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Donald Burrows

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199737369

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199737369.001.0001

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The Music, 1732–41

The Music, 1732–41

(p.285) Chapter Ten The Music, 1732–41

Donald Burrows

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the operas, oratorios and odes, church music, and instrumental music of George Frideric Handel during his transition period. It begins by analysing Orlando for operas. The piece has a number of da capo and dal segno arias, but the overall impression is one of continuous dramatic flow to which shorter aria forms, accompagnato recitatives and ensembles, contribute substantially. For oratorios, Esther is studied, being the first English oratorio. The introduction of extra choruses gives Esther a slower pace in the development of the plot, an element that clearly distinguishes Handel's oratorios from his operas. The chapter then discusses how Athalia was adopted as a wedding anthem. The grand chorus from the opening of part two of Athalia provided the opening, and four substantial arias were used in the following sequence of movements. The chapter concludes by looking into Handel's Concerti Grossi op. 3. instrumental concerto.

Keywords:   George Frideric Handel, operas, oratorios and odes, church music, instrumental music, Orlando, Esther, Athalia, Concerti Grossi op. 3


Such as are not acquainted with the personal character of Handel, will wonder at his seeming temerity, in continuing so long an opposition which tended but to impoverish him; but he was a man of a firm and intrepid spirit, no way a slave to the passion of avarice, and would have gone greater lengths than he did, rather than submit to those whom he had ever looked on as his inferiors: but though his ill success for a series of years had not affected his spirit, there is reason to believe that his genius was in some degree damped by it; for whereas of his earlier operas, that is to say, those composed by him between the years 1710 and 1728, the merits are so great, that few are able to say which is to be preferred; those composed after that period have so little to recommend them, that few would take them for the work of the same author. In the former class are Radamistus, Otho, Tamerlane, Rodelinda, Alexander, and Admetus, in either of which scarcely an indifferent air occurs; whereas in Parthenope, Porus, Sosarmes, Orlando, Aetius, Ariadne, and the rest down to 1736, it is a matter of some difficulty to find a good one.1

Modern revivals have proved Hawkins’s judgment wrong: the operas of the 1730s work well on the stage, and even the most cursory examination of the scores gives the lie to the proposition that they are lacking in (p.286) good arias.2 It is true that in the 1730s Handel turned to new story types and away from the old heroic love-and-duty mould: of the operas that Hawkins lists from the later period, only Ezio (‘Aetius’) is a classic example of Metastasian ‘Roman’ drama. Partenope is antiheroic to the point of comedy, while Orlando is one of the masterpieces in the strain of ‘magic’ operas that Handel had previously essayed in London before the Academy period, in works such as Rinaldo and Teseo. It might reasonably be claimed, furthermore, that Hawkins ended his list in an unfortunate place, for with Orlando and Arianna Handel’s creative powers were rising towards a new peak, reached in 1734–5 with Ariodante and Alcina. Whether this was perceived at the time is another matter: Hawkins’s value judgments may be mirroring a set of critical opinions that were current in the mid-1730s, when internecine warfare between the opera companies was no doubt conducted partly by rumour.3 What people can be led to believe is true may be more influential than the truth itself.

Comparison of the 1734–5 peak with that from a decade earlier, which had produced Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda, dispels any notion of a simple causal relationship between commercial or social pressures and artistic quality. The fact that Handel achieved some of his best work in the mid-1730s was not a result of competition with the Nobility Opera, although the competitive situation certainly affected external features of the scores, such as the inclusion of dances and the shaping of arias for a castrato of different musical character from Senesino. A decade earlier, Handel’s art had come to its full flowering only in the absence of competition: the great operas of the mid-1720s were the product of a situation in which he enjoyed a monopoly of creative opportunities in the theatre. By the time of Tamerlano and Rodelinda, Bononcini and Ariosti had departed from the scene. The competitive circumstances a decade later were mostly a distraction and an impediment, rather than a spur to his creative efforts. The explanation for this second peak lies more with the development of Handel’s own technical invention and fluency as a composer – the causes of which are inscrutable – and perhaps (p.287) also with some good working relationships established with his professional performing colleagues in the new company.

Orlando (1733) and Arianna (1734) deserve some consideration in their own terms: while from the musical point of view they are rather less spectacular works than their successors, it seems curmudgeonly to withhold from them the term ‘masterpiece’, if such terms are to be used at all. Orlando has a fair number of da capo (and dal segno) arias, but the overall impression is one of continuous dramatic flow to which shorter aria forms, accompagnato recitatives and ensembles (duets, trios) contribute substantially. The plot is derived from the sixteenth-century epic poem Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, which was also the background source for Ariodante and Alcina a couple of years later. Like some of Handel’s early London operas, Orlando has spectacular scenic effects, now involving transformations and supernatural visitations at the behest of the magician Zoroastro. This remarkable role, written for the bass Montagnana, was created by the anonymous adapter of the London libretto (whose immediate source was a libretto for a Roman opera by Domenico Scarlatti, originally produced in 1711).

In the first scenes of Handel’s opera, Orlando (originally played by Senesino) determines to follow Glory rather than Love, but he soon goes back on his resolve and attempts the hopeless pursuit of Angelica, a lady whose heart is given elsewhere. The consequent dissolution of Orlando’s character reaches its climax with a scene at the end of Act 2 in which Orlando imagines himself pursuing the lovers Angelica and Medoro to the Underworld. Following in the seventeenth-century tradition of ‘mad scenes’, this scena is largely episodic, with a succession of short, apparently disconnected musical sections conveying the disorder and lack of concentration in Orlando’s mind. One remarkable episode includes brief passages in quintuple metre (EX. 23 overleaf  ), as Orlando imagines himself approaching Pluto’s kingdom. Hardly less telling is the recurring use of a simple gavotte-like melody (EX. 24 overleaf  ), which begins as just another episodic element but leads to more integrated musical material, though not to a full-blown aria: Orlando sings the gavotte-like theme only three times, but the effect is of obsessive recurrence, establishing an anchor point in his battle for self-control. Violins and violas double the melody over a harmonic bass: a full orchestral harmonization comes only in the closing bars of the scene, as Zoroastro carries Orlando off to safety (according to the stage direction, ‘the Magician, seated in his car, clasps Orlando in his arms and flies thro the air’).


The Music, 1732–41

EX. 23

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 24

Indeed, Zoroastro’s function throughout the opera is to protect the participants from the worst results of their actions: his emergency rescues involve a number of elaborate scene changes, some of which must have been effected very quickly, since Handel provides no instrumental sinfonias to cover them. (A complex scene change was also required near the beginning of the opera, when the original setting of a mountain on which Atlas supports the heavens is transformed into a tableau of the (p.289) Palace of the God of Love.) Zoroastro’s activities are rather heavily paternalistic, and indeed the conclusion of the ‘Argument’ in the original word-book is unusually sententious in tone:

The additional Fiction of the Shepherdess Dorinda’s love for Medoro, and the constant Zeal of the Magician Zoroastro, for the Glory of Orlando, tends to demonstrate the imperious Manner in which Love insinuates its Impressions into the Hearts of People of all Ranks; and likewise how a wise Man should be ever ready with his best Endeavours to re-conduct into the Right Way, those who have been misguided from it by the Illusion of their Passions.

If the intention of the adapter had been to produce a dramatic sermon along these lines, or to persuade us that Orlando’s problems would never have arisen if he had pursued his initial resolve to follow Glory (here apparently interpreted in terms of military heroism) rather than Love, then Handel’s music subverts that intention: Orlando is in some ways a disturbing opera about the force of human passions and jealousies, whose influence Zoroastro is apparently powerless to prevent, though he can shield the characters from the worst consequences. A case has been made out for interpreting Orlando in terms of comic traditions in opera,4 and indeed there may be a comic interpretation of Dorinda’s actions; but essentially Dorinda does not understand, or cannot accept, the force of Medoro’s attraction to Angelica which takes Medoro from her, until the very end of the opera. As far as such musical signals can be read into such a stylized genre as the Ouverture, even the opening bars seem to suggest that serious subjects are to follow: the contours of the opening theme (EX. 25a) resemble not only ‘Amor, nel mio penar’ from Flavio (EX. 25b) but a number of related themes to penitential or supplicatory texts in Handel’s earlier church music (exx. 25c–d). Orlando was the last new role written by Handel for Senesino, who left for the rival Opera of the Nobility at the end of the season. Indeed, it has been suggested5 that the opera may have contributed a last straw to the separation, if Senesino found the mad scene insufficient compensation for the normal complement of showy da capo arias.


The Music, 1732–41

EX. 25a Orlando overture

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 25b Flavio, HWV 16/25 (1723)

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 25c Cannons Anthem HWV 248/2 (c. 1717)

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 25d Te Deum in A major HWV 282/7 (c. 1726)

It might be argued that in Orlando the arias are subservient to the greater needs of the dramatic plan, but the same cannot be said of Arianna, which, though it sports a strong plot and some lively scenes (including the slaying of the Minotaur), has by comparison an element of ‘concert opera’. Of the six principals, only the bass (the role of Minos) might have complained of a lightweight part as regards arias; the most spectacular arias were naturally those for the new principal castrato, Carestini. He (p.291) apparently excelled particularly in energetic movements with well-articulated vocal lines accompanied by driving harmonic rhythms – the vocal equivalent, in fact, of the Italianate violin concerto, and using similar decorative melodic figurations (EX. 26). Such music needs good projection, accurate articulation and, above all, stamina. Perhaps stimulated by the particular talents of his new singers, Handel developed a new vein of tunefulness in his themes: the minuet from the end of the Ouverture achieved some independent popularity with the London public,6 and many of the aria themes (e.g. ‘Sdegnata sei con me’, ‘In mar tempestoso’) are particularly attractive – shapely both in their initial contours and in their subsequent extensions. Even so, the melodies are not freestanding: their full effect relies partly on the harmonic and figural contexts supplied by the orchestral accompaniments.
The Music, 1732–41

EX. 26

Ariodante (1735) may be regarded as the apotheosis of the ‘Carestini style’: it has all the qualities of Arianna, with the addition of a better-paced and better-integrated drama. The basis of the story of Ariodante comes from Ariosto, and the action is set in Edinburgh; the local law carrying a mandatory death sentence for unfaithful women contributes to an outstanding plot (which had also been used by Shakespeare in Much Ado about (p.292) Nothing) that focusses on human loves and jealousies. In the first scenes Ariodante and Ginevra (the king of Scotland’s daughter) pledge their love for each other: the da capo of their duet is amusingly terminated by the sudden arrival of Ginevra’s father (EX. 27). Their momentary embarrassment is cleared when the king clearly approves the relationship, and Ariodante celebrates his joy in ‘Con l’ali di costanza’, one of Carestini’s grandest concerto – like pieces (EX. 28). This extends to more than 180 bars in all, with an A section running to 89 bars.7 The excitement inherent in the musical material and Handel’s skill in extending it produce an impressive aria in his mature style, yet the formal plan is the same one as he was using nearly a quarter of a century previously, in the shorter arias of Rinaldo. The A section has a straightforward binary plan, with a central dominant cadence (followed by the usual orchestral ritornello). Of particular significance, however, is a second contrasted theme in the dominant (EX. 29), which, were it not for the other associations of the term, could reasonably be described as a second subject; it is recapitulated in the tonic later in the A section with two statements, slightly varied in order to give the maximum impact to Carestini’s top a″.

