Can you play the Hallelujah Chorus? Oh, I think I can Handel it. --One of the few bad jokes in the Peanuts comic strip.

Handel's Lament
by Thomas Canfield ©2017

Her name was Emma Cornish and she had never seemed destined for great things. Her father had been a minor London merchant and had made a decent living - but no more than that. The family lived respectably but commanded no great social position or status. Even under the most generous interpretation of the term, she could not have been said to be a member of the nobility. Of her grandfather, I was able to uncover nothing. He had come to London from Hertfordshire shortly after the Restoration. There the trail ended. It was hardly an auspicious biography or one which seemed to promise future fame.

I tried to discover some likeness of her, a portrait or even a written description recounting her physical appearance. I was certain she must have been a great beauty. She had to have possessed some special allure of grace or wit or charm. But there was nothing in the record which would substantiate this. Indeed, there was very little record of her existence at all: a set of dates, 1697-1724, a baptismal entry from a local parish church and a notation that she had had an older sister, a sibling more obscure even than herself.

How she met Handel, through what means or agency, was nowhere recorded. How she won his heart, igniting a passion as profound and consuming as ever any man experienced, was equally a mystery. Handel would seem an unlikely lover, an unpromising vessel to harbor such fire. He never married and his relations with women, with other women, betrayed no urgency or depth of feeling.

Handel was a private man who kept the details of his life to himself, seldom sharing his feelings or thoughts with the public other than through his music. Yet one was left with the impression that women meant little to him, that his life was full and satisfactory without them and that he would expend no great effort in seeking out their companionship. He was, in a very real sense, married to his music and, in this attachment, proved singularly monogamous.

Which only whet my curiosity the more to know everything I could about Emma Cornish. What sort of woman was she? How had she been educated? Was she herself a musician, a flutist, perhaps, as seemed a very real possibility. I would never know. However diligently I searched, there was no record to be found. I could not even discover where she had been buried or whether any trace of the plot remained.

In my mind, I pictured Emma as a perfect English rose: flawless complexion, large, lustrous eyes, a peerless figure, gay and feminine and effervescent, the ideal tonic to all of life's woes. How closely this corresponded to the reality that was anybody's guess. The one clue I had to go upon, the one remaining link to her life, was, of course, the Requiem.

I had found the manuscript quite by accident. Searching for an oratorio Handel had composed while still quite young, wading through a private collection which had escaped the scrutiny of any scholar, I came across sheets of old yellow parchment concealed in a hymnal. Upon a first perusal, I recognized the writing and notations as Handel's, although not executed with the same care and precision which distinguished his usual style. They appeared to have been written in a white heat of inspiration. The hand was ragged, hurried, as though the notes had poured out of Handel at a furious rate and he had labored to keep up.

It was an original manuscript, plainly. But only when I went back and compared it against a catalogue of Handel's known works did I discover that there was no record of it. Every source I consulted confirmed this. The piece had never been performed, had never been heard of, did not exist, even as rumor or speculation. I was the first, outside of Handel, ever to set eyes on it.

The music was a tribute to Emma Cornish, written upon her death. The working title of the piece was Requiem Mass in D for nine Cellos and Flute. Why Handel had withheld it from publication, why he opted not to have it performed, I did not know. He had left no explanation, written or otherwise. For all his contemporaries knew, and thus for all we knew, no such piece existed.

Handel was, as I said, a private person. He felt no need to explain his actions. Perhaps he felt the piece too raw and unpolished - or too revealing. He had written it in the heat of the moment, at the very onset of grief. There had not been time for reflection or for healing. Later, he had been beset by second thoughts. But he had never destroyed the manuscript. Thus a small fragment of Emma Cornish survived down the centuries, where elsewise all trace or memory of her would have disappeared.

It was a momentous discovery and left me feeling almost giddy. It was as though I had brushed aside the veil of time and touched the past, had stared into Emma?s eyes and perceived the mystery which lay therein. I did not stop to think what to do next or entertain any notion that perhaps Handel's wishes should be respected. A wiser man might have done so but not I. I must hear the piece performed, must sample the depth of the passion which Handel had experienced. Must do so at any and all costs, and whatever the consequences.

***

It took five weeks to make the necessary arrangements. I planned the event on as small a scale as was possible, selecting a venue on campus and limiting the number of invitees to fewer than fifty. I was in a fever of anticipation during all that time and when the night of the performance finally came around I arrived early to secure the best possible seats. It was an historic occasion, after all, and I didn't want to miss a minute of it.

