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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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Music for Germany and Italy, 1706–10

Music for Germany and Italy, 1706–10

(p.57) Chapter Three Music for Germany and Italy, 1706–10

Donald Burrows

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks into the earliest efforts of the musical composition of George Frideric Handel in order to determine his starting genre and style. It begins with an examination of Almira, which provides the basis for stylistic judgments about his early music. According to the complementing libretto, Almira is classified as a ‘Sing-Spiel’. The score shows Handel applying the style he learned during his time at Halle: contrapuntal and over-ornate but generally characterized by a strong harmonic progression. The chapter then discusses Dixit Dominus, where the elements of his grand style can all be seen — the chordal outbursts, and a variety of choral textures: straightforward imitation; counterpoint on two subjects; the interplay of answering and combining voices; closely overlapping vocal entries; and one voice versus the rest. Some of these elements are also found on his other works composed in Italy, where Handel emerged as a true composer of concerted music for choir and orchestra.

Keywords:   George Frideric Handel, Almira, stylistic judgments, Sing-Spiel, contrapuntal, over-ornate, harmonic progression, Dixit Dominus, chordal outbursts, choral textures

HANDEL’S EARLIEST EFFORTS AT COMPOSITION ARE LOST, THOUGH WE could make some guesses about their genres and style from the works of those composers that he studied during his musical education – Zachow, and the composers represented in his 1698 copy-book. His earliest surviving musical autograph is of the F major setting of Laudate pueri Dominum (HWV 236). This is unlikely to have been written in Halle, where Latin was banished from the major churches as a liturgical language after 1700, and in any case the autograph is written on paper types that might have been available in Hamburg but not in Halle. The motet-type setting of the text for soprano-clef voice accompanied by strings (without violas) presents obvious parallels with some of Handel’s Italy compositions, and it is plausible that the work was composed in Italy not long before Dixit Dominus, using paper that Handel had brought with him. However, the possibility still remains open that it was composed in Hamburg, for an occasion and performers as yet unidentified.1 That Handel did compose some substantial music in Halle is fairly certain, however. He may have tried his hand at orchestrally accompanied German church cantatas of the type that Zachow wrote: it seems that, on high festivals, Zachow had about 25 musicians at his disposal.2 (p.58) Pastor Neumeister’s new-style German sacred cantata texts were reprinted in Halle in 1705, after Handel’s departure, but an important literary influence in the preceding period may have been Barthold Heinrich Brockes from Hamburg, who studied at Halle University in 1700–2 and arranged weekly concerts in his apartment there. Brockes is now best known for his Passion text; musical performances of the Passion were a particular tradition in Hamburg, to which city he returned in 1704.

The loss of much of Handel’s music from his first 25 years has been lamented for more than two centuries, beginning with Mainwaring’s Memoirs:3

A great quantity of music … was made in Italy and Germany. How much of it is yet in being, is not known. Two chests-full were left at HAMBURGH, besides some at HANOVER, and some at HALL.

During his continuance at Hamburgh, he made a considerable number of Sonatas. But what became of these pieces he never could learn, having been so imprudent as to let them go out of his hands.

A small harvest of music composed before Handel’s journey to Italy can, however, be gathered from secondary – and sometimes much later – manuscripts. On a copy of the trio sonata op.2 no.2 (HWV 387) that originated in the 1730s, Charles Jennens wrote ‘Compos’d at the Age of 14’, and, since Jennens was an acquaintance of the composer, the information no doubt came from Handel himself.4 If it is correct, Ex. 1 seems to represent our earliest surviving bars of Handel’s music. A set of six trio sonatas, probably composed about the turn of the century and later brought to London by Carl Friedrich Weidemann, a flautist in Handel’s opera orchestra, is reputed to have elicited the response from Handel to the effect that he ‘used to write like the devil in those days, and mainly for oboe’, but unfortunately the works themselves (HWV 380–5), on grounds of provenance and style, do not seem very likely to be by Handel.5 On (p.59)

Music for Germany and Italy, 1706–10

EX. 1

stylistic evidence, a few keyboard works may also be attributed to Handel’s early years, probably originating in Hamburg.6

The basis for stylistic judgments about the music of Handel’s early years is his opera Almira (1705). Opera occupies so fundamental a position in Handel’s output that a brief description of the principal musical forms used in Baroque opera is appropriate here. The basic building blocks are recitative and aria. Recitative at this period has two forms. Recitativo semplice (‘simple’ or, less happily, secco, i.e. ‘dry’, recitative) is the basic, fast-moving, conversational style, in which the voices are accompanied by a simple continuo bass consisting of a chord-playing instrument (usually the harpsichord, occasionally a lute), sometimes partnered by a bass instrument such as the cello. Though conventionally notated in common time, semplice recitative was intended to be flexible in the manner of its delivery, according to the dramatic action. Recitativo accompagnato (or just ‘accompagnato’) is a more measured type of recitative, accompanied by strings and generally appropriate for soliloquies. The fundamental form for the display of solo singers’ musical virtuosity was, however, the aria or air, an extended solo song with orchestral or (less frequently) continuo accompaniment. The ‘classic’ aria form was the so-called ‘da capo’ aria, although there were also alternative, shorter musical structures. This name relates to the return of the opening music in the final section (the ‘da capo’), giving an overall ABA pattern. The Italian aria texts (usually in rhymed verse) were regularly constructed to (p.60) accommodate this scheme: an initial self-contained idea was followed by a few lines (usually two or four) of verse that extended or developed the theme or mood. These additional lines became the musical B section, after which the A section was repeated, usually providing an opportunity for the singer to enhance the delivery by, for example, ornamenting the melodic lines in a display of virtuosity. The da capo aria had a conventional key structure: the A section ended in the tonic key and was often cast in binary form with two full statements of the text, one modulating away from the tonic and the second one returning to it. The B section usually contrasted with the A section in key, and sometimes in scoring and tempo as well. The A section was usually framed with an orchestral prelude and postlude, often described as a ritornello, or (in England especially) a ‘symphony’, though these words are also used for orchestral interjections in the course of an aria: a ritornello could be used effectively, for example, between the two text-statements of the A section and, more prosaically, provided the opportunity for the singer to recover breath.

