The Trumpet Shall Sound review: imagining a gay Handel
Convincing and thoughtful portrait of the composer in an utterly absorbing novel
Actor Bill Golding in the role of the composer George Frederic Handel at a rehearsal of Messiah in Dublin, 1997. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh.
The Trumpet Shall Sound
George Handel (1685-1759) is dear to us in Ireland primarily because what is now his most famous work, the oratorio Messiah, was first performed at a theatre in Fishamble Street in 1742. Messiah was one of 29 oratorios composed by Handel, who spent a few months in Dublin in 1741-2. Born in Halle, in Saxony, from the age of 27 most of his life was lived in London, and prior to that in various German cities, and in Italy. As well as oratorios, he wrote 42 operas and many other works, and was a celebrated composer and performer from an early age.
While Handel’s professional career is well documented – his travels, works, patrons and colleagues – little is known of his private life. This novel, the second from a prolific author of acclaimed memoirs and scholarly works, aims to fill the gap. In a useful and unambiguous preface, Eibhear Walshe lets us know that his book is “an attempt to imagine what he [Handel] may have kept secret from his public and his patrons”. All the characters in the novel existed, with the exception of three (of the most significant): Luca, Lorenzo and the Cardinal. Walshe writes that his imagined private life for Handel may well reflect his real life, but adds, disarmingly, “this is a novel and therefore not true or real or honest”.
The Dublin chapters are among the finest in the novel
While that reflection presents food for debate if applied to novels in general, it’s important to bear it in mind when immersing oneself in the rich, enchanting 18th century baroque world which is skilfully brought to life in the pages of The Trumpet Shall Sound. Silk and velvet, crystal chandeliers and handsome people, abound, recreating convincingly the tapestry of the kind of life a celebrated composer of the time lived – in palaces, mansions and luxurious apartments. The novel is bookended with an opening chapter set in Dublin 1741, when Messiah was written, and a closing piece in Dublin, April 1742, when the oratorio was performed. Otherwise it is set in specific places and dates of significance in Handel’s life – namely Rome and Venice in 1706, Halle in 1708, London in 1709. The structure is judicious and aesthetically pleasing and serves the novel well.
True and honest
Given that Handel had a long, productive and varied career it was essential to select key periods and places to create a shapely work of art. The story is also a timely reminder to those who fantasise otherwise that the music of England, like most aspects of its culture, is utterly European and international. This aspect of Walshe’s novel is certainly true and honest.
The emphasis is on the formation of the composer in his early years, and on the relatively late work, Messiah. Handel was not thrilled at the idea of spending time in “Dublin. The final blow to his London career”. The Dublin chapters are among the finest in the novel – definitely very honest in the descriptions of the November weather, and touching in their enthusiasm about the delights of spring along the Liffey.
While the novel covers the story of Handel’s musical career lucidly and entertainingly, its main and to some extent innovative point is the private life, for which read sexual life, of the composer. Walshe portrays him as homosexual, and his relationship with the fictive characters of Luca – his first love, but one from whom he eventually tries to escape, with difficulty – and Lorenzo form the core of the book. According to online sources for biographical information on Handel, there is no evidence he was gay. Some relatively recent biographers and scholars have opined that he was, however, using biographical clues as well as hints from his musical works. In any case, Walshe declares that his novel is a work of imagination. Whatever its relation to Handel’s actual life or sexual orientation, the novel works brilliantly. Walshe has created a convincing and thoughtful portrait of the composer and his companions, in a work which is fascinating, deep and utterly absorbing.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s is a member of Aosdana, an ambassador for the Irish Writers’ Centre and president of the Folklore of Ireland Society. Her latest book is Twelve Thousand Days (Blackstaff Press, 2018)