A song—a classical aria, really—that is, in my mind, one of the pinnacles of Helen’s vocal performances, was a number from Handel’s Messiah, unfortunately one that is not very well known outside the circles of die-hard Messiah fans. It is featured in an episode in which Helen, who was deeply depressed at the time at her rejection from the circles of Baroque vocal music, and Baroque sacred vocal music, began to re-assess her own capabilities, and begin to believe in herself. And also, at the same time, Helen was beginning to realize how much Sita had come to love her.
The aria is I know that my Redeemer liveth, a lovely aria, very long, very lightly accompanied, and to my mind, difficult for typical listeners to appreciate precisely because of its length, and the light accompaniment. It has to be carried entirely by the soprano, because the accompaniment is so light.
Back when I was a kid, and more Romantic adaptations of Messiah were still not in disrepute (as they were just a few years later), all these arias were accompanied by the full orchestra: flutes, clarinets, oboes, horns. Wagner had shown how this could be done pianissimo—very softly—so that the vocal line was like an exquisite string of pearls on a velvet cushion. But, to those who demanded authenticity, that was not the point. The original only was accompanied by the violins! Only the lute or harpsichord, and the bass line, probably just a cello, or a couple of cellos. That was all! So we have the soprano singing for all she’s worth, supported only by violins and bass.
There is yet another problem, namely the text. The song is about physical resurrection, something that hardly anyone believes in. Of all the things Christians believe in, and those of us who are CINOs—Christians In Name Only, this is the principle that is among the first to be rejected, together with the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection. We may love Jesus, and we may follow his teachings as far as we can, because they are not easy; but I, for one, have never believed in those magical things that we were supposed to believe. It is a tragedy that so many jettison the teachings of Jesus along with the mythology.
So when the soprano sings that she knows that Jesus is alive, I can imagine scores of listeners shutting off their ears to the words of the delusional librettist—the Apostle Paul, in this case—and trying to obtain satisfaction in the music alone, which is so difficult, given that the entire piece is so vehement in its message. (Here is a performance that is more moderately accompanied. Do not try to imagine that, when Helen sings this tune, that it sounds like this; I imagine it quite differently. Here is another performance. Lynn Dawson can look beautiful while she sings, something that many sopranos cannot pull off!)
Helen, the character, was not created to be a philosopher. The only instance where she tries to think about abstract things is this one, where she struggles with the text of this song. All the rest of the time, she was thinking of the children, about music, about her teaching, and mostly about the people around her, especially if they were struggling with something or another. I wanted Helen to be, above all, a compassionate woman, and to some extent, that was Helen’s only, or at least her principal, saving grace.
As I have written about before, there is an interesting episode that I have left out of all of the published Helen stories, because it is difficult to squeeze into them, timewise. At first, I had her teaching at Westfield only for two years. But now it appears that she would have to have taught there for at least three years, to have done all that I had written about; in which case, if I were to include another Westfield story, this episode could find a place there.
The story is briefly as follows.
Someone happens to have told the President that Helen had a strong background in mathematics, and it ends up that they have Helen taking over the course.
Helen struggles as never before, and the students struggle, and bits and pieces of information emerge from the Police murder investigation, and the course is slipping downhill, but Helen, and a couple of students manage to salvage it, and it ends much better than anyone had any right to expect. One of the students is Angie Connors, who emerges as an important character in Helen’s Concerto.
As you can see, I was preoccupied with this aria, and I think I must go listen to it sung in a version from the sixties, when the authentic performance movement did not yet have a lock on Baroque performance as it had from the Seventies onward! If I have interested a reader to listen to that aria, I would be delighted!
Kay Hemlock Brown