Stirring the Musical Plot
Do you remember ignoring your parents’ announcement of "Lights out!" by continuing to read that new novel? And do you remember the next “reminder,” after you simply tried to get in a couple of paragraphs more? They finally turned out your light, but you were so desperate to know whether Darcy would ever return, or whether Gandalf, Sydney Carton, or Mitch McDeere would survive, that you reached under your bed and pulled out a flashlight. The plot you were so caught up in revolved around some kind of conflict that demanded resolution.
In a similar way, composers elicit responses from you, when, by skillfully using harmony and melody, they narrate a musical story of conflict and resolution, tension and release. The following is a brief attempt to describe some important ways Handel accomplishes this in Messiah.
Most music composed in Europe and the Americas between the early seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries was written in a harmonic language “spoken” in common by composers of that era. This harmonic language was passed down to composers ranging from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms, and even to the Beatles at times, as much of the popular music of the twentieth century continued in this harmonic tradition. Because these harmonic practices were so common among creators of music in European (or European-influenced) cultures for about two hundred and fifty years, music historians and theorists refer to this period as the Common Practice Period* (CPP).
To most of us, CPP “ears” are natural. Commercials, elevator music—even country, pop and rock--have roots in Common Practice. Although it isn’t necessarily normative anymore, it is the place from which composers depart to explore new and different harmonic combinations.
In the Common Practice Period some pitches*, or tones*, sound pleasant together, but others clash or conflict. When sounded together or as a melody, the pitches composed for the opening words of "The Trumpet Shall Sound" are consonant—they sound pleasant, or euphonious, together.
But if you strike any two keys next to each other on a keyboard, the tones clash and struggle against each other—they are dissonant.
That dissonance goes away only when one pitch changes to produce a more consonant combination, resolving the musical tension.
This drama of dissonance and consonance informs every measure of CPP music. Read on to see how Handel and others write their musical “plots” with the various elements at their disposal.
The opening notes of "The Trumpet Shall Sound" blend well because they all belong to the same consonant chord*, a group of consonant notes sounding either simultaneously or in succession. (Think guitar chords for a folk song or a harpist playing chords in an arpeggio sweep.)
The clash of those two adjacent notes heard earlier on the keyboard comes from the two notes “wanting” to merge with, or move away from, each other, seeking release from the tension. Without that almost painful two-note tension to give direction to the play of harmony and melody, it is quite difficult for the music to lead us anywhere. A series of whole-tones contains none of those two-note clashes, nor any kind of clash.
When all consecutive pitches in a scale are spaced exactly the same distance apart, musical coherence as we normally experience it does not exist—the notes cannot relate to each other in a way that propels the music forward in the CPP world, as in these excerpts from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and Claude Debussy’s “Sails.”
The song "Doe, a Deer" from The Sound of Music teaches the von Trapp children a major scale*, "Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do" (also sung as "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8"). The remarkable Frank Felice, Professor of Theory and Composition at Butler University, notes that when he experimented with his music appreciation students by asking them to sing the first seven notes of a major scale,
one or more students instinctively went ahead to sing the final “Do.” Why? The distance between the pitches of a scale varies, creating a hierarchy. Prof. Felice's students were asked to stop on the unstable leading tone*, which frustrated their strong expectation that the stable, conclusive tonic* would follow--the "one tone to rule them all, and in the music bind them" (with apologies to Tolkien).
If a major scale is played, and the notes most consonant with each other are sustained, while the others are released, a major triad results.
The relationship among the triads, along with the scale that takes us to the tonic pitch, defines the key*, or tonality*, of the piece. But tonality in CPP music comes in two flavors: major and minor, depending on whether the piece is based on the tonic of a major scale
or a minor scale.
Generally speaking, we associate many different emotions with major* tonalities, such as the simple happiness of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star";
the peacefulness of "He Shall Feed His Flock";
the bubbling happiness of "Rejoice Greatly";
or Sousa’s celebration of “The Stars and Stripes Forever”.
Like major tonalities, minor* tonalities also tend to evoke a contrasting family of emotions, such as the melancholy wistfulness of "Greensleeves";
the gloom of "For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth";
the sorrow of "Behold and See";
the anger of "Thou Shalt Break Them";
or the evil and menace of "The Imperial March" from Star Wars.
In one of the most story-telling of Handel's text paintings, he uses both the exuberant major and the stricken minor keys. The beginning of "All We like Sheep" is jolly, and therefore major, as the sheep go trotting off on their adventures.
They merrily wander and turn away, until they stop dead in their tracks as they realize that "the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of [them] all."
