Last month, Louise Glück, the American poet, was announced as the 2020 Nobel laureate in literature. I got to thinking about umlauts and other dots in names. Very rarely do you see dots in America.
I thought of Arnold Schoenberg, primarily. He, Vienna-born, was originally Schönberg, of course. But when he came to America, in 1933 (a very good year to come), the “ö” became “oe,” pretty much forever. He insisted on it.
Speaking of coming to America: In the Old World, the Nordlingers were Nördlingers. Once in the New World, they were Noerdlingers, Nordlingers, or Nerdlingers. (I must confess, I’m glad I’m not a Nerdlinger, though detractors call me that, frequently.)
In a column, I wrote about dots and such, and heard from Robert Marshall, the musicologist at Brandeis University. “Don’t forget about Handel,” he said. So true, an excellent case. Before we get into his dots, I’d like to recount a story.
Ten, fifteen years ago, I was talking with Tony Palmer, the English filmmaker, and an authority on classical music. I raised the old, mysterious question: In the very early days, there was a flurry of great composers in Britain, namely Tallis, Byrd, Dowland, and Purcell. Then, silence, pretty much, until Elgar. Tony said, “Perhaps, but don’t forget that honorary Englishman George Frederick Handel.”
Yes, and a citizen, too.
Handel was born Georg Friedrich Händel and became George Frederick (or Frideric) Handel. In his note to me, Bob Marshall recalls the “Battle of the Umlaut,” as described by Paul Henry Lang, a Handel biographer. Here is Lang:
The work of salvaging Handel for the Fatherland as a good German and staunch Lutheran began early. We might call it the “Battle for the Umlaut,” for the modification of the “a” in Handel’s name became the symbol of this Anglo-German rivalry.
Have a fun footnote, from Lang:
American music librarians join the battle on the Germans’ side, for to them too a birth certificate is the only and final criterion, which neither naturalization nor Handel’s own spelling can alter.
Professor Marshall got in touch with another distinguished musicologist—and another distinguished Handel biographer—Ellen T. Harris, of MIT. (Professor Harris was once a student of Professor Marshall’s at the University of Chicago.) Professor Harris provides the following information:
I can’t say that there is a “moment” in time when Handel changes his name. In Italy, he is referred to as, and signs his name, “Giorgio Federico Hendel” or “Endel.” In England, he’s Hendel or Handel right off. When he applies for British citizenship (13 February 1727), he signs his name “George Frideric Handel,” and that’s the form he continues to use in England—although in letters to Germany he sometimes reverts to “Georg Friedrich Händel.”
It is nice to be in the hands of authorities.