[16 January 2008]
As steals the morn upon the night,
And melts the shades away:
So truth does fancy’s charm dissolve,
And melts the shades away:
The fumes that did the mind involve,
Restoring intellectual day.
Ritornello: We want to believe that art is timeless. We want to believe this because if art is timeless then something made by a human being not only outlives that human being but also becomes a form of expression that seemingly transcends time itself. If a person is mortal, the deeds of that person need not be.
A-Section: This is, of course, a platitude. But platitudes persist because we find meaning in them—or, at the very least, we wish to find meaning in them. A Night with Handel, a recent DVD release by Kultur Video, traffics in this platitude to the extent that the cliché serves as the thread that binds its narrative together with the eight excerpts from seven of Handel’s operas and one of his oratorios. The central premise here (and it is hammered into the viewer’s mind over the course of the narration) is that Handel—although ostensibly depicting the trials and tribulations of kings and queens, magicians and epic heroes—was all the while really portraying the vicissitudes of life experienced by the everyday person.
The DVD exploits this supposed connection between Handel’s understanding of human emotion and our own by updating the various scenarios of scenes taken from his operas. Thus, the video is ostensibly a “performance-based film” that stages the eight set pieces in modern London from dusk to dawn over the course of a particularly eventful night. The film opens with a woman in a church, lamenting the loss of her lover (the producers do not seem to worry over the fact that the aria was written for a male character—that is, it would have been sung by a castrato—as is abundantly evident by the gender of the Italian “sposa”).
From there we move to a train station where another young woman arrives to meet her betrothed (heretofore a stranger) only to find he doesn’t live up to his photograph. The film never explains why these two are supposed to wed; she does not appear to be a mail-order bride. Other episodes include a reimagining of Giulio Cesare in which the eponymous hero is seen running from a gang of street thugs only to give himself away by singing a high note, thus forcing him into a decidedly unfair knife fight: 18th-century opera meets The Shield.
The problem, if there is one, is not so much with the modernization of the plots (no matter how absurd). Such updated stagings are all-too-familiar and are becoming a cliché of their own. Rather, the point that rankles my sensibilities to some degree is the insistence that great music is timeless and therefore Handel’s music still “means” today whatever it was it meant in his own time. These are emotions that we have all felt (or so the narrator claims), and Handel somehow managed to tap directly into that secret reserve of mortal longing and anguish to reveal the eternally human aspects of our nature. The fashions of musical form and expression may have changed with time, but human emotion remains ever the same and it is that emotion that we still hear in Handel’s music.
The problem with platitudes is that they are nearly unfalsifiable (to use a term popularized by Karl Popper). That is to say, with respect to the claim that Handel’s music illuminates human emotions that have remained unaltered from his day to ours, there is no way to verify any of the postulates embedded within the claim. Most importantly, on what grounds can we possibly assert that human emotions have experienced essentially no change over the course of the two and a half centuries that separate our time from Handel’s? Indeed, it seems much more likely that the opposite is the case, at least if we are to judge by the writings of various figures of the Enlightenment concerning the manner in which emotions arise.
During Handel’s time, emotions were still believed to be bound up with the four humors—fluids that pervaded the human body and gave rise to characteristics of our personalities. These fluids (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) mixed within the body, determining the humoral make-up (and thus the emotional profile) of the person. Someone with too much phlegm in proportion to the other humors was phlegmatic—that is, sedate—while someone with too much yellow bile was choleric—that is, easily angered. The humors determined temperament (your “temper” literally depended upon your humoral balance or imbalance).
This belief was not restricted to the medical field but rather pervaded the popular imagination. It even serves as the central conceit of Handel’s oratorio (based on poetry by Milton with additions by the librettist Charles Jennens), L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, which involves the relative superiority of a moderate person (one whose humors are balanced) over someone given to excessive mirth (that is, overly sanguine owing to an excess of blood) or someone given to excessive melancholy (owing to an excess of black bile).
The duet “As Steals the Morn” from the end of the oratorio appears as the final piece performed on the DVD and clarifies the superior position of the moderate, as we can see in the verses from the piece that serve as the epigraph to this discussion. Truth, only attainable by a person whose humors are basically balanced so that their possibly negative influence does not obscure the clarity of reason, dispels the fumes (the discombobulating effects of the excess of a given humor) that cloud the mind thus “restoring intellectual day”.
