Quebec contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux started her career in a spectacular way: In 2000, at the age of 24 she won the Queen Fabiola Prize (1st Prix) as well as the Special Lied Prize at the [...]
For all his stature as a German composer who happened to become the greatest exponent of Italian opera, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) actually spent very little time in that specific country. Nonetheless, his years of pilgrimage in Italy from mid-1706 to around 1710 constitutes a period of tremendous compositional activity for Handel, during which time he produced more works in a greater variety of styles and genres than in any other.
Almost all of Handel’s cantatas were written in the course of his “Italian journey,” but most of them were specifically destined for private Roman audiences—for the Marquis Ruspoli and Cardinals Ottoboni, Pamphili and Colonna. This city was a frequent point of return for the composer, whose wanderings took him to noble houses in Naples, Sienna, Florence, and Venice as well as points outside Italy (Innsbruck and Düsseldorf). Handel’s continual return to Rome is somewhat mystifying. As an opera house continuo player, he had been in a good position to have works in this prestigious and lucrative genre produced in Hamburg, his previous place of residence. And Rome was the one city in Italy where the performance of opera was banned. It is, however, possible that Roman patrons appeared more politically and economically stable to Handel. For in the unstable climate of the Spanish War of Succession (1700-14), many great families and powerful institutions found themselves on shaky ground. Wise musicians did well to cultivate a network of patrons who had a variety of loyalties in the event that one or more of them should loose all means of supporting the arts. Handel’s web of connections was extensive, and included the then-crumbling Medici family.
While many biographers portray the Handel of this period as the courted and spoiled pet of the Italian nobility, he was clearly also an employee, with obligations to produce a certain quota of cantatas for Ruspoli’s household. But he was also a guest at evening functions of the Accademia dell’Arcadia hosted by Ruspoli. These occasions were costumed affairs in which aristocrats and other privileged members would arrived dressed as Arcadian shepherds, and communicate to each other using the language of late mannerism. Composers figured among the members and participants, as well as a number of female singers, who were prohibited from singing in public at the time. Handel’s role in these soirées would have been to join forces with a singer and a poet to produce and perform a cantata by the end of the gathering. Handel’s cantatas for solo voice with continuo number at about sixty, almost all for female voice, most for soprano. But of the ones represented on this disc, three exist in versions for both alto and soprano voice. Like “Irene, idolo mio, crudele Irene,” “Lungi da me, pensier tiranno!” and “Mi palpita il cor,” all were revised and re-scored for alto voice in London around 1710. The last was actually reworked three times! Typical of Handel’s compositional process and style, many passages in these works may be found in others: the opening of “Fra pensieri” returns in the operas Rodrigo (HWV 5), Il Pastor fido (HWV 8a), Tamerlano (HWV 18), and Riccardo I (HWV 23), as well as in the oratorio Semele (HWV 58) and the cantata “Io languisco fra le gioje” (HWV 119). This artistic peccadillo of Handel’s is a well-established fact, and his practice was also known to many of his contemporaries, though he never acknowledged it himself. It is perhaps the composer’s habit of transplanting music from cantatas to operas that has led some scholars to claim that the smaller, chamber genre became a breeding ground for Handel’s operatic style. At the same time others disagree, pointing to the non-operatic features of many cantatas, including chromatic melodies, contrapuntal settings, and sophisticated musico-rhetorical devices intended to underscore poetic nuances and other literary effects in the text.
The connections between the genres may have more to do with the performers than with any conscious search for an operatic style. One of Handel’s more frequent cantata performers was the soprano Margherita Durastanti (active 1700-1734), acknowledged in her time as a fine musician and superior actress, qualities that would have been necessary for the execution of the more chromatic, contrapuntal, and textually-sensitive cantatas. But she was also an opera singer who created the title role of Agrippina (1709, HWV 6), a work that, incidentally, draws on the “Tirsi amato” aria from the cantata “Lungi da me, pensier tiranno.” Durastanti’s collaboration with Handel extends temporally beyond that of any other singer. She joined him in London in 1719, and over a period of five years performed in nineteen operatic productions, taking on not only female parts, but singing in place of a castrato as Radamisto!
In the end, it may be that overgeneralizing about the style of the cantatas is the culprit behind our dilemma: do the cantatas lead to opera, or are they a distinct type of music in and of themselves? If we compare the light-hearted “Fra pensieri quel pensiero” with the more dramatic “Lungi da me, pensier tiranno!” we will quickly see that Handel’s style in this genre is highly varied. And well it should be considering the different poetic affects of the text. The effervescent outbursts of “Fra pensieri” are musically represented in a number of short, easily executed ornaments similar to breathless gasping, and while the bass might be described as “scurrying,” it is far from contrapuntal, and highly unlikely to challenge the singer. Furthermore, only a few instances of chromaticism (other than the perfectly normal wholesale shifts to the minor in the “B” sections of the arias) are incorporated in the singer’s part: in the “A” section of the first aria, and occasionally in the recitative. Vocal chromaticism is, however, an obvious feature of “Lungi da me” where it is deployed in the service of a highly emotional, pathetic text. The melismas are longer, and concentrated on single, accented words such as “ingannator,” “barbaro,” and “ritornami” and the singer is often obliged to sustain notes over a sweeping bass line. A wide vocal range permeates the whole, most obvious in the final “Tirsi amato” which also incorporates a number of challenging, expressive leaps within an overall lyrical melody.
In an aria such as this, it is easy to forget historical context and scholarly arguments. It is perhaps easier simply to drink deeply of Handel’s vocal medicine be it operatic or cantata-like; to be suspended by its effect of effortlessness and sublimity. In 1720, Handel responded to an unauthorised publication of some of his harpsichord works, by hurriedly publishing a collection of suites under his own supervision. The suites, which included some of the pirated pieces, were assembled from previously composed pieces as well as movements specially composed for the collection. The popular legend of the “harmonious blacksmith,” whose musical anvil-beating supposedly inspired Handel to compose the fourth movement (Air and Variations), was invented in the early nineteenth century. In fact, the movement, which is a re-working of an earlier set of variations in G Major, is labelled as a chaconne in several of its sources. Our only source for the Sonata in D Major for flute and continuo (HWV 378) actually attributes the piece to Johann Sigismund Weiss (ca. 1690-1737). This time, we have cause to be thankful for Handel’s habit of self-borrowing: thematic material from the Sonata appears in two pieces that were both written around 1707, before Handel was likely to have met Weiss. In addition, the Sonata’s style, particularly in cadence configurations and the chromatic progressions of the languidly sensual third movement, is typical of Handel’s Italian years. The order of the movements—slow, fast, slow, fast—is drawn from the model of the sonata da chiesa, the Italian church sonata, and its primary exponent, Corelli. Handel must have been fond of this particular piece, because he re-used its thematic material four more times in pieces composed between 1726 and 1750. The Water Music was composed for the occasion of a royal water party, at which George I and his entourage enjoyed a boating trip along the Thames. Some modern scholars group the pieces into three suites (in F, D, and G Major), putatively performed at three different water parties (in 1715, 1717, and 1736, respectively).
The Water Music was performed by a large orchestra of fifty players, including trumpets, oboes, bassoons, flutes, recorders, and strings, and was the first orchestral work in England that specifically required horns in its scoring. Its great popularity is attested by the publication of keyboard arrangements, allowing people to recreate the splendour of this royal occasion in their own homes. The familiar Air performed in this programme (HWV 464) was arranged for keyboard by Handel himself.
© 2002 Catrina Flint and Frauke Jürgensen for Traçantes, writing and translation services of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique.