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The Hidden “G.F.Handel” Signature
in Handel’s Messiah
by Roy Neil Graves
Copyright 2001, All rights reserved


Handel’s funeral effigy in Westminster Abbey
(by Louis François Roubiliac, 1760)

             

         
        This piece first came out in The Norris [Tennessee] Bulletin on 6 December, 2001, under the title And all flesh shall see it together”: The Hidden Signature in Handel’s Messiah, by Roy Neil Graves, Professor of English, The University of Tennessee at Martin. The article is for a general audience and is not formally documented, but the sources of information are reputable and generally available. Posted 31 August 2005.

            A year ago, in the fall of 2000 during a Choral Society rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah here in Martin, Tennessee, I found what looks and sounds like “G. F. Handel” hidden in the texture of this recurring Christmas classic. If the nameplay is an authorized signature, as I believe, it offers the first proof that Handel played witty games in his music.    
            German born, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) lived in England after 1712 and was widely famous. He wrote TheMessiah in 1741 and premiered it in Dublin in 1742.      
            The nameplay in his Messiah is a musical pun hiding in two identical phrases in measures 64 and 103 of “And the Glory of the Lord” (No. 4, the first chorus). The play occurs in an unobscured exchange between altos and tenors, the two “inner voices.”       
            Measure 103 of Chorus 4 in the respected Spicker edition (1912), below right, shows the nameplay elements. (Handel’s manuscript and conducting scores, which are harder to read, confirm the details.) Top-to-bottom, the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts run concurrently.             

               Some nameplay elements here are fairly overt: the altos’ printed notes G-F, leading into the tenors’ phrase “...and all....” 
            More subtly, this word/note cluster shows an “...h” (in “flesh...”) inscribed just where “and all...” starts.  
            Another crafty detail is even more obscure: Handel’s native German system of pitch-names uses “H” to designate the note that in English is “B natural.” Thus the tenors are actually singing “and...” on an “H”!    
            These two sly, overlaid forms of “H”—an alphabetic/phonic symbol and a pitch name—are strategic in generating an insistently complete form of “G F(h)(H)and all.”    
            The whole contextual phrase, “And all flesh shall see it together,” now seems to pun “Everybody will see my name coalesce all at once.”    
            Now we wonder how for over 250 years we’ve missed hearing “and all” in the first large statement of TheMessiah. The separate voice lines in Chorus 4 house 25 “and all’s,” cascading over each other in playful contrapuntal waterfalls.  
            Hearing the pun on “Handel” and then finding the full nameplay was not really accidental for me. Since 1977 my main research has studied hidden games and coterie wit in literature from Anglo-Saxon times onward. As a kind of literary archaeologist, I specialize in digging up antique buried treasures that show lost artistry.

   Fig. 1. Choral parts, Measure 103, Chorus 4, “And the Glory of the Lord,” G. F. Handel’s Messiah (Schirmer/Spicker ed., 1912)

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            What other scholars tell us about Handel helps validate his Messiah signature. He was jocular and a meticulous craftsman, still fully sighted, who signed his name “G.F.Handel” in the 1740s. His contemporaries openly discussed games and puzzles in music. And he had a ready-made private audience to impress, a brotherhood of sage musicians called the Mizler Society that included Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) and J. S. Bach (1685-1750), the two other leading German composers of the day.   
             Whatever our image of Handel, he was a playful man. His composer-friend Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) said he was “inclined by nature to dry jokes.” Charles Burney’s History of Music (1776-89) compared his wit to Jonathan Swift’s, with “bon mots...as frequent, and somewhat of the same kind.” The critic John Runciman mentions Handel’s “swift, keen, sure” intellect and “pungent and...copious wit.”  
             Precedents for nameplays in music abounded, especially in Bach’s writings after 1713. Bach had used pitch names to hide “BACH” (with H = German B) in several works. Biographer Karl Geiringer calls such artful elements “lusus ingenii” (intellectual games) and compares Bach to a Renaissance artist “portraying himself in his picture.”
             In a six-part puzzle canon dated 1746, Bach even hid “GFHAENDEL” by using the number alphabet and other numeric methods. (“AE” represents the umlauted “a” that Handel himself dropped in England. Seeking initiation into the Mizler Society, Bach presented this canon and a portrait of himself holding a page of it up for scrutiny. Scholars say that Bach joined the group because Handel in 1745 had done so.
            Bach’s interest in arcane numerology shows the mindset of the Mizler circle during the 1740s. Since the “BACH” name-number was 14, the sum of B+A+C+H (i.e., 2+1+3+8) in the number alphabet, Bach delayed joining the Society until 1747 just so he could enter as its 14th member.
            Bach’s protege Lorenz Christoph Mizler (1711-78) had founded the “Society for the Promotion of Musical Sciences ” in 1738 in Leipzig as a select scholarly group. Members, 20 of them by 1755, swapped theoretical writings and published a journal.
            My theory is that Handel hid his name in The Messiah with members of this brotherhood mainly in mind as his first audience. Scholars have always thought that Handel’s fame uniquely exempted him from the Society’s initiation tests. My own guess is that the The Messiah nameplay was known inside the group in 1745 when Handel joined—and that Bach gestured toward it in 1746 when he hid Handel’s name in his canon.   
            Both friendly oneupmanship and imitation as the “sincerest form of flattery” were likely motives in Bach and Handel’s leapfrogging interaction as pranksters.

