Little George Frideric Handel and His Big Brain
by Ric Reichert
"To him I bend the knee. For Handel is the greatest, ablest composer that ever lived."
Unlike Johann Sebastian Bach, a contemporary of Handel's, and scores of other classical composers (with Mozart and Beethoven being my favorites), Handel (1685-1759) was not born into a musical family. He was not a prodigy from a long line of accomplished musicians. He did not endure prodding from an early age to succeed musically by an overzealous father. On the contrary, Handel's father was a barber-surgeon and the "hair dresser"--slash--"doctor of medicine" absolutely loathed music. He considered it an indulgence of the idle rich and therefore a weakness in any working man. More to the point: "The costumes are sissy looking," he would say. His position was simple and unyielding. "No son of mine is going to wear a powdered wig."
When I think of barber-surgeons, I am reminded of an old Saturday Night Live comedy sketch in which Steve Martin portrayed a late seventieth century practitioner of bloodletting. In the bit, he gave each of his patients a bowl-haircut before performing the surgical incision and blood draining, which he considered a medical necessity (and cure) for anything that ailed a person: everything from a simple headache to a young woman who was horribly listless. (Lorraine Newman's character died in the sketch.) So that was George Frideric Handel's father. He wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, and there was no swish to his gait.
This created a conflict for the young boy. "Mother," he declared one morning as the two of them were shopping in the open market, "I wish to become a composer of music."
His mother was astonished. "Where did you learn to speak like that?"
George shrugged his shoulders. "Father is an educated man. You're an educated woman. I don't understand your surprise."
"Georgie," she pointed out, "you're only five years old."
"That conflict is yours, Mother. I'm sorry that I cannot conform to how you think a little boy should act and speak."
Shaking her head and scrunching her face, she sat. "But whatever happened to, See Thor Run. Run, Thor, Run?"
He placed a hand on her shoulder. "Must we debate, again, the lack of value in overly-simplified literature?"
"No, I suppose not." She paused a moment, staring intently into her son's eyes. "But honestly Georgie, your brain scares me."
Later that afternoon father Handel rushed into the kitchen, frantically searching the shelves and cabinets. He barked: "Where's George?"
"I'm not sure," replied his wife. "Outside playing, I suppose. What are you looking for?"
"Rags! I got a bleeder! I pricked some patient's vein and you'd think I had opened the floodgates to the Rhine River. " He grabbed a couple of dish towels. "Find George! I need his help!" While rushing out of the room: "If I can't stop the bleeding, the poor bastard will lose his arm."
"I can help you," his wife volunteered.
"No! A barbershop is no place for a woman," the surgeon shouted back, just before disappearing out of view.
That evening, George Frideric emerged from his father's office completely drenched in blood. His mother was standing in the hallway. He looked up at her with cold, dispassionate eyes and touched her arm. "The poor bastard didn't make it," he said matter-of-factly, then walked away.
It was at that moment when she decided that her son's life would be different from her husband's.
George Frideric Handel was born on February 23, 1685 in Halle, Germany. His father was sixty-three years old, at a time when fifty was considered ancient, and three hundred years before the discovery of Viagra. The old man's first wife had died three years earlier from an epidemic that halved the population of Halle. He quickly remarried, to Dorothea, the thirty-two year old daughter of a Lutheran pastor. George Frideric, named after his father, was their first child. Two daughters would follow.
Life in the 1690's was harsh, but the Handels enjoyed more financial consistency than most of their neighbors. In addition to a thriving practice in the village, his father had steady employment as the surgeon to the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. The Handels owned a large, substantial house in the center of the city. Father's office was in the basement with a separate entrance from the outside, and the house had an attic, a sign of wealth and position.
George Frideric hurried through the house, finding his mother sitting on the back stoop plucking feathers from a freshly killed chicken. He kissed her forehead.
"How was school?" she asked. (Her young son attended the Lutheran grammar school.)
"What did you learn today?"
"A story." He sat beside her. "Thor and Helda went up the hill to fetch a pail of water."
"And on his way back down the hill, he fell."
Frowning: "Was he hurt?"
"He broke his crown."
"Oh, that's too bad."
"I suppose," dismissed the boy. "Thor simply didn't compensate for the change in the gravitational pull of walking down a hill with a pail filled with water."
"Georgie, how do you know these things?"
"Simple physics, Mother."