Revisions during the composition of this aria provide us with a rare opportunity to see Handel at work, revising his first draft of the music in

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 27

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 28

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 29

response to both musical and textual considerations. The striking musical motif of example 29, strong in rhythm, melodic contour and harmonic background, emphasizes what had originally been a throwaway line at the end of the text for the A section, which however encapsulates the main topic of the opera – ‘fede e speranza’ (fidelity and hope). At this moment Ariodante is rejoicing in the prospect of his union with a perfect partner, with whom he anticipates a faithful and supportive relationship. Handel’s original opening theme for the aria (derived from a cantata by Bononcini) was too similar to this in rhythmic and melodic thrust, so it was replaced by example 28, with its emphasis on a repeated single pitch. This provided an appropriate musical image for ‘constanza’, but in the process ‘l’ali’ – the image of their love taking off into flight – had been lost, and Handel inserted a melismatic passage (beginning at bar 4 in example 28) in order to restore it. This led to further recomposition later in the aria and consequent reconsideration of the balance between the various components of the A section. (p.294) The final form is beautifully constructed as a composition, the result of considerable labour in additions, deletions and adaptation to the original draft;8 it is perhaps ironic that this effort was applied to producing the best possible vehicle for Ariodante’s spontaneous outburst of emotion.

‘Con l’ali di costanza’ is matched in Act 2 by another big aria for Ariodante, but in a totally different mood. Ariodante believes that he has seen Ginevra attend an assignation with another man and reacts with anger at her supposed infidelity, in ‘Scherza infida’. This is, in both timescale and intensity, one of Handel’s greatest arias. The mood is set by muted upper strings and pizzicato basses, from the midst of which emerges a mournful cantilena for bassoons. Once the voice has entered, simple accompaniment figures in the orchestra sustain a background to long melodic arcs. Towards the end of the A section the return to the tonic (G minor) is accompanied by sinewy phrases and a careful deployment of chromatic harmony (including an augmented 6th chord) conveying Ariodante’s anguish; the tonal palette of the B section is also adventurous, proceeding from E♭ major to D minor via F minor. Ariodante’s main aria in Act 3, ‘Dopo notte’, comes as the plot approaches resolution, and appropriately returns to the joyous and powerful concerto manner of ‘Con l’ali di costanza’, but in triple time: its closing phrases (EX. 30) include a full exploitation of Carestini’s two-octave range.

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 30

(p.295) I have chosen to follow Carestini’s role through Ariodante, but the music for Strada as Ginevra is also of high quality, and it is a strong dramatic role: as a result of a deceitful stratagem by Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, she finds herself accused of betraying Ariodante, and her father is faced with conflict between his duties as a parent and as the administrator of justice. Another major role for Strada followed immediately after Ariodante with the name part in Alcina (1735), as the queen whose power is gradually destroyed over the course of the three acts. Once again Ariosto provided the basis for the story and, in a return to an earlier style of plot, Alcina’s power is expressed through enchantment: the principal visitors to her island are Bradamante, seeking to rescue her betrothed (the knight Ruggiero, with whom Alcina has fallen in love) and the youth Oberto, who is looking for his father (whom Alcina has transformed into a lion). The turning point comes near the beginning of Act 2, when Ruggiero is given a magic ring that effectively breaks Alcina’s power over him by exposing the harsh and barren reality that is disguised by her enchantments. Ruggiero comes to his senses and determines to escape from the island with Bradamante, though naturally he has to conceal his plans from Alcina. Towards the end of the act Ruggiero, regretting the dissolution of the island’s apparent natural beauties that will follow on the destruction of Alcina’s power, has a simple aria, ‘Verdi Prati’, that became one of Handel’s best-known tunes (EX. 31 overleaf ). This lyrical moment forms the perfect foil for the following climactic scene, in which Alcina vainly exercises her powers in an attempt to keep Ruggiero. If ‘Verdi prati’ is in some ways a more mature musical successor to ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo, then Alcina’s powerful accompagnato and aria that follows (‘Ah! Ruggiero crudel … Ombre pallide’) is also a worthy descendant of Armida’s scene at the end of Act 2 of the earlier opera. No less impressive is Alcina’s final aria in Act 3, ‘Mi restano le lagrime’, in which she recognizes that her power is broken. The cumulative phrases of the siciliana rhythm allow scarcely a break for orchestral ritornellos, as Alcina pours out her disappointment and frustration: the music makes a vivid contrast to her earlier, more concerto-like aria ‘Ma quando tornerai’. The emotional power of her arias conquers the underlying dramatic weakness of the plot: Alcina is a character with no redeeming features, who shows no generosity or repentance, and the only lieto fine can be the destruction of her powers.


The Music, 1732–41

EX. 31

Carestini is said to have objected to the plainness of ‘Verdi prati’, but Handel well understood the dramatic power, in the right context, of straightforward lyrical music on a dance-rhythm foundation. Taken as a whole, Alcina is a remarkable showcase for a range of aria types, embracing a variety of moods and composed in Handel’s most attractive, ‘middle-period’ style: arias such as Ruggiero’s ‘La bocca vaga’ show Handel at the height of his powers in combining tunefulness with lively musical-rhetorical construction. Carestini had little cause to complain: the score as a whole gave him plenty of opportunities to display his remarkable virtuosity, and indeed the other singers, who included the treble William Savage as Oberto, could hardly complain of short measure either. With the additional attractions of a chorus and a substantial contribution from Madame Sallé’s dance troupe, it is not surprising that Alcina proved one of Handel’s greatest box-office successes at Covent Garden.

Ariodante and Alcina mark the peak of Handel’s achievement as an opera composer in the 1730s: circumstances provided the dramas and the (p.297) performers that gave unusually rich scope for the employment of the broad musical style that he had developed. The operas from the following years are a rather mixed bunch. It would have been difficult for Handel to sustain the quality in any case, but the ambience in which he worked was not encouraging. The casts of singers did not remain stable from season to season, and much work was produced under the pressure of competition with the Opera of the Nobility in adverse circumstances: both companies were fighting for survival, with diminishing confidence in their future prospects.

Atalanta, produced in 1736 as a Covent Garden contribution to the festive season surrounding the marriage of the Prince of Wales, is a pastoral opera to the extent that the principals spend most of their time assuming conventional roles as shepherds and shepherdesses, but there is an ironic edge: the heroine, Atalanta, has declined an offer of marriage because acceptance would bring to an end her activity on the hunting field, and Meleagro, King of Etolia, has to take the role of a shepherd in order to gain her interest. The opera is lighthearted and entertaining, and ends with a scene (originally involving fireworks) in which Mercurio (Mercury) descends to bless the nuptial pair. The score is not without its technical difficulties: Conti’s voice had a remarkably high tessitura, and his music goes up to c′″.

For the season of 1736–7 Handel composed three new opera scores. With Arminio (1737) he returned to the old type of dynastic plot, with crosscurrents of political and sexual motivation. There are some good arias for the leading men, Arminio and Sigismondo: the former spends much of the opera in chains, and his opening aria in Act 2, ‘Duri lacci’, has some of the pathos of the old Senesino days.

Giustino has the usual quota of extended arias (some of them featuring, as in Arminio, obbligato parts for the virtuoso oboe player Giuseppe Sammartini), but its real attraction lies in its fast-moving plot, matched by visual variety – no fewer than ten set changes are called for. In a dream, the ploughboy Giustino is summoned from his lowly station by the goddess Fortuna (sung by a boy treble) and sent off to heroic deeds, which involve rescuing one lady from a bear and another from a sea monster. Berenice (1737), on a political-dynastic plot, is in musical quality the most consistent opera of the group and has an effective leavening of duets and accompagnato recitative. Even the conventional ‘simile’ arias (‘Vedi l’ape and (p.298) ‘Tortorella’, concerning the bee and the turtledove, respectively) are sufficiently interesting to make us grateful that this convention had survived the satirical references in the prologue to The Beggar’s Opera a decade earlier.

Faramondo, Handel’s first contribution to his commission for the King’s Theatre season of 1737–8, was his only opera to a libretto by Apostolo Zeno, Metastasio’s predecessor in Vienna. It has some good musical moments but as a whole lacks dramatic cohesion: the libretto was cut and adapted almost to the point of incomprehensibility, and Faramondo appears to behave throughout with a reckless generosity that is scarcely credible. Faramondo was Handel’s last committed gesture to the world of opera seria: his subsequent operas have elements that undermined or satirized the genre.

Serse, the companion piece to Faramondo, mainly employs or refers to the heroic traditions of opera seria for ironic or comic purposes, which are inherent in the libretto. Such elements had occasionally appeared in Handel’s previous operas, particularly Partenope, but Serse is comic in its underlying situations and includes one incontrovertibly comic character in the servant Elviro. Early critical opinion in London was not favourable. Serse was not highly regarded by Burney,9 but this may reflect his own prejudices about the subject matter proper to an Italian opera. Contemporary comments on the quality of Handel’s music also refer to the nature of the opera itself but suggest that the composer had adapted his style to suit the content:10

To be serious Xerxes is beyond all doubt a fine composition. The singers perform it very indifferently which is a great disadvantage to it; the airs too, for brevity’s sake as the opera would otherwise be too long, fall without any recitativ’ intervening from one into another that tis difficult to understand, till it comes by frequent hearing to be well known. My own judgment is that it is a capital opera notwithstanding tis called a ballad one.

The informal tone of Serse is apparent even in the preamble in the printed word-book, which seems to put out its tongue at the conven (p.299) tional ‘Argument’ that normally provided a libretto’s historical and literary justification:

The contexture of this Drama is so very easy, that it wou’d be troubling the reader to give him a long argument to explain it. Some imbecilities, and the temerity of Xerxes (such as his being deeply enamour’d with a plane tree, and the building a bridge over the Hellespont to unite Asia to Europe) are the basis of the story, the rest is fiction.

Presumably this paragraph was the work of the anonymous adapter of the libretto – perhaps one of the younger generation of literati associated with the Opera of the Nobility;11 it is impossible to know how far Handel chimed in with its spirit. For the most part, he did not write self-consciously humorous music but left the humour to emerge from drama itself, as in the double denouement in Act 3 when, as a result of a mistaken message, Serse’s vassal Ariodate marries his daughter to the ‘wrong’ man and Serse is put in danger of execution, only to discover that his threatened executioner is his wife in disguise. Handel is generally content to provide arias in conventional forms, appropriate to the dramatic situations, but there are also scenes with more fluid structures, such as that at the beginning of Act 2, where Elviro’s song as a flower seller punctuates the recitative.

The opening scene of Serse deserves brief attention, as an example of Handel’s flexible musical response to the episodes of the libretto. In an accompanied recitative Serse, King of Persia, expresses the hope that fate will be kind to the plane tree in the middle of the garden: this is followed by a short, single-section aria (EX. 32 overleaf ) in which he luxuriates in the shade from the tree.12 Serse’s return to the modern repertory may have been the result of the fortuitous popularity of ‘Ombra mai fu’, a pleasing lyrical larghetto which achieved fame with later generations out of context as an instrumental piece entitled ‘Handel’s Largo’. Arsamene, Serse’s brother, enters with his servant Elviro. Their dialogue is interrupted by a symphony (p.300) of ‘sweet musick’ issuing from a summerhouse which turns out to be the introduction to a song from Romilda, the daughter of one of Serse’s vassals, who is in the summer-house; she sings about those ‘who for cruel beauties sigh’, citing Serse as an example. Hearing his name mentioned, Serse pays attention, only to hear the song continue to the effect that poor Serse is in love with a tree, which does not return his affection; the anticlimax comes with a change of key (at ‘Un Serse mirate’; EX. 33), which is surely of humorous intent. The action then proceeds, punctuated by further short arias, until the first really heavyweight aria, Serse’s ‘Più che penso’, which is well beyond the halfway point of the act. In many respects Handel’s treatment of the text follows that of Bononcini’s opera on the same libretto,13 but a comparison of the two confirms the greater expansiveness of Handel’s musical language and his greater tonal adventurousness.

