[Smt-talk] Looking for bad text settings

John Z McKay jmckay at mozart.sc.edu
Sat Aug 23 12:23:34 PDT 2014

Regarding examples from Handel's Messiah (of which there are quite a few),
I would note that some of the poor text-setting in the main choruses can be
partly blamed on the fact that Handel was actually "shoehorning" the
English text into earlier Italian aria tunes.  "All we like sheep" is
actually based on a movement from HWV 189, as is "For unto us a child is
born."  Note the latter also has bizarre text-setting: "FOR!!!..... unto us
a child is boo--orn" makes no sense as an English text-setting, but the
melody makes perfect prosodic sense for "No! [pause] di voi non vo'
fidarmi," which was the original text that melody was written for.

Handel can be rightly criticized for sometimes using bizarre accents in his
English settings, but many of the supposed Messiah examples are problematic
because of the recycling of melodies, which were not originally designed
for the English texts.  (See also "His yolk is easy" and "And He shall
purify," which are based on HWV 192.)

What's amazing is that Handel often made these melodies work as well as
they do for different texts in different languages each with unique general
accentual patterns.

John McKay

John Z. McKay, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
University of South Carolina School of Music
813 Assembly Street
Columbia, SC  29208
jmckay at mozart.sc.edu

On Fri, Aug 22, 2014 at 5:17 PM, David K Feurzeig <mozojo at gmail.com> wrote:

>    Recent contributions reminded me of this classic, from Handel's
> Messiah:
>       All we like sheep
>       (…have gone astray)
>  It's not exactly bad scansion, but no native English speaker would have
> put that pause before completing the simile. (German does not have a
> homonym that can mean both "resemble" and "are fond of".)
>  This lick has occasioned adolescent chorister twittering for
> decades--perhaps centuries?
>  So has this one, from Mendelssohn's Saint Paul:
>  He watching over Israel,
> Slumbers not nor sleeps.    (read: "slumber, snot, snore, sleep")
>    Again, nothing "wrong", but one imagines only a non-native speaker
> could have written it.
>  David Feurzeig
> Associate Professor, Composition and Theory
> Department of Music and Dance
> University of Vermont
> Burlington, VT 05405
> 802-656-1498
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