George Marshall writes:
>But I guess my problem with Handel is mine not his, though it's quite
>a comfort to learn that Berlioz appears to have had a similar problem.
In the opposing camp we can count Mozart, and Beethoven who famously
said that Handel was the greatest composer that ever lived: "I would
uncover my head, and kneel before his tomb". Handel was of course a
major influence on the operatic and choral music of both composers,
whilst Beethoven's late preoccupation with fugue arose from his intense
study of Handel's long, sectional fugato themes and unconventional
development of them: for Handel, as for Beethoven, fugue was a servant
rather than a master.
To come back to the operas, George has clearly led himself to the water
on numerous occasions! What can I suggest....
Well, he mentions Haydn; and the comparison is instructive. I had the
pleasure of directing "L'Infedelta Delusa" (one of the best of Haydn's
many operas) some years ago, and it didn't take me long to realise that
it contained much wonderfully absorbing and rich music. I also realised
that it wasn't good theatre.
Why? Mainly because the arias, fantastic in themselves, are
distributed almost at random: for instance, the farmer's daughter in
this one gets a Zerlina-type number in Act 1 and some very aristocratic
Queen-of-the-Night stuff in Act 2. Haydn's music isn't tailored to his
characters, and - as I find also with Vivaldi - the working out of the
musical material almost always takes precedence over the needs of the
theatrical situation. Opera as Drama this ain't.
Which brings me to my suggestion: try listening in sequence to a full
set of Handel's arias for a particular character - Cleopatra's eight in
"Giulio Cesare" make her a prime candidate, but one could equally well
take Semele, Rodelinda, Dejanirah in "Hercules" or a host of others.
Different facets, but a common thread; and by the time we've finished
we've really got to know what makes these vivid characters tick.
How to listen? Second suggestion: with Handel it's the bass line which
is most important. Yes, he writes fantastic tunes, but it's the energy
of his driving bass which makes the music lift off. When he "borrows"
other music (which of course he often does, mainly from himself) it's
instructive to see how it's not the melody, or the harmony, but the bass
line that he alters - and always for the better. For us listeners, it's
important to focus on and go with that bass line. Get inside that, and
everything else might just fall into place.
Do persevere -- Beethoven and Mozart can't be wrong!
Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK
"ZARZUELA!" The Spanish Music Site
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