Monthly Archives: December 2016

Three Things I Learned from Handel’s Messiah

[First published in the Broad Street Review 20 Dec 2016 and reprinted by permission.]

grandcanyonA professional musician, years in the business, told me a couple weeks ago that she had the strangest experience. She played a Messiah concert and loved it.

You need to understand the working musician’s mindset. The longer a professional plays, the more Messiahs will be tucked under the belt, until one has seen and heard everything.

Good and bad performances; good and bad players, singers, conductors; this version and that; slow and fast tempos; all the repeats or some; dotted or double-dotted eighth notes; cadence with the singer or after; Christmas portion or Easter portion or complete or really, really complete. After a while, nothing is new under the sun. It’s easy to auto-cruise or burn out.

And it’s easy for any of us, at this time of year, to dismiss Handel’s great oratorio. We have been there, we have done that, and we have taken it for granted. But there are three things it taught me.

Part the First: It is bigger than you

John Cage said about Messiah that he liked to be moved but didn’t like to be pushed. Like any John Cage quote, it is a little bit wise and a little bit funny, but Cage felt that way about all music. Traffic on the street outside a concert hall was as valid a musical experience to him as what was being played in the hall.

A created thing, like music, engenders every experience that randomness, like traffic, can. And it gives you something more. A created thing, say, a purposeful composition, lets you meet a composer. That meeting forces you outside of yourself, to something else you must acknowledge. In the case of Handel’s Messiah, it is not only something else, but also something greater.

Oh, yes—you know it’s bigger than you; it’s bigger than anything you could have come up with on your own. Meeting Handel’s Messiah is like walking up to the Grand Canyon. You may wish right then for a smaller thing, like a water fountain, or a flatter thing, like a field, or a bigger thing, like an ocean. You may wish for something that isn’t in your way. But one thing’s for sure.

You do not get to have an opinion about the Grand Canyon.

Part the Second: It is drama and beauty

Drama and beauty are not two things, but one. We will not follow a drama unless it has attraction, that is, unless we find it beautiful. But a thing of beauty does not attract us without a drama, unless it tells us a story we want to hear. Beauty without drama is cold, drama without beauty is noise. The best art has two things: A “come hither” and a “go thou and do likewise.”

Messiah, from start to finish, is a beautifully unfolding drama. Every bit of it, from the Overture and “Comfort ye my people” all the way through “Worthy is the Lamb,” is by itself a moment of exquisite beauty. Yet every moment drives the story further.

I won’t kid you, the complete Messiah is long, and my attention has lapsed. I always blame myself, though. If my mind wanders, it’s sometime during Part the Second. But in a few moments comes the chorus of choruses. Sniff, if you like, at the “Hallelujah!” chorus, but it is perfectly wrought. Your hearing it over and over doesn’t change that. It is all beauty and drama, and if you feel yourself jaded, just pretend you’re a park ranger working at the Grand Canyon.

Part the Third: It is odd

After impoverishing himself from years of writing opera (the thing he most wanted to write, but which England didn’t want to hear right then), he invented a new form, the English oratorio. It’s a sacred piece for a secular audience. It was meant for the concert hall, not, like a cantata, for the church. Judas Maccabeus and other Handel oratorios are on sacred subjects but have dramatized stories with invented filler. Messiah is different. Its “libretto” is nothing but Bible verses. A lot of Bible verses.

He wrote Messiah (in 24 days) for a charity concert, to raise money for a Dublin debtors’ prison. They raised enough to release 142 men. Then he brought it to London, but people saw the title, Messiah, and saw that it was the Christian history of salvation from the Old and New Testaments. Then they saw that he wanted it performed not in a church but in a theater, and they almost pulled the plug on it. Inappropriate, some called it; Satanic, even.

Dublin had raved, but in London, the first performances didn’t go over so well. This story without characters, this operatic non-opera, this Messiah puzzled them.

A few years later he was almost bankrupt again, but a successful Judas Maccabeus rejuvenated his career. He ended up conducting Messiah more than 30 times.

When I asked the professional musician why she loved playing this particular performance of Messiah, she said that the conductor and the players were treating it as something new. They were playing the piece as if it mattered.

