We will get to Handel shortly, but in order to talk about Handel, we first have to talk for a few minutes about Bach.
It’s said that Bach is the foundation of all music which came after him. In fact, it was said by me last week among many many others. And I stand by that, but there are signs that the influence of Bach is waning.
If Bach is the foundation of all music that comes afterward, how do you account for this?
How is Indian classical music different from Western classical music? (twenty-six tones due to ‘just temperament’, monophonic, single drone instead of moving bass line)
How is traditional Japanese music different from Western classical music? (pentatonic scale yet feels as though missing nothing no intervals, comparitively homogenous timbre, but contrapuntally very sophisticated)
Or for god’s sake, what about this?:
(where is the variation in the music of Tibetan chants?)
Or even this one?
How close do you think Balkan Gypsy music is to classical music?
It’s so obvious that we live in a global marketplace that it’s become cliche, and it would be idiotic to think that the global marketplace doesn’t apply to music too. The old definitions of what defines music have to be thrown out the window, whether it’s European classical music, or the American popular music which derived from it, it’s not only Western-centric, it’s also patently untrue.
I’m not sufficiently broad-minded to stop myself from saying that the Western European tradition is still by some distance the richest musical tradition in the world. But the entire world is catching up very quickly. The Western tradition is now just the dominant part of a global tradition, and composers now have the option of fusing together music from parts of the world that a century ago knew absolutely nothing about each other. And since the rest of the literate world probably knows more about our music than we know about theirs, it’s highly probable the next waves of truly great composers will probably come from a far off places around the globe who can fuse diverse sounds together in ways we can’t yet fathom.
In a world where Western conceptions of harmony and rhythm were dominant, Bach was the king. Bach lived his whole life in a 200 mile radius around the German principalities, but he also knew music from Italy, France, and England, and he synthesized all their influences into one seamless system which was so powerful that music virtually started over from scratch. We get virtually our entire system of harmony on the Well-Tempered Clavier, we get all our counterpoint from later works like the Art of the Fugue and A Musical Offering. But Bach could never account for cultures which evolved in completely different directions from the ones he knew about.
One day, perhaps one day soon, there will be another Bach-like figure who will incorporate all the different musical traditions of the world into a single overarching system, but until that day, Bach will still be the King. Even so, his empire is clearly declining. It’s hard for me to believe that he won’t eventually just be another great name in music history - one of hundreds, a member of the choir rather than a soloist.
Meanwhile, an exact contemporary of Bach is emerging from a long stay for at least a brief solo bow. Assuming there is no one much over the age of fifty in this classroom, there are two composers whom music lovers have almost thoroughly rediscovered in your lifetime. One is Gustav Mahler, whom we won’t cover in this class for a few more years. The other is the subject of today’s class. Of those two, the reappearance of Handel was much less likely, mostly because he had just died. Handel was the composer of the British Empire, one might even say that he served the same role to British Imperialism that Wagner served to German fascism. Let’s listen to a bit of Handel right now.
This is a recording of Handel from 1888. Believe it or not, what you’re hearing is the sound of 2,700 singers. Handel was, and to at least a smaller extent still is, a community institution in England and among a certain breed of white bread person in America. For two-hundred years, the Handel oratorios have been the foundation of every community choir in the English-speaking world. Part of the reason that he’s enormous fun to sing. He lets you shout at the top of your lungs in eight-part harmony. The only problem with this mode of experiencing Handel is that he comes across as amazingly long-winded. Here’s what George Bernard Shaw had to say about the experience:
Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution. What is more, he is a sacred institution. When his Messiah is performed the audience stands up, as if in church, while the Hallelujah chorus is being sung. It is the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to England Protestants. Every three years there is a Handel Festival, at which his oratorios are performed by four thousand executants, collected from all the choirs in England. The effect is horrible; and everybody declares it sublime. Many of the songs in these oratorios were taken by Handel from his operas and set to pious words… If anyone were to take the song from the oratorio and set it back again to secular words, he would probably be prosecuted for blasphemy. Occasionally a writer attempts to spell Handel’s name properly as Haendel. This produces just the same shock as the attempts to spell Jehovah as Jahve. The effect is one of brazen impiety…
Handel’s music is the most English music in the world. If Doctor Johnson had been a composer he would have composed like Handel.... Yet in England his music is murdered by the tradition of the big chorus! People think that four thousand singers must be four thousand times as impressive as one. This is a mistake: they are not even louder. You can hear the footsteps of four thousand people any day in the Rue de Rivoli - I mention it because it is the only street in Paris known to English tourists - but they are not so impressive as the march of a singe well-trained actor down the stage of the Theatre Francais. It might as well be said that four thousand starving men are four thousand times as hungry as one, or four thousand slim ingenues four thousand times as slim as one. You can get a tremendously powerful fortissimo from twenty good singers… because you can get twenty people into what is for practical purposes the same spot; but all the efforts of the conductors to get a fortissimo from the four thousand Handel Festival choristers are in vain: they occupy too large a space; and even when the conductor succeeds in making them sing a note simultaneously, no person can hear them simultaneously, because the sound takes an appreciable time to travel along a battle front four thousand strong; and in rapid passages the semiquaver (sixteenth note) of the single farthest from you does not reach you until that of the singer nearest you has passed you by. If I were a member of the House of Commons I would propose a law making it a capital offence to perform an oratorio by Handel with more than eighty performers in the chorus and orchestra, allowing fortyeight singers and thirtytwo instrumentalists. Nothing short of that will revive Handel’s music in England. It lies dead under the weight of his huge reputation and the silly notion that big music requires big bands and choruses.
