Copying Handel

9 05 2007

I wrote a sort of outsider’s survey of Handel’s Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain from his immortal Messiah oratorio a few months back (if you missed it, read it here), and I’ve since taken to copying it onto Sibelius (a music notation program I use).  It has been a long, sometimes maddening, sometimes awe-inspiring, always educational endeavor.

First, let me say that truly, the art of writing music like Handel’s and Bach’s (while were at it, throw in Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev and Shostakovich) is largely lost to us; how Handel got four voices in a choir and four more in the strings (since he usually doubles the cellos on the contrabasses) to each play beautiful, individual lines and yet interweave them seamlessly without stepping on each others toes is truly awesome.

To give you an idea of what it’s like, try this: for a simple Major chord, you only need three notes – the root, the third, and the fifth. These three notes form a major triad. If you were to have a choir sing such a chord, you would do something like this: have the basses sing the root, give the altos the third, and the sopranos the fifth. But what about the tenors? You would have to make them double what another voice is already doing (albeit at a different octave) – which is essentially redundant (this isn’t always a bad thing, but bear with me). Somehow, Handel and Bach were able to compose beautiful, individual lines for several voices, yet none of these lines clashed with one another. It’s simply astounding.

I’m now into the final stretch in copying Handel, which brings me to the reason I started copying his music in the first place – the performance. I look at the score, and I take a nervous gulp – the music is so big, so complex, so far above what most choirs are used to doing, I have no idea how to pull it off. How will I prepare the strings for music that will stretch them like saltwater taffy? How will I conduct the choir, with its difficult, fugue-like motifs? Where on earth will I get two trumpeters and timpani?

And yet, despite the glaring difficulties that stand in the way, something inside of me continues to urge me to try…to risk life and limb and professional reputation (ha!) and involve people in music that was shipped straight from God’s throne. How will I possibly do this? How will we do this?

How will God do this?

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