Thoroughly confused: "Yes, if you say so." Dorothea went back to plucking feathers. "I've been thinking seriously about you becoming a composer. I'm curious: How did you come by such a notion?"
"From listening to the church organ on Sundays. When I hear the music, along with the choir singing, it's as if God is speaking to me."
"You're only a little boy, Georgie. What would God have to say to you?"
"I'm not the village idiot, Mother. I don't hear a disembodied voice. But the music does touch my soul. I feel elevated by it."
"So you're still serious about this?" she asked.
Dorothea teased her son: "You'll need some sort of instrument, I suppose?"
George Frideric became excited. "Can you get me permission to practice on the church organ?"
"Perhaps..." She set the headless chicken on the ground beside her and swiped her hands across her apron. "I have something to show you." She stood. "Now follow me."
"Are you going to wash your hands first?"
"Why? I've just dried them."
"That's not very sanitary."
"Don't be silly, Georgie. There are still several clean patches. Here--" She held the apron open like a tarp. "Look for yourself." Tiny specks of chicken blood beaded beneath the cloth.
"You're right, Mother. Never mind. Show me your surprise."
"It's this way," she giggled. Dorothea walked up the staircase to the attic with her son following closely behind. She opened the door and triumphantly swept her arm out across the horizon. There, in the far corner of the room, beneath the small window, sat a spinet, used and a bit banged from being lugged up the narrow stairway but nonetheless, it was a spinet. The boy ran over to it. He tapped several keys.
"Is this really mine?" he asked.
"Yes, Georgie, it's yours."
He ran to her and gave her a big hug. "This is a wonderful gift, Mother! Thank you." He ran back to the spinet and sat on the bench. He suddenly became concerned. "Father will hear me practice."
"He will disapprove."
"I'm sure he will."
"But how can I practice without Father hearing me?"
She smiled. "You're the genius. Figure it out. I did my part. I smuggled it up here, and I have hidden the payment from your father." With that, she went back downstairs to finish cleaning the chicken for the evening's supper.
Handel faced the keyboard. In his head, he heard the music of God. But how would he quiet the thunder in his brain from his father? The five-year-old boy hit on an idea. He smothered the strings of the spinet with strips of cloth; thereby he could practice each night without being discovered by his father. But he had another problem. How was he going to learn which keys to strike and in what order? Music, he reasoned, had to more than hitting keys at random, simply for the sake of creating noise. (Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, he had defined Progressive Jazz, nearly two hundred years before its conception.)
Frequently on his way home from school, George Frideric would spot the musical director squatting on his haunches against the back wall of the church, sipping from a bottle he had hidden beneath his coat. This became an opportunity, his introduction into the world of music. To garner favor, the young would-be composer decided to steal wine from his father's medicine cabinet, used to aid in the comfort of patients undergoing surgery, and present it to the principal organist at the Lutheran church. There, on late afternoons, as the organist drank wine, he instructed the boy on reading music; on how the black notations on a page corresponded to musical notes on the keyboard of the organ. He also gave the boy music sheets he could take home with him, to practice on his muted spinet.
George Frideric practiced in secrecy for two years. One late afternoon, he was nearly caught. His father walked into the kitchen from the back porch door. Dorothea was busy preparing supper. At seeing her husband, she screamed, "Georg!"
"You're tracking up the floor. Take off your boots at this instant." He obligingly sat in a chair and began removing his boots.
"Where's George?" he asked.
"In his room studying," she replied.
"I need him to clean the office floor. I worked on the entire McDonnell clan today. I'm telling you, their thick, curly red hair is a curse, and their veins are as callused as their farmer hands."
"I'll get the boy." Dorothea, with her heart pounding wildly, calmly removed her apron, walked out of the kitchen, and then raced upstairs to the attic. She opened the door. "Georgie, your father wants to see you!"
Fearful that the old man would discover them, they flew down the steps and rushed into the kitchen, breathless. George Frideric ran over to his father. "Yes, Father?"
"I had myself quite a productive day, Son. You'll need to scrub the floor with extra vigor."
"Yes, Father." Given his assignment, the boy departed to attend to his chores.
Suspicious, Georg inquired of his wife: "I thought you said he was in his room."
"Then why did I hear you run up the stairs to the attic?"
"I don't think so. And lately it seems that I always have to ask where George is, when the boy should be just here, in plain view. I shouldn't have to keep inquiring into his whereabouts."