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 32


The Music, 1732–41

EX. 33

The works from the tail end of Handel’s involvement with Italian opera are relatively modest, without the heroics or grand scale of the Royal Academy and Covent Garden works. Though scarcely chamber operas (Deidamia, for example, includes a hunting scene), they nevertheless have a serenata-like quality, with relatively relaxed and slow-moving action. There is some doubt as to the degree of spectacle that was attempted, or was possible. The self-pasticcio Jupiter in Argos (1739), adapted to a Dresden libretto from 1717, may have been only semistaged, and the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, which saw Handel’s last opera productions, may not have been equipped for elaborate scenic effects. Imeneo (1740) requires few, and Deidamia (1741), described in the libretto as a ‘Melodrama’, may not have been played in an entirely realistic manner. Handel’s treatment of the dramas hints at an ambiguity in his attitude towards opera seria. Like Orlando, Deidamia ends with the principal male character forsaking Love for Glory, but there is a doubt, even stronger than in the (p.302) earlier opera, as to whether this is the most desirable outcome: Deidamia loses her lover Achilles to service in the Trojan War, where (as most of the audience would have remembered) he would be killed. Handel’s last operas display a different outlook, as well as a different musical style, from Giulio Cesare or Alcina, just as Beethoven’s last quartets differ from his op.59. The comparison is not inappropriate: Handel’s last operas are less direct, and less extrovert, than his earlier ones. (The same, in turn, might be said of his last oratorios in comparison with the early ones.)

Imeneo provides a convenient exemplar for this period. The plot is simple. The leading lady, Rosmene, has to choose between two men, Tirinto and Imeneo: the choice is set up in Act 1 but is not resolved for another two acts. She has an obligation to Tirinto as her intended husband but is attracted to Imeneo, a youth who has rescued her and her companions from pirates. This sounds like a traditional ‘love and duty’ conflict from opera seria but, instead of the usual multiplicity of incidents and the introduction of further complications, decisive action is virtually suspended for most of the opera. This is partly attributable to the fact that the libretto was expanded from a two-act original, but presumably Handel’s acceptance of the plan and his musical treatment of it indicate acquiescence in a dramatic mode that is at odds with the usual expectations of pacing. (Nevertheless, stage productions have demonstrated that the interactions of the characters maintain enough momentum to sustain the drama.) Still more significantly, Rosmene finally chooses the wrong man, in terms of musical conventions: Imeneo, the successful suitor, is a baritone,14 the rejected Tirinto a castrato. Tirinto’s ‘natural’ dominance up to that point is established not only by his high tessitura but also by the grandiloquence of his music: arias such as ‘Se potessero i sospir miei’ and ‘Sorge nell’alma mia’15 are undoubtedly the musical property of an Italian opera company’s primo uomo.

The denouement of the drama, after all the waiting, is well managed. Rosmene decides to ‘feign distraction; while, within collected, I act in Folly’s Shew what Wisdom prompts’. Imeneo, then Tirinto, then both together, appeal to her to make a decision, using the same music to express the urgency of their wishes (‘Se la mia pace a me vuoi togliere’). Rosmene, (p.303) assuming a trancelike state, enacts a scene in Hades where she appears before the judge Radamanto: he strikes her with his sword, and her soul flies from her body. Appearing to faint, she is supported by the two men and from this position makes her choice in favour of Imeneo, providing assurances that she had not really been demented. The final coro – for an independent chorus instead of the more usual soloists’ ensemble16 – applauds the policy that the heart should follow the dictates of reason: presumably the castrato Tirinto was to be identified with the irrational.

‘Sorge nell’alma mia’, already noted as one of the opera’s most striking arias, shows some movement towards the musical style of a younger generation of opera composers, in particular the newer Neapolitan style as represented by Leonardo Vinci. Burney claimed that Vinci made music ‘the friend, though not the slave, to poetry, by simplifying and polishing melody … by disentangling it from fugue, complication and laboured contrivance’,17 phrases that might aptly describe the striding, chordal opening of Handel’s aria (EX. 34a overleaf ); moreover, there is a specifically ‘modern’ cadential figure at the midway close of the A section (EX. 34b overleaf ).18 But, although Handel may have absorbed influences from Vinci, there was no question of his undertaking a thorough ‘modernization’ of his style. While the slow harmonic movement of this aria, elaborated by the busy string parts, certainly seems up-to-date, the movement as a whole falls into the established genre of the ‘rage’ aria, in which melodies that begin by outlining chords or triads are the norm. Ironically, in view of the fact that Tirinto’s rival was sung by a bass, these tempestuous arias are often written for a bass-voice character (e.g. Montagnana’s ‘Sorge infausta’ in Orlando);19 the obvious successor to ‘Sorge nell’alma mia’ is ‘Why do the nations?’ in Messiah, which is even in the same key. The string accompaniment and the vocal figurations in the Imeneo aria could, however, equally be regarded as precursors of the ‘refiner’s fire’ in the famous


The Music, 1732–41

EX. 34a

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 34b

(p.305) setting of ‘But who may abide the day of his coming’, composed by Handel as a revision for a castrato for his performances of Messiah in 1750.

The truth seems to be that, when it came to matters of musical style, Handel did not feel that the latest composers such as Vinci had much to offer him, though he certainly took an interest in the newest operas from Italy: as noted in chapter 8, he mounted operas by Vinci and Hasse in his own programme of 1733–420 and introduced Vinci’s Didone abbandonata in 1737. Although these operas are indeed pasticcios, they were constructed on the framework of the parent works by Vinci and Hasse.21 In a different category come Oreste (1734) and Alessandro Severo (1735), complete operas constructed from preexisting movements by Handel (with new recitatives) but on the basis of integral, preexisting librettos of Italian origin. Their musical and dramatic coherence is a considerable tribute to the cunning of the anonymous libretto arranger(s), who must have worked very closely with Handel.22

Oratorios and Odes

Handel’s English-language theatre works of the 1730s are clearly of momentous significance in relation to the subsequent development of his career and to the establishment of a new genre of English theatre oratorio. Their progress, however, was neither regular nor self-conscious: developments were stimulated or inhibited by the immediate needs and opportunities of particular theatre seasons. The 1732 versions of Esther and Acis and Galatea were inflated revivals of chamber-scale works written more than a decade earlier. Both lost some of their original dramatic coherence through their expansion to three acts, with extra material added to accommodate the demands of a larger cast, which included Italians; but the audiences, who had not known the works in their original forms, seem to have been satisfied with the variety and novelty of the result. As an artistic entity Esther probably fared better than Acis and (p.306) Galatea, and the introduction of the Coronation Anthem choruses did no damage to its structure: the generalized sentiments of confidence in the Almighty (with the original texts adapted as necessary)23 were appropriate enough to the circumstances of the drama. However, the introduction of extra choruses inevitably gave Esther a slower pace in the development of the plot, a factor that clearly distinguishes Handel’s theatre oratorios from his operas and incidentally presents one of the major practical difficulties when the oratorios are given staged performances for which they were never intended.

Slow dramatic pace is certainly a feature of Handel’s first original theatre oratorio, Deborah (1733). Part 1 is devoted to anticipations of the Israelites’ victory in the forthcoming conflict with the Canaanites: Deborah prophesies glory for the Israelite military leader Barak, while Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, is told that she will be ‘divinely bless’d’. Part 2 sees a confrontation between Deborah and Sisera, the Canaanite leader, at which prospects of peace are dismissed. The battle itself is not depicted (it takes place between Parts 2 and 3), but in Part 3 Barak returns victorious, and Jael reports how she ‘rivetted the Tyrant [Sisera] to the Ground’. The libretto is by Samuel Humphreys, who had provided the ‘Additional Words’ for the 1732 theatre version of Esther: he also supplied the parallel English texts in the printed Italian opera librettos of the period, from Poro to Orlando. For Deborah, quite a close collaboration between librettist and composer may be assumed. The score contains much self-borrowed music from earlier works, and Humphreys moulded his choice of verse forms to the metres of the music that Handel intended to reuse: unlike the opera arias that Handel reused in Oreste and Alessandro Severo, however, many of the borrowed numbers in Deborah were largely recomposed to fit their new situations. No doubt Handel’s compositional procedures were affected by the fact that Deborah was written in the midst of a busy opera season: in the end, he hardly saved himself much work by self-borrowing, but the arrangement probably enabled him to work at the score in odd moments, as gaps in his other commitments allowed. Furthermore, his labour was shared with assistants in those movements that required little adaptation: (p.307) Handel’s ‘autograph’ of Deborah includes substantial sections laid out by two music copyists.24

Following the formula that had been successful in Esther, Handel introduced more movements from the Coronation Anthems into Deborah. But he also showed himself able to match their grandeur with new choruses (some of which used thematic ideas from earlier works). The chorus that opens Part 2 (partly based on ideas from Dixit Dominus, composed a quarter of a century earlier) is particularly fine, though in the size of its musical canvas it is outdone by the opening chorus of Part 125 and by the double-choir alternations between the supporters of Jehovah and Baal in Part 2 (‘All your boast’). Best of all, perhaps, is ‘Lord of Eternity’, a chorus in a more serious vein as the Israelites implore divine assistance. Although the arias are workmanlike, the choruses tend to put them in the shade. In one curious mismatch of words and music, Barak’s vision of the slaughter that will result from the expected battle (‘In the battle, fame pursuing’) is set as a major-key, dancelike movement in triple rhythm, accompanied by a virtuoso obbligato part for organ: the music’s character seems too lighthearted for the context and might have accorded better with a pastoral text. Perhaps Handel simply went for a tune that would carry the words. We may be misguided if we try to make too much of a connection between Humphreys’s portrayal of Deborah and his dedication of the libretto to the Queen. The choice of subject for the oratorio could have been stimulated by the fact that Maurice Greene had written an oratorio on the subject of Deborah in 1732, though not for theatre performance.

Humphreys was also the librettist for Handel’s next oratorio, Athalia (1733), which again centres on one of the formidable ladies of the Old Testament, cast here as an opponent to the forces of true religion. As a dramatic piece Athalia came out much better than Deborah, no doubt largely because Humphreys was working from a stage model (a play by Racine) instead of directly from the Scriptures. Some of the important motivations behind the opening dramatic situation are obscure: Humphreys’s libretto never explains that Athalia has killed all of the royal house apart from the young boy Joas, nor does it explain why Mathan the (p.308) Baalite priest is an ‘apostate’. But thereafter the general internal outlines of the drama are clear. The High Priest Joad and his wife Josabeth have sheltered Joas, in the face of Queen Athalia’s tyranny: in Part 3 Joas’s true identity is revealed and he is enthroned, whereupon Athalia’s commander-in-chief Abner deserts her, and Mathan acknowledges that Jehovah has triumphed over Baal. Joad had prophesied Athalia’s death at the beginning of Part 3, but she maintains defiance to the end; her final fortunes, and those of Mathan, are not portrayed.

