This is about a tale of despair and hope. Of celebrity superstars at rock bottom struggling to make sense of it all and to recover. It involves a very public media sex scandal that ruined a career. It’s about a clash of cultural expressions. It’s about arguments for and against foreign influence on culture.
Sounds like today, doesn’t it? But it is actually the middle of the 18th century—1740 to 1742 to exact.
Musick for the King is the story of how superstar composer George Frederick Handel scrapes himself off the bottom of life—battling health issues, poverty caused by professional sabotage, professional jealousies, attacks against his artistic credibility aided and abetted by the Prince of Wales and his cronies who wanted England rid of ‘foreigners’ and their influence on British music. He is being slowly driven from London and Britain.
It is also the story of Susannah Cibber, the ‘Lady Gaga’ of her day. Mrs Cibber was London’s most illustrious singer brought low by a public lawsuit that exposed a sordid sex scandal—including sexual, verbal and physical abuse by her husband. It was covered voraciously by the newspapers of the day and made scintillating gossip for everyone in London, from the Royal palaces to the squalor the slums.
In the midst of all this, an eccentric individual, Charles Jennens, gives Handel an unusual script, or libretto, called Messiah. In this oratorio, there are no acting roles, there are no sets, the words are taken strictly from varied verses of the King James Version of the Bible. It is unique. It is unprecedented.
Intrigued, Handel takes only 24 days of almost non-stop writing, to produce one of the most inspirational and celebrated pieces of music ever. One that even Beethoven later called the finest ever composed. Imagine, over 2 ½ hours of exquisite, complex orchestral and vocal music, composed in less than a month!
That’s a story in and of itself. Never mind the back story of intrigue and opposition.,
Handel debuted Messiah in Dublin where it was declared a triumph and Mrs Cibber was praised for her exquisite and moving contribution.
All of that—and more—is historical fact. Throw in historic figures like King George II, Frederic, the Prince of Wales, and the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift and you have a cracking good story of deception, jealousy, dishonesty and planned ruin.
Not even the wildest fictional plot can match this one. It is why I wrote Musick for the King. All I did was add some peripheral fictious characters to flesh out the story and emphasize the plan to ruin Handel.
My interest began when I attended a performance of Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto a number of years ago. In the programme notes there was a brief mention of this back story. I was fascinated and began to research it. As I did, I realized that in many ways it was a story that mirrored modern society, proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
From the heights of success to the bottom of the barrel and a determined climb back up to the top, Musick for the King is a story for our times. Particularly as we grapple with the ups and downs, social battles, and emotional and financial despair of the pandemic.
Following the debut in Dublin, Messiah and especially its famed Hallelujah Chorus, steadily gained in popularity and fame. It became a London fixture by the late 1740’s and remains so today.
Handel himself became a changed man: from an egotistical, angry, gluttonous man to a generous, giving man (he left the rights to Messiah to a children’s home in London. They still hold the rights to this day).
Susannah Cibber regained her status as a London superstar singer.
And I found a fascinating story to tell, with lessons for our age.
It’s different from my earlier suspense thriller series where I ask ‘what if’s’ about various legends from King Arthur to the discovery of America.
In Musick for the King the plot was already laid. The tensions and the personal and interpersonal battles were there for me.
All I did was tell the very real story of parallel worlds, in what I hope is an entertaining and page-turning way.