I was not alone in anticipating the performance. That was true of everyone in attendance. It was especially true of the musicians. They, more than anyone, appreciated the honor being done to them and they were determined to do justice by the music and demonstrate due homage to the composer.

Prior to the start, the cellists huddled together to the left of the stage. They were milling about, clearly excited, exuding a smugness and self-confidence usually found only amongst opera divas. They were finally coming into their own. Finally! All these years they had lingered in the shadows, watching as violinists or pianists seized the limelight and won the applause. They had been relegated to support roles, unnoticed and unheralded. Now this injustice was to be redressed. They were finally to receive the praise and acclaim so long denied them. It was heady stuff and they would have been less than human did it not warm them or seem long overdue.

The flutist lingered alone, to the right of the stage. It might have been said that she was the odd man out were her gender not so conspicuously ill-suited for such a designation. She had long silken hair and expressive eyes. The flute seemed the perfect instrument for her, with its lilting tones and pure, sweet notes. All ten musicians took their places and settled in their seats, adjusting the sheet music.

Vincent Gagliano walked to the center of the stage. He was faultlessly dressed, as always. Even before a small, hand-picked audience of fellow faculty members he conducted himself as the consummate professional that he was.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he addressed the audience. "Thank you for joining us on this special occasion. It is both an honor and a privilege to be able to present to you this evening, for the first time ever, a score penned by Handel some three centuries ago. To our knowledge, it has never been performed before. With this in mind, we opted to present it in this intimate setting, to give it a trial performance, as it were, before releasing it to the wider world." Gagliano?s own excitement was evident as he spoke. He was as fully immersed in the moment, as captivated by it, as were we all.

"We share in common the experience of being newcomers to the piece. Thus, like yourselves, we harbor no foreknowledge. All is fresh and new, awaiting discovery. And now," a gentle smile spread over Gagliano?s features, "Handel's Requiem Mass in D for nine Cellos and Flute."

Gagliano stepped to the podium, raised his baton. There wasn't a sound in the auditorium, not the hint of a whisper. We were all rapt.

The flute led off, a high, trilling note, as of a bird serenading the rising sun. The cellos followed, barely perceptible at first, sounding distant, remote and lonely, lost. Only gradually did they draw nearer, in a progression so artfully calibrated and precise that I was astonished when I discovered myself in their midst, surrounded by their sound. The characteristic bass notes, deep and somber, drove the flute away, brushed it aside, exposed it as feeble and transitory, without substance. The cellos assaulted the audience with a growing chorus of sound, authoritative, almost strident in its character.

It was so different than what I had anticipated, so very unlike the Handel I had come to know and love. It was oppressive, downbeat, unrelentingly grim. It was, in the genuine sense of the word, a dirge, though an undeniably powerful and commanding one. I tried to associate it with some other piece in Handel's repertoire, something which evoked a similar sensibility. But I could think of none, none expressive of the same mood or tone. For all that, it remained unmistakably Handel, with all his range and power and scope, his unique genius.

The impact of the piece grew as the cellos took over. They created a kind of barrier, almost a physical presence, which walled off the spirit, entombed it. I seemed an instrument comprised of but a single string - that of grief - plucked again and again, tapping wells of sadness I had not known I possessed, had not known I was capable of. The emotion fed upon itself, became self-sustaining. I experienced a surge of panic when I realized that I had lost control. My emotional state was now subject to the whims of the music. The cellos took me where they would. I was powerless to resist.

The horrible spectre of Death rose up before my eyes. The music conjured it out of the ether, lent it form and substance, revealed it to be as soulless and malign as ever my imagination had portrayed it. Death breathed into my face and a wave of desolation washed over me. I had a vision of an expanse of barren wasteland, devoid of any living thing, league upon league of blasted terrain unredeemed by a single blade of grass or a hint of color: the realm of Hades, wherein dwelt the lost souls of mankind.

A great heaviness settled over my spirit. To move my limbs required a supreme effort of will. The very act of breathing was a burden, scarce to be borne. I was being walled up within myself, immured, as in a crypt. My ears were unable to shut out the music.

I could see that the other members of the audience, and, indeed, the orchestra itself, were suffering as I was suffering. They were trapped as I was trapped. The more frantic their efforts to escape, the more swiftly were they being drawn to their doom. The woman beside me was weeping openly, great, racking sobs which shook her entire frame. Her face was gaunt and drawn, grief molding her features. She appeared to have aged thirty years.