Athalia achieves a rather better balance of solos and choruses than Deborah. Handel’s departure from operatic practice is signalled by the low proportion of da capo arias (6 out of 16), but the characters are lively and well-differentiated, and their portrayal is manifestly the fruit of his operatic experience. The arias at the start of Part 2, in particular, have characteristic motto phrases and might be described as musical pictures from an operatic gallery – ‘Through the land so lovely blooming’ (  Josabeth), ‘Ah, canst thou but prove me’ (Abner), ‘Will God whose mercies ever flow’ (  Joas) and ‘My vengeance awakes me’ (Athalia). There is also an extended operatic scena in Part 1, as Athalia, ‘starting out of slumber’, describes the visions she has seen: first her mother, who warned her of Joad’s forthcoming vengeance (‘Oh, Athalia, tremble at thy fate’), and then a youth in the robes of a Jewish priest, who plunged a dagger into her breast. These visions explain the force of her reaction when she sees Joas in Part 2, though his true identity is not yet revealed to her. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Athalia’s scena is the dramatic integration of two choruses (‘The Gods, who chosen blessings shed’ and ‘Cheer her, O Baal’), which intensify rather than impede the action. This technique is in fact the greatest musical advance in Athalia. Sometimes it extends to physical integration with a solo movement, as when the chorus completes Joad’s aria ‘Jerusalem, thou shalt no more’; but mainly the relationship is less direct, the chorus commenting on or participating in the action in independent movements which are more than mere ornamental additions to the structure. Handel had used up all his transferable Coronation Anthem music by the time of Athalia, but that alone does not explain the improvement in the chorus’s dramatic function, for he could perfectly well compose in the ‘coronation anthem style’ when occasion demanded, as he did in the opening of Part 2 and (most (p.309) directly) in ‘Around let acclamations spring’ at the recognition of Joas.

Athalia, first performed at Oxford, has been described as ‘the first great English oratorio’,26 and not without justification. Yet in some ways it is a lightweight work, weightier than the chamber-scale Cannons version of Esther (which might, on its own terms, have an equal claim to the title) but not of the larger-scale proportions demanded by Handel’s London theatre audiences. Athalia in its original version is a compact musical drama, and part of its charm lies in its status as a smaller sibling of the larger oratorios. It nevertheless marks both the climax and the conclusion of Handel’s first period of intense experimentation with English public oratorio. The experience gained was not applied directly to further oratorios but to the more literary genre of the English ode: experience with the ode, in its turn, contributed to enriching Handel’s subsequent return to oratorio.

Handel’s interest in setting English odes for inclusion in his theatre seasons – works of a quite different kind and purpose from the Ode for Queen Anne’s Birthday composed nearly 25 years earlier – seems to have been the consequence of two factors: the opportunities (and limitations) provided by the circumstances of his short season in 1736; and the influence of a new literary collaborator, Newburgh Hamilton. Hamilton was, or became, a personal friend as well as a colleague.27 It is not known whether the idea of setting Dryden’s longer Cecilian Ode, Alexander’s Feast, arose from their social contact, or whether the friendship ripened as a result of their successful collaboration. Alexander’s Feast was a poem that had originally been intended for musical setting: Dryden had written it for the Cecilian celebrations in 1697, when the music was composed by Jeremiah Clarke, and it was set again (with textual revisions) by Thomas Clayton in 1711. (The music for both settings is lost.) Hamilton’s preface to the printed word-book for the first performances of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast in 1736 reveals, under the conventionally inflated language, his own stance as a librettist-collaborator, and also hints that he was the initiator of the project: (p.310)

The following Ode being universally allow’d to be the most excellent of its Kind, (at least in our Language;) all Admirers of polite Amusements, have with Impatience expected its Appearing in a Musical Dress, equal to the Subject.

But the late Improvements in Musick varying so much from that Turn of Composition, for which this Poem was originally design’d, most People despair’d of ever seeing that Affair properly accomplish’d: The Alteration in the Words, (necessary to render them fit to receive modern Composition) being thought scarcely practicable, without breaking in upon that Flow of Spirit which runs thro’ the whole of the Poem, which of Consequence wou’d be render’d flat and insipid. I was long of this Opinion, not only from a Diffidence of my own Capacity, but the ill Success of some ingenious Gentlemen, whose Alterations of, or Additions to the Original, prov’d equally ill-judg’d. But upon a more particular Review of the Ode, these seeming Difficulties vanish’d; tho’ I was determin’d not to take any unwarrantable Liberty with that Poem, which has so long done Honour to the Nation; and which no Man can add to, or abridge, in any thing material, without injuring it: I therefore confin’d myself to a plain Division of it into Airs, Recitative, or Chorus’s; looking upon the Words in general so sacred, as scarcely to violate one in the Order of its first Place: How I have succeeded, the World is to judge; and whether I have preserv’d that beautiful Description of the Passions, so exquisitely drawn, at the same time I strove to reduce them to the present Taste in Sounds.

I confess my principal View was, not to lose this favourable Opportunity of its being set to Musick by that great Master, who has with Pleasure undertaken the Task, and who only is capable of doing it justice; whose Compositions have long shewn, that they can conquer even the most obstinate Partiality, and inspire Life into the most senseless Words.

Musical style had indeed moved on along very different lines since 1697, but Dryden’s poem was successfully moulded by Hamilton into a structure that provided for the extensive arias and choruses that were fundamental to Handel’s new English ‘oratorio’ genre. Hamilton did not ‘add to’ the main body of Dryden’s poem, but he created a kind of epilogue with a few lines from a Cecilian ode, The Power of Music, that he had written for Robert Woodcock to set to music in 1720. Also from Hamilton’s 1720 ode came the text for Look down, harmonious Saint (p.311) (HWV 124), an accompanied recitative followed by an aria, ‘Sweet accents all your numbers grace’. This sequence was almost certainly originally intended for inclusion with Alexander’s Feast but was never performed: the aria (with an Italian text) was subsumed into the cantata Cecilia, volgi un sguardo (HWV 89). The latter turned out to be Handel’s last essay in the full-scale orchestrally accompanied Italian cantata; the musical style was naturally very different from his Roman cantatas composed 30 years previously, but the literary mode of address bears some similarity to the earlier works, given that the shepherdess is replaced by St Cecilia and the Tiber by the Thames. The texts of one recitative and one aria derive from an Italian cantata composed during Handel’s first years in London (Splenda l’alba in oriente, HWV 166).28 For the revival of Alexander’s Feast in 1737 Handel composed a new aria for Annibali as a substitute for the movement derived from HWV 124. The cantata and the accompanying concerto were ornamental additions to Alexander’s Feast: the River Thames would hardly have featured in music performed during Alexander’s slumbers.

If the literary quality of Dryden’s verse is one of the points in favour of Alexander’s Feast, it is also one of the major drawbacks. Many allusions in the text are not fully explained (it is not clear, for example, that Alexander himself was reputedly the fruit of the union between Jove, in a ‘Dragon’s fiery form’, and Olympias, called ‘Olympia’ in the poem); indeed, from the information provided it is difficult to understand the story and, specifically, the motive for Alexander’s burning of Persepolis. As a narrative drama Alexander’s Feast would fail more miserably than any of Humphreys’s librettos (which were perhaps the butt of Hamilton’s phrase about Handel having set ‘senseless words’), but perhaps the conventions of the ode as a literary genre carried an accepted assumption of greater background knowledge on the part of the audience. Alexander’s Feast proved, however, to be an ideal vehicle for the development of Handel’s musical strengths in 1736. The main part of Dryden’s ode was a sequence of episodes demonstrating the power of Timotheus’s lyre playing to conjure up emotions in his listeners, and specifically to show his influence on Alexander the Great, the Jove-descended ‘sovereign of (p.312) the world’. Part 1 is mainly taken up with the portrayal of various states of mind in a pageant of fine, well-characterized arias and related choruses. The section exploring the ‘pathetic’ emotions (‘He sung Darius great and good’) underwent an interesting evolution. It originally began with a fairly conventional dal segno aria for soprano, but Handel gradually cut away and tightened up its structure to retain a modest A section, running into a B section in the relative minor (‘Deserted at his utmost need’), followed directly by an accompanied recitative with a suitably colourful chromatic ending (EX. 35); the scheme was then rounded off with a chorus in the original tonic based on the thematic material of the A section. The organization of Part 1, in its final form, involves a progressive growth in the formal structures, culminating in two da capo/dal segno arias: the last one is framed by an extended chorus and its repetition, producing a grand ternary-within-ternary scheme.29

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 35

(p.313) The sequence of emotions depicted in Part 1 had omitted an obvious one – the rousing trumpet-and-drum call to arms; this opens Part 2, summoning Alexander to action. The aria ‘Revenge, Timotheus cries’ has become one of the best-known movements in Alexander’s Feast: its most striking feature is the B section,30 scored for divided strings and bassoons, representing the ghosts from the battlefield who call Alexander to the act of revenge. The burning of Persepolis follows, in which Alexander is encouraged by the Grecian Princes and led by the courtesan Thais, after which the ode withdraws from narrative to commentary. An accompanied recitative makes the transition from the barbarity of the preceding action – the result of the power of music in a barbarous age – to the more uplifting effect of Cecilia’s loftier music:

  • Accompagnato:
  • Thus, long ago,
  • Ere heaving bellows learn’d to blow,
  • While organs yet were mute;
  • Timotheus, to his breathing flute,
  • And sounding lyre,
  • Could swell the soul to rage, or kindle soft desire.
  • Chorus:
  • At last divine Cecilia came,
  • Inventress of the vocal frame;
  • The sweet enthusiast, from her sacred store,
  • Enlarg’d the former narrow bounds,
  • And added length to solemn sounds,
  • With nature’s mother-wit, and arts unknown before.

The lines beginning ‘At last divine Cecilia came’ drew from Handel the work’s most powerful chorus – a prelude and fugue in a declamatory style that hovers between seriousness and celebration. The mood of celebration then prevails to the end of the work.

(p.314) Alexander’s Feast gave Handel the opportunity to portray emotional

states in music, not only momentarily but also as sustained moods extending through sequences of movements. The ability to do this – always among Handel’s compositional strengths – may be seen in many scene-setting episodes that open acts in his operas. In opera, however, the music serves to reinforce or complement the visual representation; in the nonstaged oratorio-type works, the music has instead to substitute for the visual dimension, leaving the listener’s imagination to conjure up a situation or emotion, with the help of (at most) a scenic cue in a printed word-book. Handel’s success in bringing to life the emotional states described in Alexander’s Feast was therefore a crucial step in the establishment of the musical procedures that were to crown his greatest oratorios.

In 1739, three years after composing Alexander’s Feast, Handel produced a shorter companion work, setting Dryden’s Cecilian Ode of 1687, the Song for St Cecilia’s Day (HWV 76),31 which had originally been set by Giovanni Draghi. (Draghi’s score is impressive, though obviously the musical style from 40 years previously was very different; there is no evidence that Handel knew Draghi’s setting.) The shorter ode is in many ways more accessible than Alexander’s Feast because the ‘plot’ is directly concerned with the emotions roused by particular musical instruments. The trumpet doubles as the harbinger of war and (more spectacularly) of the Day of Judgment, but the most haunting music is associated with the softer instruments, in ‘What passion cannot Music raise and quell’, ‘The soft complaining flute’ and ‘But oh! what art can teach?’. There is a fine opening chorus, in which melodic ideas derived from a keyboard piece by Gottlieb Muffat are put to good use for Dryden’s phrase ‘through all the compass of the notes it ran’. The extended proportions of the final chorus, ‘The dead shall live, the living die’, may have been prompted by an extramusical motive, since the autograph suggests that Handel for some reason deliberately set himself to write a movement of (p.315) exactly 150 bars.32 We do not know if Handel ever encountered Purcell’s great Cecilian ode from 1692, Hail, bright Cecilia, but there are points of relevant comparison: the opening sequence of Handel’s ode, depicting the creation of Harmony from the ‘jarring atoms’, is of comparable power and novelty to Purcell’s treatment of the subject in the chorus ‘Soul of the world’.

