By Robert Middlekauff
On Tuesday October 29, Ellen T. Harris came to Sewanee to discuss the reaction to her book, Handel as Orpheus. Dr Harris is a Professor of Music at MIT, and her work has appeared in numerous publications including Journal of the American Musicological Society and The New York Times. Professor Harris’ work concerns mainly the music of the Baroque period specifically the work of George Frideric Handel, a famous Baroque composer. Her most recent work on Handel, Handel as Orpheus, received a surprising amount of criticism due to the claims that he was involved in homosexual relationships.
Although the book is quite comprehensive in its analysis of Handel’s life and his work, the section concerning his sexuality received the most attention. Harris explained that she analyzed his unpublished, private cantatas written for his wealthy patrons and then discovered that there is sufficient evidence that he could have been involved in sexual relations with other men. While the majority of his cantatas do not show much evidence of his sexuality or love life, Harris finds that upon close analysis, some of the cantatas exhibit both homosexual symbolism and signs that much effort was taken to hide gender. The symbolism and gender ambiguity highlight an attempt to avoid portrayal of heterosexual love to portray either homosexual or, more generally, human love.
Harris, however, does not claim to know whether or not Handel was gay. She simply found evidence supporting this claim, and as a researcher would never hide any scholarly evidence, even if some people wish she had. Although Harris approached this issue as a heterosexual musicology researcher, she received a great deal of negative reactions with some accusing her of having a specific agenda such as to advance gay rights or to make money from a sensational book. One of Harris’ explanations for this reaction is the inability of people to see Handel’s famous works about love as possibly having to do with love between two men. Many people lack the ability to apply their notions of heterosexual love, with its range of emotional longing and strong feelings, to love between two individuals of the same sex.
One of the first newspaper reviews about the book was in The Telegraph in London which had the headline “Handel was gay – his music proves it, claims academic.” In the article, the author refers to Dr. Ellen T. Harris as “Dr. Ellis.” Such a falsified name makes this senior scholar sound more like a sex columnist than an actual researcher. This report was repeated in other newspapers, and her name was corrected slightly to “Dr. Ellen.” Such misnomers show the personal aspect of the negative reaction to this book which Harris found “utterly breathtaking.” For many it is less about the actual evidence and more about why this “Dr. Ellis” would claim such a thing.
Some of her colleagues also had negative reactions that seem to lack any sort of understanding of the nature of sexuality. One regret Dr. Harris has about this book is that she portrayed sexuality as binary: one can be either homosexual or heterosexual. This of course is not the truth and certainly ignores many of the social realities of eighteenth century society. People at that time married for status, and it was quite normal for gay men of the upper classes to have a wife and children. Although Handel was not married, one of Harris’ critics, Anthony Hicks, claims that the marital statuses of Handel’s lovers prove their heterosexuality: “She says that Lord Burlington was gay but the fact is that he was married with three children; as was Prince Ruspoli.” Some also see a rumour about Handel having an affair with one of his singers as sufficient counter evidence as well, ignoring the fact that a heterosexual affair does not exclude any other sexual relationships.
Despite the criticisms, Harris’ book has been quite successful. The book received the 2002 Otto Kindeldey Award from the American Musicological Society and the 2002-03 Louis Gottschalk Prize from the Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.
Harris explained on Tuesday that the reactions provided an important learning experience for her about what it actually means to be LGBTQ, including the struggles that are involved with having such an identity. Her central message is “you have to speak truths and speak truths to hatred and fear.” And one thing she knows is true is that Handel’s cantatas are expressions of human love, a love that happens between two humans regardless of their gender.