The music of Handel’s Almira survives almost complete.7 The score is complemented by printed librettos associated with the original 1705 production, which describe the work as a ‘Sing-Spiel’. There was a large cast in Hamburg – three sopranos, three tenors and two basses – and seven of the eight characters (including a comic servant) have arias in Italian as well as German. (These included Mattheson, in the role of Fernando.) The arias for the two leading ladies Almira and Edilia are technically demanding, with Edilia’s part requiring considerable agility above the staff, but some of the difficulties do not serve any very positive musical or dramatic ends. As a whole, the score shows Handel applying and adapting the style in which he had been trained – sometimes rather contrapuntal (e.g. ‘Liebliche Wälder’), sometimes rather over-ornate (e.g. in the introduction to ‘Chi più mi piace io voglio’, or bars 10–11 of ‘Schönste Rosen’), but generally characterized by strong harmonic progressions. Mattheson’s descriptions of the transitional process in Handel’s musical development, quoted on page 21, seem to fit the musical evidence, even though proper musical models from the pretransitional period are lacking. Some of the more ornate elements may reflect French influence, which perhaps Handel did not even recognize as such since it had been integrated into the common musical habits of (p.61) northern and central Germany. Conventional French-style influence is more explicit in the dance music of Acts 1 and 3. Certainly, Handel seems to have learnt in Hamburg, if not before, that Italian (or Italian-German) operas conventionally began with a ‘French Overture’,8 and the understanding of its style that he brought with him from Hamburg may lie behind his subsequent reported contretemps with Corelli in Rome.

As an example of Handelian opera, Almira contrasts strongly with his subsequent works by virtue of its origin: the Hamburg opera house provided a good night out at the theatre for an audience that expected an element of ‘high-art’ singing but did not necessarily give that element priority. The plot provides a romp of mistaken messages, jealousies, conflicting emotional intentions: it is finally resolved by the last-minute revelation of the royal lineage of a shipwrecked orphan. The comic servant Tabarco and the spectacular courtly scenes (the coronation at the beginning of the opera and the Pageant of the Continents in Act 3) were important elements in an all-round entertainment, incorporating variety, dancing and spectacle. The libretto, by Friedrich Christian Feustking, has a complex history: Feustking, working in Hamburg, translated and adapted Almira from an Italian libretto, and it was set in various forms by Keiser in the years 1703–6, both before and after Handel’s version.9 One of Keiser’s versions was produced at Weissenfels in 1704, another in Hamburg the year after Handel’s. Whether there was any actual rivalry between the two composers is uncertain, but on balance unlikely: the next production in the Hamburg opera programme seems to have fallen to whichever score was available and most appropriate to the circumstances of the moment. Handel was ready with Almira at the right time in the 1704–5 season and saw it through to performance himself: the opera may even have been requested by the managers to fill a hiatus during Keiser’s absence.10 Of Nero and the (p.62) legacy that he left behind for the 1708 Hamburg season, whose programme appears to have consisted of operas performed entirely in German, little is known. The few pieces of music that survive from Florindo and Daphne do not do much to illuminate the printed librettos, and in terms of musical style they do not modify the picture already received from Almira.

Someone coming to Almira with a knowledge of Handel’s later operatic music will probably recognize some of the themes: in the most attractive movements (such as ‘Liebliche Wälder’, ‘Ob dein Mund wie Plutons Rachen’ and the ‘Tanz von Asiatern’) there are the seeds of greater things to come. During his journeyman period Handel recycled his best tunes at new venues without hesitation: the same thematic material may turn up in different musical contexts in operas written for Hamburg, Florence, Venice and London, and even in an aria movement in his Roman church music. This form of ‘self-borrowing’ is not really problematic: provided the music fits certain basic specifications (principally, that it is appropriate to the metre of the text and to the dramatic situation or mood), no one begrudges Handel the opportunity of displaying his best wares to different audiences. However, the question of Handel’s ‘borrowings’ from other composers is a topic that has provoked controversy among critics and music historians. There are good reasons why it needs to be aired even when dealing with music from the beginning of Handel’s creative career.

