Sunday, 23 December 2007
Swearing in Eight Languages
George Frideric Handel was a German composer, though he did end up taking British nationality, and wrote most of his famous work here.
He was larger than life, spoke with a heavy German accent and could (and frequently did) swear for longer than most people without repeating himself, mainly because he was fluent (at swearing) in about eight different languages.
He had a serious temper on him, as well as making innovations in the field of management which for some reason modern practitioners haven't been eager to follow. During the rehearsals of one of his operas, the lead soprano refused to sing one of the songs, as it didn't suit her voice. Handel picked her up and, carrying her to a window, threatened to throw her out of it. She sang the song.
Why have I chosen Handel as the subejct of this post? Because I've been listening to his "Messiah" oratorio, which as you probably know sets to music words from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the Book of Common Prayer, in order to tell the story of Christ, and is often performed at Christmas and Easter.
Ipod users may be familiar with the "Hallelujah" chorus, which is one of the 50 or so numbers from this piece.
Handel was primarily an Opera composer, but since opera was performed in theatres it was considered somewhat sinful in 18 Century London, and he couldn't make a living from it. So he switched to composing Sacred Oratorios, which are basically operas that can be performed in churches, where although the singers play different roles, they don't dress up or move around, and which tell Biblical stories.
These stories tended to come from the Old Testament, and were very much like film adaptations. They'd take a chapter or two that told of a great battle, laced with smiting and heros, bung in some love interest, and because of Handel's great ability to write show-stopping catchy numbers, they'd have a hit on their hands.
"Messiah" is different. It doesn't tell a story in that way. In fact very little of it is taken from the Gospels. It concentrates on the theology. The singers don't play characters. The words were collected together by Charles Jennens. Three weeks later Handel announced that he'd finished it, after composing the music at a frantic speed. He did cheat slightly by taking some songs out of his old operas ("For Unto Us a Child is Born" is an example of this).
Jennens was not impressed. He'd slaved hard to compile the words, and felt that Handel can't have done a very good job in just 24 days. He hadn't actually heard the music, but went around telling people how rubbish it was.
You'd be hard pushed to find anyone in the last 250-odd years who have heard it and would agree with this assessment. Handel isn't as famous as he should be - his music is incredibly easy to listen to, and very melodic - much more so than Bach.
But isn't it hypocritical of a non-believer to be getting enthusiastic at one of the great expositions of Christian ideals? Probably, but why should God have all the best tunes?