FriendshipDONALD DE MARCO
One of the most extraordinary friendships in the annals of music history is that between George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), perhaps the world's greatest composer of dramatic choral music, and Johann Matheson (1681-1764), a prolific composer in his own right.
A friend is one who may pour out all the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.
One of the most extraordinary friendships in the annals of music history is that between George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), perhaps the world's greatest composer of dramatic choral music, and Johann Matheson (1681-1764), a prolific composer in his own right. Music was their common and unifying passion. As young men, they once journeyed together from Hamburg to Lübeck to seek the post of organist open on the retirement of the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude. The two produced much music on this occasion, but decided not to compete for the post once they learned that the successful candidate was obliged to marry Buxtehude's daughter. Another of their joint adventures almost cost them not only their friendship, but their lives.
Flying off the Handel
Music, which brought these two highly independent young men together, almost killed them. At a performance in December 1704 of his own opera, Cleopatra, Matheson sang the role of Marcus Antonius and, while off stage, conducted in full costume from his place at the clavecin. Handel, who conducted while his partner was on stage, insisted that once the Antonius character had been slain, Matheson should not reappear as the conductor. But Matheson wanted to make sure of his bows at the finish. When it was clear that neither of these hardheaded individuals was going to give in, they began fighting each other, in full view of a shocked theater audience.
After the fisticuffs were declared a draw, the two marched outside into the market place and entered into a duel. Surrounded by an excited crowd some cheering for Handel, others for Matheson the two youths engaged in spirited swordplay. Suddenly, seeing his opening, Matheson lunged forward. His sword, however, struck a large button on Handel's coat and snapped off short. As they stood facing each other, Handel's life having been spared by a miracle, his opponent was now at his mercy. What flashed across the agitated brain of the 19-year-old genius at this moment? Friendship, pride, vengeance, honor, and forgiveness, no doubt all swirled around in his head, wildly and out of tune. It was friendship that won the battle. Handel dropped his sword. Simultaneously, they burst into tears and embraced each other.
This operatic, near-tragic incident actually deepened their friendship, which lasted until Handel's death. Matheson survived his friend by four years. The belligerent young man, who came so close to depriving the world of such masterpieces as the Messiah and Israel in Egypt, was the first to write Handel's biography.
School of Love
Eight years before he died, Handel lost his sight. The misfortune occurred with dramatic coincidence while he was writing music to the words, "How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees . . . all our joys to sorrow turning . . . as the night succeeds the day." It was a moment, one might say, that captures the essence of one's friendship with God. "Thou art lightning and love," said the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, grappling to understand why The Deutschland sank, and with it, five Franciscan nuns. There is the chaff and the grain, the light and the darkness, the lightning and the love. Like all friendships, one's friendship with God requires a multitude of virtues, not the least of which are humility and trust.
Handel accepted his blindness with humility. He was able to see at intervals during his last years, but for all practical purposes, his sight never returned after that fateful day in May of 1752.
On April 6, 1759, Handel broke down while taking part in The Messiah. When taken home after the performance, he expressed the desire that he would pass from the world on Good Friday, "in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of His Resurrection." He died in the early hours of Holy Saturday, April 14, 1759.
Friendship, with God or neighbor, is not, as someone once said, "the only rose without thorns." True friendship is purifying as well as pleasurable. Therefore, it must contain a thorn that pricks us out of complacency. The love that is inherent in friendship allows us to forgive transgressions against us. But it also allows us to become aware of our own transgressions against others and to learn from them. Friendship is a school of love in which we meet to honor and forgive each other, while we grow in grace and gratitude.
Donald. "Friendship." Lay Witness (January/February 2005): 14-15.
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