Jan 2

[Anna Seward to Mrs Jackson, 2 January 1799.]


The Creator dispenses intellect in extreme inequality, and with countless shades of difference in degree; and though modern philosophers, maintaining hypotheses against the incessant decisions of experience, assert otherwise, yet He as certainly frames the mind and bodily organs, for the attainment of excellence in some one science or art, which it could not attain in any other.

And it has not unfrequently occurred to my reflections, that, in every science and art, and again in each separate branch of that science and art, He destines, in some only one, in others a very few, to acquire the last limit, or highest summit of its excellence, which human powers can acquire.  Thus Newton stands on the extremest bound of astronomic acquirement; Shakespeare in approachless greatness and lustre in dramatic poetry; Homer and Milton in the epic, [… 190]  In painting, Michael Angelo, the three Caraccis, and Raphael, seem to have thus excelled their rivals in the historic style; Poussin, Claude, and Salvator in the landscape.  While in music, when it marries immortal verse, and then only is it truly sublime, Handel stands approachless as Shakespeare himself in grandeur and variety.[1]




May 6

[Anna Seward to F. N. C. Mundy, 6 May 1799.]


Can you take up a review, or magazine, without meeting criticism on poetry which outrages every thing like taste, feeling, or even commonsense?  One lies before me at this moment.  It is the New London Review for last April, the present year.  I am tempted to transcribe from it the following curious sentences.

“We have little blank verse in our language which delights the ear of taste, if we except the Handel-harmonies of Milton, and that delicious music in some of Shakespeare’s lines, which equally enchant us with the sweetness and beauty of the thought. […”][2]





            FOR the following anecdotes and characters of this great musician and of Handel, the Compiler is indebted to the elegant pen of his friend DR. BURNEY.

[… 560561 “…] The writer of this article [i.e. Burney] [562] is old enough to remember the affectionate rapture with which he was mentioned by those who knew him personally.  Handel lived in a more polished age, and had to display the talents of performers of a much higher class than those for whom Purcell composed; but it may, perhaps, admit of a dispute which was gifted with the largest portion of innate genius; had Handel been Purcell, and Purcell Handel, with equal longevity, it may be doubted whether the public would have received more pleasure from either of their productions.  Handel moved in a wider sphere, and travelled the grand high road to fame.  Purcell moved on a more contracted scale, and arrived at her temple by a more private road; but he cannot be said to have lost his way: He did arrive there, and had an honourable niche assigned him, though not in so conspicuous a place as Handel justly obtained.” [563]



            “IT is frequently found in the biography of great men, that they have pursued by stealth a course of study totally different from that which was destined them by their friends.

            “Among great astronomers Copernicus was intended for a physician; Tycho Brahe for jurisprudence; Pascal, when a child, could not be prevented from becoming a geometrician, in spite of his father’s wishes to keep him back; Euler, intended for the church, relinquished the study of theology for that of mathematics, contrary to the desire of his family; nor could Handel, intended for the profession of the civil law, be deterred by his father from the study of music surreptitiously, even before he was allowed a master, or arrived at seven years of age.  He was certainly a great performer on the organ and a good contrapuntist before he went to Italy at four-and-twenty; but it was there, by the compositions of Carissimi, the elder Scarlatti, and Corelli, that he refined his taste in melody; and by the study and practice of the Italian language, and the [564] performance of great theatrical singers, that he qualified himself for composing Italian operas, and for being selected, in preference to all the masters in Europe, to compose and superintend, under the auspices of the Royal Academy, the Italian opera in London*.

            “It seems manifest that Handel continued to change and improve his vocal melody from the taste and talents of the great singers who successively arrived in England during the existence of the Royal Academy, and his own opera regency.  Thus we see the songs composed for Nicolini, Senesino, Caristini, Boschi, the Cuzzoni, Faustina, and Strada, all in different styles, to suit their peculiar powers and compass of voice, and here we have his most flowery melodies and proofs of his inventive powers.  But in composing Te Deums, Anthems, and Oratorios, his immortal chorusses, the offspring of profound knowledge and study, [565] chiefly occupied his attention; the solo airs being often composed for ordinary singers, he was obliged to degrade his fancy to the level of the performers for whom he had to write, and to consider, not what he could invent, but what they could execute.  He had, indeed, Francessina some time; and Frasi and Galli, never opera performers of the first class, were the best singers for whom he had to compose; the rest were little better than ballad singers, except Mrs. Cibber, who without knowledge of music, by thoroughly feeling and comprehending the words, and by a natural pathetic expression and touching tone of voice, was enabled to sing the two divine airs of ‘He was despised,’ in the Messiah; and ‘Return, O God of Hosts,’ in Sampson, with more effect than any of the greatest opera singers, with all their skill and refinements, could produce.  Handel in his chorusses, besides the superior merit of fugue and learned counterpoint, is a great painter; not merely by delineating obvious and common passions and ideas, but by awakening in the mind sensations which seemed out of the reach of musical expression; particularly in Israel in Egypt, where the chorusses, next to those in Messiah, are the most original, [566] impressive, and surprising.  Other individual chorusses might be pointed out in all his oratorios, such as ‘O God, who in thy heavenly hand,’ in Solomon; others in Sampson, Judas Maccabaeus, Deborah, &c. are of unrivalled and of infinite merit; but as a whole, in no one oratorio are the chorusses so constantly sublime and astonishing as in the Messiah and Israel in Egypt.