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             Skeptics may object that Handel’s text for Chorus 4 was doubly not his own, the words of Isaiah 40:5 (KJV) having come to him in a verse compilation assembled by his librettist Charles Jennens, Jr. (1700-73). But like any clever punster, Handel could have made playful use of found materials.  Maybe Jennens even set him up by picking the verse that had the pun “...and all...” in it for him to toy with.    
             Any who think an egoistic prank couldn’t reside in a scriptural oratorio misread Handel’s secular age.   
            Skeptics who protest that “G-F” in the nameplay is really G# F# (in the A major key signature) need to remember that the sharp symbol (#) is a stylized variant of “H” (Grove music dictionary)—Handel’s initial.  Elliptically, “G# F#” might also mean “G[eorge] F[rideric],” written like a funny curse. Too, by 1741 “sharp” already meant “quick-witted, clever..., pointed, apt, witty” (OED).    
             The word “Handel” as noun or verb was also a germane pun because in German it meant “transaction” and “to haggle (over).” In English, “handle” meant “ply or wield with the hand” and “treat artistically.” A “handle” could also be a name or a tagged-on name element (OED).  
             Because Handel in the 1730s had been openly caricatured as a massive glutton, the term “Handel flesh...” may be a joking self-reference.    
             Handel, like Bach, would almost certainly have played with his own name number—44, equal to HANDEL in the number alphabet.  I think it’s no accident that “and all” occurs (twice) in No. 4 of The Messiah, or that No. 44 is the climactic “Hallelujah!” chorus.   
            Handel’s initials, “GFH” (H=B natural), would have been easy to work into music as a short signature. This notestring recurs in The Messiah.     
             On Handel’s tomb effigy in Westminster Abbey (see the illustration at top right in the heading of this link), in fact, the notes G#F# cluster teasingly over alphabetic “h” in the top line of the aria No. 45, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” on the extra-large marble sheet Handel is holding—much as Bach holds his puzzle canon in the 1746 portrait. If this “GFH” cluster is a conscious nameplay, post-mortem tricksterism by survivors in Handel’s circle must be at work—or at play.   
            The visibly inscribed first line in this aria sits under the possible pun “Large Head, too” in the heading “Larghetto.”  The aria’s first line may encode such puns as “I, naughty [GF]H., admired...” and “Eye naughty [GF]H., admire a demurral [modest act]....”    
            Burying name elements in music has persisted. In 1835, Robert Schumann used motific variants of his initials, “ASCH”—also his girlfriend’s hometown!—in Carnaval. And Dmitri Shostakovich in 1960 wove “DSCH” into his Eighth Quartet as what one scholar calls a recurring “ego symbol.”

***

     
      See also Bartholomew Sullivan, “Scholar Sees Bit of a Messiah Complex in Handel's Score." The [Memphis] Commercial Appeal, 8 December 2001, B1+, illustrated. See also Wendy Isom, “UTM Professor Finds Pun in Handel’s ‘Messiah’.” The Jackson [Tennessee] Sun, 22 Dec. 2001, Religion sec., C1+, illustrated. See also “Class Notes: Sixties.”Unionite: The Union University Magazine, 53.3(Summer 2002): 28.


           
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