This, it seems to me, is a far cry from our view of emotion, which (despite the varieties of theories entertained by modern science) almost invariably depicts emotions as complex reactions to stimuli rather than a result of material within the body as the essentially physicalist humoral theory would have it. This is no trivial matter when it comes to appreciating Handel’s music, particularly his operas. Indeed, as I hope to demonstrate momentarily, the very logic of Handel’s operatic plots depends upon a rather strong reading of the humoral theory of emotion.
Ritornello: And yet we want to believe that art is timeless. Perhaps we want to believe this because we are essentially self-centered creatures. “If art is to mean something to me”, our cretinous and unaesthetic impulses insist, “then it must ‘mean’ on my terms; it must speak a language that I can effortlessly understand”. And yet this, it seems to me, flies in the face of what aesthetics and an aesthetic understanding seek to accomplish. A truly aesthetic stance seeks out beauty; it does not merely wait upon its reception. An aesthetic attitude is active, not passive. It seeks to understand, not to be placated in the false belief that it has understood perfectly well all along.
B-Section: Opera in Handel’s day contained very few ensemble numbers. There are some important duets (indeed, two of Handel’s loveliest duets—“As Steals the Morn” from the oratorio L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed il Moderato and “Per le porte del tormento” from his rarely heard opera Sosarme—are featured on this DVD) and a few (much less important) choruses, but the basic musical fabric is woven from the alternation of recitatives and arias for the various characters. A recitative seeks to emulate the spoken word; it is used to advance the drama and usually features little to no repetition and only the sparsest of accompaniments—often just the basso continuo (that is, a bass instrument and a chordal instrument—typically, the cello and a harpsichord). The aria contrasts with the recitative in nearly every way.
Where the recitative resembles heightened speech, the aria is clearly and ostentatiously melodic. Where the recitative employs limited instrumentation to punctuate the sentences of the text, the aria unleashes the full power of the orchestra to heighten the emotional impact of the singing. The recitative avoids repetition while the aria revels in it. The recitative is dramatic, the aria reflective. The recitative represents the events of the outer, political world while the aria represents the inner workings of the human soul. Finally, the recitative, insofar as it has a form at all, adheres closely to the text of the libretto while the aria conforms almost invariably to the “da capo” aria structure.
This highly formulaic structure perfectly emphasizes the performative aspects of Handelian opera and indeed represents the seeming triumph of music over text—perhaps even the triumph of sensuous emotion over the articulate logic of the spoken word. The aria begins with a “ritornello” (literally: little returning figure), an orchestral statement that usually presents the melody that will serve as the primary material for the composition. The orchestra marks the onset of the aria as broaching a special space in which the temporal unfolding of the drama is momentarily interrupted in order to afford the singer a moment “out of time” to reflect upon the current state of affairs.
The aria proceeds with the A-section, during which the main sentiment of the piece is expressed and the melody is sung with the text. Another (perhaps slightly altered) ritornello leads to a full cadence in the main key. Then the performer sings the B-section. This section has its own text and generally presents a slightly different affect from the main section. This arrives at another cadence—usually a half cadence (that is, on the fifth of the overall key).
A return to the opening ritornello introduces the reprise of the A-section. No new text is sung, no new information presented. The composer wouldn’t even bother to write the section out for the reprise. There is simply an instruction that informs the performers to return to the beginning of the piece (the instruction being “da capo” or “from the head”, hence the term “da capo” aria).
The entire A-section is repeated but now the singer of Handel’s time would take advantage of the repetition to improvise an ornamented version of the melody. In one sense, this section of the composition has no dramatic role to play; it is pure spectacle. The section closes with an improvised cadenza (a showy passage for the voice without accompaniment), which opens the way for the final ritornello and the concluding cadence.
The “da capo” aria is the apotheosis of the formulaic. There is no formal response to the specificities of the text. Indeed, the texts for these arias were tailored to the requirements of the musical form. Moreover, the texts are typically so generic that one could simply replace a love or rage aria in one opera with that from another without in any way damaging the trajectory of the plot.
Far from being a type of dramatic expression that would strike modern audiences as familiar, the “da capo” structure flies in the face of modern notions of dramatic development. There is no change, no coming to terms, no decisions made over the course of the musical soliloquy. The aria is an essentially static device in Handel’s opera. It is a snapshot of an emotional state frozen in time. It is the musical temporalization of an emotionally static moment.
Ritornello: However, the argument that certain music is timeless explicitly disavows any claim to the continued efficaciousness of musical forms. Rather, the notion that art is timeless implies that it is the inner core of the artwork, its essence that transcends temporal limitations and the vagaries of specific traditions. But the gap that separates Handel’s operatic worldview from our own transcends mere musical forms. That gap is articulated primarily by a different understanding of the relationship between a person’s emotions and that person’s character.