It is an accident of the historical-critical process by which Handel’s music has been heard over the last 250 years that the ‘borrowings’ in his later music were recognized sooner than those from the earlier periods. The fact that Handel used material from other composers has been common knowledge for most of that time. There were straws in the wind even during Handel’s lifetime: as early as 1722 Mattheson published an article (in Hamburg) drawing attention to Handel’s use of material from one of his own arias ‘note for note’ in Agrippina and in an opera written for London,11 while Jennens in 1743 knew precisely why Handel wanted to borrow scores of Italian operas from his library, saying, ‘I dare say I shall catch him stealing from them; as I have formerly, both (p.63) from Scarlatti & Vinci’.12 The first extensive listings of Handel’s musical plagiarisms came with a magazine article in 1822,13 and, more influentially, nine years later in a published version of William Crotch’s lectures as Heather Professor of Music at Oxford. Half a century further on, the extent of Handel’s borrowings in such works as Israel in Egypt was so well documented that it provoked a most curious reaction, in acrobatic arguments that perhaps some of the works which provided thematic sources had been misattributed and were really unrecognized works by Handel himself.14 Israel in Egypt was composed in 1739, and most of the borrowings identified during the nineteenth century related to works composed at that period or subsequently. In the mid-twentieth century a hypothesis was evolved to the effect that a stroke in 1737–8 sapped Handel’s creative powers, so that he began to rely heavily on borrowings thereafter. Research in the late twentieth century has, however, undermined that hypothesis by unearthing many more examples of borrowings in works composed before 1737. It now looks as if Handel drew on musical ideas from other composers all the time throughout his creative career. Furthermore, one of the composers who provided a substantial quantity of material for Handel’s creative bank was Keiser, his musical model and employer in Hamburg.15 The extent of Handel’s borrowing will probably always remain controversial in the smaller details, for it is difficult to separate slight, half-remembered echoes, or well-integrated petty larcenies, from the common property of musical language in a style so well defined by harmonic and melodic convention as the late Baroque: but the overwhelming case for musical input from composers such as Keiser throughout Handel’s creative career is not in doubt.

The more fundamental question of ‘why did Handel borrow?’ cannot be addressed here in any depth, and indeed a proper answer would depend on knowledge of Handel’s creative psychology and motivations that could have been gained only at first hand from the composer. But it is (p.64) possible at least to make some intelligent guesses about the origins and historical significance of the borrowing process. Handel was trained under Zachow on the basis of models – he was given other people’s music to play and to copy out. Probably pastiche composition played its part: Handel’s regular student assignments no doubt included improvising or composing on a given theme. The musical technique that he thus acquired may be seen as a form of rhetorical elaboration – that is, he learnt how to make the given elements of musical ‘speech’ more effective. What he certainly learnt (and continued to learn, when he was well away from Zachow’s influence) was an art of composition that involved control of formal construction and the manipulation of the component elements of rhythm, melody and harmony. This was the substance of Crotch’s tribute to Handel as early as 1805, in terms of

the greatness of his mind, the accuracy of his judgement, the variety of his styles & his skill in adopting the thoughts of preceeding & coeval composers. – Bird might be as sublime, Hasse as beautiful – Haydn more ornamental – But Handel united grandeur, elegance & embellishment with the utmost propriety, & on this account I ventured to pronounce him, upon the whole, the greatest of all composers.16

It is the development of Handel as a composer in this sense (whether or not he was working on materials derived from other musicians) that constitutes his creative history.

However, the development of Handel’s style did not move at an even speed: it shows a number of spurts onwards and plateaux of consolidation. One of the biggest advances seems to have come during the period 1706–7, probably during his first months in Italy: his church music and cantatas from mid-1707 show a style altogether more fluent and more controlled than that displayed in Almira. There is nothing to prepare us for the surprise of Dixit Dominus, where Handel as a composer of concerted music for choir and orchestra springs out at us fully armed.17 The elements of his grand style are all there – the chordal outbursts on ‘Juravit Dominus’ (EX. 2) (p.65) and a variety of choral textures: straightforward imitation (‘Judicabit’); counterpoint on two subjects (‘Tu es sacerdos’); the interplay of answering and combining voices (‘Et non poenitebit’); closely overlapping vocal entries (‘Dominus a dextris tuis’); and one voice versus the rest (‘Donec ponam’, EX. 3 – a passage that seems to look both backwards, to the cantus firmus and chorale training that Handel received in Halle, and forwards, to the technical consummation of this texture in the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus in Messiah). The music for the solo voices in Dixit Dominus displays the beginning of a move towards a suaver style – but only the beginning, for much of the strenuous and rather angular earlier manner is still in evidence. No matter: if Dixit Dominus is still rather rough-and-ready, there is ample

Music for Germany and Italy, 1706–10

EX. 2

Music for Germany and Italy, 1706–10

EX. 3

Music for Germany and Italy, 1706–10

EX. 4

compensation in the sheer zest with which the 22-year-old composer flung himself into the task. The choral works that followed a couple of months later are no less assured, and perhaps just noticeably more lyrical in expression. The arias of the D major Laudate pueri are certainly rather better conceived than the solo music in Dixit Dominus, and, although the later works are shorter, their choruses are no less grand: Laudate pueri has a magnificent outburst at ‘Quis sicut Dominus’, and Nisi Dominus ends with a Gloria for antiphonally distributed ‘double-choir’ forces of singers and orchestra. The motet Saeviat tellus inter rigores and the three antiphons that partner the choral works stand musically in the line of Handel’s orchestrally accompanied Italian cantatas. Saeviat tellus is a somewhat flashy vocal concerto, while Te decus virgineum and Haec est regina virginum are more restrained and lyrical; Salve regina (EX. 4) is more subjective in tone than the others, and indeed it marks the closest that Handel ever came to succumbing musically to the charms of sentimental Catholicism. There are also two Italian cantatas from the period with sacred texts, Ah, che troppo ineguali (p.67) (HWV 230, for soprano and strings, possibly a fragment from a larger work) and Donna, che in ciel (HWV 233, for soprano, chorus and strings).

