The Xmas Habit…

Well, Christmas is almost upon us  — so here is a little posting that includes a piece of music strongly associated with this time of year.

Needless to say, the version I’m presenting is one that possesses a certain quirky charm

Heh! I knew you’d enjoy th…

What’s that? You want some serious comment as well…?

Oh, all right then: since it’s Christmas, I’ll offer a few little observations, just for you — but only eight, mind, as I have to get some sprouts on…

First of all, notice how few of those placards were needed to provide all the different words for a piece of music that took almost three-and-a-half minutes of singing.  If you write out all the actual lines of the text — each one extracted from a different verse of the Christian Bible — you find literally the following, which you could read out in less than 15 seconds (if you had nothing more intelligent to do):

Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
(Revelation 19 : 6)

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever.
(Revelation 11 : 15)

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
(Revelation 19 : 16)

In other words — and just as we saw in the case of our Mozart Requiem movement the other week — meaningful music’s disdain for merely verbal structure is not to be under-estimated: to the musical mind, words are stuff to be used, not ‘objects to be venerated’.

Secondly, notice that the entire propositional and conceptual content of that text is twaddle — meaningless garbage from start to finish — yet the expressive edifice erected by Handel’s 1741 musical setting is simply magnificent. To put it another way, nothing in our mental life is more factual than music; and that factuality is indeed so omnipotent — let’s use the word sensibly for once! — that you can attach any would-be conceptual thought to musical art, any verbal rubbish at all, and the music’s factuality remains unimpaired. And that, of course, is the reason why anyone in charge of a piece of religious fiction with ideas above its station either wants music to be on its side, or demands that the most truth-telling art allows itself to be emasculated…

Thirdly, note that the degree of musical repetition here, while not self-underminingly excessive, is considerable. To the extent that this allows for the obvious element of D-major ‘exaltation’ (Handel’s primitive trumpets in their ‘natural’ key!) to co-exist with a quantity of relaxation within the dimension of structural tension, this points to the juncture being ‘an ending’ — and, sure enough, the piece turns out to be the final item of the three-part Messiah‘s second part.

Fourthly, for all that repetition, the compositional means employed are not in any sense over-simple, nor is there a lack of textural contrast.  For example, note the way Handel flings you from a sudden eruption of chorale-style homophony (starting at 1’15”; ‘The kingdom of this world…’) to a burst of apparently fugal counterpoint just 18 seconds later (1’33”; ‘And He shall reign…’):

Fifthly, note that this second recorded version incorporates some seriously weak and ineffective interpretative decisions. Yes: not for the first time, we find that people putting a joke across have the ability to see what’s what rather better than people who take themselves and their scholarly, ‘historical’ pretensions very seriously…

Sixthly, there may be no over-simplicity, but simplicity — harmonic and tonal — of the most radiant kind is present in abundance: suddenly we realise what Beethoven meant when, speaking of Handel, he said ‘Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.’

Seventhly, since I can’t possibly leave you with that rotten second version uppermost in your mind, here’s a much better performance

Eighthly, sprouts

Happy Christmas!


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2 thoughts on “The Xmas Habit…

  1. Dear Mark, it’s fortunate that Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms didn’t think they were setting “meaningless garbage”, otherwise we wouldn’t have many of their works. Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” comes to mind here.
    Happy Christmas!


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