George Frideric Handel

A Life with Friends

Ellen T. Harris (Author)


An intimate portrait of Handel’s life and inner circle, modeled after one of the composer’s favorite forms: the fugue.

During his lifetime, the sounds of Handel’s music reached from court to theater, echoed in cathedrals, and filled crowded taverns, but the man himself—known to most as the composer of Messiah—is a bit of a mystery. Though he took meticulous care of his musical manuscripts and even provided for their preservation on his death, very little of an intimate nature survives.

One document—Handel’s will—offers us a narrow window into his personal life. In it, he remembers not only family and close colleagues but also neighborhood friends. In search of the private man behind the public figure, Ellen T. Harris has spent years tracking down the letters, diaries, personal accounts, legal cases, and other documents connected to these bequests. The result is a tightly woven tapestry of London in the first half of the eighteenth century, one that interlaces vibrant descriptions of Handel’s music with stories of loyalty, cunning, and betrayal.

With this wholly new approach, Harris has achieved something greater than biography. Layering the interconnecting stories of Handel’s friends like the subjects and countersubjects of a fugue, Harris introduces us to an ambitious, shrewd, generous, brilliant, and flawed man, hiding in full view behind his public persona.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • September 2014
  • ISBN 978-0-393-08895-3
  • 6.5 × 9.6 in / 496 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Endorsements & Reviews

George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends is the consummation of Ellen Harris's long professional life with Handel. It is the work of a wise scholar who views musicians as social beings and music as social activity. That outlook, and the author’s fresh and supple prose, make this a most appealing, finally endearing, book.” — Richard Taruskin, University of California, Berkeley

“Ellen Harris's background as a singer and an expert in historic vocal performance practice gives her a unique vantage point. Her fugal approach treats Handel's life, times, music, and social circle as distinct themes in a narrative that goes far beyond simple biography. It is a fitting and fascinating way to reveal Handel's personality, and Harris adds layers of understanding to his genius.” — Renée Fleming

“This thoroughly engaging, inventively structured, and politically, socially, psychologically, and musically astute account confirms Ellen Harris's place as our most illuminating Handel scholar. How lucky we are that someone who knows so much can also write so well.” — Lloyd Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize–winning music critic

“Surely no one knows the life and music of Handel more intimately than Ellen Harris. Her daringly original approach to his biography reveals surprising and enlightening connections between contemporary events and his music. This is one of the most insightful—and one of the most humane—composer biographies to appear in quite some time.” — Robert L. Marshall, Brandeis University

“This book is an awesome tribute, and an undertaking beyond imagination.” — Gilbert Blin, opera director

“Admirable in its scope and boldness. A fascinating, joyful achievement!” — Dame Emma Kirkby

“A fascinatingly pure application of [Handel’s] music to history…an interesting, unique, and significant work of nonfiction.” — Weston Williams, Christian Science Monitor

“An illuminating, refracted portrait of Handel’s previously obscure inner life… a large-scale fugue, with a series of themes that appear, metamorphose, and interact with one another.” — David Weininger, Boston Globe

“Readers will… have a much clearer picture of how Handel lived and worked, and how his music relates to events of the day as well as to the lives of his friends… This quirky biography repays careful reading.” — Melinda Bargreen, Seattle Times

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