Reprise of the A-Section: Modern conceptions of drama, not surprisingly, derive from modern conceptions of personhood. We tend to believe (unless we are feeling particularly cynical) that people change over the course of a given period of time. They develop. They come to realizations and alter their behavior accordingly. We watch films or attend the theater largely to see characters that face some kind of dilemma and then develop personally in relation to it. The individual’s interactions with events bring about real changes in that individual.
Remember in early seasons of The Sopranos when Christopher was writing a screenplay and he was looking for his character’s “arc”? This is what we typically expect from characters and from people. We expect them to have an arc.
Not so the audiences in Handel’s day. A person didn’t develop; an individual had a basic humoral make-up that determined the range of behaviors and attitudes that the individual exhibited. The individual’s interactions with events did not typically bring about change within a person but rather elicited different aspects of their essential character.
This is, in part, the dramatic function of having so many different arias depicting different moods for a single character over the course of the opera. Each aria examines the character in relation to different events that elicit a reaction based on their inner, humoral nature. Moreover, the repetition on which the “da capo” aria is based emphasizes the static nature of the personality of an individual. Different events may bring out different aspects of an individual’s character, but the character itself is, generally speaking, immutable. A person is heroic or cowardly, foolhardy or wise.
The thing that rankles me somewhat about A Night with Handel is its insistence upon the notion that Handel speaks directly to us, in our own language. To insist upon this is to vitiate Handel’s music and dramatic vision of everything that makes it challenging for us today, of everything that makes it worth listening to, aside from a harmless indulgence in beautiful melody.
In order to accomplish this modernization of Handel, in order to produce this aesthetic act of prestidigitation, the film resorts to the worst kind of artistic abuse. It cannot make up its mind to what degree it wishes to be a “performance-based film” and to what degree it wishes to be a documentary. The producer’s anxiety on this account registers most clearly with the film’s treatment of the “da capo” arias that are its main objects of concern. Almost every performance fades out momentarily or is cut at the same exact spot within the structure: the end of the B-Section.
The performance will run from the opening ritornello to the close of the B-Section and then pause for commentary from the narrator and a few talking heads. These men tell us something about the prima donnas, or the castrati, or the audiences. Most of the information has little to do with the music and, frankly, most of it is rather inane. But it seems to provide the film with a new “justification” for the reprise of the A-Section. We heard the aria up to the point where it ran out of “new information”, then we paused to “learn something” about Handel, and then we return to the music to listen with “deeper” understanding. (As much as I would like to, I simply cannot in good faith remove the scare quotes from that last sentence.)
Now, as can readily be seen from the discussion above, to do this is to make nonsense of these arias in two ways. First, a full interruption at the close of the B-Section makes no musical sense. The B-Section ends on a half cadence. This is not true closure, but insists that more is to follow immediately. It strikes one as poor editing the first time the film makes use of this device, but it soon becomes irritating in the extreme.
Second, and more importantly, cutting the aria at this point attempts to foist a modern understanding of character development onto a structure that exemplifies an early Enlightenment view of a personality informed by the humors. Thus the aria “progresses” in this momentarily truncated version from the A-Section to a slightly contrasting B-Section. At least for a time, we have the illusion of development, of emotional movement, of an arc. The reprise of the A-Section becomes a reminder of the object of discussion and is separated from the performance proper. It is thus explained away along with any difference between Handel’s notion of drama and our own.
Cadenza: But this is precisely what we should endeavor never to do to an artwork. We should never attempt to reduce its otherness to what we believe safe and familiar. George Steiner once wrote that art should function to make strangeness appear stranger; it ought to be an act of engagement with the uncanny, a reminder of our own eternally “unhoused” condition (uncanny being the English version of the German “unheimlich”).
If we are to have a specific encounter with Handel then it should not be a Handel divested of precisely those elements that make him differ from us. If the aesthetic stance is not passive, if it is an attempt to seek understanding with something that is radically unlike ourselves then we fail to treat Handel’s music as art insofar as we reduce Handel to a homunculus in our own image.
Ritornello and Final Cadence: We want to believe that art is timeless. We want to believe this because if art is timeless then something made by a human being not only outlives that human being, but also becomes a form of expression that seemingly transcends time itself. But if art is truly timeless, its timeless quality can only be discerned within its very timeliness. Art affords us with the opportunity to seek out engagements with otherness. Its utopic moment only arises through our honest attempts to understand something entirely outside of ourselves. If we truly wish to celebrate the timeless aspects of Handel, we would do well to hear him in his language without the pusillanimous recourse to translating him into our own.