November 4, 1781 Divas

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

George III King of Great Britain and Ireland ascended to the throne in 1760 declaring that, “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain”. It was his reassurance that, unlike his father and grandfather before him, George III would rule, as an English King.

Kings George I and II were in fact Hanoverian and as such, did not speak English. At least not, fluently. Queen Victoria, that most quintessentially British of monarchs was in fact of German ancestry and spoke German, as a first language. George I, Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg ascended to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland in August 1714, the first of the British Kings, from the House of Hanover.

The German composer George Frideric Händel was well known by this time, in German and Italian opera. He became Kapellmeister to the German prince in 1710, “Master of the Chapel Choir”. Chorale works Händel composed around this time for Queen Anne and the young and wealthy “Apollo of the Arts” Richard Boyle made it almost natural, that Händel would settle in England.

George I enjoys the River Thames with George Frideric Händel, in 1717

In Italian opera, a prima donna is the leading female singer in the company, the “first lady” opposite the male lead or primo uomo. Usually (but not always) a soprano, prima donne could be demanding of their colleagues with grand and sometime insufferable personae both on- and off-stage. Opera enthusiasts would divide into opposing “clubs” supporting or opposing one singer, over the other. The 19th century rivalry between fans of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi is an infamous example despite a personal friendship, between the two singers. When prima donne detest one another pandemonium, is sure to follow.

Händel’s work was popular in Georgian era society, so much so he was given free reign to hire his own performers. One such was Francesca Cuzzoni, a fiery soprano with the reputation as being among the greatest, of 18th century divas. Unkindly described by one opera historian as “doughy” and plain, a “short, squat” performer she nevertheless sang, with the voice of the angels. Widely regarded as one of the finest Sopranos in all Europe Händel hired Cuzzoni, in 1722.

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

On rehearsal for her London debut, Cuzzoni became furious over one aria claiming the role was written, for someone else. She refused even to perform when Händel, a great bear of a man physically picked the woman off the ground by her waist, and threatened to throw her out a window.

Problem solved.

Francesca Cuzzoni, by James Caldwall

Francesca Cuzzoni went on to become a smashing success, for four years the undisputed Queen, of the London opera. In 1726, Händel sought to capitalize on this success and reached out to his Italian agents, for a second Star. So it was the mezo-soprano Faustina Bordoni was hired, for the following season.

Younger and considerably more attractive than the older Cuzzoni the pair had been rivals, back in Italy. Notwithstanding, Händel and other composers wrote a series of operas featuring a two-female lead taking great care to give the two, equal prominence.

You know where this is going, right?

Faustina Bordoni pastel, in 1724

Baroque opera loved nothing more than a love triangle and the two were often cast, as rivals for the affections of one man. The degree to which the two divas’ professional rivalry bled into their personal lives is a matter of some discussion but the behavior of their fans, is not.

The “clash” between the two soon became public knowledge. Opera-going aristocrats began to take up sides enthusiastically egged on, by the press. Society ladies would dress in the respective fashion of their particular heroine and hiss and catcall, at the appearance of the other.

Things got out of hand during a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte. Fights broke out among the audience when Cuzzoni turned and unleashed a torrent of Italian invective, at her rival. The pair hurled insults at one another. You know the words. These two, knew ALL of them them. Verbal combat soon became physical the performance, be damned. The scene beggars the imagination. A wild west bar fight in stalls and stage alike as two divas tore at each other’s costumes, and pulled each other’s hair.

In the end, the two were physically dragged from the stage their performance, abandoned.

Theater management canceled Cuzzoni’s contract. King George would have none of that and threatened to withdraw their allowance, and that was the end of that. The two divas kept an uneasy truce for the following season, but something had to give.

In the end, Faustina Bordoni was offered a guinea more for the 1728 season. One schilling, one pence. Predictably, Francesca Cuzzoni threw a tantrum and immediately resigned, and returned to Italy.

Faustina Bordoni lived on to a happy and prosperous old age and died on November 4, 1781. No so Francesca Cuzzoni who faded into poverty and obscurity eking out a living it is said, making and selling, buttons.

Back in 1728, theater management dearly wished the whole sorry mess would just go away. No such luck. John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera was a smash hit that season, “the most popular play of the eighteenth century” satirizing Italian opera with its perpetually feuding heroines Polly Peachum, and Lucy Lockit.

Hat tip “Rival Queens” featuring Simone Kermes, and Vivica Genaux

November 3, 1752 Quacks

As for the man who blinded Händel and all but murdered Bach, he worked most of his 72 years blinding hundreds of unfortunates before he himself, lost his sight. The English writer Samuel Johnson later described the man’s life as “an instance of how far impudence may carry ignorance.”

From Brahms to Beethoven, Mendelssohn to Mozart, German composers have formed the core and the nucleus, of western music. And not just the classical stuff. Frankfurt-born Hans Zimmer has composed scores for over 150 different films including The Lion King, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator, and the Dark Knight trilogy. The German-born Persian composer Ramin Djawadi may not be a household name but we know his scores for the 2008 Marvel film Iron Man and season 7 of Game of Thrones, both nominated, for Grammy Awards. The German-American singer/songwriter Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. may not be a household name but his stage name certainly is. We remember him, as John Denver.