That’s what I learned. Handel’s Messiah teaches me that every piece I write should matter. Odd music that frees people from prison is not a bad thing.

A Dream of Waking on Now Is the Time

beckerfadeMusic of memories sleeping and waking inhabit Now Is the Time on WRTI this Saturday, December 10th at 9 pm. A sparkling duo for violin and piano is A Dream of Waking by Dan Becker, and Elizabeth Brown walks us through the mnemonic device of remembrance in The Memory Palace for a trio of flute, cello, and piano. Brown is the flutist, also. Curt Cacioppo takes us through his own memories of Italy in his string quartet Divertimenti in Italia.

The sliding jazz of Adam Berenson’s Prose Surrealism leads us into the Wordsworth-inspired Evening Voluntaries of William Kraft for French horn, and then Dan Becker closes the program with a re-imagining of Bach in ReInvention 3F.

PROGRAM:
Dan Becker: A Dream of Waking
Elizabeth Brown: The Memory Palace
Curt Cacioppo: Divertimenti in Italia (String Quartet No. 6)
Adam Berenson: Prose Surrealism
William Kraft: Evening Voluntaries
Dan Becker: ReInvention 3F

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Annunciation and Magnificat

annunciationmagnificatp3Annunciation and Magnificat. Brass quintet (with opt. flugelhorns), narrator, 22 minutes

Annunciation and Magnificat is a set of musings on the text of the first chapter of Luke, verses 26 through 55. Beginning with the announcement to Mary from the angel Gabriel that she would become the mother of Jesus the Messiah, and ending with her song of praise, the text explores her questions and trepidations, the angel’s assurances, and Mary’s visit with her cousin Elisabeth who was then pregnant with John the Baptist. A narrator reads the text, which I’ve divided into eight sections. The quintet plays a meditation on the text after each section is read, the Magnificat ending with the non-scriptural but traditional Gloria Patri:

1. The angel Gabriel was sent
2. She was troubled
3. Fear not, Mary
4. How shall this be?
5. Nothing shall be impossible
6. Behold the handmaid of the Lord
7. And Mary arose
8. Magnificat

Elements of the music appear, transformed, as the work progresses. In “Nothing shall be impossible,” the key of D-flat travels quickly to the farthest key away, G, and back again, which journey I tried to make as unnoticed as I could. Normally I take one emotion from each section and attempt to express that musically, but I do, in the Magnificat, follow the text closely. The antiphon recurs as in a sung Magnificat (albeit truncated sometimes), after each two-line thought; the overall feel is of a jubilant dance.

I am thankful to the Gaudete Brass for the opportunity to compose this. Their trumpeters are also excellent flugelhorn players, so I was happy to provide places in the music where those warm-sounding instruments could optionally be used.

Annunciation and Magnificat was premiered 3 December 2016 by the Gaudete Brass Quintet at St. Clement Parish, Chicago.

1. The angel Gabriel was sent
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, you who are highly favored, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women.

2. She was troubled
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

3. Fear not, Mary
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for you have found favor with God. And, behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

4. How shall this be?
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

5. Nothing shall be impossible
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, your cousin Elisabeth, she has also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.

6. Behold the handmaid of the Lord
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word. And the angel departed from her.

7. And Mary arose
And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; and entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: and she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And what is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of your salutation sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.

8. Magnificat
And Mary said,

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.

For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty has done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

He has showed strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has put down the mighty from their seats,
and exalted them of low degree.

He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he has sent empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

—Luke 1:26-55, Gloria Patri

Beethoven for Breakfast in Phoenix

[Edited version first published in the Broad Street Review 29 Nov 2016 and reprinted by permission.]

I had just about given up on corned beef hash, and if that doesn’t alarm you, you should know that I rarely give up on anything. I believe that the car in front of me will return to the right lane where it belongs. I also believe that someday a political post on Facebook will reveal something that had, never, ever occurred to me. That’s what I’m talking about: I’m an optimist.

When I was in Phoenix recently for a radio conference, I wanted to escape the hotel for breakfast. I walked across the street to a rough-hewn restaurant where corned beef hash was on the menu. And so, I set my chin and nodded the chin-set nod of the optimist. At first, I thought, No, hash is either too dry or too greasy, edible only by way of poached egg, or ketchup, or by washing it down with coffee.

But, the adventurous southwest stoking my optimism, I ordered the hash. While waiting for its arrival, I looked blankly through the menu at everything I could have ordered. Pancake stacks, slices of French toast, and heaps of huevos rancheros mocked me.

Then I looked up.

An offering

The kitchen door opened and the waitress, backlit by fluorescence and haloed by steam, walked toward me carrying a plate. The glow from the kitchen suffused the room and lingered. The faces of other hotel escapees slowly turned as they followed the plate. A couple reached across their breakfasts and lightly clasped hands. Boz Scaggs, singing “Look What You’ve Done to Me” over the sound system, dropped to a whisper. The waitress approached, stopped, lowered the dish, and placed it silently in front of me, as an offering.

You think I am exaggerating, but I am telling you, I noticed all this and noticed that I was noticing this. I mouthed, “Thank you,” but I do not know if the words came out. I beheld my breakfast. I glanced up just to catch her smiling as she turned.

The onions in a medium chop were on the cusp of translucence, shining with the bright dreams of youth. The potatoes were what potatoes always might be, but rarely are. Not dry, not oily, not hard, not mushy, they were fully and softly potatoes, luscious.

And then, the meat. We take for granted that corned beef hash is made from corned beef, but the Ding an sich is lost, always lost. This, however, this corned beef, was sliced into strips, and gently laid to one side. Bite-sized, they were fried, their edges crisp, their demeanor Buddha-like, their immanence ever present.

I stared at the plate, and, giving thanks with eyes open, bemusedly reached for my fork. I gently pierced one strip of the meat, put it into my mouth, and an entire life of breakfasts swooped me through years and decades and fixed me into that moment. Joy made room for discernment as I tried to enunciate why this was better than any hash I had ever eaten.

The heavens are telling

Again, you will think I am overselling, but I thought of Beethoven and his “Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur.” We know it in English often as “The Heavens Are Telling.” Not to be confused with Haydn’s “The Heavens are Telling” from The Creation. Here is Beethoven’s:

I am serious. Beethoven came to my mind.

Beethoven gets to essentials quicker than any other composer. This is his greatness, and this is our problem. Beethoven is essential, but he is not pretty. He doesn’t entice us with the voluptuousness of Tchaikovsky, the wit of Mozart, the gravity of Bach, the warmth of Brahms — other composers we probably loved before Beethoven. No, he sticks his big saucer of a face into our business. His wild mane of hair pushed straight back looks as if he just forced his way, grunting, through a wind tunnel. We always hear that Beethoven is great, and we always say, “Yes, of course,” but our heart isn’t in it, not at first.

The opening of his Fifth Symphony we admire more than love. How clever he is to make all that music from those four silly notes, yes, yes. “Joyful, joyful” from the Ninth Symphony is exciting, but afterward the whole thing sounds, well, a bit brusque. “The heavens are telling” — not harmonized, mind you, and in the choral arrangement just octaves for everybody — is nothing but a C major triad, for crying out loud, followed by a big leap that looks like he just ran out of room.

Getting Beethoven

But at some point we succumb. Voluptuousness, wit, gravity, warmth, and everything else walk into the room. At 40, I finally got Beethoven. At 40, we realize that what we are is what we are going to be. For some, it’s a crisis; for me, it was liberation. I’m not unique in that. It happened to Brahms, and at that age: that fist-shaking opening to his First Symphony is not him screaming that he could never follow Beethoven; it is Brahms roaring: I am not you! I think Beethoven smiled right then.

At 40, hearing Beethoven on the radio yet another time (it was his Second Symphony, of all things), I got him, and I got that I could be me. I couldn’t be Bach, or Mozart, or Brahms, and (I whispered only to myself), they couldn’t be me.

Then I knew in the glowing restaurant why this was the best hash I had ever eaten.

The potatoes were not meretriciously tantalizing and then cold-hearted inside, but were simply and fully potatoes to the end. The onions were nothing more nor less than onions, but if you’ve ever worked them, you know that onions, like the universe, are onion all the way down.

The corned beef hash, you have guessed by now, tasted like what it never tastes like. It tasted like corned beef. Perhaps I forgot to tell you, but I love corned beef. And that opened up to me endless glory.