Autumn is here, and it’s a time for music! There is something about the fall that makes music even better. Sure, summertime is for outdoor concerts and music festivals, but I find music sounds better in the fall.
There is some science behind this feeling: sound waves travel farther in colder weather. It has something to do with air particles being further apart in the cold, so sound waves can keep going. I’m sure I’m explaining it incorrectly, and I’m too lazy to look it up, but just trust me on this one.
Unfortunately, I am no longer teaching the Pre-AP Music Appreciation course that saw me steeped in the best that medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, classical, Romantic, and modern composers had to offer. That doesn’t mean I have to stop enjoying these composers, though!
One of my all-time faves—and a composer who is quintessentially English, even if he’s German—is George Frideric Handel. His works are among the finest from the Baroque period.
We’re back in the Baroque Period in my Pre-AP Music Appreciation course this year, though based on the timing of this post, we’re just a few days behind this year. We’ve watched the excellent BBC documentary on Handel linked below, and just got into his works this week (we also recently viewed, in snippets, Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, which is really great—and, at just under an hour, perfect for classroom viewing).
Regardless, it’s good to see that my pacing from one year to the next is mostly on track. It’s one of those things that teachers like to see, especially when it’s only the second time running a course. I guess I am just more long-winded this year.
What’s not long-winded—I hope!—is this post on Handel’s music.
This week I’ve been teaching and learning a great deal about George Frideric Handel, the great German composer who became, over his long life, a great British one. In discussing Handel and other Baroque composers with my students, we also veered into the world of hymns.
Hymns were and are important in Protestant congregations as simple, memorable tunes with theologically rich texts. Hymn melodies are often based on folk tunes or popular compositions. In some cases, such as the lovely Christmas carol “Silent Night,” the text is written first, then set to music (indeed, most hymns, being based on Scripture, evolved this way). Sometimes the tune is written, then an enterprising poet sets the text. Such was the case with Isaac Watts, who set his text for “Joy to the World” to a Handel melody. And, of course, there are hymns written and composed by the same person.
In talking about hymns, I brought to my students a slender little hymnal in my small collection of them, The Cokesbury Worship Hymnal. From what I can gather, my copy was published in or after 1966, when the copyright from 1938 was renewed. There is a stamp on the inside front cover stating that the hymn book once belonged to Carteret Street Methodist Church, which I thought was in Charleston, but appears to be in Beaufort, South Carolina. The hymnal includes 296 hymns, with fifty responsive readings—a good collection, but slim by the standards of a pewback hymnal.
One nugget of wisdom I’ve heard before is “if you want to learn something, teach it.” As a private school educator who taught pretty much every course in the standard high school social studies curriculum and a plethora of music courses, I can attest to the Truth of this statement. I essentially taught myself, for example, the highlights of Western philosophy from teaching a Philosophy course for many years (a course I very much wish the school would revive).
I’m shifting increasingly towards teaching music exclusively (though I’m still teaching a couple of American History survey courses), and teaching a Pre-AP Music Appreciation class has been one of the great joys of that transition. Years ago I created and taught a course called “History of American Popular Music,” which covered the early Tin Pan Alley tunes all the way through blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and beyond. This Pre-AP course is focused on the great works of Western music, going back to the medieval period.
Currently, we’re wrapping up a big unit on Baroque music. The Baroque style—as epitomized by greats like Bach, Monteverde, Corelli, Handel, and others—delights in contrasts. Just as Baroque paintings highlight stark contrasts between light and dark, Baroque music revels in sudden contrasts in dynamics. It also loves to play around with complexity, as any Bach fugue will quickly demonstrate.
The last composer in our unit is George Frideric Handel. Handel, a German-born composer, made a major splash upon his arrival in England in the 1710s, where he sought to introduce Italian opera to sophisticated London crowds. What was meant to be a temporary visit turned into over four decades, and Handel is interred at Westminster Abbey—a huge honor. It’s one of those delightful twists of history that Handel the German became one of the most English composers in history—and one of the greatest composers of all time.