Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 2 (Spring 2003)

Ellen Harris. Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2001. xi, 430p. Illus., port., bibliog., index ISBN 0-674-00617-8.

Scholars have been discussing the subject of Handel's sexuality (or lack thereof) for over two centuries. A lifelong bachelor, Handel has been variously described as a "lady-killer," a "womanizer," "celibate," and "gay," to name but a few examples.1 Enter Ellen Harris's new book Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, which offers circumstantial evidence of Handel's attraction to the same sex. Equally important, this book is the first extended monograph on Handel's cantatas since John Mayo's dissertation of 1977,2 and it contains a complete set of their translations into English.

Despite the homocentric association of the book, Handel as Orpheus is not about "outing" Handel (p. 22), or assigning him a particular sexual orientation. Rather, it provides the social, political, religious, literary, and sexual contexts for Handel's cantatas in order to better understand their texts; and engages the cantatas from a linear perspective, organizing the various chapters by chronology, instrumental forces, and subject matter.

Harris begins by establishing concepts of sexuality as understood in early 18th-century Italy and England. In the "Prologue: 'The ways of the world,'" Harris explores how the concept of being "gay" or "homosexual" did not exist as we think of it today, but was part of a continuum of sexual preferences: "a person who engaged in homosexual acts usually did so within a larger compass of sexual activity" (p. 15). This point is aimed at those who might mistake evidence of heterosexual activity in a person from the early 18th century (i.e. married or had children) as somehow inoculating them from possibly having had or indulged in same-sex desires. This held true regardless of social class. Lords Hervey and Beckford, both of whom were married, were well-known sodomites, and about a third of the men rounded up in "molly houses"3 - all lower class - were also married (p. 16).

Social context also plays a large role in the first chapter, which investigates literary codes embedded in the cantata texts. Harris asserts that homosexuality is often signified in the cantata texts by the names of such historical and/or mythological characters as Nero and Orpheus, who were known in their original and early 18th-century sources as participating in same-sex love. The first reference to Handel as Orpheus, a reoccurring theme throughout his life as well as this book (hence the title), occurs in the cantata Hendel, non puņ mia musa (1707). According to Harris, this cantata reveals the librettist Cardinal Pamphili's sexual desire for Handel.

Chapters 2-4 explore the cantatas composed in Italy by dividing them according to the musical forces for which they were composed, and then subdividing them by textual themes and vocal identities. Chapter 2 investigates the 17 solo instrumental cantatas - all from 1707 - and the differences between the ways and types of emotions expressed by the male and female characters. Chapter 3 examines the largest grouping, the 52 solo continuo cantatas of 1707-1708, and their pastoral poetry. In these texts the gender of the singing persona is rarely identified. Chapter 4 analyzes the seven instrumental duet and trio cantatas and their revisions, most of which originate in 1708. The texts of this final group deal directly with change and metamorphoses, often conveyed through stories of pursuit, such as Apollo and Daphne, or Acis and Galatea.

The final three chapters deal with Handel's cantatas composed for Hanover and London. As with the first four chapters, Harris continues the topical framework. Chapter 5 delves into Handel's increasing use of silent pauses and disruptions in his cantata settings and their possible significance in relation to their texts and English literary trends of the first half of the 18th century. Chapter 6 looks at plausible homosexual readings of the large-scale works Acis and Galatea and Esther, performed for the Earl of Carnarvon in 1718. Finally, the Epilogue discusses alterations and revivals in the 1730s of some of Handel's earlier cantatas, suggesting reasons for these changes. It also examines alternate identities given to Handel in this decade, and their possible homosexual subtext.

Handel as Orpheus also includes two substantial and scholarly appendices, comprising almost one quarter of the book. The first appendix is an authoritative chronology of the cantatas based on watermarks, page layout, documentary evidence (such as the account books of Handel's patrons), and compositional aspects. Harris provides an in-depth discussion of data conflicts, so readers may deduce for themselves the reasons for and validity of her conclusions. The second appendix contains a complete listing of the original texts and literal translations of the 67 continuo cantatas arranged alphabetically. This achievement is equally significant. Prior to this publication, most of the texts only existed in the cantata autographs. In order for Harris to create the translations, she had to overcome copious scribal errors, verse length, rhyme scheme, and poetic meter issues.

The benefits of approaching the cantatas from a contextual as well as a topical perspective are numerous. The social context allows the reader to understand plausible relationships between the cantata texts and contemporary society that lie below the texts' primarily generic surface; and the topical framework outlines the changing patterns in Handel's compositional approach to the cantatas, allowing the reader to perceive emerging patterns in Handel's music evident in his later works.

Another praiseworthy note is due for the copious musical examples. Not only does their inclusion allow readers to judge for themselves the merits of the arguments, Harris capitalizes on these opportunities by exploring Handel's rhetorical text settings. It is further notable that all the musical examples were created, wherever possible, directly from the autographs or primary manuscript copies.

