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Never has Musical Serenity Been So Terrifying

Handel’s Disaster Music

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Last week’s 6.0 earthquake epicentered in California’s Napa Valley was taken by a few evangelical types as a warning sign from God against the endemic decadence of wine country, not only a condemnation of the excess consumption of overpriced fermented grape juice, but also of the unnamable sins such limitless intake encourages. On the secular side of things, the shaking earth could have been similarly read by some extremists as a harbinger of the coming global cataclysm: when a culture consumes and poisons its water and earth in such brazen defiance of nature’s laws it deserves a terrific wake-up call. The religion of science—including its environmental denomination—was long preceded by Christianity in the practice of interpreting natural phenomena in moral terms.

Indeed, the Christian God has always been a meteorological, seismological God. He is at his most vivid when He shakes the land and heaps up the waters of the sea, when He burns and when He levels. Tremors, eruptions, inundations are His daily exercises. The Plagues of Egypt were His first decathlon, continual cataclysm his Olympic Games.

As a musical painter of action, especially in enormous tableaux, Handel was unmatched in his depictions of God as a creator and destroyer. Indeed, Handel was lauded by his admirer and mocked by his detractors as Man Mountain, himself geographical entity.  When he trembled and blew the musical world felt it. We continue to respond to the terrors and joys of his music.

Handel’s friend and sometimes collaborator Alexander Pope put it this way: “Giant Handel stands, / Like bold Briareus, with a hundred hands, / To stir, to rouze, to shake the Soul he comes.”  Handel was big and threatening. His music could be both these things, too.

Perhaps the most famous earthquake in music history comes near the beginning Messiah. Shaking orchestral chords introduce the motto: “Thus saith the Lord.”  These words set up the ensuring bit of direct speech from above with the bass soloist giving voice to God’s plan that earthquakes on land and beneath ocean will presage the coming of the Lord: “Yet once a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire of the nations shall come.”  The bass starts these words by somewhat hesitantly painting the first “shake” in upward arcing oscillations momentarily rumbling free from the foundation of the orchestral accompaniment.  By the time the singer arrives at the second “shake,” the Lord has found a real flair for plate tectonics. Buoyed by a shifting harmonic progression and quavering string backdrop, God sends his seismic announcement across the globe. Because all need to know, none will be spared.  The start of Christian time will be marked by cataclysm.

Handel gained his international fame when still a slender young man during his sojourn in Italy from 1706 to 1710. Italy was the required destination for opera composers, but a tour of the peninsula was seismological as well as musical. Pompeii had not yet been discovered and the excavations not yet begun, but earthquakes and the emissions from Vesuvius and Mt Etna lured tourists from the less geologically active regions of Europe. The Grand Tour was also a disaster waiting to happen.

Almost all the leading Italian composers of the period experienced earthquakes. Vivaldi was born March 4, 1678 just after an earthquake that shook Venice. He was immediately baptized in case God decided to go all the way and completely destroy the city.

Naples was the greatest European opera center, and encapsulated the tension between sensual excess and ecclesiastical decorum that governed Italy’s relationship with the genre. Earthquakes and volcanoes were God’s favorite mediums for cautioning Naples from too amorous an embrace of opera; when the earth shook it was time for the lovers to disentangle themselves. Looming above the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius was a constant reminder that God’s wrathful fist was always at the ready. After the Neapolitan earthquakes of November and early December, 1732, the theatres remained closed as a sign of atonement during the ensuing Carnival opera season, one of the great tourist attractions of Europe. Because of these closures, Pergolesi would have only one stretch in Naples before tuberculosis incapacitated him and then killed him in 1736 at the age of twenty-six.

The cautionary rumbles of Vesuvius shadowed musical life in Naples from Roman times. Only Nero had the temerity to resist seismic portents with lascivious song. According to Suetonius’s Life of Nero, the Emperor’s “first stage appearance was at Neapolis where, disregarding an earthquake which shook the theater, he sang his piece through to the end.” Tacitus would link Nero’s musical obsessions with the “wildest improprieties,” the emperor’s unhinged morality presaged in his early public defiance of godly displeasure with him and his music.

Handel performed in Naples in 1708 ten years after the great 1698 earthquake.  But it was in Rome that he wrote his first earthquake music, the cantata, Donna che in ciel, commissioned in commemoration of the Roman earthquake of 1703, and performed on the disaster’s five-year anniversary in February of 1708. After the ominous overture, the opening recitative makes the connection explicit: “Today is the joyful day / on which you saved use from great peril.”

