Disastrous Handel

A painting of a group of peopleDescription automatically generated

Nicolas Poussin, Crossing of the Red Sea, c. 1634, (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne).

For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by his sword will the Lord plead with all flesh: and the slain of the Lord shall be many. —Isaiah 66:15-16

As Hurricane Idalia bore down on Florida’s coast, Ron DeSantis was booed at a prayer vigil this week in the aftermath of the racist shooting in Jacksonville. The Governor had many favors to ask of the Good Lord. If only He could supply a weapon that could fight the weather and make people like him, but also (most important) smite another sometime resident of the Sunshine State: Donald J. Trump. During an endless summer of climate catastrophe and a year that began with a devastating earthquake in Turkey, legion have been the prayers for deliverance from “natural” disasters.

Christians have long 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, George Frideric Handel was unmatched in his depictions of the God of climate carnage. Lauded by his admirers and mocked by his detractors as the Man Mountain, Handel was himself an almost geographical entity and 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 hit his seismological stride. Riding atop a rollicking harmonic progression and buoyed by quavering string backdrop, God sends shockwaves across the globe. Because all need to know His might, none will be spared. The start of Christian time will be marked by cataclysm. So will the end.

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 any tour of the peninsula was both seismological and 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 a search for disasters waiting to happen.

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

Nearer Italy’s southern end, Naples had by then become the greatest European opera center. Tension between sensual excess and ecclesiastical decorum marked even this chaotic city’s relationship with the genre. Earthquakes and volcanoes were God’s favorite gestures for cautioning decadent Neapolitans and tourists about their amorous embrace of opera. When the earth shook it was time for the lovers to disentangle.

Looming above the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius was a constant reminder that God’s wrathful hand was always at the ready. Cautionary signals emitted by the volcano had shadowed musical life in the city since Roman times. Only Nero had the temerity to resist seismic portents with lascivious song. According to the chronicler Suetonius, 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 and madness were presaged by 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.”

Except for a single closing chorus, the nine movement Donna che in ciel are deliver by a soprano, a part originally sung by a male castrato. A single chorus provides the last of the piece’s nine movements. In the cantata, Mary is cast as a doting mother 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 would 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 ruptures in harmony and tessitura, the recitative artfully traces the rocky contours of this family dynamic.

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 shifts threaten 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 shuddering of the earth. The line gathers momentum only to be knocked down again by the same reeling chords from the strings. The mayhem is thrilling: 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. 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 evoking outsized images worthy of Cecille B. DeMille. 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 choral shouts, coursing strings, 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 frightening depiction of the wave and its consequences. The terror results not just from the size of the musical forces, but 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 number several times in the 1730s. The repeating bass line takes up a ubiquitous harmonic progression of the Baroque also heard in Pachelbel’s overplayed Canon in D, and used at least twice by Bach, not coincidentally, for the evocation of severe winds. 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 before they being to answer each other in yearning counterpoint, as if to sanctify the ongoing act of destruction. The soprano emerges from this liquid texture in 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 musical genius for message and imagery. Donna che in ciel finds refuge in the compulsory, if somewhat perfunctory acknowledgment of sin. Its allusion to punishment is fleeting and exhilarating. Even though the bad guys are us, most of us will be 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 brilliance, 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. The tidal wave of retribution is the seal on God’s covenant. Never has musical terror been so serene.

(Note: The performances above of Handel’s Roman earthquake cantata and “Thou didst blow” were led by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who this week stepped away from his post as founding director of the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists after he allegedly assaulted one of his singers for exiting the stage in the wrong direction at a festival in France. Many have been the reports over a long and illustrious career of Gardiner’s tempestuous behavior. According to a statement issued yesterday, Sir John is now seeking “the specialist help I recognize that I have needed for some time.”  I leave it to CounterPunch listeners to judge whether that stormy temperament informs and enflames these performances of disaster music.)

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