The word-painting of two baroque composers

[This is an essay I wrote for my music class a few years back, apologize for grammatical mistakes I did back then]


A comparative analysis, with respect to the word-painting,of the track `Thus Saith the Lord´ from Handel’s ”Messiah” and the three tracks: `Thy hand Belinda; Darkness shades me´, `When I am laid in earth´ and  `With drooping wings ye cupids come´ from Purcell’s ”Dido and Aeneas”.

During the Baroque era there was a group of composers and academics known as ”the Florentine Camerata”. They had been formed since they thought that the voice was more important then the instrumental part of the music. This lead to the creation of recitatives. There are two types of recitatives: ”Recitativo secco” (sparse accompaniment, to the voice, by keyboard and bass) and also ”Recitativo accompagnato” (requiring a tighter rhythmic control).
The Opera was born 1607 when Claudio Moneverdi composed ”L’Orfeo”. This piece contained recitatives, solo vocal numbers, choruses instrumental dances and interludes. In time the ”Aria” also became an important part of the opera.

Handel was born in Germany in 1685. His father opposed music but allowed his son to take courses from a composer named Zachov. When the father passed away, Handel became a full time musician. Moved to Hamburg in 1703 and started playing second violin in the orchestra. Produced his first Opera, Amira, in 1705. Moved to Italy and learns a lot from big composers there, the following year. Moved to England 1710 and got an annual pension of £200 from Queen Anne (increased to £600 by his former ruler in Hanover). Became the director of a buisness venture producing Italian operas called ”Royal academy of music”. After eight years the academy had to close because of the  lack of support. He realized that Opera was declining in interest and started unwillingly produce dramatic Oratorios. He wrote 4 anthems for the coronation of George II (1727) which have been sung at every british coronation since then. Had a stroke 1737 but recovered and produced ”The Messiah” 1742. Died in London 1759.

In Handel’s piece ”Thus saith the lord” (part of the Messiah) he makes use of word-painting to emphasize the importance of certain words. The piece is a recitativo secco.  When singing ’shake’ the singer is emphasizing it using the devices of making it melismatic and descending. The second time he sings ”I will shake” he repeates it and makes ’shake’ melismatic (again). On the word ”come” he uses ”piú forte” (louder). He does this again on the word covenant but he makes it melismatic as well.

Henry Purcell was born in Westminster, England 1659.  Son to a courtmusician, bacame a chorister in the chapel royal at the age of ten. Started tuning the organ in Westminster abbey. Became the composer for the court violins in 1677. Became the abbey organist 3years later. Later organist at the chapel Royal (1682). Was James II’s harpsichord player and taught the aristocracy music. His only true opera was ”Dido and Aeneas”, written 1689. Died in London 1695 and was buried under the organ in Westinster Abbey. Famous for his skill in writing all the music kinds known at the time. Combined elements of French and Italian baroque and traditional English musical forms.

In Purcell’s piece ”Thy hand Belinda; Darkness shades me” (from ’Dido and Aeneas’) he makes some use of word painting. This piece is a recitative accompagnato with a basso continuo. When the singer sings ”darkness” he makes it melismatic”. When singing ”death” I believe it is a minor chord the second time, emphasizing the importance of the word this second time.
In Purcell’s piece ”When I am laid in earth” (from ’Dido and Aeneas’). This piece is an Aria. The singer repeats ”am laid”. He uses a tremólo for the words ”forget” and ”fate”. He sings ”ah” melismatic. The tremólo device is used again on the words ”wrongs” and ”create”.
In Purcell’s piece ”With drooping wings ye cupids come” (from ’Dido and Aeneas’),  a chorus, the singers goes up and then down again (pitch) on the word ”cupids”. The word ”never” is repeated several times, homo-phonically, with a break after. The words ”watch” and ”here” also had a break after them. While singing the word ”soft” they sings it soft and also repeat it several times. On ”droop” the singers use descending notes.

The use of melismatic devices is used by Purcell and Handel to emphasize certain words. Other things they have in common when word-painting is the descending notes (in the third piece by Purcell, ”droop”) and to repeat certain words/sentences. A technique used only by Handel is singing louder on the word which is meant to be emphasized. Purcell uses 3 devices that Handel does not make use of: tremólos, changing chord second time of word and having a break after the words which are to be emphasized.

[pic: CC-BY Steve Snodgrass ]

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Josef Ohlsson Collentine

A transparent and kind American/Swede who likes cultural patterns and Social Media. A creative early-adopter who sports, discusses and explores. More about me
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