The climax of Handel’s artistic association with the works of England’s major poets came with L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato of 1740. As with Alexander’s Feast, Handel began from a text in which an adaptation for oratorio-style setting (the alternation of sections from Milton’s poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, arranged as texts designated for recitatives, arias and choruses) had been submitted to him, this time by James Harris of Salisbury.33 Charles Jennens’s procedures in adapting Harris’s scheme further, in response to concerns from Handel about the practical requirements for musical setting (particularly with respect to balance in the alternating contrasts of moods), are fascinatingly documented in a series of letters between Jennens and Harris.34 In the final form of the libretto, for the performances in 1740, the contrasts between the extrovert and reflective moods (represented, respectively, by Allegro and Penseroso) appear to alternate with dizzy rapidity, but the scheme works for a musical setting in which each image is sustained for a few minutes, at least for the duration of an aria. There is thus time to accommodate each contrast: indeed, if Handel had set Milton’s poems as integral units, with a complete act for each ‘character’, the work would surely have been indigestible in the theatre. The episodic progression of picturesque movements presented musical opportunities which Handel fulfilled with wit, invention and good judgment: there are small-scale, momentary pleasures in the sounds of the hunting horn, the merry bells, the cricket and the bell- man, as well as a picture gallery of successive contrasting arias, describing (p.316) diverse scenes both pastoral (‘Let me wander, not unseen’) and urban (‘Populous cities please me then’). The music of the arias is nicely varied, ranging from elaborate large-scale movements such as ‘Sweet bird’ and ‘But oh! sad virgin’ to the simpler lyricism of ‘Mirth, admit me of thy crew’ and ‘Hide me from day’s garish eye’. The chorus movements, though not as extensive as in other works (perhaps reflecting the circumstances at Lincoln’s Inn Fields), also contribute memorable pictorial touches – laughter holding his sides, old and young creeping off to bed at dusk and, perhaps in a direct line of descent from the shorter Cecilian ode, the sonorous chords of the ‘pealing organ’. Individual humans such as the nun and the huntsman are referred to, but the substance of the work is in the more general contrasts of mood rather than conflicts between characters: although it can be seen as a logical expansion from Handel’s experience with the Cecilian odes, L’Allegro is the type of work that he could bring off only once, and it is not surprising that he subsequently returned to more conventionally dramatic subjects.

One aspect of L’Allegro is controversial and, from Jennens’s own testimony, seems to have been so regarded as soon as the work came before the London public: the addition of a new text to follow Milton’s, as Part 3. Jennens’s letter on the subject indicates that the addition was Handel’s idea, designed to unite the ‘two independent Poems in one Moral Design’.35 After relating contemporary criticisms of ‘Il Moderato’, Jennens consoled himself that ‘the Opinion of many others, who signify’d their approbation of it in Print as well as in Conversation, together with the account Mr. Handel sends me of it’s Reception in Ireland, have made me ample amends for these random expressions of Contempt’. There is undeniably something of a mismatch between Jennens’s work and Milton’s, both in diction (‘rising reason puts to right / the fumes that did the mind involve’, for example, sounds almost like a parody of Milton)36 and in content: ‘Il Moderato’ presents argument – indeed, assertion – rather than images, and pours cold water over some of the scenes that had been depicted with so much warmth in the preceding parts. Yet one can see Handel’s point. The alternation of ‘Allegro’ and ‘Penseroso’ moods (p.317) could not continue forever, and, without some other mediation, any conclusion would appear to leave one side as a winner, while the effect of the preceding contrasts has been to bring out the complementary nature of the moods in human experience. It would probably have been difficult even for Milton himself to have made the ‘middle way’ as attractive as the polar extremes of mood on either side; all in all, Jennens did not make a bad job of his brief. It seems likely that Handel himself was in favour of the virtues of ‘Moderation’ which had generated the political and cultural stability that had allowed him to flourish as a professional musician. His music for Part 3 naturally lacks the picturesque stimulants from the previous parts, but it culminates in the duet ‘As steals the morn upon the night’, which must count among the half dozen greatest movements that he composed, combining mastery of orchestral texture, lyrical expressiveness and skill in melodic extension, with harmonic control. The duet, which represents the union of the ‘characters’ Allegro and Penseroso, clearly belongs in its proper context and, since Part 3 is fairly short, it is still practical to perform L’Allegro as Handel’s complete three-part ‘Moral Design’. In his original performing version a considerable load fell onto the soprano soloist: the distinction between the conventions of an ode and a drama is apparent from the fact that Francesina was given arias from both the ‘Allegro’ and ‘Penseroso’ roles in the 1741 revival. In the original 1740 version, she had all the ‘Penseroso’ arias, and the ‘Allegro’ music was divided among three other soloists. As noted in chapter 9, for the final performance of L’Allegro in his 1740–41 season Handel for the first time dropped ‘Il Moderato’, substituting the Cecilian ode as the third part of the performance. He never again restored ‘Il Moderato’ in his London performances, though he performed it in Dublin, and for the next London revival in 1743 he reworked the score quite substantially to accommodate his current cast, in particular providing a substantial role for Mrs Cibber: the introduction of her darker-toned voice provided some distinctive characterization for ‘Penseroso’.37 In the two-part version of L’Allegro, Handel to a large extent resolved the problem of a suitable ending by bringing together the musical moods of (p.318) Allegro and Penseroso: although the work now concluded with the D major chorus ending ‘Mirth, with thee we mean to live’, the preceding airs had been reflective, minor-key pieces – ‘May at last my weary age’ for Penseroso, followed by ‘And ever against eating cares’ for Allegro.

Two years before the composition of L’Allegro, the first collaboration between Handel and Jennens had marked an artistic turning point in the development of Handel’s oratorios. Saul, composed in 1738, was the first oratorio that realized the full potential of his talents, combining opportunities for extended arias and choruses with a coherent dramatic framework and strong characters that allowed Handel to draw fully on his operatic experience. It was also arguably the first oratorio that he developed from first principles, in collaboration with his librettist, to suit the particular circumstances of London theatre oratorio and the particular combination of talents that he brought to the genre. Esther and Acis and Galatea had been reworkings of scores that had originally been composed for performance in different circumstances; Deborah was a rather hurried attempt to repeat what appeared to have been the recipe for Esther’s success in the theatre, incorporating substantial slabs from Handel’s Coronation Anthems, while Athalia, successful as it turned out to be from the artistic point of view, had (like Esther) a dramatic model from Racine. Saul represented a new start: Jennens had as a guide only his literary sources (principally the English Bible), his own dramatic imagination and his vision of how the resources of Handelian theatre oratorio might be put to good use. At the time of its composition Handel also took advantage of current circumstances: a lull in operatic productions, following Heidegger’s failure to raise a subscription, which released a large cast (though a homegrown one, without a preponderance of Italian stars) and the opportunity to employ a large and varied orchestra, including exotic and unusual elements – the carillon, the trombones and the large military timpani. The oratorio received Handel’s full attention and was conceived on the grandest scale in every sense, with large, fully rounded characters and extensive forces.

In Saul, more than in any previous work, Handel used the instrumentation for dramatic ends. The carillon, which, it may be remembered, Jennens said was intended to ‘make poor Saul stark mad’, adds a final gloss to the frenetic popular celebration in Part 1 that greets the return of David after his victory over the Philistines and thus intensifies Saul’s (p.319) jealousy. The supernatural events of Part 3 when Saul visits the Witch of Endor are portrayed with woodwind colouring that builds on the experience of ‘Behold, a ghastly band’ in Alexander’s Feast: the Witch’s invocation of Samuel is effected against a background of chords from oboes and bassoons (EX. 36), while bassoons introduce the ghost of Samuel himself (‘Why hast thou forc’d me from these realms of peace?’). The famous ‘Dead March’ alternates flutes, timpani and organ bass with a solemn tutti heavily coloured by trombone chords. A still heavier trombone-weighted tutti characterizes the Sinfonia that introduces Saul’s decision ‘at the Feast of the New Moon’ that David shall die.

Saul has the clearest tonal organization of all Handel’s oratorios. While others often work towards D major for a trumpet-and-drum climax,

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 36

(p.320) Handel here uses C major as an anchorage to which the music returns at strategic moments and in which the oratorio begins and ends.38 The trumpets have to conform to the C major centre: the only D major chorus, the sinewy ‘O fatal consequence of rage’, is in any case too tortured, both in harmony and in emotional content, to admit them. David’s harp playing provides an obvious musical cue, though Handel did not take it up as directly as he had done in Esther: the harp has no obbligato part in David’s ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’, but Handel followed the air with a harp solo that repeats the same music in an elaborated form. Pictorialism is reserved for briefer gestures, such as the conclusion of the subsequent aria (EX. 37), when David has manifestly failed to divert Saul’s rage. (Handel had used similar scalic gestures 30 years earlier, to represent the ‘arrows in the hand of the powerful’, in his psalm setting Nisi Dominus.)

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 37

(p.321) Jennens’s libretto afforded Handel many such opportunities to exercise his musico-pictorial genius. In context, these devices are not gimmicks but enhancements of the plot and of the characterization. Saul’s jealousy is established early on, and thereafter Handel and Jennens together created a vivid picture of his apparently uncontrollable decline. David’s character is strengthened as the oratorio proceeds, and it is he that leads the moving final elegy on the death of Saul and Jonathan. The three-way relationships of Saul, David and Jonathan, and of David, Merab and Michal, are skilfully portrayed: so well matched in weight are these roles that a performance of Saul requires a cast as evenly competent as that for which Handel composed it. He poured into the work his mature experience as an aria composer and applied all the lessons he had learnt in his earlier English works about integrating the chorus. There is scarcely a weak choral movement, dramatically or musically: the role of the chorus alternates effectively between commentary (as in the opening chorus of Part 2) and active participation (as in the final choruses of Parts 1 and 3).

Soon after Handel had made his first composition draft of the score, Jennens complained about ‘a Hallelujah which he [Handel] has trump’d up at the end of his oratorio’:39 in fact, Handel subsequently moved the offending movement to the end of the first scene of Part 1, where Jennens had specified a Hallelujah in the libretto. Perhaps this slightly disturbs the structural balance, closing the first scene emphatically just as the action needs to get going, but we can scarcely complain about the oratorio’s conclusion as it now stands: the final chorus has the Israelites united behind David’s leadership, confident again after the traumatic events they have witnessed. The transference of the Hallelujah is only one example of the influence that Jennens exerted over the development of the score, between the completion of Handel’s first composition draft and the form in which it came to performance. It is clear from the evidence of the autograph (which contains several amendments and annotations in Jennens’s hand) that composer and librettist went carefully through the score of Saul together in September 1738: in the end, Handel probably accepted some of Jennens’s suggestions and rejected others.40 While some of his ideas (p.322) may have been inhibited by Jennens’s influence, on the whole the final result gained much by this close scrutiny and revision, with Handel and Jennens acting upon each other as reciprocal artistic stimulants.

