Roussel’s Procedural Handel

From Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel (1910), trans. Mark Polizzotti, 2011, (204-06).

According to Corfield, a musical phrase hatched by a brow endowed with such a divine spark could enliven many pages of score with its breath, even when banally developed by a mere technician. On the other hand, the speaker added, an ordinary theme, treated by even the most inspired mind, would necessarily preserve its heaviness and awkwardness, never managing to conceal the indelible stamp of its undistinguished origins.

At these words Handel let out a bellow of protest, claiming that, even on a mechanically devised motif furnished solely by chance, he was quite sure he could write an entire oratorio worthy of inclusion among his works.

This assertion having provoked certain murmurs of doubt, Handel, stimulated by the libations of the feast, stood abruptly, declaring that he wanted, then and there and before witnesses, to establish honestly the skeleton of such a work.

Feeling his way, the illustrious composer headed toward the fireplace and plucked from a vase several branches of holly left over from the previous Christmas. He lined them up on the marble mantelpiece, drawing everyone’s attention to their number, which rose to seven; each branch was to represent one not of the scale and carry some kind of sign that would make it identifiable as such.

The maestro’s elderly housekeeper, Madge, an expert seamstress, was immediately sent for and ordered to provide—that very instant—seven thin ribbons of different hues.

The ingenious woman, hardly put out by such a trifle, returned after a brief moment with seven ribbons, each partaking of one color of the prism.

Corfield, at the great composer’s request, knotted a ribbon around each stem without disturbing the regularity of the alignment.

This done, Handel invited his guests to contemplate for a moment the gamut spread before their eyes, each attendee attempting to keep in memory the correspondence of colors to notes.

Then the maestro himself, his sense of touch prodigiously refined by blindness, proceeded to a minute examination of the clusters, scrupulously registering in his memory a given particularity created by the arrangement of leaves or the spread between their thorny points.

Once he was sure, Handel gathered the seven branches of holly in his left hand and pointed toward his worktable, bidding Corfield bring his pen and inkwell.

Guided out of the room by one of his faithful devotees, the blind maestro had himself led to the stairway, whose flat, white banister lent itself perfectly to his designs.

At length, after shuffling the branches of holly, which no longer retained a trace of their initial order, Handel called for Corfield, who handed him the plume dipped in ink.

Brushing haphazardly, the the free fingers of his right hand, one of the spiky clusters, which for him had individual personalities recognizable to the touch, the blind man approached the handrail, on which he easily wrote, in ordinary letters, the note indicated by the rapid contact.

Descending one step and again shuffling the thick bouquet, Handel, by the same purely random process of touch, gathered a second note, which he inscribed a bit lower on the rail.

And so his descent continued, slow and regular. At each step, the maestro conscientiously rearranged the sheaf in every direction before seeking, with his fingertips, the designation of some unpremeditated sound immediately inscribed in sufficiently legible letters.

The guests followed their host step by step, easily verifying the rectitude of the process by checking the variously colored ribbons. Sometimes, Corfield took the plume and dipped it in ink before handing it back to the blind man.

After ten minutes, Handel wrote the twenty-third note and descended the last step, which left him back at the ground floor. Reaching a bench, he rested a moment from his labors, telling his friends his main reason for choosing such an unorthodox form of notation.

Sensing his end was near, Handel had bequeathed his entire house to the City of London, which planned to turn it into a museum. A large quantity of manuscripts, curios, and memorabilia of all sorts already promised to make any visit to the illustrious home highly worthwhile. Still, the maestro remained haunted by the constant desire to augment the attraction of the future pilgrimage site. This was why, seizing the propitious opportunity, he had that very evening made of the handrail in question an imperishable monument, by autographing onto it the odd and incoherent theme whose length was alone determined by the previously unspecified number of steps, which thereby added a supplemental peculiarity to the mechanical and deliberate aspect of the composition.

Restored by these few moments of rest, Handel, accompanied by his friends, went back up to his study, where the evening ended on a gay note. Corfield volunteered to transcribe the musical phrase spawned by the whims of chance, and the maestro promised to follow its parameters strictly, reserving only two liberties for himself: the duration of the notes and the pitch, which could move unrestrictedly from one octave to the next.

The very next day, Handel set to work with the help of a secretary accustomed to taking his dictation.

Blindness had in no way lessened the famous musician’s intellectual faculties.

In his hands, the theme with its bizarre contours acquired an engaging and beautiful grace, through ingenious combinations of rhythm and harmony.

The same twenty-three-note phrase, repeated over and over but each time presented in different form, alone constituted the famous oratorio Vesper, a powerful and serene work whose success continues to this day.


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