The Eternal Genius of Handel

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'Tis the season for more renditions of Handel's "Messiah" than you can shake a stick at. Commentator Jan Swafford has some thoughts on the enduring beauties of Handel's work.

(Soundbite of Handel's "Messiah")


George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" has been going strong since its premiere in Dublin in 1742. Commentator Jan Swafford says one reason the great choral works of the baroque period have endured is the attention that Handel and his contemporaries paid to the words.


There's an old story that once a librettist of Handel's was awakened in the middle of the night by a German-accented ruckus in the street. He threw open his window to find Handel in a carriage shouting `Vat ist billows?'(ph) Clearing his head, the librettist explained that billows are waves on the sea. `Ah,' cried Handel, `zi vave. Zi big vave.' Then he went home to compose the wave. He couldn't picture the word in music until he knew what it meant.

(Soundbite of Handel composition)

SWAFFORD: The pictorial touches in Handel's "Messiah" are at once so pervasive and so innately musical that a lot of people never notice them. For an obvious example, here's how Handel sets the word `shake' on a jittery descending line.

(Soundbite of "Messiah")

Unidentified Baritone #1: (Singing) And I will shake (performs multiple note changes), and I will shake (performs multiple note changes) all nations.

SWAFFORD: It gets more complicated when the text presents a series of images, but Handel is ready to illustrate every one of them, as in the familiar aria "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted." Here's how the valley's get exalted in the music by a line striding exultantly upward.

(Soundbite of "Messiah")

Unidentified Baritone #1: (Singing) Every valley...

(Soundbite of instrumental ascension)

Unidentified Baritone #1: (Singing) (At higher notation) ...every valley shall be exalted.

SWAFFORD: Then Handel shows us the crooked becoming straight and the rough places plain.

(Soundbite of "Messiah)

Unidentified Baritone #1: (Singing) The crooked (performs multiple note changes) straight, the crooked (performs multiple note changes) straight and the rough places plain (performs held note) and the rough places plain (performs held note).

SWAFFORD: The juicier the imagery in the text, the more extravagant Handel became. In his oratorio "Israel in Egypt," he plays the plagues for laughs. `He spake the word,' the chorus proclaims, `and there came all manner of flies.'

(Soundbite of "Messiah")

Unidentified Male Chorus: (Singing) He spake the word...

(Soundbite of heralding)

Unidentified Female Chorus: (Singing) ...and there came all manner of flies.

(Soundbite of violins playing rapidly)

Unidentified Female Chorus: (Singing) ...all manner of flies.

(Soundbite of violins playing rapidly)

SWAFFORD: Best of all, ...(unintelligible) the singers in on the joke, is the amphibian plague. `Their land brought forth frogs--frogs,' the singer mellifluously croaks. And note how the accompaniment is hopping, hopping, hopping.

(Soundbite of "Messiah")

Unidentified Alto: (Singing) Their land brought forth frogs, the land brought forth frogs, yea, even in their kings' chambers, yea, even in their kings' chambers (performs multiple note changes).

SWAFFORD: Of course, musical tone painting has been around probably as long as music has. An ancient Greek story tells of a master of the double-piped aulos who improvised a musical description of a battle so hair-raising that people were talking about it for the next 200 years. Handel's contemporary, J.S. Bach, was perhaps the ultimate master of musical picturing and the most subtle. In Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," for example, the words of Christ are always surrounded by a halo of strings.

(Soundbite of "St. Matthew Passion")

Unidentified Baritone #2: (Singing in foreign language)

SWAFFORD: Bach carries illustration further and deeper than other composers with a Cabalistic sense of the unity of word and sound. But if Bach paints every scene, he also transcends it. We see that in a haunting aria from his cantata, (German spoken), "Lord, Go Not in Judgment." The text is all Lutheran vengefulness, speaking scornfully of sinners terrified before the judgment seat of God. They tremble, they accuse each other, they make excuses. Back's accompaniment for the aria begins with a stylized trembling. The harmony lacks a bass part; these sinners have no foundation. An oboe repeats a phrase over and over, like the sinners repeating the same excuses.

(Soundbite of "Lord, Go Not in Judgment")

SWAFFORD: But here the humanity of Bach steps in. If the text is full of vengeance and scorn, Bach's music is suffused with pity and empathy. Bach stands there beside these sinners and so do we. There, you have Bach's sacred music in a nutshell: making the stories of his Christian religion into universal human experience.

(Soundbite of "Lord, Go Not in Judgment")

Unidentified Soprano: (Singing in foreign language)

SWAFFORD: But let's face it. Nobody had more fun making pictures in music than Handel did. To return to "Messiah," there's that edifying aria where he reminds us poor sinners, to our benefit I'm sure, that all we, like sheep, have gone astray.

(Soundbite of "Messiah")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) ...have gone astray (performs multiple note changes)...

ELLIOTT: Jan Swafford is a composer and writer, author of biographies of Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms.

(Soundbite of "Messiah")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) ...have gone astray. We have gone, we have gone astray...


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