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…
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