Between Dixit Dominus and the church music written in July 1707 comes Handel’s first oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.18 With this work the distance that Handel’s musical style had advanced since Almira is readily apparent, both in the fluency of the arias and in the management of a complete libretto. Admittedly, the allegorical nature of the drama, in which Tempo, Piacere and Disinganno put forward their respective arguments to Bellezza, gives no opportunity for the portrayal of complex human relationships: the drama lies in the conflicting claims of these forces and in the choice that has to be made between them. But Pamphili’s libretto gave Handel the opportunity for some splendid character pieces encapsulating the cases put forward by the four contestants, and he achieved a good balance in the variety and placing of the arias – a pleasing arrangement of fast and slow, major and minor, and contrasted moods. There was even an opportunity for a lively quartet in which the rival claimants attempt to elbow each other out (‘Voglio tempo’). Some movements (e.g. the rather pecky ‘Tu giurasti’) still display the old Almira style, though with a rather more expansive treatment; ‘Io sperai’ presents a fascinating combination of old-style filigree work in the oboe obbligato with a more Italianate vocal line. As befits the nature of the drama, all four characters have a substantial and equally balanced loading of da capo arias.

Disinganno’s aria ‘Crede l’uom’ (EX. 5 overleaf  ) perhaps gives us the most rounded example of the new, smoother lyrical style that Handel was assimilating (it is perhaps all the more ironic that it is based on a thematic idea from Keiser).19

  • Mortals, that Time’s asleep, believe,
  • When unseen he spreads his Wings;
  • But tho’ they can’t his Strokes perceive,
  • They see the Ruin that he brings.20

It begins with a six-bar ritornello, setting the musical scene with a ‘sleep’ motif, and material from this punctuates the A section of the aria. Handel


Music for Germany and Italy, 1706–10

EX. 5

constructs a musical paragraph extending from the singer’s first entry to the dominant cadence 18 bars later, a masterly construction of melodic and harmonic organization using the simplest means (and a vocal compass within an octave), which does not let the interest sag at any point. Built into the structure is a repetition of the first phrase, inevitably bringing with it a tonic cadence: but in context this clearly signals the scale of the movement to come and is not an absentminded early gravitation back to the tonic. To adapt a description from one of the most perceptive accounts of Handel’s compositional genius, ‘the composer who gets as far as bar 13 of “Crede l’uom” must be intending to go much further, and shows every sign of being able to do so’.21 Having reached the dominant, and marked this landmark with a ritornello statement, Handel constructs an equally balanced return to the tonic, extending one-bar motifs sequentially in a harmonic arc that delivers a climax for the tonic cadence (bar 41). That should be the end, but Handel weaves a coda out of more sequential figures, once again keeping the music in the air for a span that constitutes nearly a third of the A section. Throughout the A section both the picturesque ritornello material and the vocal figuration serve the flow and structure of the movement. Even so, this aria is not the most ‘modern’ movement in Il trionfo: that distinction goes to the ‘Sonata’ with (p.69) concertante organ part (referred to in chapter 2), which is constructed as a clear-cut Vivaldian ritornello movement with well-defined episodes. It turns out to be a ‘one-off’, however, for Handel hardly ever followed that formal path later.

It is difficult, and perhaps none too fruitful, to make comparisons between Il trionfo del Tempo and La Resurrezione. Though completed only a year later, La Resurrezione shows an almost complete assimilation of the Italian manner: apart from ‘O voi del Erebo’ (based on an idea from Keiser’s Octavia), the ‘Almira style’ is hardly in evidence at all, and even in that movement the balanced phrases and skilled melodic and harmonic extensions produce an effect far distant from the cramped manner of Handel’s earlier work. Between the two oratorios Handel had had plenty of experience of the Italian style, both as a listener and as a composer: he had developed his own work through an opera and many cantatas. A good case has been made that Handel was greatly influenced by Alessandro Scarlatti,22 and certainly the results of various impressions from music encountered in Italy during 1707–8 are in his scores for all to see, in his treatment of melody and harmony and his confident management of the da capo aria.

La Resurrezione is fundamentally different from the earlier oratorio, however, in that the framework of the libretto is more operatic. Although the central character of the drama does not appear (and, indeed, any representation of Christ would probably have been forbidden), La Resurrezione proceeds through normal dramatic conventions. The story begins during the second night after the Crucifixion, as an Angel demands admittance for Christ into Hell, in order to defeat the power of death: Lucifer responds by summoning his own troops for battle. In Jerusalem, Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleophas mourn the death of Christ, and St John reminds them of Jesus’s promise to return on the third day; meanwhile, the Angel calls up the souls of the prophets and patriarchs, releasing them from Hell to follow Christ. Part 2 begins with the dawn of the third day: St John reflects on the earthquakes of the previous night. The Angel appears to the women as they find the empty sepulchre and tells them of the Resurrection, which is confirmed by reports of Jesus’s appearance to his own mother and Mary Magdalene: meanwhile Lucifer, defeated, has returned ignominiously to Hell. Given the visual stimuli of (p.70) the lavish pictorial decorations that were provided for the first performances, it probably needed only a small effort for the audience to interpret the action in stage terms, and Handel provided the appropriate aural cues: a swaggering, defiant role for Lucifer, and an eerie representation of the sepulchre in ‘Per me già di morire’, with an obbligato part for recorders and muted oboe (‘oboe sordo’). Each part of the oratorio ends with a cheerful ensemble movement for the soloists – an operatic ‘coro’, rather than the ‘chorus’ characteristic of Latin church music.

