If In The Bleak Midwinter is a piece of music that can be pulled off convincingly by even an average church choir that is missing half its members because there’s a cold going around and the cough lingers for weeks, Tu Del Ciel is reserved for the best of the best and demands that they be at their most virtuosic while singing it. If I can comfortably hum the former while driving to work, fragments of the latter haunt my inner ear with a mind of their own, materializing at unpredictable moments during the day. The first is a soothing blanket, that warms you to your bones; the second soars effortlessly into the sky, showing you a glimpse of infinity. What they have in common is the depth of feeling that weaves through every note of the music. That, and the fact that I love them both.
If Tu Del Ciel has a soaring quality, it is not by accident. The text is a direct appeal to heaven, and G. F. Handel, ever the masterly word-painter, makes sure that his soprano has a clear line of communication to upstairs at all times. The safety net beneath her vocal trapeze is provided by the string orchestra that consistently underpins her trajectory and occasionally even offers a melody of its own in the violin solo. Well, except for the few moments when the strings are quiet, and she flies free.
The aria is from one of Handel’s works that features capitalized abstract nouns in the title that are personified as characters. This particular oratorio went under the Italian titles of Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusion) and Il trionfo del Tempo e della Verità (The Triumph of Time and Truth) before settling on the English translation of the latter in the third and final version. So who are Time and Truth triumphing over anyway? They are triumphing over Pleasure. And who is the singer of this aria? It’s Beauty, who gradually realizes that her loyalty to Pleasure will not nourish her soul, and while she is destined to fade away, Time and Truth are not; they will outlast her. A good portion of the aria is a philosophical argument between Pleasure on the one side and Time and Truth on the other, and Tu Del Ciel is the concluding aria, in which Beauty turns away from Pleasure and commits to a life without vain passion, giving over her heart to God.
It sounds quite abstract and heavy duty for today’s world, but only because we don’t explicitly put such messages in our music anymore, and it’s worth asking whether we are worse off for it. We can be certain, however, that similar spiritual messages – asking us to focus on values that are at the core of our being, rather than focusing on external beauty, which is only skin-deep – have been familiar to many cultures over the centuries.
To return to the music however, and the various versions of it that you can find on YouTube – your loyal interlocutor has trawled through them all so you don’t have to and decided that French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay is where it’s at with this one. There are two versions from her, and the less viewed one (above), with a static image for the video, is my favorite, though I do recommend looking at the video of the other one at least once, because I’ve never seen anything like it. You can see Dessay physically inhabiting the music in it. I leave it as an exercise to the interested listener to figure out where the two versions differ musically. (Hint: it’s in one of the several ad libbed high portions, but honestly, the whole piece is a high portion, so that’s not very useful.) Making a late great entry in this category and nearly scuppering the front runner but not quite, is a live recording of a 2019 concert by the very excellent Bay Area group Voices of Music, with American soprano Amanda Forsythe as the soloist. This video, in which all the musicians are clearly seen throughout is well worth your time, and comparing and contrasting Forsythe’s chosen variations with Dessay’s is a fun spot-the-ten-differences exercise for the aurally inclined.
As you listen to Dessay’s version linked above, notice how her voice stretches like a gymnast, reaching dizzying heights. Notice that it reaches those heights not because it is light, but because it is powerful and athletic. Let your mind soar with her voice, upwards and further upwards. Admire the swirling arc Handel gives to each phrase, the incredible color Dessay injects into each line, the little riffs that she adds when a first half repeats. Mull for a moment over what might outlast you. Realize that one of the things that will outlast you is this aria, and that this is exactly as it ought to be. Let this be your meditation for six minutes.