Handel and Pope
When George Frideric Handel was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1759, three thousand people attended the ceremony, and the press of the day reminded its readers that "Handel was to music what Mr. Pope was in poetry."1 During 1985, the three hundredth year of Handel's birth, an exploration of the ways in which Handel and Pope resembled one another is timely. Such a comparison permits us to savor the unity of spirit and meaning that pervades the arts in all ages and gives us a sharpened sense of our own humanity in the context of other generations.
Handel and Pope are enduring models of the ways in which artists working within different fields not only parallel and reinforce one another, but also project a so-called "Zeitgeist." Handel was truly a citizen of the world. Born in Germany, transported to Italy and grounded in French experience, he eventually settled on British soil, where he used his compositional skills to develop a great international art which assimilated and coordinated various national currents. The result was an objective, yet personal style which reflected a dedication to the universal.
Likewise, there was a marked cosmopolitanism about Alexander Pope. He was "a sophisticated man of the world, and from the world about him, from its conversation, its gossip and light badinage, came the substance of much of his verse."2 Furthermore, "throughout the eighteenth century Pope was widely regarded by admirers as the epitome of taste in the arts."3
History records that both men knew and respected one another. In 1732, Pope, along with Arbuthnot and Humphreys, was a contributor to the text of Handel's Esther, a work which became the first of twenty such English oratorios that Handel produced in England. He had always believed firmly in the kinship of the arts, and believed that images are reflected from art to art. Although his favorite avocations were painting and architecture, and although many of his biographers record that he had little ear for music, he wrote an "Ode to Musick." In addition, his letters show frequent correspondence with Handel, to whom he paid tribute in Book IV of The Dunciad:
Strong in new arms, lo! Giant Handel stands,
Like bold Briaereus, with a hundred hands;
To stire, to rouse, to shake the soul he comes,
And Jove's own thunders follow Mar's Drums.
Arrest him, empress; or you sleep no more—4
Handel, on the other hand, had gained early access to the literary circle of Pope, Arbuthnot and Gay, from whom he imbibed an appreciation of English life and English literature.
Just as both men parallel one another in several aspects of their personal lives, they also demonstrate similarities in their approach to their creative work. To illustrate the commonalities in the artistic approaches of Handel and Pope, we shall examine Handel's Israel in Egypt and Pope's Rape of the Lock. The ensuing remarks focus on three comparable qualities in these two works: form, color and rhythm.
Both artists had a predilection for large, monumental forms. Handel's Israel in Egypt typifies this orientation. Its very subject is a vast one, a Biblical theme capable of universal comprehension. It deals with the tribulation, deliverance and ultimate thanksgiving of a race whose gratitude is heightened by remembrances of former agony. Handel obviously saw in such a subject the opportunity to portray not only the passage of the Israelites out of bondage, but also the deliverance of England from the "tribulation" of nominalism to the "deliverance" of rationalism. To effect his purpose, Handel used twenty massive choral settings. These choruses not only represent the people of Israel, but also the English people, whose sense of progress seems to be reflected in the various ensembles.
The famous plague choruses of Part I, for example, display the grand, sweeping style of Handel. They depict the gradual chaos of flies, lice, hailstone, darkness, death and other such miseries which befell the Egyptians. These choruses make an intense impact; the powerful crescendos aptly represent the immensity of events. Part II of the oratorio has been described as:
more truthfully an extended hymn of praise than an act for an oratorio, but no choral work in existence has a greater termination than lies here in "Sing Ye to the Lord." We have the apogee of musical pageantry, and more than mere display, the multitudinous movements of infinite cavalcades filing off, and the tread of innumerable armies.5
In similar fashion, the Rape of the Lock employs a huge, grandiose design within its five cantos to achieve a universal quality. The work's ludicrous topic, the stealing of Belinda's favorite curl, provides the basis for a mock epic that utilizes such devices as armies, battles, and visits to the underworld. In the ritualistic altar scene of Canto I Pope presents Belinda as a high priestess attended by an acolyte nymph. The scene magnifies the minutiae surrounding Belinda's "sacred rites of Pride"6 and thus sustains an epic quality through its references to the "unumbered Spirits" (I, 41) and the "light Militia of the lower sky" (I, 42). In Canto II the Baron prays before his Altar of Love that he might win the much desired lock of Belinda. Again trivia permeate the scene: "three garters, half a pair of gloves, and all the trophies of his former loves" (II, 39-40).
A second point of correspondence in the works of Handel and Pope pertains to the use of color effects in their respective works. In Israel in Egypt Handel projects a rich palette of musical color through a close synthesis of text, melodies and orchestration. Taking his cues from the libretto, he effects musical word painting to accommodate a wide range of colors which span subtle touches as well as bold strokes of solid tonal hues. In the very opening chorus, "And Their Cry," the text speaks of cries "which came up to God." Consequently, Handel has his melody ascend to suggest the intensity of those cries. Similarly, on the word "burden" the composer uses a descending octave leap which well represents the heavy weight implicit in the meaning of the word.
The famous "Plague" choruses also demonstrate Handel's coloristic sense. Here his strokes become bold and his colors solid. In "Their Land Brought Forth Frogs," the orchestra is assigned wide and rhythmically disjointed leaps to imitate the leaps of frogs. In the sixth chorus, "He Spake the Word," a similar procedure occurs; while the chorus narrates about flies and lice, the orchestra, especially the violin section, bustles up and down in animated thirty-second note figures, giving the effect of flies buzzing about, thus creating a graphic pictorial representation. In "He Gave Them Hailstones," the chorus narrates in a decisive, straightforward manner while orchestral accompaniment gives the effect of hailstones by means of broken chord arrangements within a sixteenth note framework. In the renowned "darkness music" from "He Sent A Thick Darkness," Handel represents the fall of darkness by chromatically descending harmonic modulations. Throughout the piece Handel weaves an array of colors into one integrated tonal canvas, thereby achieving an overarching effect of unity.
Pope, too, projects a representational quality into his The Rape of the Lock through his ingenious application of alliteration, mimicry, onomatopoeia, syntactical invention, and imitation vowels, words, and/or whole sections. In Canto II, the poet uses vowel coloring. Belinda sets out on the Thames by sunlight with sylphs invisibly attending. The section opens with four lines of light "i" sounds, and is followed by lines of heavier vowel sounds which diffuse a sense of deep peace.
But now secure the painted vessel glides,
The sun beams trembling on the floated tides:
While melting music steals upon the sky,
And softened sounds along the waters die,
Smooth flow the waves, the Zephyrs gently play,
Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay. (II, 47-52)
More word painting occurs in conjunction with the words "purpled" and "silver":
Not with more glories in th'etherial plain,
The sun first rises o'er the purpled main,
Than, issuing forth, the rival of his beams
Launch'd on the bosom of the Silver Thames (II, 1-4).
In Canto III, another color-filled scene appears:
Then flashed the living lightning from her eyes,
And screams of horror rend th'affrighted skies,
Not louder shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,
When husbands, or when lap-dogs breathe their last; (III, 155-156)
Here, as throughout the poem, the cohesion attained through the organization of couplets into logical groups with cadential modulations, results in a quasi "musical phrase" with its own special coloring.
Pope stresses bright substances throughout the poem, especially silver: The press'd watch return'd a "silver sound" (I, 18), a "silver token" (I, 32), "each silver vase" (I, 122), the "silver Thames" (II, 4), the petticoats "silver bound" (I, 122), the "silver lamp" and "silver spouts" of coffee pots (III, 108-110). Gold is also stressed: angels with "golden crowns" (I, 34), "golden scales" (V, 71), "liquid gold" (IV, 45), in the Cave of Spleen "clouds of gold" (II, 60). Gilted forms likewise appear: "gilded chariots" (I, 55), the "gilded mast" (II, 69), the French romances "neatly gilt" (II, 38). Pope also likes glittering effects: Belinda dreams of a youth more glitt'ring than a brith-night beau (I, 23), her jewelry is a "glitt'ring spoil" (I, 132), the scissors to cut the lock a "glitt'ring forfex" (III, 147). In these excerpts, and throughout the poem, Pope paints with words to create a verbal tapestry in which colors blend into a totally unified pattern.
