Cauliflower ears and tongue in cheek

By Mike Cochran




George Frederick was in his mid twenties when he settled in London in 1712. Just a couple of years earlier he’d been appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, who then scooted off with wife Anne to become King George the First of Great Britain and Ireland. Handel couldn’t resist the 200 pounds yearly stipend offered by Queen Anne.  In a few short years he became the most successful English resident composer of his day. Given his German heritage, can we say that Handel’s music, following  Purcell, is truly English? I say we can, and that’s where the cauliflower ear comes in.

Many young men (and nowadays young women), usually of Herculean stature, tend to enjoy running about the place clutching a pigskin, preferably in the freezing wet, covered in mud, bruises and blood. This peculiar endeavor goes back many centuries, possibly originating on the cold, wet, freezing grassy mud of an English private school just outside the English town of Rugby.  Handel, from the looks of him in prints and portraits, is burly of build.  It’s somewhat difficult to discern his Herculean build since our eyes are drawn to facial features and the large curly periwig, considered high fashion for men of stature at the time.  Another aspect of the game of rugby sees many participants banding together to form a tortoise shell structure, all legs, and arms clutching bodies, and heads locked together.  There are two fellows in the centre of the tortoise shell, called hookers, who have an especially hard time of it — their heads being crushed. Proud hookers are considered to be members of an exclusive profession, but not the oldest, and they wear their cauliflower ears as a badge of honour.  To my ears, the distinct “Englishness” of Handel’s music draws some of its uniqueness from the invigorating coldness and wetness of the fields of Britain. “Rough, rugged, vital, thriving, robust, sturdy, tough and vigorous” are adjectives that consummately describe the music and the game. I’m convinced Handel knew rugby — his melodies, counterpoint and harmonies are unerringly direct, logical and powerful — just like the muddy old game.

Our concert contains Handel’s most famous works with excerpts from the Water Music and Messiah. Our Messiah selections are mainly from Part 1 — the prophecy and birth of Christ. In Part 2, the trial and crucifixion of Christ, the Passion is heard, ending with the “Hallelujah” Chorus. It is said that George the First, on hearing the Chorus for the first time, stood in homage. Maybe, maybe not; perhaps he just needed a stretch! Messiah is not crafted as narrative of the life of Christ. It’s more an acclamation of the creation of Christianity with some narrative recitatives when needed, and many reflections on aspects of the Passion.  The soloists ask questions time and again and receive answers or confirmations from the chorus or other soloists. The Bass aria “Why do the Nations so furiously rage”,  followed by the Tenor aria “Thou shalt break them” come to mind.  There’s a pledge of holy betrothal between music and text unsurpassed in Baroque repertoire. Even Bach is second among equals in this respect. Every performer of Messiah experiences the pleasure of discovery of yet another enhancement of text through simple melodic lines, logical direct harmony and ingenious counterpoint. “Glory to God in the highest” with soaring sopranos, “and peace on earth “ — the depths of the earth in the basses. Or “The people that walked in darkness” with bewildering chromaticism as the people felt their way through blackness. Simple means, great effects that inspire great affection in performers and audiences alike. The text of Messiah is like a Da Vinci sketching in the framework of a painting. The music of Messiah is like Da Vinci’s brush and palette — the masterpiece is wondrous and complete.

April 13th 1742, the première of a new Oratorio by Mr .Handel, to be performed at the Great Music Hall in Fishamble  Street, Dublin.  Why Dublin for the first performance is somewhat of a mystery especially for the concert audiences in London.  But we have it on completely reliable rumour that a very prominent Irish family of musicians residing in Dublin had something to do with it. Unfortunately, the name of the musician who persuaded Handel is unknown, but he was known to be a violinist friend. His handle was possibly Norman but surname unknown! The legend of the Dublin première has passed down to the present day and a prominent member of our Sooke musical community is fond of retelling it, albeit with a slight bulge in his cheek!

If you’d been around in Handel’s day, and you were on intimate terms with the master, and you tweaked his periwig a little, you’d be bound to glimpse a cauliflower ear.