The father was insistent. "Honestly, Dorothea, I think we are too easy on him." Thinking aloud: "And what occupies his time in the attic anyway? Perhaps I should investigate." He stood.
Dorothea had a diversionary tactic up her sleeve, or in this case -- up her skirt.
"What's this-?" asked her surprised (but delighted) husband. "It's not Tuesday."
Little George Frideric's first sister was born eight months later.
Every Sunday, the Handels attended the Lutheran church in town, and occasionally the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels would grace the sermon. One particular Sunday morning the Duke entered the organ loft, to share a piece of music he wanted played during the service. He found the seven-year old George Frideric Handel sitting at the organ, practicing. "You're not the chief organist," he said, stiffening his body.
George immediately stood. "No, Your Majesty."
"And where is Herr Zachow?"
"He will return shortly, Your Majesty. He needed to relieve himself."
The Duke muttered: "To make room for more wine, no doubt."
He stepped closer. "This is certainly a big instrument for such a small boy. The keys are longer than your fingers."
"If I offended you in any way, then--"
"No, no," the Duke interrupted, waving his hand for silence. "On the contrary, I found it very pleasing. You must play more."
Now standing behind the boy, "Can you read music, son?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Well then you must play this." The Duke reached over the boy, opening and spreading the sheets of music out on the stand in front of him. He languished over the fresh perfume of soap. "Is Saturday your bath night?" he asked.
"Yes, Lord. My mother is very particular about that."
"She is a dutiful mother then."
"That she is, Your Majesty."
Herr Zachow, the stout church organist, walked into the loft, wiping his hands along his pant legs. At seeing the Duke, he froze. "Your Majesty. I'm sorry, but--"
The Duke raised a hand sharply. "Not now, Zachow. This young man is about to grace our ears with his talent." To the boy: "When you are ready, you may begin."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
He placed a royal, lily-white soft hand on George Frideric's shoulder. Handel began playing. His fingers moved swiftly over the keyboard, producing notes that were strong, confident, and longing. The grand auditorium of the church thundered with music. Handel finished his brief performance with rapid treble fingering, sounding like the high-pitched chirping of birds, beneath this was a slow, sustained note, sounding like the deep growl of the wind.
The Duke was instantly charmed. "What is your name, boy?"
"George Frideric Handel."
"The surgeon's son?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"How have you learned to play so well?"
George Frideric glanced over at the organist, reluctant to reveal their secret. Zachow nodded his approval. The boy faced the Duke. "Herr Zachow has worked with me after school and on Saturdays."
The Duke looked over at Zachow. "Is this true?"
The organist rose to his feet hurriedly, losing balance beneath his powdered wig. "Yes, Your Majesty." Nervously: "But the lessons were conducted on my own time."
The Duke whispered to George Frideric, "That must have cost more you than a few bottles of wine." To Zachow: "Splendid job, Zachow. But I dare say that the task was made easier by the fact that young Handel, here, is perhaps something of a musical genius."
"As always, your assessment is precise, Your Majesty."
To Handel: "I shall speak to your father. Your education and training should become full time. None better to instruct you than Herr Zachow. And I will pay your expenses."
"You are most generous, Lord, but my father disapproves of music."
"Nonsense. He is an educated man. I will convince him that your gift deserves careful nurturing."
The young boy wanted to hug the Duke in appreciation. Instead, he bowed and said, "Thank you, Your Majesty."
The Duke formed a quizzical expression. "No hug for your generous benefactor?"
"Sorry, Your Majesty." George Frideric threw his arms around the Duke's well-manicured and perfumed neck, in a big embrace.
Later that evening: Father Handel and his wife were sitting in the kitchen, arguing about the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels' offer to further their son's musical education. "The idea of him becoming a composer is nonsense," asserted the father. "He is only seven years old. How can anyone call him a genius?"
"The Duke did."
"It's too early. How can we know for certain?"
Dorothea remained entrenched. "Georgie is gifted. He understands things a boy at his age shouldn't understand."
"Well, if you ask me, I believe the Duke is more taken with his looks than his musical skills."
"Georg!" admonished his wife, "that's profane, even if said in jest."
"As court surgeon, I have seen things. Things that a gentleman would not share, not even with his wife."
"He'll be studying in the church," Dorothea pointed out, whose father was the pastor. "He'll be looked after."
Upstairs in the attic, suddenly freed by the complimentary encouragement of the Duke, George Frideric began removing the strips of cloth that muffled the songs in his spinet.
