Q+A with Dr. Ellen Harris: Revisiting Handel as Orpheus

Dr. Ellen Harris didn’t plan on writing a book about homosexual subtext in George Frideric Handel’s chamber cantatas. But as one of the foremost Handel scholars in the world—Dr. Harris is the Class of 1949 Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the current President of the Handel House Foundation of America—she had to follow where the research led her. The result was her landmark book Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, published by Harvard University Press nearly 20 years ago. In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, we sat down with Dr. Harris to learn more about her research, the public response, and why Handel remains one of the most captivating composers of all time.

How did Handel as Orpheus come to be? Were you intending to write a book about homosexual subtext in Handel’s cantatas, or is that just where the research led you?

I was not intending to do that at all! When I was a graduate student, I was working on a dissertation about the pastoral in Handel, and that led me to the cantatas, since they are vocal-orchestral settings of pastoral poetry about shepherds and shepherdesses—at least on the surface. I think it’s hard to imagine how little known the cantatas were 50 years ago. They were listed in alphabetical order, but no one knew when they were written, what their relationship was to Handel’s life, or really anything about them. So I thought, “I can do this—working with the paper types, the handwriting, how the staff lines were laid out, all the foundational work that one does to determine chronology.” And of course, you combine that work with a study of the context.

In my mind, I had initially dated the cantatas between Handel’s arrival in Italy in 1706 and 1720, when the Royal Academy of Music opened in London and Handel began to focus on writing opera. But when I did the detailed chronological work, the results alas did not coincide: Handel continued writing cantatas until 1723, which was initially very annoying to me. It took me a minute to have the revelation that 1723 was when Handel moved into his house—the house where he lived for the rest of his life. What then became obvious was that the cantatas were only written during the time when Handel was part of the private patronage system, frequently living in the homes of his patrons in Italy and England. Once he got his own house, he never wrote another cantata.

The cantatas were written for these private patrons, and in some ways, they were the epitome of private music—and of all of Handel’s works, this is the only genre that he didn’t publish. His works in other genres were published during his lifetime, and the composers around him were publishing cantatas, which were very popular for home music consumption. But he never published any of them. All these things combined made me decide I needed to look much more deeply into the context.

What did you find?

When I began looking into the various patrons in whose homes he lived, I realized that a significant number of them were known to have homosexual liaisons in their life: Gian Gastone de’ Medici; Cardinal Pamphili, who without a doubt was in love with Handel; Cardinal Ottoboni; and Lord Burlington, too, has certainly been associated with a homosocial circle. That became extremely interesting to me, considering the fact that the cantatas were private music, written for these patrons and never published.

All of this work evolved over a period of decades. I finished my dissertation in 1976, and it was then that I began working specifically on the cantatas. The work came in waves, and the book wasn’t published until 25 years later, in 2001. Each new layer—determining the chronology, and then looking at the patrons, and then looking at the homosocial context of the 18th century—enriched the project, but also caused it to change focus. The chronology, my original focus and foundation, became an appendix. Ultimately, you get to a point where you write what you’ve discovered or you suppress it. There are only two options. And it seemed to me that this was a wonderful story.

Did you get any pushback as your focus was changing? Were there people who thought that it wasn’t a good idea?

Yes. Absolutely. I had a publisher lined up for this book, a first-refusal contract for a book on Handel’s cantatas that would follow my dissertation, which had been published in 1980. When I began talking to the editor of that press about the direction the book had taken, it was very clear that that was not what they wanted. There was a lot of pushback to placing Handel in a homosocial context, even though we can’t know what he did in private. But there is no question that Handel was part of that context. There simply is no doubting it. Still, there were many people who did not want the book to take that focus.

Why do you think that was?

Because it was Handel. It’s a very deeply and seriously researched book—it’s hardly a screed!—but some of the newspaper articles about it were along the lines of “American professor says Messiah composer is gay.” The idea that the untouchable composer of Messiah could possibly be gay made many people uncomfortable.

Some people told me that I was looking at this from a modern point of view, in terms of what we understood sexuality to be in the 20th century, but in fact that’s completely wrong. In the 20th century, to a large extent, we looked at sexuality as a binary: You were either homosexual or heterosexual. It was a kind of identification. In the 18th century, sexuality was far more fluid (something we’re getting back to today). There were very strict laws against homosexuality, with draconian punishments, but in aristocratic circles, it was very easy to be bisexual. Marriages were arranged. You didn’t marry for love: You married because you needed to have children to continue your aristocratic line. People sought love elsewhere.

Where do you see that desire for love—and the rest of this historical context—reflected in the music of the cantatas?

I don’t think that there’s homosexual and heterosexual music. The music of the cantatas is, at its core, about longing—frequently for a love that one cannot have. Of course, there are any number of reasons why you cannot have someone in heterosexual love, as well as in homosexual love.

What’s important in these cantatas and really drew me to their homosexual context is the texts, which are very much aligned with other homosexual texts, such as the poetry of Michelangelo, and—going all the way back to the classics—Thucydides and Virgil and Ovid. They even use the same classical names. In that literary tradition, the gender of the loved one is never mentioned, which is very easy in Italian. You can refer to the lover in terms of “the beautiful eyes” or some other attribute. A number of the cantatas are written very carefully this way. You’re getting a rewrite of classical homoerotic poetry.

