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Handel's silence speaks volumes to author Ellen Harris

Ellen Harris
Ellen Harris
Photo / Graham C. Ramsay

German composer George Frideric Handel, renowned for "Messiah," his bold holiday hit, had his quiet moments, too.

In fact, Ellen T. Harris, the Class of 1949 Professor of Music and head of the music and theater arts section, was so intrigued by Handel's deliberate use of silence in his 100 chamber cantatas that she spent years studying the subtle layers of meaning in these powerful but lesser-known works produced for private patrons.

The result is Harris' recent book, "Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas" (Harvard), a combined study of the cantatas themselves, of the sexual subtexts within them, and of the 18th-century social context in which Handel (1685-1759) composed.

In November, "Handel as Orpheus" received the prestigious Otto Kinkeldey Award, presented annually by the American Musicological Association to "honor the work of musicological scholarship deemed by a committee of scholars to be the most distinguished of those published during the previous year in any language and in any country by a scholar who is a citizen or permanent resident of Canada or the United States."

An eminent Handel scholar, Harris is also a distinguished opera singer, having performed roles from Mozart, Puccini, Massenet, Gilbert and Sullivan and others. From 1989-95, she served as the first Associate Provost for the Arts at MIT. Harris is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Soundings, published by the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, printed an interview with Harris just after her book appeared. Excerpts from the interview, conducted by Orna Feldman, follow.

Q. Why does your book's title compare Handel to Orpheus?

A. Mythologically, Orpheus is a great musician. He wins back his deceased wife from the Underworld by singing, but then he fails the human test: because he looks back at her before they reach the Earth, he loses her forever. According to the classical legend, Orpheus gave up all women, urged other men to give up women, and said he would love only other men. This part of the Orpheus myth seemed particularly important to the cantata, because Handel's Italian and early English patrons had been associated with same-sex love and a number of the texts were related to same-sex love.

Q. What conclusions do you draw from this?

A. Handel lived in a context where same-sex love was a very real part of the atmosphere. As was relatively common among the aristocracy at the time, Handel's patrons frequently were married, sometimes had children, and sometimes had same-sex relationships as well. The term "homosexual" had no meaning in the 18th century.

Q. In your book you discuss the role of silence in same-sex love. Can you elaborate?

A. The cantata texts consistently refer to a "love that I cannot speak about" and "a love I must keep to myself." That silence then moves from the text into the music. Suddenly there are gaping silences - the whole music stops, as if the singer can't go on. That's unusual even for music of the time. So I would argue that Handel is one of the first composers to bring silence into the fabric of the music. Handel was an intensely private person, and the need for silence in matters of love must have been clear to him. Not surprisingly, this life lesson found its way into his music.

Q. What kind of responses has your book received?

A. Responses have been mixed. There are people who simply cannot accept the placement of Handel into a society in which same-sex love played a significant role - primarily because he's the composer of "Messiah" and an iconic image is being challenged. Other people might like the book for the wrong reasons - because they want that piece of divinity to be associated with homosexuality. For me, the book is important because it explores and makes available a huge repertoire of Handel's music that no one has listened to and addresses context in Handel's creative process.

Q. How has performing the cantatas affected your research?

A. The experience of actually participating in the creation of the sounds that Handel conceived is important to my understanding of how the music works from the inside out.

Q. How do you teach music at MIT?

A. I play a song and sing it, and then begin taking the song apart. I talk about compositional tools: "What would happen if you did it differently? If you changed this cadence?" You can actually get at the music through a toolbox exercise and then lead from mechanics into historical context. That approach works particularly well with MIT students.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 18, 2002.

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