to them?

HARRIS: They feel an affinity with his music and they feel a kinship, I guess. When I read history books about women, I sometimes do feel that kind of kinship with experiences that women have had.

But I don't feel that with Handel. So it was totally immaterial to me what Handel’s sexual life was. I have to be perfectly frank. It just didn't matter to me.

But many people are appalled by this. Especially because of Messiah. They feel that the man who wrote Messiah couldn't possibly have an interest in same-sex love. I don't know what to say about that. I think that that's ridiculous.

The idea that a man who is participating or enjoying or having same-sex love could not have religious feelings? That's the implication of the statements that are made to me: that the man who wrote Messiah, which is such a religious work, couldn't possibly be gay. Well now, isn't that ridiculous? I simply cannot credit that point of view.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was the toughest criticism to take after the book came out?

HARRIS: I had two colleagues in reviews who actually questioned my morality. That they thought that I was, in fact, playing games. That I was reaching for a kind of notoriety without having substance. And that I was deliberately putting forth this kind of material to try to gain some kind of public credit in my career.

To question my morals personally, to make it a personal attack on me academically or intellectually, that was extremely hard.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: For somebody who might not be familiar with Handel’s cantatas, is there one that you would recommend? And why?

HARRIS: Ooh, it's very hard actually. Because there are more than a hundred of them. I mean, there are the ones with instrumental accompaniment, which are really quite gorgeous. You hear them more often.

When I think about the cantatas, I tend to think a lot about the ones that are just accompanied by continuo because they are so little known. I would say one that I think is well worth listening to is “Stelle, Perfide, Stelle, or “False Stars,” evil fate. This is obviously an unhappy cantata. [Harris laughs.]

But it’s really beautiful. There’s a whole aria about weeping. It breaks my heart every time I listen to it. And it begins on the most striking dissonance. You can't believe the dissonance of the first chord. Handel was extremely bold as a composer. This really gives a sense of the kind of boldness that he was capable of as a young man.

Ellen T. Harris’s book Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas is available for purchase on Amazon or through Harvard University Press.

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