1685 was a good year for German composers, George Frideric Händel born on February 23 in Halle and Johann Sebastian Bach barely a month later, in Eisenbach. Bach’s father Johann Ambrosius was a 7th generation musician and encouraged the boy, to learn the violin. Not so Händel ‘s father. A respected barber-surgeon aged 63 at the time of Händel’s birth to his second wife Dorothea, Georg expected his son to study civil law.

Little George found means to smuggle a clavichord into an attic room where he would steal away to practice, while his parents slept.

The boy was yet to turn ten when he accompanied his father to the court of the Duke of Johann, Adolf I. Somehow, George found himself on the organ stool and, when he began to play, Georg could only wonder where THAT came from. The Duke was so impressed he persuaded his father to allow him to study music and the rest, is history.

J.S. Bach was only ten when he lost both of his parents, only eight months apart. It was an uncle, Johann Christoph, who introduced the boy to the organ. Like Händel , Bach went on to become one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque era.

From 1727 to this day the anthem Zadok the Priest is performed at coronation ceremonies, of British royalty. The magnificent strains of George Frideric Händel’s “Messiah” and Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” are favorites, of the Christmas season.  And yet there is another, darker connection between the two men. While the two never met both composers were blinded, by the same quack physician.

In the Dutch language a kwakzalver is a seller of cures, nostrums and potions of dubious origin, and little efficacy.   In 1665 an outbreak of Bubonic Plague ravaged London causing doctors to flee by the score leaving quacksalvers and charlatans to pray on the vulnerable, and the fearful.

So bad was it Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, penned the following: 

“Infallible preventive pills against the plague.” “Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.” “Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.” “Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.” “Anti-pestilential pills.” “Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.” “An universal remedy for the plague.” “The only true plague water.” “The royal antidote against all kinds of infection”;—and such a number more that I cannot reckon up; and if I could, would fill a book of themselves to set them down.

Daniel Defoe

British surgeon Dale Ingram remarked: “Every one [of the quacks in London] was at liberty to prescribe what nostrum he pleased, and there was scarce a street in which some antidote was not sold, under some pompous title.”

Clark Stanley claimed to have studied with native Hopi shaman and learned the medicinal benefits, of snake oil. The original snake oil salesman made a tidy sum until the US Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, in 1906. In 1917, investigators discovered that Stanley’s elixir was nothing but ordinary mineral oil and beef fat flavored with red pepper, and turpentine. William Bailey’s RadiThor, a nostrum for the cure of erectile dysfunction was basically radium, dissolved in water. Ebenezer Byers, the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist who won the 1906 US Amateur golf tournament was so enamored of the stuff he drank two to three bottles, every day. The federal government shut RadiThor down in 1932 but not before Byers met a horrible end, his skeleton destroyed and much of his skull eaten away, his jawless body buried, in a lead lined coffin. In 1822, British businessman James Morrison cured his own “inexpressible suffering” with a home made vegetable pill said to cure, whatever ails you. Morrison’s “vegetable universal medicines” were roundly criticized by the medical establishment of the time, but that didn’t seem to hurt business. In 1836 one of Morrison’s resellers was convicted of manslaughter when the post-mortem of one unfortunate revealed a belly full of Morrison’s pills, to be the cause of death.

Which brings us to John Taylor and no, I’m not talking about the founding member, of Duran Duran. The self-styled “Chevalier” (knight) John Taylor was an oculist, Royal Eye Surgeon to none other than Britain’s King George, II.

Flamboyant, egotistical and utterly without principle, Taylor would ride into town in a horse drawn carriage painted with images of eyes and the words qui dat videre dat vivere (giving sight is giving life), painted on the side. Victims err, I mean patients of this Baroque era ShamWow pitchman were instructed to leave the bandage on for seven days, plenty long enough for the good doctor to get paid, and leave town. When he wasn’t busy writing his two-volume autobiography “The Life and Extraordinary History of the Chevalier John Taylor”, Taylor would ride into town and deliver a speech on a street corner before performing surgery. On the street corner. In an age before anesthesia with little conception of bacteria the idea was to get in and out, as quickly as possible.

Bach was losing his sight when he underwent the first of two unsuccessful surgeries. After the second, the composer developed a painful post-operative eye infection. Unsurprisingly, a ‘cure’ of laxatives and bleeding did little to relieve the symptoms. Johann Sebastian Bach died of his infection, just a few months later.

Händel was suffering with cataracts when he met the good doctor. Taylor performed a “couching” of the lens on this day in 1752, the insertion of a sharp hook to dislodge the lens and push it down, to emit light. On those few occasions where the procedure succeeded the patient would wear enormous, thick glasses to compensate, for the rest of his life. The other 70 percent including Mr. Händel …went blind.

The man who blinded Händel and all but murdered Bach worked most of his 72 years blinding hundreds of unfortunates before he himself, lost his sight. The English writer Samuel Johnson described the man’s life as “an instance of how far impudence may carry ignorance.” Today the name of John Taylor is all but forgotten, while the works of Bach and Händel live on, after all these centuries.

There’s a reason they call this stuff…Classical.

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