One of Handel’s go-to techniques was “madrigalism,” which took its name from its use in Renaissance madrigals. Calvin Stapert defines madrigalism as “imitation of a word or phrase by the music - for example, an ascending scale on the word ‘climb,’ fast notes on ‘run,’ a sharp dissonance on ‘pain’” ( Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People , 83). It was a device of musical “rhetoric,” which is how Baroque theorists categorized it.

Stapert admits that the technique seems “naive,” and adds that “music doesn’t have to resort to such obvious bits of imitation to express a text effectively; any two-bit composer can do it.” Thing is, composers who cannot be described as “two-bit” have been known to use the same kinds of tricks: “if composers as great as Josquin and Lassus, Monteverdi and Schutz, Bach and Handel, and Beethoven and Brahms used such seemingly naive tricks, perhaps we should think twice before dismissing their importance for effective text-expression.”

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart