Monday, December 24, 2012

Musical form and meaning in the Messiah

Handel (1685-1759)
I want to follow up from last week's post about Handel's Messiah and talk a little more about the Handel's music itself. Messiah has one of the best examples I know about how the musical form can effect the meaning of music. Much music commentary focuses on lyrics, yet focusing on lyrics at the expense of music gives an incomplete picture, since music also communicates meaning.

This example is the first thing people hear when they go to a Messiah performance—the overture (which has no lyrics). Overtures today are normally associated with musicals or operas, and feature themes from the songs we are about to experience. This was not always the case, however; 150 or 200 years ago, the overture was just more music played by the orchestra to get the audience's attention before the show started, without any connection to the music in the show.

Messiah's overture is one of the older kind, and features music not heard elsewhere in the work. The overture is at first generally slow with prominent dotted rhythms, meaning that instead of having the beat divided into two equal parts, the second half of the beat is delayed by at least 3/4 of the beat value. This slow section is followed by a fast, imitative section where a new theme is passed around from section to section. This type of slow, dotted-rhythm-laden overture followed by a faster, imitative section has a name: a French overture. French overtures were first introduced by Jean-Baptiste Lully, the court composer for the French Sun King, Louis XIV.* As you can image, the Sun King liked to make a grand entrance, and so when the he went to an opera or ballet, he wanted his entrance to be part of the performance. The first part of the French overture was his entrance music: slow, grand, and majestic. After the king was seated, the faster section began.

Lully (1632-1687)

Now, the French overture became popular all over Europe, but Handel, writing Messiah almost one hundred years later, did not need to use it. Messiah was not written for a king's court, but for public performance. Yet, Handel made a decision to use the French overture. Why? Well, the French overture was written for the symbolic entrance of King of kings, who is the subject of Messiah. When seen this way, Messiah's overture is not just a bit of introductory music, but a pointed and powerful religious commentary. And Handel conveyed all this without using words.

What songs or other music do you know that conveys meaning without lyrics or where the music changes the meaning of the lyrics?

Vocab: overture, French overture, beat, dotted rhythm

*Yes, this is the same Lully who died from a gangrene-infected wound caused by his conductor's staff. In his day, instead of waving a baton to keep the time, conductors beat it on the ground, so stabbing your foot with one makes a little more sense.

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