Baroque Cantatas are Pretty Metal

So I touched on this in my last post and I feel it deserves to be expanded upon: some baroque cantatas are pretty metal.

When you look at it a certain way, it’s not necessarily all that surprising: “baroque cantata” covers a broad range of works and “metal”, similarly, is a large category and it can mean a lot of different things. However, I don’t think they are close enough in most people’s minds that if I were to ask someone “How would you describe BWV 199?” that the answer would be “Sweet riffs, man.”

In general of course, we’ve got a few commonalities; in general they both use simple formal structures, there exists a common element of individual instrumental solos within this framework, and they can both have a slight tendency towards the theatrical. The kind highly ornate melodic lines we often encounter in this music would easily fit into songs by bands such as Dragonforce or, if we restrict ourselves to good bands, Iron Maiden.

But for the strongest parallels between these musical genres, let’s look at the three specific examples of works I saw at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival to explain what I mean:  Vivaldi’s Armate face et angibus from his oratorio Juditha Triumphans RV 644; Bach’s cantata Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut BWV 199, and Handel’s cantata Del bell’idolo mio HWV 104. (I realize the first of these is technically an extract from an oratorio rather than a cantata, but the musical features are similar enough so for the sake of brevity I’ll just use “cantata” throughout.)

What I’m getting at here is the lyrics. The lyrics and narrative themes of each of these works are metal as all hell.

To begin, let’s look at Wikipedia’s plot summary of Juditha Triumphans:

The Assyrian king Nebuchadrezzar sends an army against Israel to demand overdue tributes. Under the leadership of the general Holofernes, the Assyrians lay siege to the town of Bethulia and are about to conquer it. The young Jewish widow Judith goes to him to implore mercy. He falls in love with her and she indulges him. After a rich banquet and having drunk much wine, Holofernes falls asleep. Judith beheads him, flees the enemy camp, and returns victorious to Bethulia.

Okay, historical drama, that’s okay I guess… war and a siege, that’s getting better… love story, meh, banquet and wine, that’s fine… then a beheading! That’s what we’re talking about!

The extract I heard performed in West Cork was the aria Armate face. I submit a translation of the lyrics without comment:

Armed with your torches and your snakes,
from your dark and dreadful kingdom
your dread companions
the Furies, come to us.
Teach our inflamed hearts
with the lash, with death and slaughter
to avenge the death,
of such a leader.

I defy anyone to say that could not be the basis of a badass metal song. Even the fact it’s based on Mesopotamian and Biblical themes is fitting; though Norse and Celtic mythologies are more common inspirations for bands, Roman, Hellenic and Middle Eastern history and mythologies have all been explored by different groups.

The next work is Bach’s Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut. For anyone who can figure out the meaning of the title, this barely requires any further explanation: “My heart swims in blood.”  Well, I rather feel that qualifies as heavy metal title, yes.

The obvious objection is that this is a church cantata, a piece of sacred music, and that’s not metal! Well, while I understand this objection, it’s wrong. Putting aside the fact that there are good Christian metal bands, and the point I made above about how bands draw on all sorts of influences for their material (though usually when it comes to Christianity, it tends to be a little more adversarial), the Bible itself is in fact pretty metal. It’s full of war and conquest and slaughter, it’s got prophets summoning bears to do kill ignorant youths, and the Book of Revelations is full of some of the most important apocalyptic imagery in Western civilization.

And just look at that title! I’m not 100% sure that it’s not a Rammstein lyric. Metal.

The final work is Handel’s Del bell’idolo mio. The story of this cantata is of the singer travelling into hell to save the soul of his lover, Nice. Though it’s not based on that opera favourite, the Orpheus and Eurydice, the story is very similar. Again we have the mythological themes, and most importantly, a descent into hell! What could be more metal than that? On his journey to recover Nice’s “fragile, earthly corpse”, he encounters Charon the “formidable gondolier”, and contests with all the trials you’d expect would come from a passage through Hades. The lyrics are too long to produce in full, and I can’t choose a single extract that does the whole work justice, but I assure you it’s thoroughly metal.

Of course,  the whole thing could easily be a Dungeons and Dragons adventure, but I’m firmly of the school that believes that doesn’t make it any less metal, and in many cases, is to be expected.

In conclusion, I feel I’ve shown that baroque cantatas are pretty metal and a great source of material for my never-ending game of “oh man, great song title/band name!” I know I’d go see a Formidable Gondolier show.


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