A third quality noted in the works under discussion is the pronounced rhythmic element present in each. Both Handel and Pope achieve flexibility and fluency within confining metrical patterns. In the double chorus "Thy Right Hand, O Lord," Handel consistently begins his melodies on the upbeat, thereby giving a forward thrust to the passage. Within the set Andante metrical framework, he creates free flowing musical passages which adhere in both stress and accent to the text he is underscoring. The consistent stress of the words "right" and "Lord" recurs throughout. Likewise the word "glorious" always receives a special musical treatment. It is usually set to sixteenth note figures, thereby giving the word prominence and effecting a spontaneous interpenetration of rhythmic units with word accents. Generally, too, when one chorus or one vocal line utilizes sustained note values, other voices have a series of running notes, creating undulations and inner tensions that make the music vibrate with excitement and agitation. Handel maintains a regular flow of rhythm by his judicious placement of recurrent heavy and light accents based on a steady and persistent succession of repeated beats. Within this rather set, rigid framework, he achieves a freedom, ease and grace of manner truly representative of Augustan taste.
In "But the Waters Overwhelmed Their Enemies," he suggests a state of breathless excitement through his handling of rhythm. Under the text "there was not one of them left," the setting begins with quarter notes. Later Handel achieves a sense of acceleration by syncopating the melody and using shorter note values within the larger beat, a process he repeats incessantly until the conclusion. The grave double chorus "And Israel Saw" follows, in which Handel halts the fury of the preceding chorus and demonstrates again his control of the temporal elements of the music within the larger time-span of the piece.
Pope, too, exhibits a keen sense of timing in his poetry. The flow of episodes, the connecting phrases, words, images, and thoughts between the episodes, and the inner motion of the episodes themselves all converge to make The Rape of the Lock a tightly mechanized, highly integrated narrative. Within the rigid confines of the closed couplet, Pope achieves a rhythmic control perhaps unexcelled in poetry. He utterly commands this unit. In his hands it becomes a vehicle with capabilities of seemingly endless variety and flexibility. By his manipulation of pauses and by his sensitively placed heavy and light syllables, he produces "rubato-like" effects. His inflectional tones create illusions of tempo fluctuations such as accelerandos and ritards. Within the straitjacket of the couplet he infuses a dramatic element, making it sound like actual passionate speech, even though the metrical accent and speech accent of words are almost always identical. Such rhythmic fluency appears in the following:
Some of the sun their insect-wings unfold
Waft on the breeze, or sink in clouds of gold;
Transparent forms, too fine for mortal sight,
Their fluid bodies half-dissolved in light. (II, 5-64)
Again in Canto IV Pope paces his narrative to prepare the reader to grasp the effects of the severing of Belinda's lock:
A constant vapour o'er the palace flies;
Strange phantoms rising as the mists arise;
Dreadful, as hermit's dreams in haunted shades,
Or bright, as visions of expiring maids.
Now glaring fiends, and snakes on rolling spires,
Pale spectres, gaping tombs, and purple fires:
Now lakes of liquid gold, Elysian scenes,
And crystal domes, and angels in machines. (IV, 39-46)
Such examples indicate Pope's ingenuity in the handling of sounds and silences that "give his couplets an amazing variety of musical effects, infinite metrical riches within the little room of twenty syllables."7
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This comparison of representative works of Handel and Pope demonstrates the ways in which music and poetry can be thought of as sister arts "that confirm and elucidate each other's trends and those of ages and nations."8 While the precise subject matter of Handel's Israel in Egypt and Pope's The Rape of the Lock differs, their common approach to form, color and rhythm reveals an underlying oneness of spirit. In addressing and portraying humanity in eighteenth-century England, they address and portray as well the common condition and concerns of the human family of all ages.
1"Harmonious Boar," Time 74 (July 6, 1959), 36.
2Robert K. Root, The Poetical Career of Alexander Pope (London: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 2.
3Morris R. Brownell, Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 3.
4Alexander Pope, "The Dunciad," The Best of Pope, ed. G. Sherburn (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1929), p. 335.
5Percy M. Young, The Oratorios of Handel (London: Dennis Dobson, 1958), p. 96.
6Alexander Pope, "The Rape of the Lock," Sherburn, p. 80. All further references to this work appear in the text.
7Root, pp. 49-50.
8Curt Sachs, The Commonwealth of Art (New York: W.W. Norton, 1946), p. 14.