Here is what one aria from Messiah used to sound like. This aria is based on Psalm 2: Why do the heathen rage?
It’s all very pleasant, but it’s not very rageful. Compare this to a more modern perspective.
Suddenly, this work is illuminated as a work of absolute genius. This sounds like war. Not only does it sound like rage on an international scale, and not only that, it sounds like a protest against it - the kind of protest which Victorian England would very much not like to hear.
Now let’s hear what the chorus which follows this. “Let us break their bonds asunder.”
Here’s a traditional massive Handel performance from 1926. 3000 singers and 500 instrumentalists:
They can’t even keep themselves together.
Now let’s listen to a more modern performance that’s presumably much closer to what Handel had in mind:
(start at 2:25)
Slowly but surely, Handel is revealing his true face to us. Like with Bach, we again have to ask, who is this man? The answer, unfortunately, is not easily revealed except through his music. We don’t have many letters left, though we have lots of anecdotal testimony. Handel clearly guarded his private life very closely, and we still don’t know why or if there’s even a reason. Some of them, such as that Handel was gay, seem halfway plausible. Some of them, such as that Handel was Jewish - as one cantor once insisted to me - seem downright idiotic. But through his music we can tell a number of things. We can tell that, like Bach, he was a Prussian of very deep Lutheran faith. But Handel’s faith was not Bach’s. Handel came from the upper-middle-class, his father was a surgeon and he lived his life completely free of privation, with long travels all around Europe, and most importantly, he was not constantly surrounded by family death. His view of God was correspondingly far more cheerful than Bach’s. But triumph and optimism is never far away from Handel’s surface. Bach’s church music gravitated to the New Testament, in which Christ allows us to transcend our earthly defeat. Handel’s sacred music gravitates toward the Old Testament, which tells us stories of heroic triumph here on Earth. Like Bach, Handel had a hair-trigger temper, but unlike Bach, he was not thought of by colleagues as particularly difficult. This is probably because he had in spades that one quality which Bach’s music almost completely lacks, a sense of humor, a humor that comes out in his music again and again. My favorite story about Handel involves them both, a story in which Handel accomplished something every conductor and stage director has fantasized doing to singers since the beginning of opera. One time, a prima donna soprano refused to sing an an aria (song) as he wrote it and insisted on changes, so Handel simply grabbed her, took her to the window, opened it, made her look outside and said “Madame, I know you are a true she-devil, but I will show you that I am Beelzebub, the chief devil.”
But unlike Bach, not only did Handel never marry, he was never even linked with a woman. Many musicologists claim today that during the second part of his life, Handel was part of a secret gay underworld among the English noble class. But the evidence for that claim is very specious. Given that Handel lived in Georgian England, which has to be numbered one of the most gossipy societies ever established, and given that he was so devoutly religious, it seems highly unlikely. To me at least, it seems much more likely that Handel was asexual.
There’s a story I love about the longtime conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, William Steinberg. He was asked who the greatest musical geniuses were. He thought about it for a moment and said: “Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. But the greatest composers were Handel, Beethoven, and Brahms.”
Can anyone guess what he meant by that?
As Richard Feynman would say, in every artform, there are the geniuses who are completely not of this world. We have no idea how they do what they do. Bach is an example of that, so is Mozart, Shakespeare, so is Leonardo, so is Newton, so is Kant, so perhaps is Steven Spielberg. But then there are geniuses who are geniuses because they are just like us, if only we were a hundred times better at what we do. For geniuses like Handel, or Beethoven, or Michelangelo, or Dostoevsky, or Darwin, or Nietzsche, or Werner Herzog, every single creation is the result of a titanic struggle to get a work to emerge from the ether.
Part of the reason that Handel is still a bit underrated is because he was certainly the latter kind of genius, but he wrote with the fluency of a Bach. The end result is that Handel’s works are often much too long and probably require an editor to get rid of the dull bits - a practice which, in this era when every work of art is considered a sacred text, is still something of a blasphemy. Even in Messiah, one of the great edifices of Western thought, in part III, you can almost feel Handel up against his deadline. It’s considered one of music’s miracles that Handel wrote Messiah, more than two-and-a-half hours of music, in twenty-four days. But the speed with which he wrote certainly shows. The work is in three parts, and rather than compose a genuine part III, he simply has an aria (song) for bass go on and on with the exact same music for more than twelve minutes. If the singer isn’t very good, it’s reason enough to leave the concert hall early. In fact, Handel was often so pressed for time that he simply cut and pasted his own music from other works into the new work. Occasionally, perhaps even more than occasionally, he even plagiarized the work of other composers. But in the 18th century, plagiarism was considered an intellectual misdemeanor, not a felony.
But more than any other composer in the ‘standard repertoire,’ improvisation is the key to Handel’s work. A lot of Handel’s music is based on repetition, with the expectation that, just like in jazz or rock, the soloists will improvise on the theme every time the theme repeats itself. Like Bach, Handel was an extraordinary keyboardist. And you can hear just how great an improviser he must have been in some of his instrumental pieces. Here is his most famous one, the ‘Harmonious Blacksmith,’ which is apparently based on a song Handel once heard a cheerful blacksmith singing to himself.
Let’s take a break now…
The title of this class is Handel: Our Contemporary. The unwritten attachment is that Handel is our contemporary while Bach is perhaps not. No doubt, that’s unfair to Bach. But more than at any time in two hundred years, the two composers are becoming thought of as roughly equal in quality. But Bach represents the old order of music, his conservatism is everything that is conservative about the musical establishment. In an era when classical music was thought of as a bastion of quality against the barbarian hordes of popular music, it made sense that Bach would be thought the pinnacle of its achievement. But closer to their era, both Haydn and Beethoven declared Handel to be the greatest composer who ever lived.
Handel is the vanguard of everything that was liberal about his age. For the last fifty years of his life, Handel made his home in London. And the London of Handel’s era was an amazing place. Handel lived in a society with Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Alexander Pope (one of the world’s greatest poets), Prime Minister Robert Walpole (who established the whigs as a permanent political force), Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (who founded The Spectator). And Handel would appear to have known them all. He was fluent in German, English, Italian, French, and Latin. He had a fantastic art collection, and was a great gourmand. He was so known for his appetite that one famous painting has the sillouhette of Handel playing at an organ. In this painting (show) he has the nose of a pig, seated on a wine barrel, with dead chickens hanging from the pipes.
Unlike Bach, who worked as a part of the medieval patronage system, in which musicians were kept on retainer by the Church or by aristocrats, Handel was a musical venture-capitalist. He was his own producer who mounted every production with the hope that he would make an enormous amount of money. He did make an enormous amount of money, and he lost very nearly as much. A Handel performance was not unlike any rock group who puts on an enormous concert - his music lived and died by how much he excited the audience.
When Handel first came to England, he made his reputation on opera. Handel’s greatest love was clearly the theater, but like Bach’s church music, there is something about Handel’s operas that is weirdly dry. They’re performed now around the world pretty frequently, but they’re almost inevitably the most boring thing in an opera season.
Part of the reason is that very few musicians still understand what Baroque Opera was, and still fewer are in any condition to do anything about it. Opera to Handel was completely unlike opera in our day. Baroque Opera is basically a concert for singers, and the singers were like musical instruments. If a musical instrument can play sixteen notes every second, then a vocalist should be able to do the same. If a musical instrument can sustain a note for over a minute at a time, then a vocalist should be able to do it too. Handel’s operas have all these incredible tricks and more. When you look at the score of a Handel opera, it’s hard to believe that the singers of Handel’s day didn’t blow most contemporary opera stars out of the water. Very few singers, even today when we have a better idea of Handel’s style, are truly up to his demands, and when you hear what Handel had in mind, it’s pretty amazing.
Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, what about this beautiful bit:
Another reason that it’s fairly easy to be bored by Baroque opera is that the atmosphere was completely different. The spectators were not in the ultra-reverent opera temple in which they hear opera today. It was much closer to a bar. They would talk and eat until something great forced them to pay attention. If a group of spectators got it in their minds to boo a singer, nothing could be done to stop them. Singers would break character all the time to talk to friends in the audience. So if the reverent atmosphere in which Bach worked set the stage for what classical music would later become, the atmosphere in which Handel worked was the same which every jobbing popular musician works today.
