Continuing the blog’s tradition of Easter musical moments, I offer a collection of Fun Handel Facts! Plus, some sheep!
First, the fun facts:
• On Messiah’s opening night (Dublin: 13 April 1742), a nasty divorce was complicating life for contralto Susannah Cibber – quel scandal! But her singing of the aria “He was despised and rejected of men” so moved a clergyman among the listeners that he jumped from his seat, crying, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
• Speaking of jumping up: It is not documented beyond a doubt that George II of England surged to his feet during the first London performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But still, this is why tradition demands one stand for the “Hallelujah.” (N.B.: There is no related royal tradition that supports checking phones for messages during a performance. Please stop that.)
• George Frideric Handel could be scary. Faced with a soprano who resisted his direction, he threatened to throw her out an open window, yelling: “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” (P.S. Those of us who have labored to tackle Handel’s more florid melismatic runs will agree with this. P.P.S.: Why is it always sopranos in these stories?)
• Handel composed Messiah in an incredible 24 days. I mean, holy cow.
• One possible reason Messiah premiered in Dublin: Handel was playing things safe. He’d gotten some depressingly so-so notices in London the season before for other premieres.
• Back when Messiah was new, clergymen did not entirely approve of it. Biblical texts in a theater? As entertainment? Oh, well, you know how long those shock-value novelties last, amirite?
Finally, for your listening pleasure, here is the chorus “All We Like Sheep.” This is also known as “one of the choruses with all those ridiculous melismas” or “All we like sheep! Geddit?”
Please remember that were we to punctuate this text in contemporary fashion, it would read: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Commas: They matter.
Still, I think the sheep pictures add something. For those who celebrate, have a joyous Easter!
I was telling a friend the other day about my dad, who was a wonderful singer, a real Irish tenor, and who was also kind of terrifying when it came to Irish music. And Irish accents. And Irish everything.
It was all about the authenticity. I wouldn’t say my dad was a stickler for Aran-Islands style authenticity in these matters. But I suspect he knew what he knew — the accents of his Irish-born maternal grandparents, and the kind of Irish immigrant culture you used to find all over Red Hook once upon a time. And he was a merciless critic about Irish music that was not being done right.
Whatever that meant. I mean, we were all Americans, what did we know, really?
I was about to go away to college when I screwed up the courage to ask him for his version of “The Wild Colonial Boy.” He considered for a bit and said he’d see. I expected him to sing it for me, if he were to agree. But at the end of the working day he presented me with a typewritten version of the verses, which is the version I use to this day. (For more thoughts on the “Wild Colonial Boy,” see link below).
Every so often, through the magic of YouTube, I encounter some Irish music I believe even my dad would have loved. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day offering is a crystalline version of a song called “Love is Teasing,” sung in 1967 by a radiant Dolly McMahon.
Past posts on St. Patrick’s Day matters:
As someone who can’t imagine life without singing and playing music, even as the stalwart amateur I am, I think one of the nicest heirlooms a person could pass along would be a musical instrument.
I am the owner of a pretty good piano, as well as a totally mid-range guitar that for some reason has a really nice sound that impresses people who own much more fabulous instruments. I hope someday that someone in the next generations of our family will like the idea of owning them after me.
But most of all, I hope they’ll be played by somebody, anybody. Silence is not golden where musical instruments are concerned. There’s a mystique around a fabled antique like the “The Messiah,” a 1716 violin made by Antonio Stradivari that is said never to have been played, and was left to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford with the condition that it will continue never to be played. Which seems sad, but then, I don’t really get the attraction of a gorgeous violin in a glass case.
Yesterday we struggled through a January snowfall to hear my younger daughter play in her winter violin recital. The program contained a poignant footnote. One of the other young violinists was playing a three-quarter-sized violin once owned by Tyler Clementi, a young man whose tragic death made national headlines, but who is also remembered hereabouts as a gifted violinist who had an awful lot of music left to play.
It is sad beyond belief that we can’t hear more from the former owner of the beautiful smaller-sized violin. But the instrument sounded undeniably lovely yesterday, as the snow fell quietly outside the hall, and its current owner played selections from Handel’s Sonata No. 3. There is comfort, and no small sense of wonder, at the lasting power of music to touch hearts, and endure.
The Archaeologist spends a lot of time in choir, and never more so than in the Easter season, with its abundance of beautiful music. One piece that practically screams Easter (well, sometimes it just screams, if you aren’t singing it right), is ‘Festival Alleluias’, a choral arrangement by William Ferris (1937-2000) set to a famous toccata for organ by French composer Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937).
First, you take this awesome organist’s tour-de-force:
The Famous Widor Toccata (5th Symphony in F)
On The Righteous Organ at Notre Dame, Paris:
Add a pinch of percussion and a troop of choristers proclaiming “Alleluia” at the top of their respective ranges, which gives you:
2. Lots. Of. Singing. Oh, And Organ Too (Finale):
Judging from some of the comments on YouTube, many instrumentalists are outraged at the intrusion of vocals into this intricate piece. I can’t hate on them for it. Here you have this fantastic display of the organist’s art, and for what? To have all that beautiful ornamentation battle against a gale of choral singing?
Yeah, a pretty thankless proposition if you’re an organist. And a lot of us choristers aren’t always thrilled by it either. The challenge of singing and not screaming those Alleluias at the end of a marathon week of choral services does not always … appeal.
But audiences love the choral/organ mashup. In the end, I do, too. There are always people standing around with smiles on their faces listening for the last echo of that last note at the end of the Easter Sunday service.
I can’t help smiling back.
That’s probably one reason why you’re always going to have non-organists who can’t resist this toccata. For instance, these determined percussionists at the University of Utah:
3. Chimes! Tympani! Xylophones! Sorry, Organists! P.S. Happy Easter!
Here’s a singer I can’t resist, even if sometimes I get cross at her because once she covers a song, she pretty much ruins it for anyone else by hitting it so far out of the park that there’s no point trying to get it back again.
I saw Maura O’Connell years ago at a venue in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It being close to St. Patrick’s Day, a significant segment of the audience was stoked for Irish!!! Music, especially one spirited gentleman wearing trousers in a spirited shade of kelly green.
O’Connell proceeded to flummox them with her own unique and beautiful take on Irish singing. Despite starting out with De Dennan, a traditionally-minded Irish band, Maura was (is) a pretty eclectic solo act — Irish as they come, but definitely marching to her own drummer. For the first 15 minutes or so on that South Florida night, she weathered occasional shouts of “Sing something IRISH!”, before silencing the hall with Gerry O’Beirne’s gorgeous “Western Highway,” after which even the guy in the kelly green trousers piped down and none of us looked back.
Maura O’Connell sings a version of the traditional Irish Blessing that, typically, sounds like nobody else’s. May the wind be at your back, etc. and Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
There really are people out there who have NOT belted out The Wild Colonial Boy at a St. Patrick’s Day party. I suspect most of them are Irish people who actually live in Ireland.
Still, it might happen to you someday. Especially if it is known that you play the guitar. I would hate for you to be caught unprepared.
So, just under the wire for St. Patrick’s Day: some basic rules for singing The Wild Colonial Boy.
1. If you aren’t Irish, don’t. No need to suffer unnecessarily. However, if all else fails, claim a fictional great-grandmother from Kilkenny. (You can’t have mine.) This will be important later. You’ll see.
2. Brush up on your fast folkie strum. I don’t know the technical term, but it’s that thing where you do a real fast downward stroke followed by three or four up-down strokes (Down up-down-up-down-up … oh, just go listen to a Clancy Brothers/Tommy Makem album. That strum.) Remember to stamp your foot a lot.
3. Very important: Know all the verses. Tape them to the side of your guitar if you are shaky. This is no time to be proud. The Wild Colonial Boy has one thing in common with The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: Once it starts, it cannot stop. Even if you’ve done three verses and there are seven more you don’t remember. Even if you’re passing out. The moments will spin on as you gape there ridiculously, your hand going down up-down-up-down-up …
[Oh, Lord, I'm feeling sick. Excuse me for a moment.]
4. Before you sing, inform everyone (in a charmingly shy way) that you aren’t doing a definitive version of The Wild Colonial Boy. No! This is just the version you learned from your sainted great-granny from Kilkenny (the one from Step One, remember?). It’s the one she rocked you to sleep with after she told you the tales of Diarmuid and Grainne, and the Children of Lir. This step forestalls post-performance arguments about how badly you screwed up the lyrics. Who’s going to argue with your sainted great-granny?
5. Have a Guinness. If you don’t like Guinness, wine will do. If you don’t drink, try chocolate, or get a bystander to give you a massage. Basically, loosen up. Otherwise you might consider how you’re actually going to sound while singing The Wild Colonial Boy, which could be a dealbreaker.
6. Sing it as fast as you can. This will help if you get tripped up by Rule 3.
7. Remember to smile a lot while you’re singing it. Yes, it’s about a young Irish lad deported to Australia who gets gunned down by the government men after an aimless life of crime. But smile.
And don’t forget to stamp your foot.
Let me know how it goes.