In quantitative terms, the principal music from Handel’s considerable period of residence in Rome was neither church music nor oratorios but Italian cantatas. These fell into three broad types. The most ambitious were for two or three vocal soloists, accompanied by an orchestra – effectively miniature operas, relating a drama between interacting characters.23 Other orchestrally accompanied cantatas involved only one singer and might be regarded as equivalent to an operatic scena. Continuo-accompanied cantatas for a single singer might also be regarded as dramatic monologues, but the chamber scale of performance must have produced an effect closer to that of the continuo-accompanied instrumental ‘solo sonata’: indeed, the common structural design of recitative-aria-recitative-aria may be seen as a close parallel to the slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement of movements that was common in sonatas. The Italian preference in cantatas, particularly in Rome, was for texts couched in a fashionable pastoral convention: the soloist in continuo cantatas is almost always a disappointed lover, a ‘shepherd’ under the conventional title of Tirsi or Fileno (these male roles, with the solo part written in the soprano or alto clef, were presumably sung by castrati). A formal framework around two, three or four arias produced a work of about the right length for a continuo-accompanied cantata; orchestrally accompanied cantatas were usually on a larger scale and, although the texts were again mainly in the pastoral tradition, they sometimes drew on stories from classical mythology or Roman history. (An example of the latter is Agrippina condotta a morire, HWV 110.)

The Italian cantatas remain among the least-known areas of Handel’s works in the English-speaking world, partly because concert conditions (p.71) provide few equivalents to the conversazione (though recordings might perhaps create such conditions in the modern home) and partly because the texts, in the relative obscurity of Italian, were written to literary conventions that are out of tune with the modern worldview, and often reflected situations that were specific to the time and place of their creation. However, much fine music is buried under the verbiage of the Arcadian pastoral language that Ruspoli’s circle affected, and the instrumentally accompanied cantatas in particular present some effective miniature dramas. Their conclusions are not always predictable: in Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, for example, the two men at the base of the eternal triangle finally agree that love must be enjoyed lightly in view of woman’s inconstancy; while in Il duello amoroso unrequited love is given a new twist when Amarilli tells Daliso that if he had not taken her maidenly modesty at face value he might have made some progress with their relationship before her father appeared. In these cantatas there are, along with the conventional nymphs and swains, some characters and incidents from classical mythology, serving either as the central subject (as in Apollo e Dafne) or as references for elaboration.

While nearly all the continuo-accompanied cantatas are devoted to expressing the woes of poor Tirsi – a shepherd deserted, rejected or betrayed by his nymph – some of the instrumentally-accompanied solo cantatas put the woman at the centre of the stage: in Il delirio amoroso and Armida abbandonata, Clori and Armida, respectively, lament their dead or faithless lovers. Where the plot is conventional, or where a single situation is explored, the interest obviously lies in the musical and literary treatment. The ‘simile aria’, familiar from opera, plays its part here, and among the cultivated Roman audience an apt simile, well realized in music, was no doubt an object of pleasure rather than impatience: the nautical helmsman, for example, provides a useful image in both Il duello amoroso and Clori, Tirsi e Fileno. Perhaps the least tractable cantatas for the modern listener are those that are tied closely to contemporary political references: they form only a small corner of the repertory, but they include Oh come chiare e belle, an ambitious and interesting work.24

(p.72) The largest of all, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, is on a timescale that begins to call into question Handel’s own use of the word ‘cantata’; indeed, it soon came to be described as a ‘serenata’ on account of its association with wedding celebrations, though that term usually implies a two-part work. Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is a totally different presentation of Ovid’s story, both in text and music, from the one that Handel set ten years later in England. It was written to different conventions that seem slow-moving by comparison with Acis and Galatea, partly because the texts are more extravagant in content, but all three soloists have fine arias. The bridal couple in Naples in 1708 received a musical treat, though the subject of the story at first sight seems to be a curious one for nuptial celebrations: Galatea would surely have preferred Acis alive, rather than transformed into a river. However, the literary context for the story is a legend which dramatized the indiscriminate destruction caused by the rock-throwing volcano Vesuvius that dominates the skyline at Naples: Polifemo crushes Acis with the rock, but in his transformed watery state Acis is united with the sea nymph Galatea, who escapes from Polifemo by returning to the sea. At the end of the cantata Polifemo is left to lament Galatea’s constancy to Acis and the final trio celebrates faithful love, in which ‘even when joys are lacking, hope does not fail’.

