APM: Composers Datebook

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Jul 9, 2019 On today’s date in 1733, Georg Friderich Handel paid a visit to Oxford to conduct the premiere performance of his new oratorio, “Athalia,” at the Sheldonian Theater. Handel had been invited by the University to add some musical pizzazz to an elaborate ceremony know as “The Publick Act,” during which honorary degrees were bestowed on worthy individuals. It was apparently a terrific performance, with one visitor from London reporting: “Never has there been such applause and marks of admiration.” But not everyone in Oxford was happy. One crusty don, apparently not a fan of new music, complained of the presence of “Handel and his lousy crew—a great number of foreign fiddlers.“ Handel was offered an honorary degree by Oxford, but he did not accept, claiming he was “too busy,” but maybe he just balked at paying the University’s required fee of 100 pounds to receive the honor. In the 19th century, Oxford and its rival Cambridge would bestow honorary degrees on other major composers like Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, and, in our own time, between 1949 and 1990, one American composer, William Schuman received no fewer than 28 honorary degrees. In fact, Schuman had so many that he had a quilt sewn together from pieces of his ceremonial gowns, so that, as he liked to quip, “He could take his naps by degrees.”

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