Disaster Music

As historic Midwestern floodwaters receded, another “bomb cyclone” attacked the central U.S. this week. It is a time of extremes: to the south wildfire danger builds in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. So much for homeland security. Looking beyond the battered American interior and its borders, Cyclone Idai and its floods have brought far greater destruction and misery to southern Africa than that visited on America. Meanwhile, a large earthquake off the Indonesian coast prompts tsunami warnings in Asia.

Reflecting on the bridges, dams and dwellings swept away by the Midwestern floods, cultural director of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Dwight Howe affirmed that “only God can do that.” Howe seemed not to be referring to the Christian God, but many believe that the present climactic afflictions are a harbinger of a second Great Flood. The high water bearing icy boulders of this spring were, as one distraught Nebraska rancher put it, a “sign from God.”

Indeed, many Christians have worshipped their God as the one true meteorological and seismological power. 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 Ten Plagues of Egypt were His decathlon, continual cataclysm his Olympic Games.

As a musical painter of action, the larger the scale the better, George Frideric Handel was unmatched in his depictions of God as a wrecking ball. Lauded by his admirers and mocked by his detractors as the Man Mountain, Handel was himself a geographical entity and a geological force. When he trembled and blew the musical world felt it. We feel it still.

Handel’s friend and sometime 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.”

Perhaps the most famous earthquake in music history comes near the beginning of Messiah. Shaking orchestral chords introduce the motto: “Thus saith the Lord.”

Now adopting the voice of God, the bass soloist then reminds listeners that earthquakes on land and beneath the 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 somewhat hesitantly by painting the first “shake” in upward arcing oscillations momentarily rumbling free from the foundation of the orchestral accompaniment. By the time he gets to the second “shake,” the Lord has discovered real flair for seismology. Buoyed by a rollicking harmonic progression and quavering string backdrop, God sends shockwaves across the globe. Because all need to know, none will be spared. The start of Christian time will be marked by cataclysm.

While still a skinny upstart Handel shot to international fame 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. The excavations at Pompeii had not yet begun, but earthquakes and the emissions from Vesuvius and Mt. Etna lured tourists from 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, now increasingly underwater as well. He was baptized immediately in case God decided to go all the way and destroy the city completely.

Naples had by then become the greatest European opera center and was still not free of the tension between sensual excess and ecclesiastical decorum that marked Italy’s relationship with the genre it had invented. Earthquakes and volcanoes were God’s favorite gestures for cautioning decadent Naples about 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 hand 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 next Carnival opera season: fear silenced one of the great tourist attractions on the continent. As a result, opera’s youthful genius, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi would have only one more Carnival season in Naples before tuberculosis killed him in 1736 at the age of just twenty-six.

The cautionary signals of Vesuvius had shadowed musical life in Naples since 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 linked Nero’s musical obsessions with the “wildest improprieties”; Nero’s unhinged morality was 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 to commemorate the Roman earthquake of 1703, and performed on the disaster’s five-year anniversary in February of 1708. After the ominous and turbulent overture, the opening recitative makes the connection explicit: “Today is the joyful day / on which you saved use from great peril.”

Donna che in ciel is for solo soprano; the part was originally sung by a male castrato and orchestra. A single chorus provides the last of the piece’s nine movements. In the cantata, Mary is cast in the role of lenient housewife, who petitions the wrathful God—her father/son and overlord in the incestuous Trinitarian home she inhabits—to go easy on his wayward children down on earth. We are made to understand that the Roman earthquake could have been far worse if not for Mary’s interventions. The opening recitative praises her 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 radical shifts in harmony and tessitura, the recitative artfully traces the rocky contours of this family dynamic, one that could easily be transposed from the heavenly household to 1950s American suburbia.

The frenetic opening rush and teetering sonorities of the cantata’s first aria depict not only God’s power but also the combination of latent expectation and ensuing surprise that attend natural disasters. Before the soprano has even entered, tectonic violence threatens to destroy the movement as the orchestral introduction is suddenly toppled by brutal chords punctured by violent silences. The soprano emerges from the rubble and echoing aftershock of the cadence with a long tremulous melisma on the word “Vacilló” evoking the shaking and shuddering of the earth. The line gathers momentum only to be knocked down again by the same reeling chords from the strings. It is an exciting ride: at twenty-two Handel had shown himself a master of disaster.

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, shattering timpani 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 landmark in the history of musical violence, a choral disaster blockbuster worthy of Hollywood’s grandest DeMillean tableaux. In the oratorio the choruses outnumber the solo numbers 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 it is difficult to listen to the parched, lurching death throes of the fugue, “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 is the bellowing musical rhetoric—all choral shouts and pounding drums—that sends 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 consequences. 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 the mob.

More disturbing still, 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 “Thou 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 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 seductive parallel motion. They go on to answer each other in yearning counterpoint, as if to sanctify the ongoing act of destruction. The soprano emerges from this liquid texture like a poignant prayer, reaching first a long-held note that then glides effortlessly on the divine 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 and exhilarating. The bad guys are us, and since we are not so bad after all, we are spared. In Israel in Egypt the enemy is both real and symbolic, and the demonization of a useful foe can be made to extend across historical time. This epic of catastrophe begins as shock entertainment and goes on to render us helpless in the face of the sublime, devastating power of Handel’s genius, itself seemingly a force of nature that compels us to identify with the perpetrator of vengeance.

The destruction of the Egyptian army by the Hebrew God in “Thou 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 terror been so serene.



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com