Did Handel's coat button really save him in a sword fight?
How a fight between Mattheson and Handel could have caused the demise of one of classical music’s greatest composers – had it not been for a metal coat button
No one who attended the performance of Johann Mattheson’s new opera Die ungluckselige Cleopatra, Königin von Ägypten (‘Unfortunate Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt’) on the evening of 5 December 1704 at the Goose Market Opera in Hamburg could possibly have suspected it would result in the near-demise of one of classical music’s greatest composers.
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It had all started innocently enough when Mattheson, then aged 21, first met 18-year-old George Frideric Handel in the organ loft of Hamburg’s Magdalenekirche on 9 July 1703. Mattheson was principal tenor at the opera house and widely recognised as one of Hamburg’s rising musical stars. Handel was new in town, and wisely kept his musical credentials under his wig – at least initially – when invited to join the ranks of the opera’s second violins.
The two hit it off from the start – Mattheson described Handel as ‘rich in abilities and good intentions’ – and in addition to visiting ‘the organs and choirs of the town’ together, they attended operas, concerts and enjoyed going boating. On one occasion Handel showed his musical mettle when standing in for the opera house’s harpsichordist and director. Mattheson was clearly impressed, noting that he ‘showed himself a man’, although he was rather less generous – envious, perhaps – towards Handel’s composing of ‘long, long arias, and almost endless cantatas’.
Barely had Handel’s musical feet touched the ground in Hamburg when he and Mattheson set off on their first adventure together bound for Lübeck, where the much sought-after post of organist at the Marienkirche had become available due to the imminent retirement of legendary composer-organist Dietrich Buxtehude. There was one snag however: as tradition demanded, whoever got the job would automatically win the hand in marriage of Buxtehude’s daughter Margreta. In the event, neither composer found the prospect particularly enticing.
Back in Hamburg, the two friends carried on as before, although an air of increased rivalry was noted by Mattheson when Sir John Wich, Hamburg’s Royal Ambassador of Great Britain, chose Mattheson above Handel to mentor his son, Cyril. The resulting simmering discontent on Handel’s part – fuelled, no doubt, by Mattheson’s growing sense of superiority – eventually spilled over at the Goose Market Opera on that fateful, and near fatal, December evening.
All seemed to be going well enough: Mattheson was not only Cleopatra’s composer, but sang the role of the fated Marc Antony too. The plan was that following his death scene in Act III, Mattheson would then make his way to the harpsichord and direct the remainder of the opera from there. However, he hadn’t allowed for the fact that Handel had been asked to stand in for ailing resident music director Reinhard Keiser.
When the moment came for Mattheson to send Handel back to the second violins, the latter took umbrage and wouldn’t budge. Somehow, they muddled on and made it to the end of the opera, but by curtain-down their smouldering resentment had escalated into a full-scale row. They got as far as the stage door, a challenge was issued, and egged on by the jostling crowd of onlookers they made their way outside into the market square.
According to John Mainwaring, Handel’s first biographer, Mattheson lunged at Handel with his sword and would have inflicted a mortal injury had it not been for ‘the friendly score which Handel accidentally carried in his bosom; and through which to have forced it, would have demanded all the might of Ajax himself.’ However, it is Mattheson’s account that has proved the most enduring, in which he recalls that it could all have ended in tragedy ‘had God’s guidance not graciously ordained that my blade, thrusting against my opponent’s broad metal coat-button, should be shattered.’
After that dramatic incident, one might have assumed there was no conceivable way back for the former friends. Yet it seems that within the month they were getting on famously again and, in celebration of the forthcoming premiere of Handel’s first opera Almira on 8 January 1705 (in which Mattheson starred as the orphan Fernando), went out for a slap-up meal. Sword fight? What sword fight?
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