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Special Features Of Baroque Era

“Lord, to thee each night and day” was written in the Baroque era by George Frideric Handel as part of his work, Theodora. The Baroque era is classified as the years 1600-1750; following the Renaissance and leading to the Classical period. The era is often marked by the advent of opera as its beginning, and its end as the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. When we look at the term outside the study of music, “baroque” is an adjective referring to the ostentatious and elaborately ornamented forms of art, architecture, and literature of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Today, though, few regard Baroque music as unduly ostentatious or overly decorated. Beyond the decoration and flourishes, at its core, the common thread that truly unites baroque music is an underlying faith in music’s power to move the affections. Of course, there is a huge variety of music within this category.

Music from this period is greatly diverse, and does not necessarily constitute a single style distinct from the periods preceding and following it. Within the various types of music, though, it could be grouped according to three disciplines: musica theorica, musica poetica, and musica practica. Musica theorica refers to theoretical speculation, poetica to the art of composition, and practica to the performance of music. When it comes to the performance of music, opera and oratorios were the main source for the stage during the time period, and Handel was able to excel within the genre.

Opera, as Handel knew it, contained speech-like “recitatives,” in which the action developed and song-like arias with orchestra stopped the action and expressed character emotions dramatically and musically. The creation of English oratorio specifically was assisted by Handel. Thanks to his reluctance to abandon the theatre, he began writing opera-like pieces without opera’s elaborate stage direction. Freed from the expenses of costume and scenery, he could make greater use of the chorus to extend the musical and dramatic range, as well as variation of the texture. Theodora was written during this transition, but is considered an oratorio.

Though the term “oratorio” can be ambiguous (and was especially hard to define during the baroque period), oratorio is now defined as a dramatic poem, usually of a sacred but not liturgical character, which is sung throughout by solo voices and chorus to the accompaniment of a full orchestra, but without the assistance of scenery, dresses, and action. In Handel’s England it had two meanings. Firstly, it could refer to sacred drama conceived as artistic unity without the restrictions of how to perform it. Alternatively, it consisted of entertainment of vocal and instrumental music- however heterogeneous in context or construction- performed in theatre without action. In the presentation and the general dramatic spirit similar to the opera, the oratorio appealed to the imagination of the audience. Handel’s oratorios, however they may be defined, demonstrated many of the common musical characteristics of the time.

The prominent musical characteristics of the baroque period varied widely, but several elements remained persistent. One of the most important elements was decoration; ornamentation was extremely significant, including vibrato. Scores often included sparse and terraced (abruptly changing) dynamics, and it was commonly assumed the performer was to play piano first time through, and forte the second time.

Also, a common phenomenon was the infrequent appearance of articulation markings; slurs and short notes were rare. Another loss of instruction appears in the lack of notes on specific voices and instruments for which a piece is written. In relation to theory, tonality comprised an essential excitement and modernity of Baroque theory as it replaced the modal concept of Medieval and Renaissance theory. Bass was often static, leaving soloist to explore the tone melodically at leisure. These trends were explored in most of Handel’s works, Theodora not to be excluded.

Theodora was composed between June 28 and July 31 of 1750. The composition can almost be seen as an opera in oratorio form: a historical if not biblical story set to very dramatic music and full orchestra, but not intended to be costumed or staged. The plot is based on the story of an early Christian martyr in Antioch at the beginning of the fourth century. The piece “Lord to thee, each night and day” occurs in scene one of the third act, with the Irene singing about her Christian faith and loyalty in spite of the threats against Christians for their faith.

It is perhaps because of the religious connotations that scholars note that Theodora seems to have been poorly attended and attracted very little attention. There are also speculations that this may have been an accidental consequence of an overall “general thinness of attendance” during oratorio season due to rumours of an earthquake. Though poor received, Handel valued the oratorio more than any performance of the kind, including his own Messiah. For good reason: it is more pensive, personal, and even more emotional than any of its predecessors, making it a tragedy misunderstood and undervalued by the audience members of the time.

Though it may not have been well received by the common citizen of the times, it was seen in a religious context as a contribution to the defense of Christianity in a time of controversy and turmoil over deity. It was, in fact, Handel’s only Christian oratorio outside of Messiah, which was written at age 64 as one of his last masterpieces before his death in 1759. Unfortunately, the exact textual history of the full oratorio, Theodora, is complicated, since the complete score has never been printed. Yet for listeners, it is incredibly obvious that the genius in the music was written by Handel to enhance the text’s meaning and message.

Handel was unquestionably one of the greatest composers of operas in the late Baroque period. His reputation first came from keyboard playing as a harpsichordist, but his creativity quickly manifested itself in his first Italian opera, Rodrigo. From that point on, he was distinguished by his consistency with which he selected and combined common formulae from which most composers of the time drew to form melodies that make “a direct appeal, are seemingly inevitable, often memorable,and remarkably varied.” Not even Bach possessed this melodic gift, as he, in contrast, was less concerned with immediate melodic appeal. The free-voiced choral polyphony of Handel and the strictly linear, instrumentally conceived polyphony of Bach form the two contrasting poles of late baroque music.