            “His compositions for the organ, particularly the six fugues in the first book of his Pieces de Clavecin are, for pleasing subjects, and masterly treatment, perhaps, the most perfect productions of that elaborate kind, and for that divine instrument, that have ever been published.

            “His performance on the organ can no otherwise be described than by saying that it was the most clear, pleasing, and masterly, that can be imagined.  Full and rich harmony, but never tinctured by crude, pedantic, and affected modulation; availing himself of the genius and powers of the instrument, the chain of kindred sounds was never broken; his singers seemed to grow to the keys, and all the harmonic relations to be combined and preserved from the beginning of a movement to the end. [567]

            “Of his probity, bluntness, wit, humour, and original pleasantry, nothing is left to be said.  His piety can never be doubted by those who hear his divine strains, which make others feel too much, not to assure us that he felt the sacred subject he had to treat himself.  In short, he was in all things an extraordinary man; not only for his professional abilities, but for his spirit, fortitude, manners, grotesque images, and original ideas.”

            Though Dr. Burney has so amply reviewed the works of Handel in his ‘History of Music,’ and enthusiastically pointed out the extraordinary merit of those pieces that were selected for his Commemoration, in the excellent account he has given of that celebration, at the request of the Sovereign*, the COMPILER could not help requesting him to go over the ground again, and to furnish him with some account of that great musician for the present COLLECTION.  Such an account, indeed, might have been easily extracted from the works just mentioned; but he wished that the merits of Handel might be impressed on the minds of his [568] readers by one [i.e. Seward] infinitely more capable of doing them justice than himself, and whose eminent knowledge of the subject leaves him without appeal.[3]




In all polite and civilized nations, the early practice of Music was strongly recommended, as tending most powerfully to soothe the discordant passions, to influence the taste, and fix the morals of youth, by exalting and improving the human mind, and raising our nature to higher degrees of virtue.  The ingenious Author of the Memoirs of Handel makes this interesting remark: “Too much reason is there for believing that the interest of religion and humanity are not so strongly guarded, or so firmly secured, as easily to spare those succours, or forego those assistances, which are administered to them by the elegant arts.”


The style of a cadence should always be derived from the character of the song, to which it should be strictly appropriate.  It is a work, therefore, not only of judgment, but invention likewise; and public singers have, in truth, an arduous task to perform, when they are called on, in the course of an Opera or Oratorio, to produce so many cadences in so many various styles and manners.


Recitative; this style or manner of singing borders on declamation…The singer ought to bear in mind, that here he has sentiments to express, as well as sounds; he should perfectly understand what he says, as well as what he sings, and not only modulate his notes with the art of a musician, but also pronounce his words with the propriety and energy of a public speaker.—HANDEL seems super-eminent in this species of composition, as the Author of his Memoirs observes, “without attempting to explain the causes of the forcible expression, and overpowering pathos, which breathe in many passages of his Recitative, I will only alledge [sic] these effects of music to shew that its true use, and greatest value, is to heighten the natural impressions of Religion and Humanity.”[4]



[1] Letters of Anna Seward: written between the Years 1784 and 1807, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1811), 5:189–90.

[2] Letters of Anna Seward: written between the Years 1784 and 1807, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1811), 5:223.

* In his way to England, after his journey to Italy, Handel, at Hanover, sat for his picture to the celebrated German painter Wolfgang.  Dr. Burney is in possession of this valuable portrait; it is a half length, and there are many persons still living who remember the great musician very like this picture.

* To this book he has prefixed a Sketch of the Life of Handel.

[3] [William Seward], Biographiana, 2 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1799), 2:559–68.

[4] Joseph Corfe, A Treatise on Singing (London: [?], [1799]), 1, 5, 8.