In performances, the singer was not identified by sex either. For example, in a cantata about Prince Ruspoli, the role of Olinto (the prince’s name taken in the Academy of Arcadia) was sung by the soprano Margherita Durastanti. So we know that women sang men’s roles in private. In another household, a female role was sung by a castrato. In Handel’s operas, castrati sang the lead roles, but you could use a woman if you couldn’t find a castrato. In Italy, castrati sang women’s roles, because women were not allowed to perform publicly in any Vatican city.

These are just some examples of how the sex or sexuality of the performer did not determine the sex of the character. If you combine this with the fact that the sex of the beloved was unidentified, then when you listened to one of the cantatas about desire, you could imagine any kind of relationship you wanted. So that’s why I get upset when people get so perturbed about this book. The cantatas are about human sexuality, human desire, human love. Really, what is wrong with that?

Was that ambiguity in service of plausible deniability? How much did people understand the homoeroticism in the cantatas at the time?

People absolutely understood, and yes, there’s no question that the creators wanted to maintain plausible deniability. You could say, “Of course it doesn’t mean that! Of course Damon is in love with…” I don’t know, “Doris!” Plausible deniability is essential to the whole pastoral idiom.

But undoubtedly, male love and desire was an important part of this community. One of the early cantatas had a text by Cardinal Pamphili—who was one of Handel’s first patrons in Rome—that compared Handel to Orpheus. The title of the cantata translates to: “Handel, my muse is not able to keep up with the speed of your composition.” In the recitative between the two arias, the text says that he [Pamphili] had given up writing, and had hung his plectrum—one assumes the plectrum of his lute—motionless on a dry oak tree. He says that Handel then awakened his muse, so that the plectrum sprung into action. I don’t think I need to explain the astounding sexual implications of that statement to you, do I?

No, you don’t.

Right. But one of the first things I discuss in the book is how the translation of this cantata was altered. In the Italian text, it says, “Now my hand moves” and “Now my voice sings,” all of which can be understood sexually. In the then standard English translation, it was changed to “Now my hand moves on the lyre” to try to obscure the sexual reading. Plausible deniability.

It’s also important to remember that Pamphili handed this cantata text to Handel, and Handel had to set it to music. I try to imagine what Handel thought when he looked at this text and realized it was about him! I mean, the first word of the cantata is “Handel”! He handles it in a very funny way. When the text talks about the wonderful harmonies of Orpheus, Handel uses a pedal point—that is, he doesn’t use interesting harmonies at all. People have come to accept that Pamphili was in love with Handel. What they are not so willing to accept is that Handel may have had a relationship with him. You can’t tell one way or another! No one’s in a bedroom with them.

To that point, how connected should we consider the art and the artist to be in this context? How much agency did Handel have in the messages he was conveying?

When Handel was in Italy, he was staying in the palazzi of his patrons, and those patrons gave him texts to set to music, so I would guess he had precious little agency. During this time, he also wrote Latin church music for a cardinal, and he was certainly not Catholic. In Rome, he wrote pieces supporting one side of the War of the Spanish Succession; in England, he wrote music on the other side, because he had a different patron. And so, it could be argued that all of these cantatas with homosexual subtext were simply music that he had to write.

But I feel that Handel understands the meaning of these things that he’s writing about. He puts a great deal of emotion into those texts. The music he wrote with the Burlington circle, especially after they transferred to Cannons under the patronage of the Duke of Chandos, certainly depicts very deep same-sex friendships. And when this music became public, important changes were made: Texts that originated from poetry describing homosexual relationships became heterosexual. Were Handel and the other artists in the Burlington circle playing with that homosexual context, with a superficial heterosexual surface? It’s possible.

Throughout Handel’s life, there is a sense in his music of human love—leaving sex aside. It’s a beautiful thing. The most intense love that you’ve experienced can have a sexual component, but it doesn’t need to, it seems to me. We just have to try to thread this into our understanding of humanity: A man can love another man, and that love can be enormously powerful.

How has your research into the cantatas affected the way you listen to the rest of Handel’s music?

I appreciate the depth of emotion in all of Handel’s music, whether it’s about love or pain or joy. I think Handel has an ability to communicate more strongly than almost any other composer. When I listen to his music, I actually feel the emotions. And I don’t worry a lot about the sexuality. I just love feeling the desire, feeling the longing, because I am a human also. It speaks to me.

And isn’t that why we all love music?

Right! Because it speaks to us. And I think Handel’s music speaks to all of us.

What do you wish more classical music lovers knew about Handel?

What’s important about Handel is what a generous and kind man he was. He was a founding member of the Fund for the Support of Decay’d Musicians and their Families (now the Royal Society of Musicians), because of the care and concern he felt for an oboist in his orchestra who could no longer play and had no way to support his family. That is, Handel was a pioneer of the idea that musicians who needed to retire for health reasons should receive pensions. He was also the biggest donor to the Foundling Hospital in London until the middle of the 19th century, offering benefit performances of Messiah in their chapel. For that matter, the original Messiah performance in Dublin was a benefit performance to aid those held in debtors’ prisons. The performance raised £400 (worth £100,000 today) and allowed for the release of 142 men. He was also an ardent supporter of a charity that was set up for the widows and orphans of ministers.

In all of Handel’s charities, he was supporting children and families who could not support themselves. It’s such an essential element of his life. His outreach, his care for people who were in debt, for widows, for orphans—it’s a huge part of who he was. Throughout his life, he used his music to support those in need. I would like people to understand that.

Dr. Harris’s book Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas is available wherever books are sold. Want to hear more of Handel’s music in action? Join us for next season’s seismic opening concert, Israel in Egypt conducted by new Artistic Director Jonathan Cohen! Learn more about the season and purchase your subscription package here.