The piece is for solo soprano—a part originally sung by a male castrato—and orchestra; a single chorus provides the last of the work’s nine movements. In the cantata, Mary is cast in the role of the lenient housewife, who petitions the wrathful God—her father/son and overlord in the incestuous Trinitarian home she inhabits—to take it easy on his wayward children down on earth. We are made to believe that the Roman earthquake could have been far worse if not for Mary’s interventions. The opening recitative thanks God, because “Today you stayed the arm of your angered Son, already about to strike, and, the stern Judge restored by you to a loving Father, showed us how much weight a Mother’s wishes carry.”  With its lurching harmonies and swerving tessitura, the recitative artfully traces these perilously shifting family dynamics, which could easily be transposed from the heavenly household to 1950s suburbia.

The frenetic opening rush and teetering sonorities of the cantata’s first aria evoke not only the earth’s, i.e., God’s, power but also the combination of surprise and fulfilled expectation that attend earthquakes. Before the soprano has even entered, seismic violence threatens to destroy the movement as the orchestral introduction is suddenly toppled by shattering chords and punctured by violent silences. The soprano emerges from the rubble with an echoing aftershock of the cadence and a long tremulous melisma on the word “Vacillò” —the voice staggering because of the earth’s shdders. The line gathers momentum only to be rocked again by the same reeling chords from the strings. It is an exciting ride: at twenty-two Handel had become a master of disaster music.

Still, there is something contained about these tremors, if only because they lack the sheer scope of the massive choruses of Handel’s later English oratorios, with their outsized choral effects, timpani blasts and apocalyptic trumpets. In the concluding movement of  Handel’s earthquake cantata the chorus offers ecstatic exclamations and penitential self-flagellations in dialogue with the soaring invocations and virtuosic cantillations of the soprano:  “Mary, salvation and hope / of the afflicted world and of languishing mortals, / through you, quivering anger extinguishes its torch in a sea of blood.”  There is dread and redemption here, but real and extended terror is never fully unleashed. After all, the cantata is as much about disaster averted as disaster itself.

Handel’s 1739 oratorio Israel in Egypt is a towering landmark in the history of musical violence, a choral blockbuster featuring one disaster after the next. The choruses outnumber the solo arias ten to one. God unleashes his full wrath on the Egyptians, and there is no Mary to talk him out of it. In this age of ongoing Palestinian tragedy, I find it especially difficult to listen to the parched fugal death throes of  “They loathed to drink of the river: He turned their waters into blood” and the relentless hammer blows of “He smote all the first-born,” however musically compelling the force and ingenuity of such depictions may be.

Even more terrifying are the choral cries and pounding drums that send the waters of the Red Sea crashing down over the pursuing Egyptian hosts. “But the waters overwhelmed their enemies” is a truly frightening depiction of the wave and its aftermath. But it is frightening not only because of the huge forces involved, but also because the chorus is so unified and frenzied in its condemnations, the massed judgment of a bloodthirsty mob.

Yet more disturbing, precisely because of its irresistible, intimate beauty, is the re-telling of this event in the second part of the oratorio from Moses’ perspective in the soprano aria “Though didst blow with the wind: the sea cover’d them, they sank as lead in the mighty waters.”  Handel used the musical material from this gorgeous aria several times in the 1730s. In fact, the repeating bass-line takes up a ubiquitous harmonic progression of the Baroque also heard in Pachelbel’s overplayed Canon in D, and—perhaps not coincidentally—used at least twice by Bach for the evocation of severe wind conditions. In Handel’s aria this ostinato pattern proceeds gently at the restrained pace of Andante Larghetto in steady, endless currents heard in the lower strings and bassoon. A pair of oboes enters above these gathering waters in calming, parallel motion and then go on to answer each other in yearning counterpoint, as if to sanctify the ongoing act of destruction. The voice soprano emerges from this liquid texture like a poignant prayer, reaching first a long-held note that then glides effortlessly on the divine, if deadly, breeze skimming the sea.

It is in aestheticizing the human toll of natural disaster that Handel reaches the heights and depths of his genius for musical manipulation. Donna che in ciel finds refuge in the compulsory, if somewhat perfunctory acknowledgment of sin. Its allusion to punishment is fleeting, if exhilarating.  We’re the bad guys and since we’re not so bad after all we deserve to be spared. In Israel in Egypt the enemy is both real and symbolic, i.e., applicable to any and all useful foes across historical time.  This epic of catastrophe begins as shock entertainment, but we are then compelled by the force of Handel’s genius to identify with its perpetrators.

The destruction of the Egyptian army by the Hebrew God in “though didst blow” becomes an exquisite benediction, not an act of war and death. The tsunami of retribution is the seal on God’s covenant. Never has musical serenity been so terrifying.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com