week22: handel, aldous huxley


In celebration of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, it had been agreed to have a grand fireworks display, in the Green Park, to take place in April 1749. Someone or other (not the King, apparently) commissioned Handel to provide ‘a martial overture’ to accompany fireworks, and from this came the grandest of all Georgian occasional pieces, the Musick for the Royal Fireworks. “” funk&wagnalls notes for the recording

handel wrote almost as much music as bach and beethoven combined—and yet we manage, all throughout the holy month of december, to hear nothing else but his Messiah.

The music had to be powerful enough not only to rise above the crackling and spluttering of the fireworks, but to reach a vast number of spectators assembled over a wide area. Handel therefore omitted string instruments altogether. The score is laid out for wind instruments in 57 parts, played by more than a hundred musicians (24 oboes, 16 bassoons, 24 horns, 40 trumpets etc.) “” heinz becker, notes for the recording

i’m not one for some grand usurpation of the seemingly indelible blot of the religious experience from the sprawling landscape of social scenery—my father wears a collar, and my upbringing was paid for in part by the leaking bottom of the weekly tithe-bag, it’s the family business—yet, this blot isn’t so indelible. a future without the error of religion (nothing more than spilled ink) is inevitable. and in that regards i’d rather be foolish that wrong. yet, getting there is not the task of some burning sweaty-spleened urgency…. it is perhaps the opposite of a war of attrition: finding one way and another to be reminded that the religious experience does not hold the monopoly on the most profound cheerfulness, or on the celebration of spiritual serenity. that’s what handel’s other Messiah represents: the clear air, muddy grounds, garlic breath, round and robust laughter of honest and rustic joy—i’m speaking of course of his Music for the Royal Fireworks (and by association, his Watermusic).

These festivities—marred when fireworks set off a blaze which completely destroyed the structure built for the event—were launched by an Overture which, in Handel’s original orchestration, required 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, one contrabassoon, three pairs of timpani and a kind of cornet known as a ‘serpent horn.’ “” robert jackson, notes for funk&wagnalls recording

it is for our purposes, a secular Messiah. a reminder that whenever we are allured by the loftiness of sacred music, it is in fact not the divine in the music that inspires us most but the musicality of the divine. such a recalibration of causes is not only a realignment with the spiritual humanism of the musical experience, but is a rescue from the equally erroneous conception that godliness of any kind can still be posed as a serious question; a rescue from the position of being a naysayer against the ugly anti-rationality of faith. and that is fundamentally the psychological character of humanism as a cohesive ethic: to be at the most basic level, at an instinctual level, a yes-sayer. that is also the kind of new-year’s resolution that is worth making, to promise yourself to waste not one more second fighting the ugly:

I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers… I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer! “” Friedrich Nietzsche, january 1882

baroque music in general has this diffused quality of a yea-saying humanism, and that's the spirit of handel’s Fireworkmusic---rejouissance, it’s music for that same Nietzsche’s ‘saturnalia’:

Gratitude pours forth continually, as if the  unexpected had just happened—the gratitude of a convalescent—for convalescence was unexpected. “Gay Science”: that signifies the saturnalia of a spirit who has patiently resisted a terrible, long pressure—patiently, severely, coldly, without submitting, but also without hope—and who is now all at once attacked by hope… “” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.



George Frideric Handel composed his so-called Water Music for an aquatic journey on which King George I of England and many of his courtiers went during the evening of the 19th July 1717, when they travelled in a number of river craft along the Thames from Whitehall to Chelsea. The royal barge, bright with festive illuminations, was accompanied by a larger boat carrying an orchestra of fifty musicians who were to perform the music written for the occasion, under the direction of the composer. “” heinz becker, notes for the recording

Deutsche Grammophon Recording. Printed in Berlin // Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) // Water Music Suite & Music for the Royal Fireworks

Berlin Philharmonic, Conducted by Rafael Kubelik

Water Music Suite

  1. Overture

  2. Adagio e staccato.

  3. Allegro

  4. Air

  5. Allegretto

  6. Lentement

  7. Menuet

  8. Alla Hornpipe

Music for the Royal Fireworks

  1. Overture

  2. Bourrée

  3. La Paix: Largo alla Siciliana

  4. La Réjouissance: Allegro

  5. Menuet I

  6. Menuet II

The pyrotechnic designers of the 17th and 18th centuries were not merely craftsmen skilled in the use of their materials, but ranked as artists able to tame the element of fire itself to form multi-coloured pictures, and to conjure up whole theatrical scenes before the astonished eyes of the spectators. They created what were in the truest sense of the words dazzlingly beautiful structures. Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music re-create the spirit of an age in which men [*] really understood how to celebrate great events in the grand manner. “” heinz becker, notes for the recording