One of the major changes that Handel made to Saul after his conference with Jennens concerned the final Elegy. Handel’s autograph shows that he originally intended to reuse music from the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, composed the previous December: that plan had presumably received provisional acquiescence from Jennens, since Handel continued with Jennens’s text for the subsequent movements, adding his own Hallelujah on the end. But Jennens came up with a new text for the Elegy, the setting of which formed one of Handel’s principal tasks when he redrafted the score, a task he completed on 27 September 1738. The ejected Funeral Anthem music did not go to waste, however, and indeed the idea for Israel in Egypt as a companion oratorio to Saul, using this music, may have been evolved during this same meeting with Jennens.41 The identity of the librettist for Israel in Egypt is unknown, but circumstantial evidence points to Jennens: the words are mainly taken directly from the Bible, and in a later letter Jennens implied that Messiah was the second ‘Scripture Collection’ that he had supplied to the composer.42

Both the concept and the scheme of Israel in Egypt were novel. The concept was fundamentally that of a choral oratorio that was to include solo movements, although the main narrative and expressive content were to be carried by the chorus. Variety was to be introduced not only through the usual contrasts of fugal movements with choral homophony but also by the occasional division of the chorus into antiphonal ‘double choirs’. The scheme of the oratorio was probably generated by the preexistence of the Funeral Anthem, which was entirely choral and, necessarily, sombre in tone. It was about an acceptable length for the first part of an oratorio, and it could be balanced in Part 3 by something of similar length but of a cheerful or triumphal character, rather in the manner of an extended coronation anthem. The progression between the two ‘anthem’ parts required, as Part 2, some form of linking narrative. The (p.323) liberation of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea provided a story that was suitable for narrative treatment, and the Funeral Anthem, with an adapted text, became ‘The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph’.

Such a reconstruction of the evolution of Israel in Egypt, though admittedly hypothetical, fits the known facts. On 1 October 1738, four days after finishing the redrafting of Saul, Handel began to write the music that was to become Part 3 of Israel in Egypt, under the heading ‘Moses’ Song. Exodus Chapter 15. Introitus’, using large-format 20-stave manuscript paper suitable for grand choral movements.43 (References here are to the three-part oratorio as Handel performed it: when Israel in Egypt was later published, without the adapted Funeral Anthem as Part 1, Handel’s Parts 2 and 3 became known as Parts 1 and 2, respectively.) As in Saul, Handel availed himself of ample orchestral resources, including trombones, but this time he used them to vary the weight of the choral accompaniments rather than to introduce novel orchestral effects. That Handel intended his choral groups to be physically divided in the theatre as cori spezzati is suggested by the fact that he allocated one continuo organ to each ‘choir’: in some movements he carried the principle to its logical conclusion by also treating strings, woodwind, trombones, and trumpets and drums as independent ‘choirs’.44 Handel finished drafting ‘Moses’ Song’ on 11 October and began the composition of Part 2 four days later: the libretto for Part 2 had probably been put together while he was composing the ‘Song’.

In artistic terms Israel in Egypt was an interesting, largely successful experiment, but it was ill-matched to its audience: a 45-minute anthem, whether sad or cheerful, might be tolerated (or even relished) at an appropriate church service, but a vast span of largely undifferentiated choral music was beyond the scope of London’s relatively impatient theatre audience. The circumstances of the 1739 season meant that Handel’s audience (p.324) still came to his productions with operatic expectations: the ‘oratorio audience’ as such had not yet developed. In modern times Israel in Egypt has been better appreciated, but it nevertheless may always remain more highly regarded by its performers than by its audience. The oratorio has many striking features and shows Handel’s mastery of the Baroque grand manner. The fine music of the Funeral Anthem in Part 1 is well balanced by Part 3, which begins with a harmonic gesture that no doubt made the audience sit up (EX. 38). The arias in Part 3 are relatively undistinguished, and the bass duet ‘The Lord is a Man of War’, which became popular in the nineteenth century, seems altogether too long for its material.45 But there is ample compensation in the choruses, where Handel disports himself with every choral texture in his repertory – fugues, cantus firmus themes with faster-moving countermelodies, antiphonal double choirs, thunderous choral homophony and so on. The chorus movements also carry most of the pictorial descriptions, to texts such as ‘with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together’, ‘the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea’, ‘They sank into the bottom as a stone’, ‘The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea’, and ‘He led them through the deep’. Rough seas are a recurring image in the psalm texts that Handel had set in the Cannons anthems, an experience that stood him in good stead when faced with ‘But the waters overwhelmed their enemies’, where timpani are used in the orchestral accompaniment without trumpets.

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 38

(p.325) Many melodic and harmonic ideas in Israel in Egypt were indebted to works by Alessandro Stradella and Dionigi Erba, who might have been surprised about the use to which they were put. The most extensive single ‘borrowing’ is from a keyboard canzona by Johann Kaspar Kerll, which Handel may have learnt in his youth under Zachow in Halle, and which he used note-for-note in the chorus ‘Egypt was glad when they departed’. He may have been attracted to this rather undistinguished music for its archaic quality, which lent a serious tone to the work: he adopted a similar style, though to much broader effect and with a more flexible use of contrapuntal material, in the chorus ‘And the Children of Israel sigh’d’. Alternatively, its use may be semi-ironic, the colourless modality reflecting the Egyptians’ glum acceptance that they were better off without the Israelites. Elsewhere Handel brought a light touch to the description of the plagues and their consequences: the theme of ‘He led them through the deep’ (EX. 39) and the opening of the ‘Hailstones’ chorus have probably always made audiences wonder about the seriousness of Handel’s intentions, while the figural orchestral accompaniments to ‘And there came all manner of flies’ and ‘Their land brought forth frogs’ are among the plainest evidence for Handel’s musical sense of humour.

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 39

Church Music

Handel’s church music of the 1730s was produced for royal family occasions – weddings and a funeral. The timetable for these events was capricious, and often music was required to be produced at short notice. In 1733, for the wedding of Princess Anne, Handel probably composed his anthem (This is the day) very quickly, but it was then put aside for a time, as the failure of the prospective bridegroom’s health postponed the ceremony until the next year. It is perhaps not surprising that Handel turned to the score of Athalia as a source for the Wedding Anthem: the (p.326) oratorio contained fine choruses and arias but had not yet been heard in London. The adaptation of the music for the anthem turned out surprisingly well: the grand chorus from the opening of Part 2 of Athalia, with a new text grafted on, provided the opening, and four substantial arias were used in the following sequence of movements.46 Only in the case of ‘Her children rise up’ was there a questionable match between the old music and the character of the new text: here Handel’s thinking was probably dominated by the desire to introduce some minor-key contrast into the anthem as a whole. A new chorus, ‘We will remember thy name’ (with thematic material that Handel had used elsewhere),47 led with no apparent stylistic incongruity into a final ‘Allelujah, Amen’, transcribed from the last movement of the ‘Caroline’ Te Deum composed 20 years earlier.

It is perhaps surprising that Handel did not put more original creative effort into the anthem for the wedding of his favourite, most musical and most loyal pupil, yet this ‘pasticcio-anthem’ seems to cohere more successfully than the more original Sing unto God that he produced for the Prince of Wales’s wedding two years later. Sing unto God is not lacking in good music: the opening chorus and the first aria are excellent; the following bass solo with cello obbligato is worthy enough, if a little prolix; and the central chorus (derived from a movement by C. H. Graun) is effective, though stolid. The final chorus is transcribed from Parnasso in festa, with Carestini’s original solo part in the serenata adapted for the tenor John Beard. The anthem’s design seems lopsided because, after a chain of arias, the last two choruses are separated only by a short accompagnato; on the other hand, the substantial chorus movements have earned for the anthem some popularity with present-day choral societies.

Handel had only ten days in which to compose his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, The ways of Zion do mourn, but it shows no sign of constriction or carelessness: it is a masterpiece in its own right, and in many (p.327) respects unique, since it has no exact predecessors or successors. The last state funeral in London to involve a considerable musical contribution had been that for the Duke of Marlborough in 1722, for which Bononcini had composed the anthem When Saul was king.48 That was on relatively conventional lines – comparable in plan, though not in scale or mood, to Handel’s wedding anthems – with outer choruses framing a duet, an accompagnato and an aria.49 Handel adopted a very different, and novel, scheme for the Funeral Anthem in 1737: The ways of Zion is entirely choral (i.e. a ‘full’ anthem’ with no movements for vocal soloists), accompanied by oboes, bassoons and strings. Its character has been somewhat disguised by the fact that Arnold’s printed edition of 1795 (which formed the basis for many subsequent ones) allocated two movements to soloists, probably reflecting a practice that had evolved in later eighteenth-century concert performances. There is no indication of soloists in the primary sources for the anthem: it is possible that Handel employed a semi-chorus of the best Chapel Royal singers for some leading chorus entries,50 though in the earliest sources there is no evidence even for this. There was a striking precedent for ‘full’ funeral music in William Croft’s setting of the Burial Service (published in 1724):51 but it is a far cry from Croft’s relatively short, chaste (though moving) a cappella burial sentences to Handel’s solemn, extended paean with orchestral accompaniment. The Funeral Anthem is a companion piece to the Coronation Anthems from ten years earlier, but the grand manner is now controlled by the nature of the subject and by the restrained scoring, orchestral and vocal. Handel has all four vocal parts active most of the time, relying on contrasts of texture, speed and metre to supply variety without disturbing the general mood. There is only one passage of fast-changing contrasts, at ‘Their bodies are buried in peace/but their name liveth evermore’ (EX. 40 overleaf ) where a piano/forte (and implied slow/fast) contrast foreshadows ‘Since by Man came death’ in Messiah.


The Music, 1732–41

EX. 40

This passage is also interesting in that the music of ‘but their name liveth evermore’ borrows (or perhaps quotes) from a motet by Jacob Gallus (or Handl; 1550–91): the effect of the chord on the flat seventh, though certainly archaic, heightens the solemnity, and is thus an appropriate use of tonally ‘dissociated’ chords (in terms of the Baroque style). In other ways, too, the Funeral Anthem’s music, while sensitive to its English texts, seems to have taken Handel back to his German origins – to the Passion music and possibly the funeral services that he had heard in Hamburg and Halle; he may also have been moved by the thought that Queen Caroline had been brought up in the same Lutheran culture as himself. His recent convalescent trip to the continent probably brought him into renewed contact with German church music, and in particular with pieces using chorale-based melodies. In the opening chorus of the anthem the cantus firmus is treated in chorale-fantasia style, and in another movement, ‘She deliver’d the poor that cried’, incorporates a near-quotation of an actual chorale melody, at the words ‘Kindness, meekness and comfort were in her tongue’. When he revised his Chapel Royal anthem As pants the hart for inclusion in his ‘Oratorio’ of March 1738, Handel added a movement indebted to Zachow, reflecting renewed contact with the German chorale prelude tradition (EX. 41). Although the ‘chorale’ element is of (p.329) technical interest in the Funeral Anthem, it is, however, only one feature in a rich work that draws upon many categories of musical ideas, from conventional fugue to transformed dance rhythms. Handel succeeded in conveying the heartfelt emotions of mourning without lapsing into the melodramatically morbid, and matched the dignified gravitas of the subject without limiting himself to slow tempos and minor keys. In the autograph of the anthem he subsequently wrote equivalent Italian texts in pencil for many of the movements, producing a complete, though shorter, version of the work.52 This was probably intended for performance at Handel’s benefit ‘Oratorio’ in March 1738, but the King apparently refused permission for it to be performed on that occasion.53 The Italian version merits revival, though it is difficult to forget the eloquence of Handel’s treatment of the English text.