While many instrumentally accompanied cantatas are virtually operatic scenes (or even sometimes miniature operas), the continuo-accompanied cantatas for solo voices are a genre of vocal chamber music. In the absence of operatic-scale gestures and the interaction of characters, there can be no fudging of musical issues here: the chains of recitatives and arias stand or fall by their treatment of melody, harmony and form, as surely as do the chains of slow and fast movements that constitute instrumental sonatas. These cantatas are a treasure-house of musical invention. While the standard patterns of melodically formulaic common-time recitative and da capo aria are endlessly repeated, the musical material is not: Handel produced a range of different, yet appropriate, themes for his arias that bears comparison with the variety of musical material in Schubert’s songs, and the themes are extended and developed with scarcely a falter. The cantata autographs support an impression, which is also gained from most of Handel’s other autographs of the period, that in Italy he quickly acquired not only a new style but also a technical facility that gave his work speed as well as fluency: once he was into the flow of a cantata, he covered the pages with hardly a hesitation. (p.73) It is true that there were a few dropped stitches in the process: the Italian-period works include a number of tantalizing passages with isolated ‘wrong notes’ in the harmony, in which Handel’s brain was clearly outrunning his pen. Mainly these seem to have occurred because he was momentarily thinking along different harmonic tracks for the voice part and the accompaniment. There are very few examples of actual technical incompetence, and the image of Handel as a slapdash composer who did not care about consecutive fifths and octaves in part-writing is ill-founded. Throughout Handel’s career there are examples in his autographs of passages that he amended during composition to avoid such occurrences, and indeed there are many improvements to details that are very minor in terms of the music’s total effect. The revision process did not stop with the autographs: the scribal copies of Handel’s Italian-period works now at Münster have

several alterations, both substantial and minor, in Handel’s hand.25 It is interesting that the texts of the French and Spanish cantatas composed for Ruspoli – Sans y penser (HWV 155) and Nò se emenderá jamás (HWV 140) – were entered into these copies by Handel himself, presumably because he felt that this task should not be entrusted to the Italian copyists. In the Spanish cantata he at the same time altered some rhythms in the music of the first movement, to give better textual accentuation. The French cantata stands apart from its Italian companions in that, although it contains a couple of da capo movements, Handel made a conscious attempt at French-style melodies and ‘measured’ recitative in the Lullian tradition: he headed the first movement ‘Chanson’ and two of the subsequent arias ‘Air’.

If the continuo-accompanied cantata is counterpart to the instrumental ‘solo sonata’, the duet with continuo (and the closely related trio) is similarly comparable in style and texture to the trio sonata. Mention has already been made (in chapter 2) of Handel’s own manuscript copy of Steffani’s chamber duets that he apparently acquired in Italy in 1706–7. This volume seems to have formed a model for Handel’s own works, and as such it accidentally gave a false impression: Steffani’s works include movements for solo singers as well as duet movements, but it so happened (p.74) that Handel’s copy was one that did not include the former. Not that we have any reason to complain about the result: Handel’s Italian duets are some of the best vocal chamber music ever composed, though they are ‘connoisseur’s music’. Henry Purcell’s description of his own trio sonatas as being appropriate to such as ‘carry Musical Souls about them’ seems entirely apposite here.26 As the texture is mainly contrapuntal, with the voices working in imitation or antiphony above the continuo bass, the music is largely continuous, falling into discrete movements (without recitatives): there is no place for startling dramatic gestures. But the medium suits the aphoristic poetry – more akin to the sonnet than the scena – that called forth the duets.27 The duets and Italian cantatas that were composed in Hanover do not call for special comment, because they extended the genres and styles that Handel had already been developing in Italy: there was no major stylistic break when he moved north.

The instrumental music from Handel’s Italian and Hanover years is not plentiful. There are a couple of Italian orchestral works: a violin concerto (HWV 288, called by Handel ‘Sonata a 5’, placing it within a recognized Italian tradition of five-part orchestral ‘sonatas’) and an ouverture (HWV 336).28 The first appears to be an independent work; the second may have been attached to some other work from the Italian period. In spite of the Electress’s enthusiasm for Handel’s harpsichord playing in Hanover, there are no keyboard works that can be attributed with certainty to this period.29 The autographs of two solo sonatas (HWV 357, 358) and a trio sonata for recorders and continuo (HWV 405) can, on the evidence of their paper, be attributed to the Hanover period, though their musical style is such that they might well have been Handel’s fair copies of pieces composed earlier. Perhaps there are other works from the Italian and Hanover years lurking in the Trio Sonatas (p.75) op. 2, which were published in London during the 1730s but certainly contain some earlier music, but in the absence of manuscript sources or clear stylistic indicators it is difficult to assign dates. Another work published at the same period, the Concerto Grosso op.3 no.1, might also have been composed for Hanover: its scoring, which includes two viola-range parts in different clefs, links it with surviving works by Francesco Venturini, a leading Hanoverian court musician who eventually succeeded Farinel as Konzertmeister there in 1713. One other work whose date is uncertain is the overture to Rodrigo, which may have originated as an independent orchestral piece. Consisting of an ouverture, seven dance movements and a passacaille, it is out of scale with the needs of the opera, and its obviously French lineage suggests that it might even have been composed for Hamburg (though the autograph is written on north Italian paper).30

