Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Getting acquainted with Musicology

I found myself writing up what was essentially a web search for today's musicology class, last night, and so I thought I might blog the assignment: "Record the process you followed to get acquainted with "As Steals the Morn Upon the Night" by George Fredrich Handel".

The result follows:

Perhaps it’s a symptom of living in the digital age, but my first step toward finding out about this piece of music, as with anything unfamiliar, was to search for it on Google.

The first thing I found on the first search was the Hyperion catalog listing of a CD containing this track, and from that I found the name of the larger work which I had been unable to write down in class: “L’Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato”. The CD was listed under the Samplers, Compilations and Special Issues page, and this immediately set up an expectation for me about the type of recording I was likely to encounter. And it was not a particularly positive expectation. Perhaps it is the nature of the recording industry to package music in a manner that makes it easily accessible as pure entertainment, and I feel terribly elitist reacting negatively to that, but I can’t help but feel that compilations like this that extract a piece of music from its broader performance context also somehow damage the piece. As an ethnographer and student of popular music, I absolutely recognize the value of music for pure entertainment, and yet, with music from the Western Classical tradition, as with much of the ‘folk’ music I study, I feel that this process of selection sets up a canon that, by its very nature, excludes certain texts, and hence restricts certain potential areas of knowledge about the composer (or tradition). In this particular instance, the CD on which the piece in question is found is called Essential Handel, a title which implies not only that these are likely to be the most popular of the composer’s works, but also to some degree that knowledge of these works is equivalent to knowledge of the composer in general. I was therefore surprised, upon clicking on the link that took me to a page containing the track listing of the CD in question, to discover that the “Halleluiah Chorus”, for the Messiah, was not included. Nonetheless, the inclusion of “As Steals The Morn Upon The Night” in the Essential Handel suggests that it may be one of the core (i.e. representitive) pieces from his repertoire.

Upon turning to the sleeve notes of the CD (available online only with a Hyperion account, which can be freely obtained), I learned that L’Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato was composed before the Messiah, though the librettist of the latter aided Handel in the preparation of the libretto of the former (King, 2005). I also learned that while the first two movements of L’Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato were settings of poems by the English poet John Milton, the third part, the part under my present scrutiny, was an addition taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (ibid). At this point, I split my search into three parts, returning to the original Google search I conducted for “As Steals The Morn Upon The Night”, but also searching, in separate windows, for the John Milton Poems upon which the first two movements are based, and for information about the Librettist, Charles Jennens.

The first hit in the Jennens search turned out to be a page with information on the Messiah, though it did provide the librettist’s dates (1700-73), and some biographical information that revealed, among other things, that Jennens had done some editing of the works of Shakespeare, a particularly interesting fact in relation to “As Steals the Morn”. It also revealed that the date for L’Allegro is 1740 (Vickers). The next hit in the Jennens search suggested that in fact “As Steals the Morn” was Jennens’ own work (Gudger), an idea hinted at in the Hyperion CD sleeve notes, which suggested only that the first line was borrowed from the Tempest, a point that I had failed to pick up on when I first read it.

The search I conducted for the Milton poems turned up, perhaps inevitably, several hits for the Handel work, and so I selected one on the website for the Academy of Ancient Music in the United Kingdom (Hicks). On this page, Anthony Hicks discusses the dramatic structure of the works, with the Moderato section being added in order to suggest a middle ground between “‘The Merry Man’ (the extrovert) [L’Allegro] and ... ‘The Thoughtful Man’ (the introvert) [il Penseroso]” (ibid) depicted in the Milton poems.

At the point, I turned to the university library catalogue, searching for “L’Allegro and il penseroso” in order to find both the Milton poems, and the Handel libretto and sound recording. To my delight, the full libretto is available in a digital format (Milton, 1750), and a brief glance through this revealed that “As Steals the Morn” was not the first line of the Moderato section. In fact, “As Steals the Morn” is a duet from within the larger Moderato movement. I also noted that, ironically, John Milton alone is listed as the author of this libretto, and Jennens is not listed at all, despite the fact that it was he, and not Milton, who wrote the Moderato movement.

I selected (admittedly fairly randomly) a recording of the complete work in the library (Handel, Banchetto Musicale: 1986), and settled down to listen. I started out with the piece in question, listening to it once, before returning to the first CD, and the beginning of the work, and listening to the whole thing. I then returned to the piece in question, and jotted down some notes as I listened. I noted that the division of the words is fairly even between the Soprano and tenor, and that the bassoon (would there have been bassoons in England at the time this was first performed?) was rather soft and thin in comparison to the other woodwind, which I couldn’t identify. The liner notes recorded that this was a performance on historic instruments, and that in fact the bassoon had been replaced with a non-reed version. The vocalist’s transitions from solo lines to counterpoint sections are particularly beautiful in this recording, and I was impressed with the very effective balance of their vocal timbres. Frank Kelly and Sharon Baker are particularly well-matched in this liltingly lyric piece.

I completed my search with a fact-checking reference to the Grove Dictionary of music and Musicians (Sadie and Tyrrell, 2001), however this revealed nothing new, and did not contradict anything I had previously found.


Gudger, William D. George Frideric Handel's 1749 Letter to Charles Jennens.
Accessed 7 September 2006

Handel, George Fredrich. Banchetto Musicale, Martin Pearlman, conductor. 1986. L'Allegro, il penseroso, ed il moderato. New York, N.Y.: Arabesque.

Hicks, Anthony. Mirth, Melancholy and Moderation – Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato.
Accessed 7 September 2006

Hyperion. Samplers, Compilations and Special Issues.
Accessed 7 September 2006.

King, Robert. 2005. Essential Handel: Excerpts from the sleeve notes. Hyperion.
Accessed 7 September 2006.

Milton, John. 1750. L'allegro, il penseroso, ed il moderato. As set to musick.
Accessed 7 September 2006.

Sadie, S. and J. Tyrrell (eds). 2001. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan.

Vickers, David. Messiah (HWV 56): A Sacred Oratorio.
Accessed 7 September 2006.

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