HANDEL’S MESSIAH: A RHETORICAL GUIDE
Corda Music Publication 217 pp. P/B 978-0-9528220-5-9 £30.00
Judy Tarling has spent her life as performer and teacher making historical style come alive, and especially through the application of classical Greek and Roman theories of rhetoric and oratory that were still studied in 17th and 18th centuries. Her application of such ideas is not confined to music and text: as a garden historian, her next book will be entitled Gardens of eloquence! She assembled her historical and musical research in an already highly-influential 2004 publication, The Weapons of Rhetoric, a Guide for Musicians and Audiences. Now she directs this approach at one particular work, Messiah, that, because of its text and music, and not least the documentation of its assembly, composition and reception, is particularly susceptible to such analysis.
As well as ideas from classical antiquity, Tarling applies to Messiah 16th and 17th-century texts written to help people to understand the Bible within a Protestant tradition. After a rhetorical analysis of Jennens’s biblical text, the music is examined for word-painting, repetition, questions and exclamations and other such devices before moving to a consideration of how performers can apply rhetorical techniques to their singing and playing. Having taken apart text and music and addressed the performer, Tarling considers the audience, the historically-informed listener, and looks at how Messiah was received within the context of contemporary ideas of ‘the sublime’.
This is not an easy book. It is densely written and with innumerable music examples (mostly of full score) which one wishes had been set to a wider margin and with a bigger stave size. But it is well worth the effort to read. The better one thinks one knows Messiah already, the greater the insights that are offered by this remarkable study.