There remain for consideration the two largest works from Handel’s Italian period, the operas Rodrigo (1707) and Agrippina (1709). Both are landmarks in Handel’s career – Rodrigo on account of its position and Agrippina on account of its quality. Coming as he did from the world of Hamburg opera, it was probably a considerable discipline for Handel to attempt in Rodrigo an opera relying on recitative (in vast quantities) and aria, with scant opportunity for spectacular scenes or comic characters. There is indeed nothing comic about the story of intrigue and warfare in Rodrigo, the libretto of which was a revision of one set by Marc’Antonio Ziani for Venice in 1700.31 The plot concerns the fortunes of the royal family of Aragon, whose heir Evanco has been beaten and captured by Rodrigo, King of Castile: Evanco is eventually restored to the throne, and Rodrigo’s baby son by his mistress Florinda is named as the eventual heir to Castile. At the denouement Esilena, Rodrigo’s wife, saves her husband from execution at the hands of Florinda (who has turned against him) by thrusting the baby into his arms. The story, which has only a tenuous basis in eighth-century history, may have been chosen because it could be interpreted in a way that was relevant to the dynastic struggles of the current European war.

(p.76) Handel’s score is uneven in quality, more so than that for Il trionfo del Tempo, but it provided good experience for him. The arias rely quite heavily on self-borrowings, some of which seem to have been thrown together with an uncritical lack of concern for dramatic context, which was uncharacteristic of the later Handel. But there are some good things too. Handel transformed an idea from Almira (‘Quillt, ihr überhäuften Zähren’) into something better for Rodrigo (‘Sommi dei’), discovering in the process the dramatic effectiveness of interrupting an aria before the expected da capo cycle is complete. The best aria is Esilena’s ‘Empio fato’,32 where Handel strikes an effectively tragic note for the first time in his operas. But, perversely, this aria was replaced before the first performance: whether its replacement was the result of pressure from a librettist-arranger or from a singer, or whether Handel himself decided that something different was needed in that particular context, we do not know, but this is only the first example among many of good music being set aside by Handel before performance.

Although the characters in Agrippina, like those in Rodrigo, are propelled by ambition and amorous intrigues, the whole tone of Handel’s second Italian opera is lighter, and the action moves much faster. The libretto was probably adapted from an older one by Vincenzo Grimani. It is loosely based on events from Roman history as mediated through the stories by Tacitus and Suetonius. Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudio (Claudius), attempts to secure the succession for Nerone (Nero), her son by a previous marriage. Her designs are complicated by Claudio’s own wishes and by the seductive powers of Poppea (Poppaea), who succeeds in attracting Claudio, Nerone and Ottone (Otho), the Roman lieutenant preferred by Claudio to succeed as Emperor. In Act 3 the two younger men are concealed in Poppea’s room when Claudio visits her, and Agrippina’s schemes are temporarily foiled when Poppea exposes both Nerone’s presence and his ambitions. Claudio orders Nerone to marry Poppea and names Ottone as his successor, but Ottone and Nerone exchange roles: Ottone wishes to marry Poppea and is therefore willing to cede the succession to Nerone. Agrippina’s ambitions are thus fulfilled, albeit somewhat accidentally.

(p.77) Librettist and composer combined happily to give credibility to the characters and zest to the situations: the text’s treatment of the story in a spirit of ironic detachment does not lessen the realism of the ambitions and the passions of the characters. Agrippina contains a large number of arias, but few long ones: Handel’s music keeps pace with the general raciness of the drama. Eighty-five percent of the arias are based on known self-borrowed or borrowed musical material,33 but the patterns in Handel’s reuse of earlier music are varied and complex. Some arias were lifted from other works with hardly any alteration, and a couple even managed to carry forward their original texts – notably ‘Ho un non so che nel cor’ (EX. 6), transferred from La Resurrezione, a sprightly and tuneful piece that any theatre composer would regard as a ‘hit number’.

Music for Germany and Italy, 1706–10

EX. 6

Most often, however, Handel reworked his movements as he wrote them into the new score and, in view of the particular needs of the fast-moving drama in Agrippina, the general direction of the revisions was towards compression. To take an example from an aria already described, the 61-bar A section of ‘Credo l’uom’ from Il trionfo del Tempo became in Agrippina a 36-bar aria, ‘Vaghe fonti’, sung by Ottone as he approaches a peaceful scene by a garden fountain where Poppea is feigning sleep. The (p.78) first vocal phrases were telescoped to provide a shorter path to the dominant, and the new returning binary ‘half’ was based on ideas from the third part (or extended coda) of the Trionfo aria. It is difficult to judge which version is the better: the Agrippina aria provides a good opening cavatina for Ottone’s scene with Poppea, but something more expansive was appropriate for the full da capo aria of the oratorio. In some cases of reuse only an initial thematic idea was adopted, or a number of ideas from different sources were recombined and developed in one aria: a particularly complex example is Poppea’s ‘Vaghe, perle’, which draws on material from arias in four separate earlier works by Handel, in addition to some ideas that can be traced back to Keiser’s Octavia.34 In the end, it is sufficient to recognize that here, as in other arias, Handel’s music is entirely apposite to its context, and that the resulting movement is skilfully composed. But, yet more important, the recomposition process as applied in Agrippina produced not only some fine arias but also entire scenes and acts that are well constructed in musical and dramatic terms. The opera coheres as a whole: as Handel’s first operatic masterpiece, it well deserved its success in Venice.


(2) See Baselt, ‘Handel and His Central German Background’, p. 55. Seven cantatas probably by Handel were listed in the library of Halle’s Ulrichskirche in 1718: see HHB, p. 77.

