Triggering Handel

A painting of people in a fieldDescription automatically generated

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Battle Between the Philistines and the Israelites, c. 1580.

The goal of baroque composers was to trigger the emotions. Yet many moderns enjoy this music because they hear it is unthreatening. To them, the sounds of cantatas, concertos, and suites are merely pleasing. There may be a few thrills in Vivaldi—those summer storms and winter chills in the Four Seasons—and in the catalog of his contemporaries north of the Alps, but “Early Music” is more often summoned on Spotify to calm the nerves, not to jangle them.

Yet, as Bettina Varwig has shown in her recently published monograph, Music in the Flesh, the best composers, equipped with a range of commonly used musical effects and figures, sought to elicit powerful physiological responses in their listeners. Their aim was to get the bile to boiling, the phlegm to freezing.

Performers also had to feel: “A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved,” wrote C. P. E. Bach in his widely disseminated treatise on keyboard playing from the middle of the 18th century.

None was more masterful at marshaling emotion than Handel. From his teen years, he began arming himself with a vast arsenal of musical munitions, gestures and devices that ranged from the covert to the colossal, the stealthy to the roaring, the grand to the intimate. He amassed stockpiles of affecting themes and sonorities, many of them pilfered, and then loaded them into the big artillery of his imagination. Handel had immense flair for firing off sonic sentiments that thrilled, shocked, scared, chastened, and inspired his listeners.

This was and is dangerous stuff. We should probably start slapping advisory warnings on his dramatic music—his legion of operas and, especially this time of year, his army of oratorios.

Though originally a Lenten work, Messiah is now a Christmas favorite. After the spirited overture, the singing begins in a setting of forthright calm. Peace reigns. Uttered above a cradle of lullaby strings (and often nowadays from among a sea of blood-red poinsettias), the message excerpted from the Book of Isaiah, rings bitter this holiday season.

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.”

Shibboleth-busting musicologist Michael Marissen argued fifteen years ago that the Messiah libretto, assembled from biblical passages by the wealthy landowner and theologian Charles Jennens, pursued an implicitly antisemitic program that celebrates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and casts down the disbelieving Jews. Marissen’s claims were contested by other scholars, but regardless of where you come down in this debate, it is clear that Messiah is filled with violence.

Hostilities come to a head towards the close the second of the oratorio’s three parts. The bass aria “Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?” takes its text from the opening lines of Psalm 2. Before we hear this question, Handel has the orchestra pound away in anguish as if with clenched fists. The voice enters in desperation with an arpeggio that rises up to demand its answer but then cascades down in impotent defeat.

After an austere chorus about breaking bonds and a tenor recitative conjuring the Lord’s scorn for unbelievers, the tenor stands to deliver a grim aria drawing on a later line from Psalm 2: “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” In the orchestral introduction, Handel’s bass line deploys one of the most reliable weapons used to elicit breast-beating and teeth-gnashing—the descent through the top four pitches of the minor scale, the so-called descending tetrachord. Handel first presents this figure plainly, then makes it more painful through the inclusion of intervening chromatic notes, as if mining the road with semitones.

Above this unsettling foundation, the violins, massed in unison, teeter around the home pitch then lunge downward into the harrowing chasm of an interval, then miraculously leap back up to continue their slashing. Like a battle commander unblinking in the face of the instrumental assault, the tenor enters the fray with resolute, shoulder-to-shoulder diatonic notes heard in a short-lived pause in the orchestral accompaniment. When the instrumental assault immediately picks up again, the tenor holds his ground, missiles hurtling past him, until he fires off his own speed rounds at the words “pottter’s,” dashing his enemies like so many ceramic shards. Later the singer will again be spurred to quicker action by the strings when he brandishes the “rod” with kindred bloodthirstiness.

This call for vengeance culminates in triumphant rejoicing: the Hallelujah Chorus. Never has musical carnage been more sublime.

Handel had made a first charge at a “Hallelujah” three years earlier in his oratorio Saul, performed with great success in 1738 in London and revived repeatedly over the last two decades of his life. The libretto for Saul was also prepared by Jennens, who starts the drama with the Israelites in the midst of their jubilations immediately after the young hero David has slain Goliath, referred to as “the atheist monster.” The joined forces of trumpets and drums that Handel strategically withheld from Messiah until the Hallelujah Chorus are unleashed right from the start of Saul. Into the fray Handel lobs three trombones to boot.

The Hallelujah in Saul comes immediately after a repeat of the first chorus that is used by Handel to frame the opening scene. The return to the opening words “How excellent they name, O Lord” set to the identical music makes both even more irresistible when reprised, the second artillery barrage before the final charge into Hallelujah. The motive of this closing blast of a benediction has a similar outline to the figure that resounds through to the words “and he shall reign forever and ever” in the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In both works, joy follows directly on the blood-stained heels of armed conflict.

In 1738 Handel had recently recovered from a major health crisis and his finances were in disarray, his failing operatic enterprise having nearly bankrupted him. Saul was a hit, and he must have felt like a colossus again, willing himself to victory in his wars with his London competitors. The long years of Handel’s English oratorio campaign had begun in earnest and would leave him, as the young David hymned at the opening of Saul, as the undisputed victor, the hero in his own drama.

When Handel took his new oratorio Messiah to Dublin three years later in the spring of 1742, he led a command performance of Saul there as well. Like fireworks on the Fourth of July, Hallelujahs rocketed from the Emerald Isle.

These works were not staged during Handel’s lifetime, but instead were performed as concerts, largely because of the resistance put up by clerics against portraying biblical stories in the theatre. The composer’s devotees, like Handel himself, knew that these dramas would be even more gripping if acted in costume in front of the scenery, but that development had to wait for the 20th Century.

In 2015 the fabulously inventive and irreverent stage director, Barrie Kosky, then artistic leader of the Comic Opera in Berlin, was called to England’s south coast to Glyndebourne, where he chose to put on Handel’s Saul for his debut at the celebrated house. Reinforced by the super-sumptuous designs of Katrin Lea Tag and the antic, historically promiscuous choreography of Otto Pichler, Kosky convenes an opening celebration of ecstatic, appalling excess. These Israelites feast and frolic with the head of the enemy ex-champion (the atheist monster) at the foot of the banquet table. To Handel’s cannonades, they sing and dance around and above the bloody, bearded trophy. In concert—and contest—with Kosky’s stagecraft, the music becomes bizarrely terrific (in the eighteenth-century sense of the word): terrifyingly sublime and sickening.

Classical music lovers and institutions are not going to jettison Handel’s masterpieces nor provide trigger warnings for his oratorios. For the moment the big-gun masterpieces are secure in their hardened silos.

One production was, however, canceled in late October at the University of Cambridge’s opera society. This course of inaction might be a first in Handel history. Beth Norman, the group’s president issued a statement through the student body: “It is with heavy heart that CUOS are announcing that due to the current sensitive political situation and unfortunate escalation of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and Israel, we have decided that the production of Handel’s ‘Saul’ will not go ahead.” A contested derivation of the place name Palestine is that it comes from the Greek designation for the land of the Philistines. According to this view, what is now modern-day Gaza was the setting for Handel’s Saul.

Regardless of geography, silencing Saul this year takes Handel’s gifts, his works, and his message seriously.

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