Saturday, 12 March 2016


"Rival Waits" - A. Forester, c.1896
In a new section I am calling  


Unravelingmusicalmyths will take a look back at some of Classical music’s most infamous, dog-eat-dog rivalries and testosterone fueled brawls that helped to spurn on an incessant need for perfectionism, a instinctual drive for productivity and an insane - and at times underhanded - quest for innovative originality in our beloved artists of yore (and even from some who exist in more recent times). 

Creating for the modern melophile a rich array of musical wealth and anecdotes, paired with a seemingly endless source of incredulity (and occasionally disgust), these scandalous tales of cunning conniveries are best served with a side of humor.

Our first entry into this series is the infamous

Händel-Mattheson DUEL TO THE DEATH:

 It seemed trouble was a-brewing for young upstart composer Georg Friedrich Händel almost from the beginning.

It would be in the city of Hamburg in Germany that the young Halle (later turned British) native and composer would narrowly escape a visit with the reaper following a sword-packing duel to the death with established composer to "Tor zur Welt,"[1] Johann Mattheson, in 1704.

After a brief period spent finding themselves both musically and as mates in Lübeck, the two young composers (Mattheson was 22, Handel was 18) would return to the city of Hamburg whereupon the elder composer earned the distinction of tutor to a young Cyril Wich (son of the Knight and Royal Ambassador to Great Britain, Sir John Wich), much to the jealous chagrin of Händel.

A young Georg Friedrich Händel
By December of 1704, both composers Händel and Mattheson would be present at the latter’s premiere staging of the opera The Misfortune of Cleopatra – loosely based on the late Pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt. Mattheson had inserted himself two times over in his own production, both as tenor in the role of Roman General Marcus Antonius, and most unexpectedly, as would-be conductor to his own opera (Antonius - "Anthony" - dies in the third act) following the drunken departure midway through the performance of the conductor assigned to the task.

It turned out Mattheson had a jealous streak of his own: having been impressed by fellow young German Händel's skill on the harpsichord back in Lübeck, the composer was aghast when he locked eyes with the orchestra pit - and saw Georg Friedrich seated in his place and ready to conduct the rest of the opera from the harpsichord!

The two immediately got into it – with suppressed and deeply rooted accusations of usurpery flying full-throttle, with Händel raging at his senior Mattheson for ‘stealing’ from the German dynamo his rightful place as teacher to young Cyril Wich, and with Mattheson steaming with hot tempered rage over the better harpsichordist, who was now incredulously attempting to steal his thunder at his own premiere!

The two former friends, now arch rivals found verbally slinging mere insults and accusations inadequate to express the rage now running through their veins and decided it best to “take it to the streets.” With sword in hand, Mattheson lunged at Handel’s breast with the full intent to mortally wound the pre-rotund composer by piercing him through the heart - but the tip of his sword did not seem to connect –it was stopped fast by a brass button upon his nemesis’ clothing.

Johann Mattheson
Legend suggests the former friend to Mattheson,  Georg Friedrich Händel, had a manuscript copy of the Cleopatra score tucked into his clothing at bosom height, which in turn added an extra layer of protection against the sharp thrust of the sword. Whether Handel carried the score as a sort of good luck charm for his "frenemy," or in expectation / prediction of the drunken conductor Reinhold Keiser bailing out mid performance – or even in anticipation of a possible duel - one thing is known for certain: the two composers - one of them almost becoming the victim of homicide from his one-time mate - quickly patched up both vest and friendship, once again becoming ardent admirers and solid companions to one another, with the ever-forgiving Händel even casting his would-be murderer in the lead role of two of his operas before making the fateful decision to leave Mattheson alone to flourish in Hamburg by departing himself to London, where he would overtake the British Classical music scene with gusto. 

Stay tuned to for more salacious tales of Mayhem Behind the Music!

A rather artistic portrayal of the famous Händel-Mattheson duel as depicted in Canadian director
Francis Colpron's 2003 production of "The Wandering Maestro":

[1]"Gateway to the World" - a 'nickname' for the city of Hamburg. History (external link).


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