Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ha! Told You So!

A few weeks ago I performed, with another soprano, the duet “The Lord is My Strength and my Song,” from Handel’s Israel in Egypt.

During our rehearsal work, she and I agreed in our dislike of the unattractive second vowel in the word “salvation,” which in this duet Handel frequently set on a long running melisma of sixteenth notes: “He is become my salvaaaaayyyyyytion.” Ugh. Though one sings here on an “eh” vowel, resisting as much as possible the slide toward the diphthong “ay,” the “eh” sound is just not a pleasant vowel. Singers – and audiences! – would much rather hear a nice open “ah” or “oh” sound, especially on a long melisma.

Because of this passage and a few others in the duet that seemed unsympathetic to the voice, I speculated that Handel might have written this music for instruments and later “recycled” it for use in Israel in Egypt. During Handel’s time, the reuse of one’s own music, a practice called “parody,” was common practice and wholly accepted, and made sense for commercial composers like Handel. (Read my essay on parody HERE). I wondered if the duet had been composed for two oboes, Handel’s favorite instrument.

A little research revealed that this movement – in fact, about a half dozen movements from Israel in Egypt! – were indeed composed for another work, but not by Handel! He pushed the “parody” concept a bit far, perhaps, when he lifted this and several other movements from a Magnificat by Italian composer Don Dionigi Erba (fl. 1694, Milan).

Though I was wrong about the possible instrumental origins, I was right about the vowel. In Erba’s Magnificat, the duet was a setting of “Et Exultavit,” and the long melismas in question were indeed on the nice “ah” vowel of “exultavit.”

Ha! I just knew it. I didn’t think that Handel would have composed that awful “salvaaaayyyytion;” perhaps the almost-ugly result was the price he paid for the theft of Erba’s music

You can read about Handel’s cribbing, and see a really neat comparison of the two scores, at

I found this information in other sources, too; some of these sources are old (as in the one cited above), but I also found newer discussions that seem to verify it all.

Later this summer, I’ll perform this duet with my dear friend and colleague Jane Scott, at her church, Storrs Congregational. When Lisa and I sang together, I sang the first soprano part and she the second; with Jane, I’ll sing second while she sings first. So this week I’ll be getting to know this duet from a different perspective, and that’s always fun.

POSTSCRIPT. Just a week before Jane and I were scheduled to sing this duet at her church, she emailed me to say that she was having some troublesome soreness in her mouth, and singing was uncomfortable, and she might need to delay our duet date. The following week, she sent this message: "I just got back from the doctor's office. Diagnosis is the biopsy showed malignant cells. ... I'm afraid there's no way I'll be able to the sing the duet this week. I've tried going through it a couple of times and it is too painful. So let's see if we can re-schedule for next summer, OK?" Jane's cancer advanced rapidly and we never did sing that duet, or any other duet, together.

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