Affects and Their Effects

26 March 2018

We talk to Magdalena Chrenkoff, editor of the programme book of this year’s Misteria Paschalia Festival, about the enduring popularity of Baroque music and the best ways of listening to it.

There are two more Misteria Paschalia concerts in April, both featuring the Dunedin Consort ensemble under the baton of John Butt, Resident Artistic Director of this year’s English music-themed festival. On 1 April we will hear the oratorio “Samson”, while during the grand finale on 2 April the tenor Ian Bostridge presents arias and odes by Handel and Purcell. Are these masterpieces of Baroque music from the British Isles?
Absolutely! We have an English oratorio, a religious anthem, welcoming songs and Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. They are all classic English pieces performed by soloists, choirs and instrumentalists. Handel’s anthems tend to be as monumental as his oratorios thanks to the English choral traditions embraced by the composer. Meanwhile the solo parts – arias and recitatives – recall the Neapolitan opera style.

So what makes oratorios so successful?
Handel intertwined operatic pomp with beloved English choral traditions. The role of vocal ensembles in Handel’s works cannot be overstated – without them his oratorios would not exist!
But there’s something else we must bear in mind when thinking about all music from the period, not just oratorios: Baroque rhetoric. It relies on doctrine of affects and music rhetoric by emphasising the meaning of lyrics and directing audiences’ emotions. Whole catalogues of rhetorical figures created at the time indicate how certain emotions and words associated with them can be expressed through music. Known as pathopoeia, this can describe a melody line, usually in bass, tending downwards to express suffering, pain and torment. A rising melody line, anabasis, can be found in Monteverdi’s dying Clorinda, ascending as she herself ascends to heaven.

Is it a direct musical illustration?
Not an illustration but an expression of the idea. Gradatio, on the other hand, is an affectation device used to enhance the effect, for example the line “Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice” in the Messiah [sings the rising melody to demonstrate].

Rejoice even more…
Rejoice greatly! It’s a classic rhetorical figure. But the thing is that Handel didn’t use it for the sake of it – he reached for a popular technique of the period. And we have to remember the melody of the language being used, too. “Rejoice” cannot be sung in German, for example, although attempts have been made to translate the Messiah… It’s impossible because specific words and their stresses are key. This role of English in Purcell and Handel’s works is discussed by John Butt in one of the essays in the festival programme book.

Was this rhetoric clear to the listeners at the time?
I think it was. And in any case, it still functions in music today.

Even when we don’t realise it?
Of course! It is culturally imprinted in us. Think about it: when the subject matter of the piece is suffering, Christ on the cross, there will be a major seventh, a tritone, a jump by a ninth, intervals which build anticipation and tension. These techniques are still being used today, even by composers such as Penderecki. When they use a given rhetoric, we don’t perceive them as forced or artificial – they come naturally both to the composers and to the listeners. And when we are even slightly conscious of this rhetoric, we appreciate the artist’s skill all the more.

Is this what we find so captivating about music composed over 250 years ago?
Not all of us [laughs]. But there are certainly people who cannot live without it. To some extent this is due to the rhetoric, but Baroque music is wonderfully diverse and sparkles with myriad colours. Because when the text largely dictates the music setting, each aria will sound different to the others. Baroque music isn’t boring in the slightest!

Interviewed by Barbara Skowrońska

Magdalena Chrenkoff is a researcher and lecturer at the Faculty of Composition, Interpretation and Musical Education at the Academy of Music in Kraków. She teaches history of music, music literature, analysis of music and functional ear training, and supervises Master’s theses. She is the author of numerous articles, entries in the Music Encyclopaedia of the PWM Edition and MGG, and co-editor of publications on music theory.

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