Georg Friederich Handel: Israel in Egypt

Yesterday, I wrote about Mark Z*******, a guy down the hall in the French House. He was majoring in Art History, and had a particular fascination for the Byzantine empire. You will remember that the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century and then moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople-the present-day Istanbul.

The Byzantine empire lasted over 1000 years and once stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Constantinople, sitting on a peninsula overlooking the Bosporous toward Anatolia, was a cosmopolitan gateway for Europe to Asia and vice versa. Unfortunately, that made it a prime target and, though the seat of a Christian Theocracy, Constantinople was conquered by the Crusaders and eventually fell to the Turks. During Byzantine era, art, architecture, and philosophy all flourished. The Christian liturgy was formalized in court and religious rituals. In Byzantium, modern harmony actually started to develop.

A few years ago, I attended a conference on Byzantine Eschatology (death rituals and views of the afterlife) at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. One of the presenters, Diane Touliatos from St. Louis University, delivered a paper in which she described how the three types of events around death–expressions of grief, consolation and joy in the defeat of enemies–turned into musical traditions. When someone died, back then, it was quite common for members of the families, especially women, to pull their hair, claw their cheeks and keen, that is wail and scream. This practiced became formalized and one could even rent groups of women to perform this function. Eventually their vocal expressions became chanted or sung.

Another tradition was the dirge or lamentation. These types of music grew out of the mass in which the priest would sing a phrase and the men would respond. That type of singing became the traditional Gregorian chants, which were not harmonic, because the different voices simply sang the same notes but at intervals of a full octave. Chants started to become harmonic, with the addition of a drone. Some men sang a single base note while the rest of the choir sung the lamentation. This type of singing was also employed for singing the Psalms.

At some point, someone started letting the professional wailers into the church to participate in the ritual mass for the dead. One can imagine the cacophony when that happened. Originally the church fathers tried to prevent the participation of the “keeners,” but eventually someone, the first choir master, no doubt got them all working together. Still, if you listen to this early harmony, it sounds very odd to our ears. Recently there have been some recordings of this type of music, and you can get an idea of the old harmonies in listening to that Bulgarian shout-singing, which became popular about 10 years ago.

Mark Z******* loved the Byzantine art and the ritualized melding of religion and authority implicit in a theocracy. He came from a devout polish family that lived near Chicago, and eventually left school and now paints icons and crucifixes as a sideline. Mark once told with great relish the story of one of his more outrageous local priests, who, during an Easter pageant, went overboard and actually brought sheep into church.

Yesterday, I said that Mark refused to listen to anything later than Renaissance music, but I was wrong. He stopped at Baroque. One of his favorite works was a piece by Handel, that I have never heard in its entirety, Israel in Egypt. This oratorio covers the story of Moses and his attempts to free the Jews from Pharaoh’s slavery. One would think it pretty serious, having been brought up watching Cecil B. DeMille’sTen Commandments with a stone faced Charleton Heston (Mister NRA nowadays) as a grizzled Moses. The oratorio, however, contains what I consider to be one of the funniest pieces of music ever written, and so I put it on the list of my favorites.

The aria is called “The land brought forth frogs.” It comes from the scene in the Bible where Moses calls on God to visit a number of plagues on Egypt to get Pharaoh to release the Jew. The music, is one of those thrilling baroque choruses that Handel was so good at, full of pomp and righteousness. The words, however, put us all in stitches, when Mark played it for us in his dorm room:

“The land brought forth frogs.
He gave their cattle over to the pestilence blotches and blains…”

To make it even more ridiculous, Handel gave this aria to the counter tenor, which is a man’s bass voice sung in falsetto. To hear a man singing the words, “blotches and blains” in a woman’s soprano range, was too camp for words.

Another screamingly funny aria was, “He spake the word.”  Used when Moses called up another plague which brought down “all manner of flies and lice.”

And these phrases became sort of a password for our group for a while. What can I say? You had to be there.

Haendel’s Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Israel In Egypt from Amazon


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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