I could not have said whether I wept myself. I knew only that I found no relief, no outlet for my grief. The cellos hammered me into submission, drained me of the will to resist. At the very outer reaches of my hearing I was aware of a faint, fluttering sound, as of the beating of a bird's wings. It gave me some hope that the tempo and direction of the music would shift, ending the communal nightmare in which all shared. Surely the composer of The Messiah would not leave us bereft of all hope. He would hold forth the prospect, if nothing more, of redemption and resurrection. The unrelenting bleakness and desolation would yield before a new dawn ? and so balance would be restored to the world.

I clung to this hope for all I was worth. It alone sustained me. But then I realized that the fluttering sound was that of the flute: the flute with its lilting melody of life, its paean to joy. It was being beaten back by the combined efforts of the cellos, slowly and surely stripped of its voice, squeezed into oblivion. At length it yielded with a last piercing note of protest - and was silent. With it, hope died. The cellos exulted like a band of harpies, carrying all before them. Death reigned supreme. Against its edict and authority, there was no appeal. So Handel had concluded in the throes of his grief - and so did we, the audience, bear witness to the truth of that conclusion. The cellos drew out a long, last note of despair and at length, mercifully, fell silent.

The audience sat there stunned, numb with grief. I found myself unable to think or to act to any purpose. The flutist on stage had collapsed in her seat. She resembled a wilted blossom, her expression slack, eyes vacant. Even her hair appeared to have lost its luster. The cellists were frozen in place, gripping their instruments as if they offered the sole tether which bound them to reality and to this earthly plane of existence. I don't know how much time passed as I waited for feeling to return and the normal course of life to resume. At length I began to gather my wits about me.

People started to leave their seats. They moved as somnambulists in a dream, not speaking and without interacting with one another. A funereal air pervaded the hall. Though the music had ended, it lingered in people's minds and spirits. The hurt in my soul would last for weeks, I was certain. I could not say I would ever be entirely free of it.

I wondered if writing the piece had been cathartic for Handel, allowing him better to cope with his grief. Or if, instead, he was motivated by a more selfish motive. Some losses are too great to be borne alone. In order to carry on, Handel had opted to share the burden with others. Realizing what he had done, and what the consequences might be, he had withheld the piece, declined to have it published or performed before an audience. Surely that explained why it had been buried, lost to posterity. In the end, Handel had done the decent thing and not inflicted his grief upon others.

I got to my feet, feeling very tired. I knew that I had to speak to Gagliano, to apologize in some fashion. It was I, after all, who had found the manuscript and, in so doing, bore a responsibility for what had happened. I found him standing out back of the stage, alone. He still held the baton in his hands, seemingly puzzled, as if no longer recognizing it or knowing its purpose.

"Vinnie?" I interrupted his reverie. He looked up. His eyes were shot through with hurt, his face pale. He appeared to be trying to absorb some punishing blow which had been administered to him. We stared at one another and I found that I had nothing to say. We had been friends for fifteen years, good friends, and now, at this critical juncture, words failed me. We stared at one another in silence. The stricken look in Vinnie's eyes was painful to behold. Then his face contorted.

"God damn you!" he said and turned and walked away.

It was a fitting epitaph for the evening and, indeed, for the whole affair. That was the first performance of Handel's Requiem. And it was the last. By common consent, all who attended the performance never mentioned it again. This consent was never stated, never formally expressed. But it was understood and observed by all. No word of Handel's Requiem leaked out. To the world at large it had never existed - and still did not.

I retain possession of the manuscript, of course. It resides in a desk in my study, locked away, hidden beneath a pile of other papers. I am undecided what to do with it. I cannot bring myself to destroy it. I will not say that that is not the wisest course, the safest. But I cannot bring myself to do it. It is, after all, inspired music - inspired in the sense that it evokes deep emotion, taps wells of feeling previously unknown. Its only fault lies in which emotion it seeks to cultivate. It resides outside the comfort zone we all strive to maintain, is too raw and potent to find acceptance.

Perhaps at some future date, with some future audience, this will change. Perhaps Death, someday, will no longer be so intimidating. Should that day come, Emma Cornish will finally receive her due. Her spirit will be remembered with the fidelity and devotion which Handel retained to the last. The great composer?s great grief will at length be laid to rest - and his genius once more astound the world.

x x x

I honestly believe this to be one of the finest tales ever to appear in anotherealm. I scheduled it for June as a birthday present to myself. Rarely am I humbled by the sheer power and poetry of a prose piece. I am humbled by this one. Thank you, Mr. Canfield, for gracing our pages with this work. Here?s hoping that it also finds a better paying, wider-known venue. It certainly deserves it. Your comments, please, on our BBS. - GM

x x x



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