The (musical) afterlife of the civil wars
July 15, 2010 § 4 Comments
Over at A Bit British, Lena’s recent post, The Language of Revolution, which is a lowdown on the seventh chapter of A Cultural History of the English Language by Gerry Knowles, is really fascinating. (Great find, Lena!) One item in particular caught my fancy, the one about the political context of Handel’s Messiah of 1741. When I was in high school donkey’s years ago, our chorus got together with other high school choruses in mid-Missouri to perform a handful of songs, the only one of which I remember is the Hallelujah Chorus, the last piece in the program.
I remember two things about that experience. The first is strictly personal. I got tapped to accompany on the piano, which was a relief, because that meant I didn’t have to struggle to find the alto line amid the din of the sopranos. Half of those sopranos really ought to have been altos, but in high school it was a lot cooler to be soprano than an alto. In the universe of the high school chorus, the soprano was not only higher up the musical scale than the alto, but also trumped her in social status, for some weird reason. We must have unconsciously believed that sopranos were far more feminine–i.e., desirable–than altos, with their dusky voices. We altos wore makeup and deodorant just like the sopranos, but somehow we were an embarrassment to the sex, at least in the chorus classroom. Sorry for the digression. The alto thing still rankles.
Anyway, it’s the second thing that’s pertinent here. Our teacher, Mrs. Hansen, had told us about the Hallelujah Chorus was that the audience would stand up for it. “Why?’ we wanted to know. The answer struck as as pretty odd: because that’s what George II did. “It’s tradition,” she said. Whatever the king did, everybody else had to too, even if their bunions were particularly painful that day. When we got used to it, the idea made the piece seem even more rousing and made us feel more special (particularly the altos, who needed it). So ever since I’ve associated Messiah with reverence for the British monarchy. And it’s based on the King James Bible, after all, not the Geneva Bible, favorite of Protestant radicals and one of James’s pet bugbears.
Lena reports that Knowles says the radicals of the 1740s interpreted the Biblical metaphors Handel set to music as “biblical justification for revolution and eventual regicide.” Consider, for example, the lines “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low… Thou shalt break [the kings of the earth] with a rod of iron.” “Mountains and valleys were likened to the high and low of English society,” explains Knowles, “and Charles Stuart was a king of the earth.”
Lena, who’s an extraordinarily attentive and perceptive reader, made a really interesting slip. When she read “radicals of the 1740s” in Knowles’s chapter, she saw “radicals of the 1640s” instead. It’s not that she wasn’t paying attention: it’s that she made sense out of something that didn’t seem to make sense. Why in the world would revolution and regicide have such play 100 years later?
A future post, about the afterlife of the civil wars–and much indebted to R. C. Richardson’s The Debate on the English Revolution (3rd ed., 1998)–will try to address that question.