Encore: The Baroque Era
Music for God and king: George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel (German-British, 1685-1759), moreso than any of the other Baroque composers we’ve looked at, was the rock star of his day. While J.S. Bach (his contemporary) toiled in relative obscurity, Handel was known across Europe, his concerts attended by thousands. His career, like most careers, had its share of ups and downs, but the ups carried him very high indeed.
His life began with a serious roadblock for him to overcome: his father hated music, and was of the opinion that young George should become a lawyer. According to legend, Handel’s mother was more supportive, and managed to smuggle a clavichord (a small keyboard instrument) into the attic, enabling him to practice softly while his father slept.
His fortunes turned when his father took him to visit a relative in service to the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. Under circumstances unfortunately lost to history, Handel somehow found an opportunity to perform for the Duke, who was duly impressed by his abilities, and managed to convince stubborn old Dad to lighten up and allow some music lessons.
With the Duke’s support, Handel made progress in his studies, but still felt compelled to follow his father’s wishes and make a career in law. Fate intervened: the organist died at a church near his university, and he was offered the job at the age of eighteen. (Clearly he already had an impressive reputation at this point.) This became the first of many musical positions in his life, and it wasn’t long before he abandoned law entirely.
Lest this become tedious, let us take a brief digression into high-stakes action: early in Handel’s career, he was challenged to a duel. He had befriended a fellow musician named Johann Mattheson, who grew increasingly envious of Handel’s glowing reputation. The feud transitioned from silent fuming into physical combat when Handel conducted an opera Mattheson had written. Partway through the performance, Mattheson asked to take over and Handel refused. Clearly this was a dispute that could only be settled by bloodshed. The ugly incident ended in a truce when Mattheson’s sword split in half after colliding with one of Handel’s buttons. This somehow patched things up between the two of them, and they remained friends for the rest of Handel’s life.
Messiah (HWV 56)
Handel’s greatest work is arguably Messiah, a two-hour religious epic. The work is an oratorio, a composition for an ensemble of instruments and vocalists. Unlike an opera, an oratorio does not involve costumes or sets, which made them less complicated to perform and protected them from the Church’s injunctions against “spectacle.” Messiah was written during Handel’s time in England (where he spent much of his productive life), and thus the lyrics are in English, a language which is otherwise unusual in classical music of any era.
Handel wrote Messiah in a crazed frenzy over the course of some 24 days, during which he took no visitors, rarely slept, and hardly ate. He worked day and night and seemed to be ignited by an inexplicable fury; some of his servants thought he was losing his mind. Handel was not normally a religious man, but the creation of Messiah led him into an uncharacteristic fervor. Some stories claim that Handel said that the music was inspired directly by visions of God.
Messiah is divided into three parts. Part I deals with the prophecies concerning the Messiah and the Nativity. Part II follows Jesus’s life, crucifixion, and resurrection, ending with the famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” Part III is about the Second Coming. I have drawn one selection from each, but don’t hesitate to explore the entire work when you can find the time. Much of it is heard only rarely, yet has held up beautifully over the centuries.
"For unto us a child is born"
"How beautiful are the feet"
"Since by man came death"
“For Unto Us a Child is Born” is from Part I, and is among the most famous excerpts from the work. It is an example of a chorus, a song to be sung by the full choir. Note the way that Handel makes use of only a few different phrases, which he then sets to music in a variety of different ways. The sections of the chorus (separated by vocal range) enter at different times and may sing different words; particularly noteworthy is Handel’s fondness for extending a single syllable out for several measures as an accompaniment to an ongoing vocal line. This chorus exemplifies Handel’s incorporation of the Baroque style into the large-scale vocal work.
“How beautiful are the feet,” from Part II, is an aria, a song for a single voice. An instrumental part introduces the melody, then recedes into the background as the singer begins. The accompaniment is subtle and unintrusive, not entirely unlike the basso continuo part of the Corelli sonata. Where the chorus derives much of its appeal from its counterpoint, the aria instead emphasizes lyrical melody and the skill of its performer. The text comes from Isaiah 52:7, and refers to a barefoot messenger who brings news of liberation, a metaphor for Jesus as a liberator from sin.
From Part III we have another chorus, “Since By Man Came Death.” It begins with a soft note from the organ, which fades into silence as the choir begins to sing. The first few lines are a morose unaccompanied Largo (slow) in a minor key, followed by a rapid Allegro in a major key. In this movement, the focus is not so much on counterpoint as it is on harmony: the different parts sing the same words more or less in unison, but they do not sing them to the same notes: Instead, different notes complement each other to create a more full and rich sound. When listening to works like this, it can be a rewarding experience to pay attention to the other parts and make note of the ways in which they differ.
Another interesting aspect of “Since By Man Came Death” can be heard at the end of the Largo sections. While part of the choir holds the final note for several beats, another part shifts downward by two pitches before returning to their original pitch. The drops in pitch introduce dissonance, chords which are generally agreed to sound bad or unpleasant. Through much of the Common Practice Period, dissonance was viewed with suspicion and used only with caution. Handel uses it here to add an interesting twist to what would otherwise be an unremarkable long note, but he is quick to restore the chord back to its original form, a technique known as resolution. It was not until the mid-1800s that composers began to make use of unresolved dissonance, a technique that remained controversial for some time.
Water Music (HWV 348-350)
Despite the grandeur of Messiah, most of Handel’s output was secular music. In his adopted homeland of England he was often called upon to compose for royal events. One such work is Water Music, commissioned for a lavish festival in which the King of England himself sailed down the Thames on an open barge. Musicians followed on a separate boat, serenading the King with Handel’s composition. Water Music is a suite of short works without any particular order. (Since Handel’s time the work has been organized into specific sets.)
For discussion I’ve drawn examples from Suite No. 2. This suite begins with an Allegro that opens with fanfare-like pronouncements from the horns. Throughout the movement, the orchestra is divided into two sections that interact with each other in a call-and-response. Toward the end, the movement suddenly turns soft and tragic, ending with a few slow measures for strings and harpsichord.
The second movement is a hornpipe, an English dance form. The tune is one of the most familiar in Handel’s repertoire, and again takes a call-and-response form in which the horns announce a theme which is then elaborated by the rest of the orchestra.
The third movement is a minuet, another dance form. This movement seems particularly apropos; its gentle, flowing melody seeming to suggest the motion of the water.
At the end of his life Handel lost his eyesight, but continued to play organ concerts and conduct ensembles. He lived that way for several years before dying at the age of 74, a few days after his final performance of Messiah.