Benjamin Franklin on Handel

I have written extensively on this blog and elsewhere about how the distinction between classical and popular music arose. (See, for example, “Popular Music: the Birth of an Idea.”)  Years before it became apparent, Benjamin Franklin anticipated it when he advised his brother on how to write a popular ballad: don’t use Handel’s music for a model.

Peter Franklin had written a ballad text disapproving of expensive foppery and encouraging hard work and thriftiness. Benjamin thought it very good, but pointed out that its poetic meter did not resemble that of any of the common and well-known tunes. That would have been an advantage for making it popular. As it was, it required an original tune.

Benjamin Franklin thought the prevailing taste among composers most unsuitable for a popular song: “They are admirable at pleasing practiced ears and know how to delight one another; but in composing songs, the reigning taste seems to be quite out of nature, or rather the reverse of nature, and yet like a torrent, hurries them all away with it; on or two perhaps only excepted.”

Apparently referring to ancient Greek philosophers, Franklin commented that the music most likely to influence public manners was simple and conformed to the ordinary cadence of spoken language. Modern music, in contrast, introduced all kinds of absurdities and defects and ignored the propriety and beauty of spoken language.

Assuming that Peter would not take his word for it, Franklin decided to illustrate his points using the first piece of music he could lay his hands on, which turned out to be “Wise men flattering may deceive us,” touted on the cover as the “FAVORITE Song in Judas Maccabeus” by George Frideric Handel. He admitted that it was written when Handel’s creative powers and popularity were at their highest, but found numerous defects in it.

Some unimportant intervals received the stress: “with their vain mysterious art,” or “God-like wis-dom from above.” The first two measures of the latter used a “Scotch snap,” but Franklin didn’t like a later setting of the same words with a half-note quarter-note (in 3/4 time) for wisdom. The accentuation was correct, but no one would hold the first syllable twice as long in speaking. He called this defect “drawling.”

Franklin dismissed melismatic passages, many notes to one syllable, as stuttering. These three defects combined made the music unintelligible. Let the best-taught singers perform such a song for people who had never heard it, and no one would understand three words in ten.

And who, in speaking, would repeat the same few words two or three times in succession? And so anyone who attends an opera or oratorio must have the libretto and read along with the performance of even the best singers if they want to understand what is being sung.

As for the defect of screaming, Franklin could not find an example in the Handel piece except perhaps for one brief passage where a couple of short notes are an octave higher than the rest of the melody. But he wrote that anyone who has ever attended an opera has heard plenty of passages where the performers scream rather than sing.

Franklin insisted that the untutored, ordinary person liked the simple songs of the ancients much more than modern music. Indeed, the songs of Thomas Arne, which might seem rather fussy and ornate today, struck Charles Burney, an English contemporary of Franklin, as ushering in a new era of simplicity and refinement in music, based more on Italian than English models.

Handel’s music continued to please both connoisseurs and casual listeners long after Franklin’s death, but when the distinction between classical and popular music became a burning social issue, popular music lovers always complained that the music of Beethoven and other classical icons was too complicated and unnatural.

For the text of Franklin’s letter, with musical examples, see Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 31-35.


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