Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is familiar to us as author of Gulliver’s Travels, regarded variously as a children’s story, a Menippean satire, and the forerunner of science fiction and the modern novel. But Swift was also an essayist, political pamphleteer, poet and cleric who became Dean of St. Patrick’s cathedral Dublin.
And German-born British Baroque composer George Frideric Handel (Georg Friedrich Händel) (1685-1759) was one of the greatest composers of his time, famous for his operas, oratorios (notably the sacred oratorio ‘Messiah’, but many others as well), anthems and organ concertos.
These contemporary stalwarts of their respective fields seem to have at least one thing in common, regarding their health: both suffered what seem from historical accounts to have been a cerebrovascular accident or stroke at some point in their life. Handel was afflicted relatively early, aged 52 in 1737, while Swift was struck down much later, aged 75 in 1742. Handel lost the use of four fingers of his right hand, and was unable to play the keyboard. But he seems to have made a remarkable, complete, almost ‘miraculous’ recovery, after a visit to the German bath spa of Aachen, taking long hot baths there for six weeks, and was soon performing in public again, to the astonishment of his audiences.
Swift’s illness deprived him of the ability to speak coherently, and he had serious concerns about his mental decline as well. His personality underwent a change and he became increasingly quarrelsome and difficult to deal with, breaking off longstanding friendships without apparent reason. A protective circle of friends and acquaintances declared him of “unsound mind and memory” to prevent him from being exploited.
It is with this background knowledge that one must approach the encounter between Swift and Handel in 1742.
Handel was in Dublin, Ireland, preparing for the premiere of ‘Messiah’ at the city’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street. He wished the use of the choirboys from the two great cathedrals in Dublin, Christ Church and St. Patrick’s, for the performance. Swift happened to be Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and on 28 January wrote this missive to his sub dean:
“I do hereby require and request not to permit any of the choristers to attend or assist at any public musical performances . . . and whereas it hath been reported that I gave a license to assist a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street, I do hereby declare that I do annul said license, entreating my said Sub-Dean to punish such as shall ever appeal there as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonic quality, according to the flagrant aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy and ingratitude.”
There is no historical record of Handel’s response, if any. It seems evident that he must have known of Swift’s mental state, and not taken offence. But he did procure the use of the St. Patrick’s choirboys and the other ‘songsters’ he requested.
There is a coda to this episode, though. Thomas Kelly’s book “First Nights” quotes one Mrs. Laetitia Pilkington on the meeting between Swift and Handel just before the latter left Dublin:
“Mr. Handel, when about to quit Ireland, went to take his leave of him. The Servant was a considerable time e’er he could make the Dean understand him, which, when he did, he cried ‘Oh! A German, and a genius! A prodigy! Admit him!’ The servant did so, just to let Mr. Handel behold the ruins of the greatest wit that ever lived among the tide of time, where all at length are lost.”
This is a pity indeed. It would have been really interesting to have been a fly on the wall had these two giants met in better circumstances.
Handel was a bon vivant, and given to the good things in life. He was so warmly welcomed in Ireland that it was remarked that he seemed “like to come home a considerable gainer, if the great hospitality shown him does not kill him with good living.” Indeed, he appears to have been “attacked by another Paraletic stroke” (sic), even while in Dublin. According to oboist Redmond Simpson who was present at the time, “it was violent and universal”, but fortunately “Doctors Barry and Quin, & Mr Nicols, Surgeon General were present… By violent bleeding and other evacuations he was soon perfectly recovered, and never had any return of it.”
Music lovers in Goa will have an opportunity to hear excerpts of Handel’s sacred oratorio Messiah performed at the opening day of the Capela do Monte music festival by Camerata Child’s Play on 7 Feb 2014.
(An edited version of this article was published on 2 February 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)