One problem with Handel as Orpheus lies in Harris's seemingly contradictory views regarding Handel's relationship with the texts he is setting. From the outset Harris makes it quite clear that one should not presuppose any relationship between the text that Handel sets, and what Handel himself thinks about that text (p. 20). While for the most part she successfully maintains this distinction between text (which represents the librettist's voice), and Handel's setting of the text (which may or may not represent Handel's personal views), her tone often suggests otherwise. Harris regularly refers to the characters - and NOT their musical settings - as Handel's. Phrases such as "Handel's women" (p. 2), "Handel's cantata texts" (p. 12), and "Handel's men" (p. 50) appear regularly enough to be disconcerting. Thus, it becomes difficult not to equate the characters' cultural, social and sexual identities with Handel's own.

One could make the case that since Handel gave each character a voice, they do partly represent Handel's own voice. While this may be true, Harris adamantly points out that we can never know what Handel thought of these texts. Moreover, Handel was very adept at getting himself hired to write music for opposing political spheres throughout his life (p. 23), reminding us how dangerous it is to associate Handel's personal views too closely with his musical settings of texts.

A second issue worth mentioning is the relationship of this book to Gary C. Thomas's article "Was George Frideric Handel Gay?"4 While it is clear that Harris's book and Thomas's article are distinct entities (more on this below), perhaps more credit is due to Thomas for ideas that Harris overlaps and builds upon. Examples include placing the cantatas in the years of Handel's employment by aristocrats,5 the private and largely homosexual lifestyles of Handel's patrons,6 and even the repetition of the possibly overstated homosexual relationship between Lord Burlington and his landscape architect William Kent.7 Despite this overlapping of ideas, Thomas is only acknowledged in Handel as Orpheus for bringing Handel's possible queerness out of the closet (p. 14).

In fairness to Harris, the direction in which she takes Thomas's ideas is quite original. She alone discovered that Handel's cantata composition period was exclusive to his years living in other people's houses. Further, Harris deduces that when Handel finally bought his own house, he not only stopped composing cantatas, he began suppressing homosexual aspects within some of the cantatas. From this Harris infers that Handel suppressed homosexual overtones in his cantatas to obfuscate references to his possibly being gay. Interestingly, these changes can equally be read as a reason for Handel not being gay.

One final criticism of Handel as Orpheus is the bibliography, which contains only the more frequently cited sources, leaving the lesser-cited works as complete citations within the endnotes for the chapters in which they initially appear. Harris states this method was chosen for its simplicity, in hopes of avoiding one long list or numerous overlapping short lists, both of which seemed unwieldy (p. 367). While this approach is understandable in such a large-scale work, it nonetheless threatens the book's integrity as a comprehensive resource.

The merits of Handel as Orpheus are numerous. Harris has provided the first all-inclusive study of Handel's cantatas from a social and political perspective. One gets a sense not only of how these cantatas fit into Handel's oeuvre as a whole, but of how these cantata texts fit into their social milieu. It offers well-researched and thought-provoking readings that are to be understood not as irrefutable truths, but as alternative interpretations that are equally as tenable as more traditionalist views.

Does Handel as Orpheus come to a conclusion of whether or not Handel was gay? No, but it provides enough circumstantial evidence to allow one to form one's own opinion.

-Tim Neufeldt


Hunt, John Dixon. William Kent: Landscape Garden Designer. Edited by Peter Willis, Architects in Perspective. London: A. Zwemmer Ltd., 1987.

Mayo, John. "Handel's Italian Cantatas." dissertation, University of Toronto, 1977.

Thomas, Gary C. ""Was George Frideric Handel Gay?": On Closet Questions and Cultural Politics." In Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas, 155-203. New York: Routledge, 1994.


1. See Harris, Handel as Orpheus, p. 14. For a thorough discussion, see also Gary C. Thomas, "'Was George Frideric Handel Gay?': On Closet Questions and Cultural Politics," in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas (New York: Routledge, 1994), 155-203.

2. Harris regularly refers to Mayo's dissertation throughout her book. John Mayo, "Handel's Italian Cantatas" (dissertation, University of Toronto, 1977).

3. Molly houses were homosexual clubs for men, where they could meet for sexual encounters (p. 16).

4. Thomas, "Was Handel Gay?"

5. Harris states that cantata composition " was limited in Handel's life to a specific period ... which ... exactly matches the years during which Handel lived in the homes of his aristocratic patrons" (p.1). Compare with Thomas, who states "...Handel's social orbit coincided, and from an early age, with the most important private and public spaces occupied by homoerotic men of a certain social status and privilege," (p. 174)

6. Compare Thomas, p. 174-175, with Harris, chap. 1, chap. 5, 188-189.

7. Compare Thomas, p. 177-178, 180 and Harris, p. 188. Both suggest Lord Burlington and William Kent had an ongoing sexual relationship. Thomas provides no sources for his conclusion on p. 178, while Harris quotes John Harris's The Palladian's (1981), p. 18. While Kent and Burlington may have engaged in homosexual activities, one should also keep in mind that Kent had numerous mistresses, including the actress Elizabeth Butler, to whom he left the bulk of his estate. See John Dixon Hunt, William Kent: Landscape Garden Designer, ed. Peter Willis, Architects in Perspective (London: A. Zwemmer Ltd., 1987), 87.