(3) Op. cit., pp. 149, 42.

(4) It is, of course, possible that Jennens misheard what Handel said, or that Handel’s memory was not accurate on this point.

(5) Modern critical opinion is summarized by Siegfried Flesch in the introduction to the edition in HHA IV/9 (1976). Although the sonatas are nominally for two oboes and continuo, one of the ‘oboe’ parts was clearly written for violin. See p. 339 for an above concerts that may have originated in Hamburg.

(6) Suite HWV 443, Partita HWV 450, Allemande and Courante HWV 451, Prelude HWV 563, Prelude e Capriccio HWV 571.

(7) The most complete surviving source (now at the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin) is a score adapted by Telemann for a revival at Hamburg in 1732; Handel’s autograph is lost.

(8) In addition to the Ouverture to Act 1 and the Entrée to Act 3 printed in HG 55, a ‘second’ Ouverture to Almira survives in a separate manuscript at Berlin. The use of the Ouverture in Hamburg was an established part of Keiser’s practice (e.g. in Claudius, 1703). Italian operas by Italian as well as ‘German’ composers before the end of the seventeenth century had frequently opened with a French Ouverture.

(9) For more details of this complex history, see the preface to the HHA score of Almira (I/1).

(10) The Hamburg company may have been expecting to perform Keiser’s Almira in 1704 and, after Keiser’s departure, asked Handel to set the text, perhaps to make full use of costumes and scenery that were already prepared. One surviving version of the printed libretto relating to Handel’s production retains, probably by accident, a preface by Keiser: see Schröder, ‘Zu Entstehung’.

(11) Critica musica (July 1722); HHB, pp. 105–6. In the same article (and an extensive footnote) Mattheson discusses the ethics of ‘borrowing’: see HHB and Buelow, ‘The Case’, p. 63 (with partial translation and commentary).

(12) Letter from Jennens to Holdsworth, 17 January 1743: HHB, p. 356.

(13) F. W. Horncastle in The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review: see Buelow, ‘The Case’, pp. 66–7.

(14) In Percy Robinson, Handel and His Orbit (London, 1908); in other respects Robinson was a knowledgeable Handel scholar.

(16) In a letter to Charles Burney, 4 March 1805: printed in Appendix I to Burney, A General History, ii, p. 1038.

(17) The size of the original performing forces for Dixit Dominus is not known, but the entry of the lower voices under the soloists in ‘De torrente in via’ is marked ‘capella’ by Handel, indicating that there may have been more than one singer per part. Nevertheless, the vocal parts seem to have been written for a small ensemble of accomplished soloists.

(18) The chronology of these works is outlined in chapter 2.

(19) From Keiser’s Octavia (‘Ruhig sein’).

(20) Translation from the word-book for Handel’s 1737 London version of the oratorio.

(23) ‘Orchestra’ is used here as a convenient term, but for the cantatas this would often have been a chamber ensemble, perhaps with only one player per part.

(24) Another Italian cantata that refers, explicitly, to current diplomatic politics is Echeggiate, festeggiate, numi eterni (HWV 119), but this was apparently composed in London; it is incomplete and is sometimes mistakenly known by the title of one of its movements, ‘Io languisco fra le gioie’.

(25) The main part of the Münster collection (described in Ewerhart, ‘Die Händel-Handschriften’) was acquired from the collector Fortunato Santini in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century. Its previous provenance is unknown, but it may be an amalgamation of library collections that originated with Handel’s Roman patrons, possibly including the very cantata copies that feature in Ruspoli’s domestic bills.

(26) Preface (‘To the Reader’) to Purcell’s Sonnata’s of III Parts (London, 1683).

(27) I owe to Anthony Hicks the suggestion that Handel’s duets may be regarded as two-part madrigals with continuo.

(28) Although the autograph of HWV 336 is lost and its date uncertain, it has a strong thematic resemblance to the overture to Il trionfo del Tempo and may date from Handel’s Italian years. See also n. 30, below. It is tempting to suppose that HWV 288 was composed for Corelli, but the paper of the autograph suggests that it was written in Venice rather than Rome.

(29) Two possible candidates are the G major Sonata for two-manual harpsichord, HWV 579, which resembles thematically the organ sonata in Il trionfo, and the G minor Sonata, HWV 580, which similarly echoes the Sonata a 5: more probably, however, these were at least committed to paper after Handel left Italy (autographs of neither survive).

(30) Marx, in ‘Italienische Einflüsse’, suggests that the Rodrigo overture may have chronologically followed the Ouverture HWV 336, which he also suggests may have been associated with Florindo or Daphne in Hamburg; but the minim-beat movement in the inner parts of the Rodrigo overture (see Marx, p. 390) seems to represent the earlier style. See also Chap. 4, n. 16.

(31) Il duello d’amore, e di vendetta, libretto by Francesco Silvani.

(32) The string figuration at the beginning seems to derive from an aria in Florindo/Daphne: see Dean and Knapp, Handel’s Operas, p. 75.

(33) See Buelow, ‘Handel’s Borrowing Techniques’, p. 107; to Buelow’s inventory of borrowings may be added ‘Il tuo figlio’ from Agrippina, which is accompanied by a string figure derived from Handel’s Roman antiphon Te decus virgineum HWV 243.