Handel's Messiah: a Rhetorical Guide.
This book examining the rhetorical background of Messiah seeks to shed light on the performance of Messiah through an exploration of the rhetoric contained within it. It builds well upon the author's previous books, Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners (St Albans, 2000), a guide to historical source material on playing bowed stringed instruments, and The Weapons of Rhetoric (St Albans, 2004), which is designed to teach today's audiences and performers an understanding of the rhetorical style as it would have been understood by eighteenth-century musicians and audiences. This book is divided into three parts, the first dealing with the 'invention' of the work, the second with its 'delivery' and the third with 'the audience'. In addition to her work as an author, Tarling is a violinist specializing in performance of early music on period instruments. She has performed and recorded with many high profile ensembles including the Academy of Ancient Music, the Parley of Instruments and the Hanover Band. She has also lectured extensively on baroque style at various higher education institutes in the UK, across the USA and in Brazil.
Part One begins with a brief summary of the work's creation by Handel, before turning to the libretto written by Charles Jennens to discuss in more detail the structure, origin and meaning of the text. An interesting examination of the similarities between the libretto and the texts of verse-anthems of the previous century is then neatly followed by an explanation of the Latin motto majora canamus ('let us sing of greater things') found on the title-pages of early wordbooks (1). In the ensuing discussion of the libretto, Tarling claims that 'the whole of the 'scripture collection' for the work were chosen to argue the case for the truth and mystery of the Christian religion against the social backdrop of a sceptical faction in the eighteenth-century audience'. Tarling is referring to the argument laid out by Deists, who, in simple terms, challenged the truth behind several areas of doctrine, including belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and claimed that the New Testament was a fictional elaboration of the Old Testament, thus attacking the authority afforded by eighteenth-century Protestantism to the Scriptures and divine revelation in general, including the miracles performed by Jesus. This is a valid thread of argument amongst scholars concerning Jennens's libretto, but it is only one of several potential influences on his libretto, and so it seems a little unbalanced to place such a discussion here without referring to any of the other influences or opinions relating to this area. These include Jennens' political status as a nonjuror (2) as well as his extensive knowledge of and interest in topics including literature, art, music, architecture, and theology, as illustrated by his letters and extensive library and art collections.
The rest of Part One is divided into six sections. Of these, the strongest and most convincing are those titled 'Figures of Rhetoric', 'Exclamations and Questions', and 'Decorum Choice of Means'. These sections all place a strong emphasis on rhetoric, and it is in this field that the author is at her best. 'Figures of Rhetoric,' in particular, carries a unique exposition and explanation of the huge number of rhetorical devices (all named and explained) incorporated by Jennens into the text and exploited in various imaginative ways by Handel in the music. Similarly, 'Exclamations and Questions', though brief, also has its basis in the exposition of rhetoric within the work. 'Decorum--Choice of Means', however, is merely an informative outline of the different sizes of forces that have been used for Messiah since its first performance; it is well-written and provides useful information for consideration by today's performer of the work.
Unfortunately, the other sections of Part One are not up to this level, in particular the section titled 'Structure and Performance', which, after an initial presentation of the libretto in its 'sections' as laid out in the 1743 wordbook, consists almost entirely of the author's own views on how the work should be paced, without any explanation or discussion as to how, or on what basis, these views have been formed. That said, the section does end with the fascinating information that concerts consisting of favourite arias and choruses from Messiah and other religious works such as Samson, Jephtha, and Judas Maccabeus were popular in the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, no further details are given.
Part Two, however, is generally more successful, and this is in part due to a greater sense of coherence within its structure and argument. The sections on 'Decorum--Tone of Voice', 'Emphasis', 'Dynamics', 'Tempo', 'Rhythm', and 'Silence' are each interesting in their own right and, as with the more successful sections of Part One, all of these sections in Part Two have their basis in the explanation of rhetorical terms, accompanied by musical examples and a discussion of how the rhetoric should affect the performance of such examples. Of use to today's performers (the author's stated target audience), these sections also show Tarling's strengths as a writer. Each rhetorical term and device is explained clearly and intelligibly, and the examples are discussed in such a way as to suggest, rather than dictate, how they might impact performance. This has the benefit of leading the reader to consider, rather than blindly follow, the author's ideas, which, in turn, should lead to a greater understanding of the arguments behind such ideas.
The last section of Part Two, titled 'The Choruses', is a rather bulky discussion of homophony (noema in musical rhetoric) and counterpoint in each of the choruses. Though interesting, its tone sits rather awkwardly with the rest of Part Two, and might have been improved by a more cohesive overview of Handel's use of homophony and counterpoint in the choruses, with just a few musical examples of each.
This feeling of unbalance continues in the form of Part Three, which consists of eight pages, the first four of which contain an outline of the reception of Messiah by audiences during Handel's lifetime. The book then ends without any conclusion, but with a very brief discussion of Longinus's definition of the sublime, with only a couple of references to Messiah. As the sublime has already been mentioned in the section on 'The Chorus', it would have made sense to place discussion of it within that section. And the two folios dedicated to 'The Audience' could also easily have been incorporated into Part Two. Such a structure might also allow the book to end naturally without a conclusion. Perhaps Tarling was attempting to mirror the tripartite structure of Messiah. As it is, the reader is left wondering whether the book has indeed ended, or whether there is more to come.
Tarling is undoubtedly a great musician, and her knowledge and understanding of rhetoric and its implications for musical performance are already evident from her previous book, The Weapons of Rhetoric. The application of such insight and knowledge on Messiah does at times shine through clearly in Handel's Messiah: a Rhetorical Guide, but the author's scholarship and musicianship is frustratingly let down on too many occasions by the poor structure within individual chapters and of the book as a whole. This problem is not helped by the inexplicable and at times confusing changes of font within sections. Possibly intended to identify captions for musical examples, the sudden change of font tends to interrupt the flow of the argument. These problems are quite possibly the result of poor editorial guidance, and once identified can possibly be overcome by ignoring certain sections. However, this is a waste of potentially good intention and scholarship. Most of the book's content is indeed very well-written and researched. As it stands, with some persistence, a patient reader will find much of interest in Part One, and Part Two should definitely be read by any musician or anyone who intends to listen to Messiah they will find their appreciation of the work greatly enhanced by Tarling's insight.
University of Manchester and University of Aberdeen
(1.) Libretti printed for the audience to follow during performances.
(2.) Nonjurors believed in the divine right of kings. This meant that they were unable to take the required oath of allegiance to representatives of the Protestant succession (beginning with William and Mary) because members of the deposed English royal family, the Stuarts, were still alive. Refusal to take the oath of allegiance meant that nonjurors were unable to hold political or ecclesiastical offices.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Fontes Artis Musicae|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2015|
|Previous Article:||Style and Performance for Bowed String Instruments in French Baroque Music.|
|Next Article:||Kohti Kalevala-sarjaa: Identiteetti, eklektisyys ja Ranskan jalki Uuno Klamin musiikissa [Towards the Kalevala Suite: Identity, Eclecticism aFd the...|