Sensitive – Heroic – Sublime. Women in Music at the Time of Handel

was the title that Zurich musicologist Laurenz Lütteken gave to his introductory talk at a symposium held during the 2015 Göttingen Handel Festival. The Halle Handel Festival, from 31 May to 16 June 2019, will be picking up this still topical social issue and taking inspiration from Laurenz Lütteken’s thoughts on the subject (in this respect, many thanks to Professor Lütteken for agreeing to the use of his presentation title). We might be forgiven for assuming that at least in Europe, after the drawing up of the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” by Olympe de Gouges in 1791, the legal, political and social equality of men and women would by now be a reality. Yet in today’s Germany, this is still not the case. This is shown all the more cogently by statistics and the social debates of recent years. In its Information magazine published in 2014, the Federal Agency for Civic Education found evidence of continuing social inequality between the sexes. It states: “While discrimination against women has now disappeared from the education system, it lives on in weakened form at work, in politics and above all in the family”. The statistics speak for themselves: there continues to be a significant income gap between women and men, even when their work is identical. And in order to combat inequality at work, only recently the German government and parliament felt it necessary to adopt a law enshrining equal participation by men and women in management positions.
Not least, in the wake of the Weinstein scandal that broke in October 2017 the #MeToo movement has made evident the mechanisms of sexual harassment and sexual assault by men against women through the abuse of existing power structures. In this context, the question also arose as to why, in the film industry, male film directors win far more prizes than female directors at the famous Cannes Film Festival, for example. Do women make worse films? Or are they simply discriminated against when it comes to awards? Looking at the Handel Prize winners from the same, gender-specific perspective as the Cannes Film Festival, it can be seen that at least in recent years, more women have been honoured than men. While since 1993, 18 men and only 7 women have been awarded the Handel Prize, if we look at the prize winners since 2010, it can be seen that in the most recent past the Handel Prize was almost exclusively a women’s affair: six female winners against two male. This includes this year’s prize winner: Emeritus Professor Dr. Silke Leopold, an internationally respected, Germanborn Handel scholar.
Let us take a look at the women of Handel‘s time, some 300 years ago. What is immediately striking about Handel’s mother and sisters is that we have no portraits of the female members of the Handel family, whereas we have at least one of Handel’s father. Is this coincidence, or is it related to the social position of women in the eighteenth century? The fact is that at that time, women scarcely had any rights. Basically, three things were expected of them: they should be virtuous wives, have children and keep the house in order. When their husband died, most women found themselves in dire economic straits, as they rarely received a pension or maintenance money and were unable to pursue an independent profession. It is all the more astonishing, although we have no details of it, that after the death of her husband in 1697, Handel’s mother continued to live in the house where her son Georg Frideric and her other children were born until her death in 1730. Although we can read from this that Dorothea Händel ranked among the wealthier women, nothing or only little is known as to how she actually made a living during her widowhood in Halle. The most detailed knowledge we have of the life of Dorothea Händel, née Taust, again comes from a man: Johann Georg Francke, who wrote her funeral oration after her death. Her son, George Frideric Handel, had contact with very diverse women during his lifetime: he met queens who ruled over their country or were allowed to lead state affairs when their royal spouse was abroad. He made the acquaintance of women from the nobility and middle classes who corresponded to the female type of the time, or who, like Mary Delany, strove for emancipation. And of course he worked with actresses such as Kitty Clive, dancers such as Marie Sallé and singers such as Francesca Cuzzoni, who were hailed for their stage performances but in general were socially frowned upon. The latter capricious and extravagant opera diva might  today have mentioned Handel in connection with #MeToo. Admittedly the anecdote which has come down to us is not about sexual abuse: Handel called the singer a “real she-devil” and threatened to throw her out of the window when she refused to sing an aria at a rehearsal. Even so, the verbal attack and physical threat could be
interpreted as an act of discrimination and humiliation.