The quarrel between the great Saxon composer and his opponents raged incessantly both in public and private. The newspaper and the drawing-room rang alike with venomous diatribes. Handel was called a swindler, a drunkard, and a blasphemer, to whom Scripture even was not sacred. The idea of setting Holy Writ to music scandalized the Pharisees, who reveled in the licentious operas and love-songs of the Italian school. All the small wits of the time showered on Handel epigram and satire unceasingly. The greatest of all the wits, however, Alexander Pope, was his firm friend and admirer; and in the “Dunciad,” wherein the wittiest of poets impaled so many of the small fry of the age with his pungent and vindictive shaft, he also slew some of the most malevolent of Handel’s foes.
Fielding, in “Tom Jones,” has an amusing hit at the taste of the period: “It was Mr. Western’s custom every afternoon, as soon as he was drunk, to hear his daughter play on the harpsichord; for he was a great lover of music, and perhaps, had he lived in town, might have passed as a connoisseur, for he always excepted against the finest compositions of Mr. Handel.”
So much had it become the fashion to criticise Handel’s new effects in vocal and instrumental composition, that some years later Mr. Sheridan makes one of his characters fire a pistol simply to shock the audience, and makes him say in a stage whisper to the gallery, “This hint, gentlemen, I took from Handel.”
The composer’s Oxford experience was rather amusing and suggestive. We find it recorded that in July, 1733, “one Handell, a foreigner, was desired to come to Oxford to perform in music.” Again the same writer says: “Handell with his lousy crew, a great number of foreign fiddlers, had a performance for his own benefit at the theatre.” One of the dons writes of the performance as follows: “This is an innovation; but every one paid his five shillings to try how a little fiddling would sit upon him. And, notwithstanding the barbarous and inhuman combination of such a parcel of unconscionable scamps, he [Handel] disposed of the most of his tickets.”
“Handel and his lousy crew,” however, left Oxford with the prestige of a magnificent victory. His third oratorio, “Athaliah,” was received with vast applause by a great audience. Some of his university admirers, who appreciated academic honors more than the musician did, urged him to accept the degree of Doctor of Music, for which he would have to pay a small fee. The characteristic reply was a Parthian arrow: “Vat te tevil I trow my money away for dat vich the blockhead vish’? I no vant!”