And if the musicians of Handel’s era were like jobbing rock guitarists, then the star singer was the Castrato. Castrato means exactly what it sounds like. A castrated male singer whose testicles were removed before puberty so that testosterone would not lower the voice. The end result was that they had male lung power coupled with female vocal range. They started in the Church. Since the Catholic Church banned woman singers, the Church required high vocalists without having to train new boys every few years. So they simply removed the testicles of talented boys before their voices changed. Their voices became so popular that they became in demand for secular vocal music too. Of course, most of the Castratos did not become musical superstars, but the ones who did had riches beyond what anyone thought possible. The famous castrati were like rock stars, offered every possible financial reward, every expense paid for them, and women flocking to them. A few of them even had affairs, and since there was no testosterone produce semen, they could have sex for as long as they liked. But a lot of the castratos had horrific physical injuries - female breasts, no body hair, or enormous physical bulk.
By the 19th century, the castratos were a dying breed. It was thought so inhumane that the Pope issued an edict banning the practice throughout all of Christendom. He then took the remaining castratos under his care. There is only one Castrato who lived into the recorded era, and we have a few recordings of him. He's already in his fifties and long past his best voice when this recording is made. But it has a sound on it which is utterly unlike anything that has ever existed in our time.
What does this sound like to you?
This sound is the relic of a bygone era, and so are most things about Handel's operas. Most of Handel's operas, like most of Bach's church music, is not really meant for eternity. In Handel's case, they are entertainments designed to meet the needs of that particular moment, great for when it's needed, but not great when they're given an artificial shelf life. But Handel’s sacred music, like Bach’s instrumental music, is where his true greatness lies. Bach’s instrumental music has the passion which only a true believer can muster. Handel’s sacred music has the drama which only a man of the theater can conjure. There is certainly drama in a Bach’s church music, but next to Handel’s great oratorios, Bach’s church music can be a bit of a weak brew.
So how does Handel do it? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but the main one is called ‘word painting.’ Handel, more than any composer who ever lived, was a master of finding the right notes for the right word. Sometimes, extremely literally. There’s nothing in Bach like Israel in Egypt, my favorite of his works, in which Handel literally depicts the ten plagues. Let’s listen to a few of them…
Here’s a question: Why is the music for darkness so much darker than the music for slaying of the first-born?
This is where Handel, even at his formidable best, gets into trouble, and where he begins to resemble a bellicose us-vs. them composer like Wagner rather than an all-compassionate master like Bach or Mozart or Beethoven. There is something almost profane about Handel’s church music, comprising mostly of what we call ‘oratorios.’ There is very little talk about sin or forgiveness, and damnation is always something that happens to somebody else. Because the thrill which Handel’s audiences got from his oratorios was as much nationalistic as it was religious or theatrical. In Handel’s music, Israel is always triumphing over some evil enemy. From the beginning of Christianity and the Jewish diaspora onward, Israel and Jerusalem were always standins in literature for the aspirations of their nations. Take this famous example from his oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus:
Clearly this is as much about England as it is about Hasmonean-era Judea. The conquering hero is England, the unquestioned naval power, about to embark on conquering the world. Handel lived in a liberal era, but early 18th-century liberalism is not liberalism by any standard we much understand. Handel, like Wagner after him, wanted to overwhelm audiences with the massiveness of his sound. Take this example from his Royal Fireworks. Handel originally wrote it, albeit unwillingly, for 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 3 timpanists, and as many snare drums as can be found. It premiered for an audience of 12,000 people.
So, ultimately, what is an oratorio? It is a retelling of a story, in music, usually with both chorus and orchestra. A sacred oratorio is the retelling of a biblical story. Handel was the master of that, using plain English rather than Latin, and giving it the dramatic charge of a Shakespeare play. King George II called Handel the Shakespeare of music. That might seem a little extravagant to us today, but it’s amazing is how many musicians and artists over the centuries would have agreed. Handel, as much as any composer, is still with us. When we hear Handel's brazen declarations of Imperial triumph, we hear America as much as we hear England or Israel. When we hear the virtuoso passages for singers, we should think of how stadiums cheer rock stars as much as we hear wigs and laced corsets. Most importantly, when we hear his Hollywood-like dramatizing of bible stories, we should think of how it is because of creators like Handel who created a kind of Buddy Jesus for a more liberal era that religion has a hold a little less strong than it once did.
Let’s close this by playing the most famous of all his compositions, the Hallelujah chorus from Messah, which, weirdly enough, is his only oratorio about the New Testament. When the same monarch, George II, first heard it, he was said to have been so moved that he stood up. When the King rises, everybody has to. So in keeping with a nearly three hundred year tradition, let’s all stand up.