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 41

(p.330) Instrumental Music

The decade was a fruitful one for Handel’s instrumental music. The publication in about 1732–3 of Solos for a German Flute a Hoboy or Violin with a Thorough Bass (subsequently designated ‘op.1’) and the Trio Sonatas op.2 brought to the wider public, in a collected form, instrumental works that Handel had mostly composed considerably earlier.54 Comparison with the composer’s autographs reveals that the publisher redistributed the allocation of the instruments for the solo sonatas, with transposition where necessary, in order to provide for players of the violin, oboe, flute and recorder.55 Although these editions are tantalizing because the contents pose many puzzles on account of uncertainties about the origin and treatment of their sources, the publications of Handel’s instrumental music have a different level of significance from the printed editions of songs from his operas or oratorios. In most cases, Walsh’s collections of songs reveal little about the development of the works concerned, presumably because his copy-texts preserved nothing of the composition histories that can be retraced from Handel’s autographs and performing scores. For the sonatas and concertos of opp.1–3 (as also with the keyboard music) the printed editions, with all their visible and hidden faults, have to be considered among the primary sources. From op. 4 onwards, furthermore, the published collections were issued with the composer’s authority: the copy-texts were supplied by Handel and in some cases may have been overseen by him in some detail.56

The Concerti Grossi op.3 were published in 1734: the first newspaper advertisement for them appeared in December, but the set had been prepared somewhat earlier, for early versions of the title page (possibly never issued) carry a note that ‘Several of these Concertos’ were performed at (p.331) the royal wedding earlier in the year.57 (If they were used for the wedding, they would probably have been played before or after, rather than during, the ceremony.) Like the Solos and trio sonatas, the concerti were derived from earlier works – the overtures to the Cannons anthems and concertos composed during the preceding 20 years.58 Rather confusingly, Six Fugues or Voluntaries, a collection of Handel’s keyboard fugues, was also published by Walsh as his ‘Troisieme Ovarage’ (sic) in 1735, this being the third collection of his keyboard music following on from the sets of suites published in 1720 and 1733.59 The fugues had mainly been composed during the ‘Cannons’ period, and were the residue from a larger repertory after some fugues had been incorporated into the First Collection of suites. In contrast to the fugues of J. S. Bach, Handel’s tend to keep the subject-theme (and all ‘voices’) going most of the time, with few contrasts in melodic content or texture.

The suites in the 1733 collection had been composed earlier those of the 1720 set and had not been similarly reviewed by the composer before publication.60 The result is rather untidy, but some good music is included. The first suite, in B♭, is one of the best. It begins with an arpeggiated prelude of the type that represents only a shorthand trace of Handel’s intentions in the notation, and which he had replaced in the suites of the 1720 set. This is followed by an engaging ‘Sonata’, which looks plain on paper but is remarkably effective in performance, and an aria with five variations.61 As published, the suite closes with a minuet which, in G (p.332) minor, seems off-key, but Handel did not intend it for this suite: it is the relic of a keyboard overture whose opening movements had been used up in Suite no.7 of the 1720 collection. For the publication Walsh was reliant on sources in which some of the suites appeared in earlier forms, or lacking a movement, so the music texts need to be interpreted or reconstructed from manuscript sources. Two of the suites are taken up with enormous chaconnes. The G major chaconne with 21 variations that constitutes the second suite has a complex history of variant forms, one of which was an organ concerto version in the late 1730s.62

By 1733 Handel’s career as a composer of written-out solo keyboard music was largely over, but the two suites (which have the conventional sequences of dance movements) that he composed for Princess Louisa at the end of the decade (HWV 447, 452) are engaging; the D minor one, though rather modest at first sight, has points of compositional subtlety (including some cross-relationships between movements) that bear comparison with some of the more innocent-looking yet complex movements in the suites of J. S. Bach. Similar concentration of style is apparent in the cantata Quel fior, che all’alba ride (HWV 192) whose autograph seems to be associated with the suites, and may also have been composed for the Princesses. A further possible connection comes with the Italian cantata Crudel tiranno Amor in a short-score version from the 1730s, where Handel wrote out chord realizations for the recitatives and right-hand cues for the violin parts in the arias (HWV 97b): perhaps, after suitable instruction, the Princesses accompanied their own singing on the harpsichord.63

The appearance of some of Handel’s earlier instrumental music in printed sets during 1733–5 had a pleasing consequence: the publications set up a train of demand (or perhaps a train of expectation – the facts of the market are difficult to determine) which led to further sets of original works. As noted in chapter 9, Handel collected together the organ concertos that he had written for the oratorios of 1735–6 and published them as op.4; a set of trio sonatas (op.5) followed, and the sequence was crowned (p.333) by the 12 Concerti Grossi op.6. The theatre organ concerto was an innovation, even though Handel had hinted at its possibilities as long ago as 1707, with the Sonata in Il trionfo del Tempo. It is perhaps curious that it had taken 28 years for the idea to bear fruit, though in a rather different form. In the Sonata the organ is a concertante instrument, engaging in dialogue with other soloists in a chamber-orchestra context, but in the London concertos the organ alternates with the full weight of the theatre orchestra. The concertos are engagingly lighthearted, and, Handel’s own executant virtuosity notwithstanding, they came to publication in a form that could be played by other musicians, including the more competent amateurs. They were printed in independent arrangements for solo keyboard, which could be used in conjunction with the orchestral parts (see fig. 11, p. 249). Handel participated to some extent in tidying up the concertos for publication, but even so nos.1 and 3 are rather less coherent than nos.2, 4 and 5.64 In terms of musical composition, no.4 is the most developed of the set. It begins with a lively ritornello movement (the theme of which relates to a contemporary chorus movement in Alcina), followed by an Andante which commences in the style of contemporary English ‘Diapason’ movements and subsequently develops solo filigree-work in triplet semiquavers. A short Adagio (which may give some idea of the style of Handel’s improvised slow movements) then leads into a vigorous finale, which opens as if promising to be a fugue but, typically of Handel, instead uses imitative techniques to impart strength and variety to the music without becoming ends in themselves. The imitative subject may have been suggested in the first place by the ‘Alleluia’ text of the chorus that originally concluded the movement.65 Op.4 no.6, though published as an organ concerto (and attaining some popularity as such), was really a harp concerto from Alexander’s Feast: its published text even includes notes above the range of the English organ of Handel’s time.66

(p.334) The ‘Second Set’ of organ concertos that was published in 1740 (without orchestral parts) contained two fine and original works, followed by four keyboard arrangements of orchestral concertos from op.6. It is sad that thereafter Handel apparently lost interest in publishing his later organ concertos, with the result that most of them lack fully authentic performing versions; their success relies on the modern player’s ability to approach Handel’s powers of improvisation. In order to maximize the sales potential, Walsh named the harpsichord as an alternative solo instrument on the title pages of his publications for organ, and no doubt most of the eighteenth-century purchasers tried out the music at home on the harpsichord, but Handel composed no original harpsichord concertos as such. The first of the ‘Second Set’ concertos is sometimes known as ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’, and certainly the treble-register warblings in the organ part in the episodes of the second movement have affinities with birdcalls. Handel presumably had an attractive flute stop for this type of passage, which was not a novelty in this concerto: similar music, though perhaps not so explicitly cuckoo-like, can be found in the first movement of op.4 no.4. Handel completed the ‘Second Set’ concerto on 2 April 1739, early in the cuckoo season. The magnificent concerto with pedals (HWV 306), composed early in 1740, had to wait until after Handel’s death for publication, though even then it is difficult to imagine its market, in the absence of suitable organs or players familiar with the music’s unusual demands: in addition to the opening flourishes, the ensuing passacaglia movement contains a passage with some genuine three-stave writing, designated by Handel with the Bach-like formula ‘Organo a 2 Clav e Pedale’.

The seven Trio Sonatas op.5 are a mixed bag. For the collection, which was presumably assembled under his general supervision, Handel drew on two principal areas of preexisting music, from sources that could be reduced to the trio texture without too much difficulty. The first area was the music from those overtures to the Cannons anthems that had not already been used in op.3; the second was the dance music from his operas of 1734–5. The dance movements give the set a rather French aspect, though the two new, original sonatas that Handel seems to have composed specially for op.5 (nos.5 and 6) were closer to the Italian four- (p.335) movement model.67 Op.5 no.4 seems incongruous, consisting mainly of the overture to Athalia, followed by an impressive Passacaille that had come from Radamisto via Terpsicore: the music is fine, but its orchestral origins are apparent through the trio-sonata disguise. In general, however, the individual sonatas of op.5 are successful and engaging, despite the diverse origins of their constituent movements.

There was nothing casual or haphazard about the construction of op.6: the 12 concertos that Handel produced in a concentrated burst of activity during the autumn of 1739 constitute one of the marvels of eighteenth-century instrumental music. Their status is not undermined by the fact that they were to some extent modelled on Corelli’s op.6 and that in them Handel covertly reworked a number of thematic stimulants from Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard Essercizi, published in London in 1738.68 His use of the Corellian multimovement model for the concertos, with a ‘trio sonata’ concertino, rather than the Vivaldian three-movement plan with virtuoso solo parts, may reflect both his own taste and his assessment of the likely market for sales. As he came towards composing the end of the set, Handel drew more on his own recyclable material, and it is significant that he selected only music that was of good quality and recent vintage – the A major ‘Second Set’ organ concerto for no.11, and one movement each from the other ‘Second Set’ concerto and from the overture to Imeneo for no.9. In the first two movements of no.5 Handel also reused, in slightly amended form, most of the overture to his Song for St Cecilia’s Day, composed just over a month earlier. The concertos include some memorable tunes (EX. 42), but the set as a whole is a triumph of balance and compositional skill rather than of melodic invention. The multi-movement schemes generally build up around an Italianate slow-fast-slow-fast plan, but each evolves in terms of the internal balance of its own material – here a dance movement is introduced, there a fugue, and so on – so that every concerto has its own individual ‘world’. The music is by turns serious, witty, impassioned and lighthearted – given that such (p.336) terms refer, in instrumental music, to analogies rather than to strict representations. The concertino-ripieno contrast is of varying importance, crucial in some movements but irrelevant in others. There an embarras de richesse in op.6 that prevents any simple summary of its 60 or more carefully wrought and individually characterized movements. Handel’s sensitivity and craftsmanship are readily apparent when any one of the 12 concertos is compared with the ‘Alexander’s Feast concerto’

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 42a

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 42b


(HWV 318) of 1736 – a cheerful, extrovert, unself-conscious work. The latter is theatre interval music, which subsequently saw publication; the op.6 concertos, by contrast, are artworks that Handel incidentally used as interval music at his oratorio performances. They were intended for publication from the start, and, like Corelli’s op. 6, they were intended to be compendious in their variety. In the matter of keys Handel outdid his model: his set has concertos in 11 different keys (against 6 in Corelli’s), and six concertos, half of the total number, in minor keys (against just two in Corelli’s).

One of the remarkable features of the op.6 concertos is the quality of the finished article: Handel composed them quickly, but there is nothing slapdash about the musical workmanship. The extent to which the Scarlatti borrowings are buried, integrated into the Handelian style, is a measure of the compositional subtlety that was at work. The opening of the first concerto also provides a good example of Handel going one better than himself: he took an idea from the original (and eventually discarded) first movement of the overture in the draft score of Imeneo and improved it beyond recognition simply by amending the details (EX. 43). In the liveliness of their ideas, the balance and variety of movements within each work and fluency of compositional technique, the op.6 concertos show Handel on top form as a composer of instrumental music. They are, indeed, one of the principal jewels of the Baroque concerto repertory.