Handel’s choral writing makes up his most personal and influential contribution to music. Handel possessed the ability, melodic imagination, and virtuosity to write tuneful, gracefully expressive, and easily singable music. Yet, he retained an interest in chromatic harmony and a mastery of counterpoint ( which was regarded by Handel as a means to a dramatic end), reflecting his German traditions. Because of its dramatic conception, Handel’s counterpoint reaches its greatest heights in the vocal medium. It was this combination of skill in counterpoint and the sequential spinning out of new material that set him above his contemporaries in fame.

Towards the end of his popularity, he composed Theodora. The piece was one of his last masterpieces; a blend of his style within the times and his groundbreaking musical ideas. Theodora is cast in typical Handelian oratorio form as a heroic drama. The work follows the main formal trait common between nearly all early baroque forms: multi-sectional structure. “Lord, to the each night and day” has a striking contrast between it’s sectional moods; it is only a taste of the structure and different styles that occur throughout the whole oratorio. The overture follows a French-style introduction and Italian allegro with a sarabande and courante, representing popular structure of the time.

Similarly popular were dance rhythms, which occur equally in arias and choruses such as in the minuet in the aria “From virtue springs” in Theodora. The work is written mostly in G minor; the Overture, the final chorus, and of four other pieces distributed in intervals throughout are written in this key. Unsurprisingly, “Lord, to thee each night and day” follows the da capo form typical of the baroque time period, which Handel used when a character was either expressing a thought that had either a general application or no relation to what follows. His application of the baroque structure did not limit him, but other limitations arose in reading his music for current performers.

Though information is readily available on from, when it comes to the texture of the piece the specifics are hard to come by. It is known that the chorus was all male, (likely not more than 20), including six boys for the treble part. Solo voice was used as the principal bearer of the text and message of a musical setting, leading to reduction of instrumental accompaniment to half-improvised chordal support. Instrumentation is also difficult to discern for the full score, but for “Lord, to thee each night and day” the score calls for 1st and 2nd violins, viola, bass, and a soprano voice. Throughout the oratorio, wind instruments were kept for “special instances, generally associated with the Romans”, while percussion and trumpets enforce the military elements. These assignments were meant to match the style of the instrument to the melody it plays.

The melodic character of this piece in particular stands out at the beginning of the third act. Act III is begun by Irene with “Lord, to thee each night and day” as an air of great beauty, whose stormy second half with visions of disaster contrasts well with the fervent opening. Handel’s music draws a strong and subtle portrait of the Christian martyrs and makes the tragic end all the more moving by portraying the Romans as “puzzled sensualists impressed despite themselves by the steadfast courage of their victims.”

As a whole, Theodora has a genuine sense of drama and marks the beginning of a new direction in his style. It is serious and introspective, and rejects the opportunity for an unclouded or simplistic emotional conclusion; the final ‘victory’ of martyrdom was balanced by regret for the lives destroyed. The score possesses a mellow tone, a balance of detachment and intense participation, and the understanding of youth in all its innocence and vitality. It manages to balance the core values of both Christianity and Paganism without skewing or bringing bias to either. In fact, it has been said that “in no other oratorio are two climates of belief more strongly characterized or more subtly distinguished musically.” Handel’s abilities and artistic talent impress listeners to this day- and his level of prestige demands respect.

To provide the respect Handel deserves as a composer, performers must keep in mind the history of performance practice within the Baroque era and within the spectrum of oratorios. Performance must show respect and affection for music in “baroque spirit.” In the time period, music was intended to be enjoyed, but also respected as a spiritual gift. The technical aspects of performance raise many questions upon realization that baroque music notation score may not coincide with the performance score. Notation often presented merely a skeletal outline of a composition, blurring the lines between composer and performer. One of the main reasons for the disparity of notation and performance score is the realization of the thorough-bass. Performers were expected to know the basics of music theory and be able to implement them as they read the music.

In addition to this, dynamics must often be applied at the performer’s discretion. When they are noted by the composer, dynamic subtleties happen at level of individual note as opposed to throughout a phrase. This means performers must pay attention to each note specifically, without robbing it of its musicality. The ideal for performance was clarity- a separate impetus for each tone, with accuracy of rhythm and intonation the prime element of melodic vitality and beauty. In fact, “bel-canto,” meaning beautiful singing, was the vocal technique of seventeenth century. Singers sought dexterity and grace over loudness or fullness of tone, vibrato was used as one of the various improvised embellishments, and deftness was prized, along with purity. Although it did not create new forms, bel-canto transformed the ones that previously existed by employing a new concept of melody and harmony. This style represents the reaction of musicians against the dictates of the poets, demanding that the music be coordinated with, rather than subordinated to, the words. Though some sections continued to be employed for certain words, these bel-canto melodies assumed a lilting flow, unimpeded by the exuberant coloraturas of the singers. This is necessary to consider for current performers to remain accurate to the historical context.

