There are many stories and anecdotes about Great Britain’s most famous adopted composer, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Some may be true, some imaginary and others a little exaggerated. The present tale from Anecdotes of Great Musicians by W. Francis Gates (London, Weekes & Co., 1896) would seem to have some basis in fact. Handel was definitely in Rome at the time.
Handel and Scarlatti met at a chamber music concert at the Palazzo della Cancelleria. This was sponsored by the great patron of music and the arts Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667-1740). There the two composers competed under the auspices of Ottoboni. The result of the contest was first equal on the harpsichord and Handel winning on the organ. The actual date of the contest would seem to be 1708, when both composers were 23 years old. Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples on October 26th, 1685, the same year that Handel appeared on earth at Halle-on-Saal on 23 February.
The story is only related in one source, Mainwaring’s Memoirs of the Life of the late George Frideric Handel (London, 1760). As this book was written many years later, there may well be some creative hagiography present in the story.
In recent years, the ‘duel’ has been recreated by performer/actors.
AN INTERESTING story is told of one of Handel's experiences when he was in Italy. The Italians so enjoyed his wonderful powers of playing that they gave him the title of ‘the dear Saxon.’ He entered in a friendly rivalry with Scarlatti, in Venice, and after many trials of skill the general verdict was that the Italian excelled on the harpsichord, but the German carried away the palm on the organ.
Sometime afterward, Handel was invited to a masked ball, and in the course of the evening he sat down at the harpsichord, and astonished all those present by his masterly improvisations. Presently Scarlatti came in, also en masque. Walking quickly to the instrument he listened a moment, and then called out, "It is either the devil or the Saxon!"
Handel achieved this enviable reputation when only twenty-one [actually 23] years of age.