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    The mis-shapen pearl: Morris, Handel, Milton, and l'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato

    Duerden, Rachel S. (2010) The mis-shapen pearl: Morris, Handel, Milton, and l'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato. Dance Research, 28 (2). pp. 200-217. ISSN 1750-0095

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    Mark Morris's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato (1988), embodies ideas about how to live a good life. L'Allegro is unusual in that it is a full evening-length work, yet has no through-narrative; it has characters and action, but these change in each of the many individual sections. However, together these embody a dialogue – really a three (or four or even five)-way discussion between poet, composer and choreographer about the best way to live. The relationship between dance, music and text, and the implied conversation across the centuries between Milton, Handel, Jennens and Morris, offer insights into the way such layering of creativity can illuminate our engagement with art. As in so much of Mark Morris's work, the relationship of choreography and music is of paramount importance, and this will form the main focus of the discussion here. Handel's secular oratorio of 1740 is itself a setting of John Milton's companion poems, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso (1631), which explicitly explore through debate the relative merits of different approaches to life. Handel's musical setting includes an additional ‘voice’ in the debate: Il Moderato, words by Handel's librettist Charles Jennens, offering a ‘middle way’, or ‘18th century balance’, as John Eliot Gardiner has it (1980:16).1 For the purposes of this essay I focus chiefly on the dialogue between dance and music as manifest in a few ‘moments’, with reference also at times to the poetry and its rhythms. In this, I am guided by theories of art as embodiment as expounded by Paul Crowther. When we engage with art, we do so in the fullest sense of perceptual, that is, with our whole, embodied selves. Art, as the embodiment of ideas, does not teach us anything specific about the artist or his/her world, but it does reveal something of the world-view of the artist as an embodied being. There is thus the potential for empathy, and imaginative engagement; we are not passive consumers but active reciprocal participants. Through close reading of a few short examples drawn from the work, I employ structural analysis to examine music-dance relationships, referring also from time to time to the poetry, which itself reflects key characteristics of both choreography and music. These examples show how dance, music and poetry manifest characteristics that are suggestive of similar perspectives on life, both individually and in relationship with one another. John Creaser, writing of Milton's poems, observes that they embody a sophisticated and resilient playfulness conveyed through verbal nuance and rhythmic buoyancy, a revelation of temperament and sensibility rather than an exploration of ideals. (Creaser 2001:377)

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