Matheson and Handel’s duel

Two flamboyant young musickers leave the town of Lübeck as soon as can be. For they have learned that the successful candidate must marry the daughter of the man in whose shoes they would fain have trodden the pedals. One look at the daughter was enough. She was not fair to see, and her years were thirty-four – just six years less than the total years of the two young candidates.

Back to Hamburg the two friends go, and the next year their friendship suffers a serious strain. The elder, now aged twenty-three, is producing Cleopatra, an opera of his own composition, and incidentally playing the role of Antony. The younger of the friends is the conductor, and presides, as is the custom of the time, at the clavecin. There is another custom in the performance of that opera, a curious one, too. For it is the wont of the composer-singer, when he has died as Antony, to come to life again and conduct the rest of his opera at the clavecin.

Two young and flamboyant musickers, boon companions, one twenty-two and the other eighteen, strike the town of Lübeck in 1703. They are drawn thither by a vacancy in the post of town organist. And their competition is to be friendly.

But the younger friend, now full of the importance of nineteen years, and being the successor to the great Reinhard Keiser, is not disposed to yield the clavecin, even to his versatile friend. A quarrel that narrowly escapes ruining the melodious swan-song of Cleopatra, is postponed till after the final curtain. Then it takes the form of a duel. The composer manages at last to elude the parry of the conductor; he throws all his weight and weight and venom into a lunge that must prove fatal – but a large brass button sheds the point of the sword and saves its wearer for a better fare.

By the strange medicinal virtue of duels, the wound in the friendship is healed, honour is poulticed, and the friendship begins again; lasting with healthful interruptions under the younger musician goes his way towards the fulness of his glory; the elder his way along the lines of versatility — which leave him in the eyes of posterity rather valued as a writer than aught else.

The old organist whose death had brought these two younkers on their wild-goose chase was Dietrich Buxtehude, the famous man whom Johann Sebastian Bach walked fifty miles on foot to hear, and whose compositions he studied and profited from. Old Buxtehude, himself the son of an organist, had himself married the daughter of the organist who had preceded him. The daughter he left behind to frighten away aspiring candidates did not languish long. According to Chrysander, a certain J.C. Schieferdecker, who is famous for nothing else, wed the daughter, and “got the pretty job” (“erhielt den schönen Dienst”).

The elder of the two young men was Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), a sort of “Admirable Crichton),” who married in 1709 Catherine Jennings, daughter of an English clergyman and the relative of a British admiral ….

The younger man, whose life hung on a button, was that great personage whose name has been spelled almost every way imaginable between Hendtler and Handel — the later form being preferred by the English, who, as somebody said, love to speak learnedly of “Handel and Glück.”

Hughes, Rupert (2004) The Love Affairs of Great Musicians, vol. I. Project Guttenburg. Accessed 24 May 2007.