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OPINION Getting a Handel on plague music

DAVID YEARSLEY reflects on how the work of the great 18th-century composer resonates at a time of pandemic

WERE George Frideric Handel to be beamed back to Earth from the celestial realm he has inhabited since his death two-and-a-half centuries ago, he would soon have a Netflix hit and scores of viral YouTube videos with a host of marketing tie-ins — from organ pe(da)loton work-out regimens to a line of prophylactic powdered wigs so fashion-backward they’re actually fashion-forward.

Handel was a musical entrepreneur and entertainment was his business. Ultimately it made him rich, though there were ups and downs. Handel’s England was a modern place, with its stock schemes, real-estate deals, overseas ventures, wars, coffee houses, love of leisure and spectacle, free-wheeling journalism, fake news, a gin craze and an ice-cream parlour, the Pot and Pineapple.

There was much talk of liberty, its perquisites built on the enslavement of Africans. The plagues that devastated London in the 17th century and which we’ve been hearing much about during the present pandemic seemed sequestered in the past.

There was money and music to be made and, were he back with us, Handel wouldn’t make some of the mistakes he’d made in his first run on planet Earth. A cosmopolitan German, he spearheaded the import of opera from Italy to England in 1711.

But he held on to his interests — financial and musical — too long, even after competition and changing tastes made the enterprise economically untenable. His operas were all about emotion yet love for the theatre clouded his judgement. By the mid-1730s, he was draining money from his Bank of England account and none was going in.

In 1741 the beleaguered music man made a trip to Dublin to premiere his Messiah and it proved a kind of Second Coming for his career. Handel folded his opera ventures and invested his genius — and his cash — in English-language oratorios.

He had the musical product and, infamous gourmand that he was, fed public taste with his abundant offerings. After the sojourn in Ireland and his return to London the money started sluicing into his accounts again and he died a wealthy man in 1759. With his finances secure, he turned Messiah into the biggest charitable rainmaker of its time, or any other.

Thanks to his rigorous boyhood training and far-flung travels across Europe, Handel amassed a stack of notebooks and scores from composers whose work he could repurpose for the next blockbuster. Most lucrative were biblical dramas that outdid Cecil B DeMille.

Being entertaining meant not going on for too long. The Hallelujah chorus clocks in at around four minutes. Here’s betting Bach — for all his obsessive brilliance — would have allowed himself twice the duration. Bach’s audiences were not paying customers.

Handel composed with the fluidity of the great improviser he was. But like many improvisers he frequently took his basic material, often more than simply a musical idea or melody, from others. Brilliantly opportunistic, he also had a canny understanding of the desires of his listeners. He had the gift for artfully elaborating a catchy tune, often stolen from others, and for the perfectly calibrated dramatic gesture, from the intimate to the sublime.

But at the core of Handel’s brand were the displays of massive musical might: he weaponised and financialised the chorus, producing sublime set pieces of godly power, righteous triumph and destiny fulfilled.

Handel had the hits. For the most part he was rightly proud of his creations and the musical marketplace bore out that opinion. His operas and oratorios presented superheroes and heroines; witches and warriors; love, lust  and revenge — all the stuff we still eat up but now online.

Handel does plagues, too. No-one has ever bested his Israel in Egypt — his greatest “disaster movie.” Though this entertainment, which premiered in 1739 in London was unstaged, the work is fantastically pictorial.

The first of the three parts of the show run through several of the plagues visited by God on the Egyptians for their subjugation of the Israelites. There are hopping frogs, swarming flies, devastating hailstones, an ominous blackout and the death of the Egyptian first-borns. These horrors are delivered in crowd-pleasing succession, each scene a brisk two or three minutes.

Most of the musico-visuals of Israel in Egypt centre around the big special-effects sequence: the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Pharaoh and his army. Handel delivers this content seven different times throughout the spectacle, whose running time is a tight 90 minutes.

Even at the end, when the Israelites are at the after-party, we hear — and can’t help but see — the Egyptian boss getting knocked off his horse for the third time, with the double chorus jubilantly singing of that slap-down right through the closing credits.

Handel ripped off much of the material for this oratorio from others — and from himself. “Composing” means putting together and that’s exactly what Handel did. Often, as the years wore on, he could probably no longer remember if the piece with his name on it from a few decades earlier had originally been plundered from himself or from someone else.

Handel was modern, too, in that he was a committed recycler. For Israel in Egypt he helped himself to music from his long-dead teacher Zachow, from a Hamburg opera composer of the 17th century named Nicolaus Adam Strungk and even from Jean-Philippe Rameau, then at the height of his powers across the Channel in Paris.

Such was the density of bricolage, that Handel’s 19th-century biographer, Friedrich Chrysander, who edited Israel in Egypt in its first modern edition, felt compelled to publish the principal source of the composer’s “borrowings” — a Magnificat by the Milanese nobleman-priest, Dionigi Erba. A comparison of the original with its transformation in Israel in Egypt redounds to Handel’s genius.

He was a sublime apostate to the cult of originality and all the more post-modern for that irreverence — producer, marketer, performer all in one.

How adroitly and entertainingly Handel reshaped and expanded Erba’s work can be heard in “And with a blast of thy nostrils.” No mask covers the face of the Almighty when it comes to parting the Red Sea with sublime snort.

To depict these godly doings, Handel clips out a clever, if slight fugue by Erba for instruments and alto solo and adds his own introduction and string figures, lapping waters into which God breathes. The momentum of the music builds in an inexorable crescendo until the “flood” stands “upright” into a “heap” — that image is portrayed in long-held notes in the soprano, then alto, parts against which Erba’s theme circles and sloshes.

Erba’s idea spawns other sonic-cinematic visions from the inspired thief. At the line “the waters were congealed in the heart of the deep” the coursing sixteenths are contained and compressed as repeated notes when the tenors and basses descend to a hushed piano unison, before all voices join in a cadence beneath the suffocating waves. The strings play out the chorus with a 12-bar tag that starts with a direct paste-in of Erba’s original opening,

But Handel can’t help indulging in an exuberant finish that surges away from the original like a jubilant whitecap. Chrsyander thought Handel’s borrowing “freed” the original material from mediocrity and, at moments like this, one can’t help but agree. But in plenty of other places, Handel didn‘t change a thing.

These scenes are unsettling and prescient, as in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion which drew in so many viewers at the outset of the Corona crisis. Indeed, it is simultaneously inspiring and appalling how entertaining Handel makes his menu of death and destruction, though this fare is no more sinister than lockdown US feasting on the misfortune of the Tiger King. Come to think of it, there’s an oratorio that Handel would easily knock out of the big cat park.

These communal utterances are indeed great fun but, given the topic of plagues, can’t help remind us that choral singing is an extremely effective way to pass the virus, what with all the explosive consonants firing off droplets like mini-viral bombs bursting in air. The only choirs now singing together do so virtually.

One of the earliest surviving sound recordings can be marvelled at on the then newly invented Edison wax cylinder from 1888. Barely audible over the chug and hiss of the technology is a choir of 4,000 singing excerpts from Israel in Egypt in London’s Crystal Palace.

It sounds like a chorus of the dead, ghosts not just from another century, but from a vanished world.

This article first appeared in Counterpunch, counterpunch.org. David Yearsley's latest book is Sex, Death and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks.

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