In December 1740, at the end of the year that had seen the appearance of Op. 6, Walsh published a set of six concertos, the Fourth Collection in his series under the title Select Harmony which had begun in 1730; previous sets had been devoted to concertos by Vivaldi, Albinoni and Geminiani. The Fourth Collection’s title page named the composers as ‘Mr. Handel, Tartini and Veracini’, and the first item was Handel’s Alexander’s Feast concerto. No composer was named for the second and third concertos, but Concerto 3 was a four-movement work (HWV 302a) assembled from the sonata-overtures to Handel’s Cannons Anthems. It is not known whether Handel approved the arrangement, though it makes an effective piece for oboe and strings. It was published in the Händelgesellschaft edition as an ‘oboe concerto’, along with the unattributed Concerto 2 from Select Harmony (HWV 301) and another oboe concerto which had been attributed to Handel in a nineteenth-century publication


The Music, 1732–41

EX. 43a

The Music, 1732–41

EX. 43b

(HWV 287).69 It is unlikely that HWV 301 is by Handel, but an independent manuscript source supports the authenticity of HWV 287, which may have been composed in Hamburg around 1704-5, with either flute or oboe as the obbligato instrument. In view of the significant oboe parts for Kytch in the operas and the Chapel Royal music of the 1720s, it is perhaps surprising that we have no mature oboe concerto from Handel – or indeed any solo violin concerto for Castrucci.


(2) Compare Winton Dean’s comment (Handel and the Opera Seria, p. 57) that Siroe, Poro and Ezio ‘contain scarcely a dull aria’.

(3) The description of a ‘pathetic and lugubrious’ opera in a letter to Princess Anne (see King, ‘Handel’s Travels’, pp. 384–5) I believe refers to Arminio in 1737, rather than Ariodante in 1735.

(4) Strohm, ‘Comic Traditions in Handel’s Orlando’, in Strohm, Essays on Handel, pp. 249–67.

(5) By Anthony Hicks, in his insert notes for the recording of Orlando conducted by Christopher Hogwood (1991).

(6) By 1740 the Minuet had already been published twice in song versions (to different sets of words), where it was described as a ‘Favourite Air’, ‘Favourite Minuet’ or ‘Celebrated Air’.

(7) Bar counts refer to the aria as performed in 1735: Handel subsequently shortened it.

(9) ‘Though it contains many pleasing and excellent compositions, it is by no means to be ranked with Handel’s best dramatic productions’ (Burney, A General History, ii, p. 823).

(10) Earl of Shaftesbury to James Harris, 4 May 1738, B&D, p. 49.

(11) A possible candidate is Angelo Corri, who is known to have been associated with the operas at the King’s Theatre at this period.

(12) The praise lavished on the tree’s qualities (based on a passage from Herodotus) indeed seems overdrawn; it obviously appeared so to the author of the introductory paragraph in the word-book, who was probably also the English translator of the libretto.

(13) First performed Rome, 1694; the libretto, by Nicolò Minato, was written originally for Cavalli (Venice, 1655). On Handel’s indebtedness to Bononcini’s score, see Powers, ‘Il Serse transformato’. The score of Bononcini’s setting is published in Roberts (ed.), Handel Sources, viii.

(14) First sung by William Savage, formerly the treble soloist in Alcina.

(15) Perversely, this aria was transferred to Imeneo in Handel’s revival of the opera (as a serenata) in Dublin in 1742.

(16) At Covent Garden Handel seems to have employed additional chorus singers to join with the soloists; in Imeneo, however, the choral group appears to have been independent of the three principals.

(18) Similarly ‘modern’ is Handel’s approach to the final vocal cadence in the A section of ‘Con l’ali di costanza’ in Ariodante.

(19) Bass arias in the operas also sometimes prompted contrapuntal textures, as in, for example, ‘Braccio si valoroso’ (Scipione), ‘Ti vedrò regnar’ (Riccardo Primo) and ‘Se ti condanno’ (Arianna).

(21) This is especially true of Caio Fabricio, Arbace, Didone, Lucio Papirio and Catone: the origins of the 1720 pasticcios were more diverse.

(22) The construction of these works, and of Jupiter in Argos, can be followed in HHB, vol. iii (entries for HWV A11, A13 and A14). Oreste is published in HHA II/Sup.1.

(23) E.g. the opening movement of Zadok the priest became ‘God is our hope’.

(24) British Library RM 20.h.2.

(25) It is unclear what music, if any, was originally used as the overture to Deborah: the introduction to the first chorus may conceivably have been the work’s only instrumental prelude.

(27) Handel bequeathed £100 to Hamilton in the first (1756) codicil to his will; see also Loewenthal, ‘Handel and Newburgh Hamilton’.

(28) It seems probable that HWV 166, as we now have it, is a fragment from a longer cantata, so perhaps more of HWV 89 may also have been indebted to the earlier work.

(29) At one stage Handel also planned to repeat the chorus ‘The list’ning crowd’ after the aria ‘With ravish’d ears’, but this plan never came to performance: he probably judged, and rightly so, that it would have robbed the ‘chorus-sandwich’ at the end of Part 1 of its effect. See Burrows, ‘The Composition and First Performance’.

(30) For revivals after 1739 Handel altered the form of the movement, eliding the da capo. After 1742 he also divided the music between the voices, giving the B section to an alto. See Burrows, ‘Handel and “Alexander’s Feast”’, and the preface to Handel (ed. Burrows), Alexander’s Feast.

(31) Handel copied Dryden’s title at the top of his autograph: the work is now often referred to as Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day or ‘From harmony, from heavn’ly harmony’, the first line of its text. The ‘Ode’ title was used in the advertisements for Handel’s first performances and in the edition of the music that was published a month later.

(32) Handel reckoned the final ‘double-length’ bar as only one bar in his computation; he had to insert a section into the chorus to achieve his aim, and marked the 100-bar landmark at the end of the insertion. Elsewhere occasional Handel’s bar-counts merely record movement totals.

(33) For the text of Harris’s original, see B&D, pp. 1075–85. Harris’s letter of 6 January 1740 (B&D, p. 85) explains his scheme for the alternation of the poems.

(34) Correspondence, 29 December 1739 to 15 January 1740, B&D, pp. 82–9. See also Burrows, ‘From Milton to Handel’.

(35) Letter to Edward Holdsworth, 4 February 1742 (partly quoted HHB, p. 344).

(36) I am indebted to Anthony Hicks for pointing out that these lines are adapted from Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, lines 64–8).

(37) As explained in chapter 11, it is unlikely that Mrs Cibber performed in L’Allegro under Handel in Dublin, so the music that he wrote for her must relate to the 1743 London version.

(38) The participation of trombones may have influenced Handel in his choice of C major as the tonal reference point: he also used C major for most of the large choruses with trombones in Israel in Egypt.

(39) Letter of 19 September 1738 (quoted in chapter 9).

(41) It is possible that the alteration in the plan for the use of the Funeral Anthem was influenced by the King’s opposition to the inclusion of the anthem in Handel’s benefit performance in March 1738 (see p. 329): if there was some sensitivity over the use of the anthem, it may have been considered more appropriate to apply it to Joseph than to Saul and Jonathan.

(42) Letter of 10 July 1741: see p. 340.

(43) John Roberts has suggested that ‘Moses’ Song’ may initially have been composed as an independent extended anthem; this does not, however, affect the general hypothesis about the development of the scheme for Israel in Egypt. The short interval between the completion of ‘Moses’ Song’ and the composition of Part 2 suggests that the scheme was known by the time Handel finished the ‘Song’.

(44) E.g. in the chorus ‘He spake the word’, which provides a good example also of Handel’s precise directions for the use of the two organs.

(45) The duet was sung, on the occasion of at least one Crystal Palace performance, by the full chorus basses, no doubt with more than 100 voices on each part.

(47) The opening theme is derived from the ritornello subject of the Sonata for organ and orchestra in Il trionfo del Tempo (1707), via a minor-key version in ‘The clouded scene begins to clear’ from Athalia. Both, however, lack the more contrapuntal continuation of ‘Therefore shall the people give praise’ in the anthem.

(48) There had been no state funeral for King George I in 1727: he was buried in Germany.

(49) See Bononcini, When Saul Was King, ed. A. Ford (music edition, Sevenoaks, 1982).

(50) Compare his practice in the Coronation Anthems (see p. 203), but there was probably no need for this in King Henry VII’s Chapel.

(51) Croft’s music remains the ‘classic’ choral setting of the Funeral Sentences in the Anglican rite: it was sung at Handel’s funeral in 1759 and at the state funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.

(52) The Italian version is published in full in HHA III/12; the first modern performance was given at Portsmouth in 2009.

(53) See the Earl of Shaftesbury’s letter to James Harris, 14 March 1738: B&D, p. 43.

(54) See Burrows, ‘Walsh’s Editions’. The form of title for the ‘Solos’ quoted here is from the ‘Walsh’ title page and is more or less a translation of the spurious ‘Roger’ version. The Solos never appeared with ‘op.1’ on the title page, perhaps because they were not originally seen as part of a series, though they were referred to as such in Walsh’s advertisements; the trio sonatas were from the start published as ‘Second Ouvrage’.

(56) Handel’s basso continuo figurings in the autograph of the fourth movement of op.6 no. 9 (HWV 327), for example, seem to relate specifically to those printed in Walsh’s edition: see the commentary to Imeneo (HHA II/40), p. 281.

(57) Walsh’s wording of the main title for op.3 was based, rather inappropriately, on that of Corelli’s op.6.

(58) The two-movement concerto that Walsh published as op.3 no.6 may not have any authority from the composer. Its first movement was used by Handel in Ottone and had been split away from a three-movement concerto (see chapter 7, n. 44); the second, for keyboard and orchestra, has a complex history and may, in its ‘op.3’ form, have been composed as an isolated organ concerto movement. See Burrows, ‘Walsh’s Editions’.

(59) The first advertisement for the Six Fugues appeared in May 1735.

(60) The earliest known advertisement for the Second Collection of suites appeared in 1734, but it may have been prepared towards the end of 1732 and was almost certainly first published in 1733. A previously accepted publication date of 1727 is now known to be incorrect: see Terence Best’s review of the publication history in HHA IV/5 (1999 edition) and HHA IV/7.

(61) More than a century later, Brahms used the aria theme as the basis of his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel op.24.

(62) See Handel (ed. Best), Chaconne in G for Keyboard, which gives two versions of the chaconne and elucidates its history.

(64) This is a remarkable tribute to op.4 no.5, which was arranged from the Recorder Sonata HWV 369 in a very straightforward manner, with the simple addition of orchestral ritornellos.

(65) The ‘Alleluja’ ending (originally for the 1735 revival of Athalia) is printed in HHA IV/2 (revised ed., 2001), which also has a facsimile of the page of the autograph on which Handel provided the alternative conclusion for Walsh’s edition.

(66) Bound in a volume of Handel’s autographs (British Library RM 20.g.13) is an adaptation of the solo part for organ in the hand of J. C. Smith the younger.

(67) Between Handel’s autograph and Walsh’s publication, nos.5 and 6 became more ‘Frenchified’ through the addition of extra movements, probably at Walsh’s instigation: see Burrows, ‘Walsh’s Editions’.