Keeping in similar fashion, for an accurate performance in the wind section it is necessary to use unequal tonguing: “ti” “ri” “di” for articulation to create “notes inegales.” Notes inegales (over-dotting) was typical rhythm used in baroque period with some notes written with equal time values but performed with unequal lengths; generally alternating long and short. Composers of the time also expected musicians to add ornamentation, including trills, mordents, turns, appoggiaturas, grace notes, and passing tones. Use of vibrato was considered an ornament, meaning it was to be used intentionally for decoration and not equally throughout. Improvisation by the performer was expected, especially on cadences. These factors are necessary to control and carefully consider when preparing a baroque work.

Elements outside the control and intentions of the performer must also be considered. When it comes to tonality, meantone temperament was the standard on keyboard instruments. This kept the major triad in tune, but black keys could then only serve one of two possible notes. Various approaches can be taken to tackle these performance practice issues. Though many performances adopt racy tempo to display dexterity, it can obscure detail. To be historically accurate, tempi should never be faster than that which will allow the shortest-value notes to be articulated clearly. Keeping this in mind, one will realize that “staid Lutheran churches in 1730s would never tolerate fast tempos.” Regular tempo was universally accepted in baroque times to keep performers together, and clarity of contrapuntal line was paramount.

Though less emphasized than tempo, vibrato was a well known influence on performance- particularly timbre- which was valued during baroque times. It was also necessary in order to overcome the imperfections of the baroque period tuning. Decoration, improvisation, and ornamentation were all necessary, and were intended to increase the expressiveness of the arias while allowing for the demonstration of technical skill and taste. Generally, though, ornamentation was used only after the section had been heard without variation. Contrary to a large portion of baroque music, Handel’s music actually rarely required alteration of line. In practice, the addition of appoggiaturas and the filling in of thirds merely weakened the beautiful melody line. Handel’s fermatas were the main opportunities for cadenza, and only then until the da capo. This was the best way to perform Handel’s piece with the beauty he intended.

In addition to demonstrating beauty and dexterity, arias and recitatives were essential for communicating lessons, therefore clear articulation was necessary. Music and art at that time were assessed as an imitation of nature, including human nature, which is expressed according to the theory of the affections. Today, one of the most powerful ways music can affect the mood of the listener is via the use of dynamics. During Handel’s lifetime, there was a wide variation in amount of dynamic detail. Handel was sometimes specific and other times utilized the absence of dynamic as an indicator to follow standard markings of the time. Handel’s rhythm also had inconsistencies in notation. It is likely he left the final decision to performers: to either follow the unwritten but well-understood prescription of the time or to apply their own standards of taste to the notation in question.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to clarify these consistencies, since there are very few editions of Handel’s work available- none of which are a complete collection of his compositions. John Walsh and his successors published in 1751 most of the English oratorios in full score that, despite many inaccuracies, contain many items never since reprinted. The score includes the Overture, the first prison Symphony, the B minor Symphony, two accompanied recitatives, the three duets, and all the airs in their original uncut form except 50, which is modified as in the autograph.

Superior to Walsh’s collection in quantity, the German Handel Society edition is so far the most complete. Unfortunately, it is weakened by the producer, Friedrich Chrysander’s arbitrary selection of material in the more complex works, as well as his failure to explain his methods. It is “eclectic and unsatisfactory, and omits works such as the B minor Symphony with no explanation.” Fortunately, what has been preserved lends insight to the talent and genius that Handel possessed, and allows modern listeners to enjoy his masterpieces.

The approach I plan to take for this particular masterpiece is a historically informed and accurate perspective on the work of Handel. Most importantly I aim for a respect for the style of music that I sing, and an affection for music itself- the pattern kept by musical performers of the Baroque period. Second to this I hope to emphasize the importance of clarity in my piece. It is necessary to articulate the text so that the message can be conveyed without question, for rhythm and pitch to be undoubtable in their accuracy, and for ornamentation to refrain from obscuring the melodic line. The ornamentation I will use will be minimal, as Handel’s line does not require intensive decoration.

I also plan to use vibrato sparingly, and as a complementary addition to the piece. The tempo will be set at a pace which I can clearly and dexterously accomplish the flourishes Handel has written in, without dragging the piece along or boring the listener- a pace described well as molto allegro. Dynamics are absent in the score, so I will apply them as I feel suits the mood of the piece; beginning softly and adjusting accordingly as the line increases in energy. Overall, my intention is to connect with the mood the composer felt the music possess, and to express that vocally to the listeners.

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