Handel on Fire

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John Martin, The Seventh Plague (of fiery hail), 1823, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Fire season is upon us. There’s no off-season anymore. 24/7 takes on paradoxically darker and brighter—and ever hotter—connotations.

One of the biggest, most destructive fires in New Mexico’s history is sweeping through the mountains east of Santa Fe, having already engulfed more than 160,000 acres. The Calf Canyon and Merit Peak Fires began as separate blazes but merged ten days ago. Elsewhere in the American Southwest dozens of smaller fires rage.

Science can be prayed to by the right-thinking, but it holds out less hope than religion, which might offer the better odds and greater solace, even if your local church has burned down too. Besides, few human activities are greener than folding the hands and talking to God. Who knows how Pascal would have wagered were he alive today?

The cause of the Calf-Canyon/Merit Peak Fires has not yet been determined, though Act of God(s) is as good as any. That’s been the go-to explanation for millennia. The scale and frequency of fires and floods take on increasingly Biblical proportions. The New York Times begins to look more and more like an illustrated edition of Exodus.

From Genesis to Revelation the Bible is not just a fascinating compendium of environmental attitudes and attacks, but a renewable resource for the mining of scenarios for blockbuster shows.

Seeking to map liberal-causes onto box-office riches, Hollywood has been drawing, if indirectly, from this treasure trove, as in last year’s seriocomic call-to-action (or at least to streaming) movie on Netflix, Don’t Look Up.

As in so many things, Handel was ahead of his time, proving himself a master of enviro-carnage centuries before Cecil B. De- and Leonard Di- Mille & Caprio got busy wrecking stuff on screen for the purposes of entertainment and edification.

Hailing from a small city tucked away in the forests of central Germany, the enterprising and ambitious Handel left home for bustling Hamburg as an eighteen-year-old, then to Italy where he continued to make his mark on the era’s most lucrative and prestigious theatrical medium—opera. Desired by many for his gifts for dramatic song, Handel landed in London in 1710 at the age of twenty-five and churned out some forty operas over the next three decades.

Many were his successes, artistic and financial. The life was thrilling, turbulent, rich with celebrity and incident.

But opera is a notoriously bankrupting pursuit. In March of 1738 Handel withdrew the last fifty pounds from his checking account at the Bank of England. He had had many thousands just a decade earlier.

He had just folded his opera enterprise, its demise the result of competition and mounting indifference among the London populace to overpaid Italians crooning in a foreign language on English stages. Handel now turned his talent—and money—to oratorios sung in English and making abundant use of spectacular choruses. This novelty was calculated to attract audiences after years of operas dominated by that vehicle for star singers, the solo aria.

The year before emptying his cash reserves Handel, then 52 years old, had suffered a major health scare that left him unable to use his right arm, a necessary appendage both for writing music and playing the organ. It might have been a stroke or poisoning from too much wine stabilized, as was common practice, with lead. He journeyed to the continent for a cure, putting in epic sessions in the baths of Aix-la-Chapelle. The Man Mountain, as he was called by his detractors and even some admirers on account of his girth and notorious gourmandizing, recovered. He returned to London eager to get back in action.

Soon, though, Handel was in dire straits, teetering on the brink of insolvency with competitors trying to sabotage him.

Faced with disaster, he turned to disaster music. Israel in Egypt, many of its numbers culled from his back-catalog and even from other composers, was nonetheless a new kind of entertainment, one jammed packed with rousing choruses. The work was dense with destruction, scenes of horror visited on Pharaoh and his subjects: rivers of blood; armies of frogs; then lice; then wild animals; livestock stricken by disease; Egyptians break out in blotches and blisters; locusts destroy crops; the land is shrouded in darkness; firstborn sons die.

Unstaged, the oratorio’s music was no less vigorously visual. The diverse and immensely theatrical choruses made you see the scenes of devastation. Handel was a cinematographer in sound.

Charles Jennens, who also collated the text for Messiah, melded together passages from the Psalms and from Exodus for the seventh plague, the text provoking one of Handel’s most rousing treatments of extreme weather: “He gave them hailstones for rain; fire mingled with the hail ran along upon the ground.”

Handel opens the scene with bouncing repeated notes in the oboes, soon joined by a succession of strings, the bows jumping, the ensemble then hailing down in descending scales, letting up only to gather renewed strength in another wave of precipitation as the voices come crashing in. The choruses’ shouts of “hailstones” are punctuated by timpani and trumpet blasts, a trio of trombones painting the dark skies above. (The YouTube video by the appropriately named Apollo’s Fire cuts out the calmer C-major chords that Handel used to presage the oncoming storm: this Cleveland band gets right to the mayhem.)

Handel divides his vocal forces into two choirs that answer one another like squalls ripping across the Nile floodplain. Fire mingles with hail as the strings shake and crackle, the brass assault building intensity. Colossal chords, held longer as they are buffeted by orchestral gusts, make the word “Fire” leap in technicolor. The two choirs crash together as the flames mingle with hail. These swirling vocals then resolve into a unified proclamation of the ongoing destruction, then fragment into back-and-forth torrents before all voices and instruments align for a final massed utterance that lands—music and hail—emphatically on the ground. The orchestral play-out rages onward in voiceless fury, stamped at its close with brass and drums in a statement of climatic triumph, the elemental victor disappearing as quickly as it had struck.

The is no respite, no refuge; no time to pray, no time to run for cover Many hailstorms come and go in two minutes, the length of this Handelian plague when it is conjured as energetically as it is by Apollo’s Fire. The cataclysm is over almost before it has really begun. But the destruction is total.

Just a week ago in in the Times we learned that tornados and hail were coursing over the Central Plains. Hailstones more than two inches in diameter fell in the Western Ohio Valley. With fires already sprung up, the drought-stricken Southwest braces for yet more blazes as lightning threatens and the Calf Canyon/Merit Peak conflagration is whipped along by high winds.

If scientific soothsayers are to be believed, the present disasters are just a prelude of the truly Biblical ones to come.

In spite of Handel’s gifts for creative destruction even with the Bible as his libretto, Israel in Egypt was a bust, poorly attended over its paltry three initial performances. (It was only after his sojourn in Dublin in 1741-2, Messiah in tow, that Handel’s fortunes turned sharply for the better; he died a rich man in 1759, buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.)

Handel’s musical representations of the plagues visited on Egypt by the One True God provoked clerical disapproval. The theater was not the place to tell stories pillaged from Scripture. But Handel’s audience also seemed unprepared for the works’ succession of choral jolts.

The oratorio is now a perennial favorite for audiences attuned to the disaster entertainments that Handel helped pioneer. I’m not sure whether these same audiences are attuned to reality. It’s surely better that way; better to enjoy the thrill of the musical moment far from the real flames and distracted from worries about what it is to come.

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