Another theory break

(Enough looking. Now think).

Listening religiously to the BBC3 series of complete Handel operas (what a worthy project to play them all, what a worthy project to hear them all!) I have had the opportunity to hear more than several interviews with conductors and performers regarding Handel's music, and this occasioned a most interesting discovery: more than several of these great men and women have praised the profound psychology of Handel's operas.


I quote: his deep understanding and realistic, convincing representations of human psyche in action.


This can only serve to prove one point: that music, good music anyway, makes us stupid.

First, Handel had nothing to do with the writing of his libretti, which means that he wasn't responsible for their psychology, realistic or otherwise; and, in any case, anyone in his right mind must surely agree that these libretti are all hilariously unrealistic. They are not just silly in the extreme, they are also all written to the hackneyed Metastasio pattern:

1) love quadrangle + 2) disguise + 3) vendetta + 4) happy end (i.e., the square squared).

The music which Handel wrote for these libretti is of course often magnificent (if sometimes repetitive, but, hey, anything which is good to hear once is surely good to hear seventy five times, no?), but this does not change the fact that the libretti are inane.

Personally, I love Handel operas -- most of them, anyway. Indeed, listening to Handel operas is one of my most preferred ways to waste time. But I am refusing to let myself be carried away: for all its wonder and beauty, the greatness of the music does nothing to improve the disarming silliness of the story. Indeed, it is precisely in this that Handel's greatness is revealed: great music can be composed to any text, a laundry list if need be.

So why do all these people think Handel's psychology is great?

For the same reason, I suppose, for which high school girls think their beautiful boyfriends are also incredibly smart; and scholars spend their lifetimes investigating the supposed deep meanings of Giorgione's Philosophers. Some mis-wiring in our brain makes it difficult for us to grasp that perfectly beautiful objects may be in every other way perfectly trivial.

And this is, of course, the greatest mystery of life: only a faulty wiring in the brain could make the universally made connection between: "oh, he is so good looking" and "I want to waste the rest of my life raising his offspring".

Beauty is a way to subvert the minds of others. The art of its appreciation lies in being able to admire it without letting one's brain to be subverted.

(I am not saying that beauty is worthless; for the pure pleasure it renders, it is hard to beat; all I am saying is -- try to be smart when indulging it).


Andrew W. said...

I usually take them more to mean that the composer somehow imbues "humanness" into a wooden libretto.

However, given the dreck that people consider the greatest of operas (I'm looking at you, Puccini), I'm happy to grant that you are probably right about the fact that beauty makes people dumb.

Anonymous said...

"I usually take them more to mean that the composer somehow imbues "humanness" into a wooden libretto."

well, yes, but i dont know what THAT means, either. :)

the story of the evolution of the beauty gizmo in the brain is one of an arms race between those attempting to look good (roosters, say) and those (hens, etc.) who want to make sure that they are only fooled by such beauty which really means something -- usually substantiates good health (and therefore good genes)

Andrew W. said...

I'll continue to play devil's advocate!

Given the baroque opera convention of one emotion per aria, perhaps what everyone is saying is that he manages to represent sadness or joy or consternation or ennui in a way that helps connect us our own emotions.

In some sense, the arias in a Handel opera are a reflection on the story, and not entirely part of the drama itself.

I've never actually thought about it in this way before, but they are more akin to breaking the fourth wall than anything, an aside that gives the character a chance to reflect on the action and a chance for the singer to show off.

Does this mean that Handel's psychology is great? Maybe not, but could it be more than that it's simply beautiful?

Andrew W. said...

BTW - I tried once to listen to all of Handel's opera on CD...I wish I'd known about this. Oh well!

Anonymous said...


I always check BBC3, Radio France Musique and Radio Vivace -- they do a lot of really excellet stuff (in addition to all the dross they do). handel really only wrote five operas; the other 22 are just rewrites of the main five.


"but could it be more than that it's simply beautiful?"

nah. :)

Sir G said...

alight, i'll bite

one problem with your claim (that the music of each handel aria paints well the emotion it portrays) is that - imho - most handel arias are interchangeable -- ie one could exchange the musics and texts of most arias and no one would know the difference (unless they had advance warning of what you were doing they would not even guess that something was amiss);

in fact, Dan Sperber to the contrary (who thinks music is processed in the brain with the remains of a former communication system consisting of grunts and yelps), we do not understand music; it is not a language in any sense of the word though poets and musicians keep saying it is; this is precisely why music often seems "profound" to us: it seems to be saying something emotionally moving, yet we have no idea *what* (most profundty works like that: it's a trick)

indeed, tone painting works if you know the program, but if you do not -- it does not work at all; (i doubt anyone hearing 2nd mov of Sheherezade without program in hand has ever exclaimed "ah! the ship is destroyed!"; probably not)

the other problem with your claim is that for many, perhaps most, Handel arias it is not possible to say what the central emotion(s) is/are supposed to be. i mean, what is the emotion of Ombra Mai Fu? ("what a cool tree!") Or -- Astuto Cacciator?

Sir G said...

(of course most people do hold your view, not mine -- so you're in good company)

Andrew W. said...

Yes, yes, I know all that. And from a cognitive perspective, you're probably right. Like I said, I'm being more devil's advocate than anything.

That being said, there is something to be said about the phenomenology of musical experience, isn't there? And isn't that what everyone's trying to get at?

Sir G said...

yes, but we're going wrong about it in part because the common-sense theory (that there is a direct relationship between music-inspired moods and words used to describe emotional states) is so attractive. The truth is that men are naturally believers in the emotional-keyboard! (Just as they are naturally believers in the existence of the personality). :)

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