(what’d we learn)———

by a rough estimate, 2018 seemed to be the year wherein everything good was at equidistance from precisely its exact opposite, and we perhaps found ourselves all throughout in the longest most unpublishable episode of Malcom in the Middle, while being perpetually bummed out by our Janus-esque bidirectional indecision regarding which end of the pole we’re closest to.

nevertheless, nevertheless, we could not help but learn a couple things along the way. most of which were belated admissions of what we have always knownat the subconscious instinctive level: that, for example, our dear toronto raptors were never going to do anything surprising with demar derozan as their breadwinner—and even though that might still be true under the auspiciously robotic claw of kawhi leonard, trading for him was at least a confession my masai ujiri is convinced that anything less than a championship, is failure.

family—another thing we’ve learned—is the most important thing, and however shitty the conditions of the one you’re born into are, it should pose no challenge to that fact.

in the same breath as regards our toronto raptors i’ll also add: that a city needs a good orchestra as much as it needs a good basketball team. It is a joy and privilege to have the talents of the TSO at our doorstep (and at such glorious discounts, TSOUNDCHECK ftw!). roy thomson hall is a kind of temple, and to make it there as often as possible is a new priority.

what else? we also learned that of all the truths available to the human perception, there’s none higher or more incontrovertible, than the ones found among the people….and that there’s nowhere less likely to find a sincere vested interest in the truth and truthfulness, than among the people…

—i’ve learned that a good meal and great music is needed on a daily basis (our blessed quotidian pleasures!) to be able to navigate such seemingly irreconcilable contradictions.

lastly, the year has made for me a slight adjustment to the definition of ‘genius’: it’s merely a fact of output. there are no born geniuses. and whatever we mean by genius is only a reference to the routine responsible for that output, not the person. more often than not that routine is daily. and as such we can never over-value the importance of the quotidian, the ordinary, the mundane—the only place where life happens.

(‘metaphysical sensuality’)———
i’ve developed an inexplicable habit of starting the year off with literary excursions by way of psychological investigations into the life and times of rural french priests of the previous century (yes, not sure why either). in 2017 it was georges bernanos’ Diary of A Country Priest which i discovered via robert bresson’s 1951 cinematic adaptation by the same name—and which led me last year to louis-ferdinand céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, a disorienting excavation of a french doctor’s geographical and philosophical meanderings through world war one. though not an ordained priest, the main character of that autobiographical book was everything of the priestly type, the type described by bernanos as ‘still holding on.’ and whose tribulations result not only from the poor quality of the wine they consume (bless the french!) but also ‘the ones drunk by your mother..’

adriaen brouwer,  The Bitter Draught ,  c.1636-1639

adriaen brouwer, The Bitter Draught , c.1636-1639

i started this year with the literary predecessor to a film i saw in 2014 called The Devils (1971), a wild riot of a film by ken russell and starring a magnificently untethered oliver reed in the lead role, opposite a serpentine and fiery-headed vanessa redgrave. the book it’s based on (The Devils of Loudun) was written by aldous huxley in 1952 as a historical fiction and is, from the very first page, every bit as deranged as its film adaptation. the main subject of the book is urbain grandier, a 17th century french parson whose combination of a excessive carnal appetite and genuine piety results is a personality only possible within a 17th century france whose morbid yet well-cultivated sensibilities invented such improbable accidents of history like cardinal richelieu.

a ‘metaphysical sensuality’ was the convoluted label that huxley used to describe urbain grandier rustic appetites. Grandier was personification of what is perhaps a distinctly french thing, that religion and politics should never get in the way of the truth, of the things that really matter:

Religion was all very well; but it should never be allowed to invade the sanctities of private life. “” aldous huxley, The Devils of Loudun

---there’s something profoundly humanistic about describing the activities of private life as sacred, especially as something to be guarded from the falsities of religious life. it’s the prioritisation of a cultural aesthetic over a religious ethic. the conviction that the sacred is not in need of a ‘theological alibi’:

But in spite of all those years with the Jesuits, Grandier was still very far from being a Christian; and in spite of all the good advice he received from d’Armagnac and his other friends, he was incapable, where his passions were involved, of acting with prudence. A long religious training had not abolished or even mitigated his self-love; it had served only to provide the ego with a theological alibi. “” aldous huxley, The Devils of Loudun

incidentally that is as well the appeal of handel’s Fireworkmusic, it has the cheerful profundity of his Messiah without the connotations of any kind of evangelical mission.