Dorothea asked her husband: "Are you not pleased that you sired a genius?"
"If it is indeed true, then, yes, I will view it as a triumphant of my genetic legacy."
Modestly: "But what if got his genius from me?"
"Know your place, woman!"
Dorothea smiled broadly. "See, I knew you'd be proud."
"You're missing the point."
"No, I'm not. You're a proud father. You're proud of your son."
Her husband frowned. "I had plans of him taking over my business."
"But he wants to be a composer."
Little George Frideric for the first time in two years would be able to hear the full volume of his spinet. He was excited. He poised his hands over the keyboard. What should he play first? He wiggled his slender fingers. What would be his first selection? It must be something truly spectacular. But what? He choose a piece by his favorite organist, Dietrich Buxtehude's, Toccata in D Minor. He began playing with unfettered jubilation, but what he heard were notes that were excruciatingly godawful. He stopped playing immediately. The spinet would need tuning first.
Father Handel looked up toward the attic, making a sour face. "Was that George?"
Dorothea remained positive. "Perhaps learning how to tune his instrument will be the first lesson."
"I pray it is."
His wife stood; her muscles tighten. "Does that mean you have decided to let him do it?"
Georg took a moment before answering. "Yes."
Dorothea squealed, clapped her hands, and rushed over to her husband. She gave him hug. "You're a good father, Georg."
"Perhaps, but I had no other alternative. To refuse means displeasing the Duke and jeopardizing my lucrative business."
"I think you're a good man." She kissed his forehead. "I love you." Dorothea was animated. She wanted to share the news with her son straight away. "I can tell Georgie?"
"Don't you believe the boy should hear it from his father?"
"Of course. You will give him the official announcement. I will only hint at it."
Skeptical: "You will only hint?"
"And you won't tell him?"
"Then go if you must, if it'll keep the boy from playing until he gets that damn thing tuned."
The boy was entrusted to F. W. Zachow, principal organist of the Lutheran church at Halle, who quickly understood that a genius had come into hands. He gave George Frideric a remarkably thorough training in every phase of music, including the tuning of instruments, and he opened his fine library of musical scores to the student. Handel would study with Zachow for three years and, with his teacher's painstaking guidance, the young boy became a splendid instrumentalist. He even started composing religious music. But after only his first three weeks of musical lessons, George Frideric found his mother sitting alone in the kitchen. She seemed deep in thought.
"What's wrong, Mother?"
She looked up. "Oh, Georgie. I didn't hear you come in."
He sat at the table.
She asked, "What did you learn today?"
"The major, minor, and modal scales."
"What are those, Dear?"
"They are the very building blocks of music. It is how music is composed. Herr Zachow said I played them perfectly."
As she listened, tears formed in the corner of her eyes.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
She hugged her son. "I am so very proud of you, Georgie. Your eyes light and dance when you talk about your music."
"I would have been lost without your support."
She wiped her eyes with her finger. "No, no. You would have found another way. Look at you now, you are learning music from a simple church organist in a small village. Soon, that will not be enough. Your need for knowledge will demand more. You will want to move away."
He placed a hand on her arm. "Is that what is troubling you? That I might move away some day?"
She sighed, smiling. "No. As a mother, you prepare yourself for that. I was not prepared for-." She stopped, cupping her hand over his. "Georgie, I miss your childhood. You're only seven years old. I wanted to be the one who opened your eyes to the wonders around you. I wanted to see your face as you discovered that mixing dirt with water creates mud. I wanted you to ask me why the sky is blue. Why the wind howls. How babies are born."
George Frideric wanted to cry. He felt troubled by hurting his mother. "I'm sorry."
She squeezed his hand. "Don't be. God has given you a wondrous gift. And I am being selfish to regret the passing of a little boy's childhood. Besides," she said patting his hand, "I will soon be the mother of the great Handel."
They embraced. "I love you, Mother."
"Thank you, Georgie."
George Frideric Handel would become one of the greatest living composers of his time. The shadow of his brilliance and influence would stretch across the musical landscape of future generations. He traveled all over Europe, performing his music, but he was never far from his mother. He would write and visit her often.
About the author:
Ric Reichert lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely wife and her two cats. Several of his humor pieces have been published on the Internet, including Writer's Hood, Flashquake, and Literary Lion. Recently he has been writing short stories, in the process of learning the craft of storytelling, with the goal of writing a novel... or at least a funny book.