Here the music is not only minor, but Handel heightens some harmonies by introducing pitches that don't belong to the major or minor scales of this aria. These "strangers in town" are called accidentals*, and they color the harmonies and melody, intensifying the depiction of excruciating pain, grief, and anguish. We call this potent text-painting tool chromaticism*, from the Greek word for color, khroma.
The composer can choose any pitch to be the tonic of a composition. When we say that "All We like Sheep" is in the key* or tonality* of F major, we mean that F is, for that piece, the tonic note. Within any tonal framework, certain chords gravitate toward other particular chords, which lead eventually to that tonic. They function as signposts by establishing expectations in the listener as to what chords will follow. With these expectations in mind, the composer weaves melody and harmony together to form coherent phrases.
Phrases in CPP music end with cadences, two or three successive chords which convey the feeling that the musical thought has come to a point of punctuation. The composer may select from among cadences roughly parallel to literary punctuation such as periods, commas, question marks, or exclamation points.
One of the strongest musical expectations exists between the two final chords of the cadence that ends the great majority of Common Practice Period pieces. Listen to the final two chords of "Happy Birthday."
By contrast, if you sing "Yan-kee Doo-dle went to town, rid-ing on a po-ny," and stop there, without singing the next line, you feel as if something is incomplete or not right--just the way you feel when an author ends a chapter with the hero dangling by his fingernails over the abyss. The final syllable of "po-ny" is that unstable leading tone.
In musical language, the phrase has asked a question with its harmonies and melody, and that question has not been answered—but that hanging last chord with its leading tone demands an answer. Only after singing "Stuck a fea-ther in his hat, and called it ma-ca-ro-ni," does the song sound complete, or resolved.
The harmonies of the second phrase have answered the musical question and returned us to that harmony that we were waiting to hear—the original tonic chord.
For the most palpable, splendid example I know of this harmonic tug, listen to the unstable cadence and the silence that follows in the last moments of Messiah before the tension is resolved. These two or three seconds seem to last an eternity.
On the rare occasion when the first of these two chords is not followed by the expected second one, the listener's surprise at this harmonic betrayal leads us to call it a deceptive cadence*. Listen to this excerpt near the end of “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”
Just as Austen—and Dickens and Tolkien and Grisham—organized words into clauses and sentences and paragraphs and chapters, Handel—and Bach and Beethoven and the Beatles—organized pitches into melodies and harmonies, and then into phrases and movements and sections, and finally into hit songs, sonatas, string quartets, oratorios, operas and symphonies.
A simple melody like “Yankee Doodle” stays in the home key, but often our musical "author" begins his tale in one key, and then moves, or modulates, away from it. As with chromaticism, the composer achieves this by removing pitches from the home key and inserting new pitches, or accidentals*, that belong to a different key. These modulations can be quite long, or very brief; the shorter ones I like to call “mini-modulations.” The "Pifa" from Messiah exemplifies the gentle effect of a single modulation to and away from a closely related key, rather like a walk to the park and back. But in a different mood, our composer may cycle through a quick succession of several different keys before coming back to the tonic, like someone rapidly passing by a few stores to window-shop before returning home from the park. Handel takes us on a short but vigorous trip in the introduction to “Why Do the Nations Rage?”
By extension, a composer can also give us the musical equivalent of a three-month tour to several countries, but composers in Handel’s time generally did not compose much music of this kind.
Sometimes a composer suddenly switches to a new key and surprises us, rather like an unanticipated development near the end of the chapter of a novel. He adds many accidentals and takes us to a new key only distantly (or not at all) related to the tonic—as if we were instantly transported to an exotic and colorful destination half-way around the world. If you want to hear modulations to distant musical keys, go to the movies! Much of what we find "extra-terrestrial" about John William's soundtracks for Star Wars or E.T. is the result of those sudden jumps from the home key to distant harmonic worlds, whether it be for a long or short stay. This form of chromaticism seldom appears in the music of Handel's time. (For a striking-but-brief overview of a pre-CPP Renaissance composer who rivaled Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss with his chromatic harmony, see "Gesualdo: Chromatic Harmony and Microtonal Systems in Early Music"on YouTube. Don't worry yourself with the visual—just listen to the music and narration.)
No matter how near or how far you travel, or for how short or how long, modulation tickets are always round-trip in the Common Practice Period. We always make it back to the tonic, the home key. In what more apt manner can the music, through harmonic conflict and resolution, paint the story of the Great Conflict between God and man that results from our sin—and the Great Resolution of God and man through Messiah, freeing us to return to our only real home?
Imagine reading a whole book about Handel's Messiah where the authors insert audio examples of what they are talking about, and each movement is right there for you to listen to as you read about it.
The enhanced ebook version of
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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