Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Nothing New Under the Sun: The History of a Handel Aria

The first performance of a Handel opera in London, the production of Rinaldo in 1711, was a sensational success (despite the mockery of the literary establishment in the pages of The Spectator). Both in terms of stage effects and musical brilliance the role of the sorceress Armida was the source of greatest entertainment. Her entrance, in Act I, Scene v, is suitably spectacular: ‘Armida in the Air, in a Chariot drawn by two huge Dragons, out of whose Mouths issue Fire and Smoke’.1  She sings, as she descends, the aria ‘Furie terribili’ invoking her dread allies. Commentators agree she has the best music in the opera: ‘she towers above all the other characters […] All her music has passion and energy’.2 After her furious opening, she sings an aria of hubristic pride, expressing her highest desires and hopes; with her great powers she must surely subdue the world and save Jerusalem from the conquering armies (which include the hero Rinaldo):

Molto voglio, molto spero
Nulla devo dubitar.
Di mia Forza all’alto impero
Saprò il Mondo assoggetar.3

It’s a perfect aria for her and for the leading soprano: ‘one phrase is even launched from the diving-board of a top C. A singer who can hit this cleanly is sure of making a mark’.4 The London stage had never experienced anything like her. But other stages had experienced ‘Molto voglio’ in other forms. The same air had introduced another of Handel’s leading women to the Venice opera stage in 1709. Here, the cunning Empress of Rome, Agrippina, has been putting all her plotting prowess to the task of having her son Nero declared Emperor. In her version of the same tune, the aria ‘L’alma mia frà le tempeste’, she boasts of her bravery and confidence. There is an obvious connection: Handel uses the same musical material for two powerful women boasting of taking on the world.

The first operas of Venice and London launched Handel’s Italian opera career in no uncertain terms. Handel’s first biographer, Mainwaring, could have hardly been more effusive about the reception of Agrippina:

The audience was so enchanted with this performance, that a stranger who should have seen the manner in which they were affected, would have imagined they had all been distracted. The theatre, at almost every pause, resounded with shouts and acclamations of viva il caro Sassone! And other expressions of approbation too extravagant to be mentioned.5

It is understandable, then, that when faced much later with an artificial challenge to his supremacy as composer of Italian operas, Handel should recall music from these earlier successes. Handel had been the crucial figure in the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719. His first production for the new company was the heroic masterpiece Radamisto. His second was the collaboration Muzio Scevola. For this odd opera Flippo Amadei (a minor talent) provided the first act, Giovanni Bononcini (a much more formidable rival) the second, and Handel the third. There was no contest, musically. A foreign visitor, who attended the first performance, noted that Handel ‘easily triumphed over the others’6.And he chose to end the piece with the final celebratory chorus ‘Si sara più dolce amore’ using the same material as for ‘Molto voglio’ and ‘L’alma mia frà le tempeste’. Even this was not the end of the tune’s participation in Handel’s operas, as it made a final Italian renaissance eleven years later for a ‘Sinfonia’ in Ezio.

But towards the end of Handel’s career, as he was forced by circumstances to move away from Italian opera to English choral texts and oratorios, the same musical theme has two further reincarnations. It becomes the final tenor aria and then chorus for Part Two of Jennens’ adaptation of Milton – L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – first performed in 1740: ‘These delights if thou canst give, / Mirth, with thee I mean to live’. And its last appearance is in the oratorio Joshua, first performed at Covent Garden in 1748, in the aria ‘Heroes when with glory burning’.

Handel knew when he was on to a good thing. In fact, he had been on to this particular good thing before any of these compositions. The formative period, for this as for so many of his other favourite tunes, had been his visit to Italy from 1706-1710. The aria in Agrippina is therefore the culmination of Handel’s first interest in the theme. He had first used it in the Sinfonia for an Italian cantata, orchestrated with oboes, strings and continuo, ‘Ah! Crudel, nel piante mio’, in 1707, and for the Italian ‘oratorio’ La Resurrezione (or Oratorio per la Risurrezione di Nostro Segnor Giesù Cristo), first performed in Rome in 1708. We might wonder why Italy inspired this obsession. The answer must be because Handel ‘borrowed’ the music from Alessandro Scarlatti’s aria ‘Cara, cara e dolce’. Handel had met both Alessandro and his son, Domenico, on his visit to Italy. Mainwaring gives a famous anecdote, though it’s not certain which of the Scarlattis he is referring to:

When he came first into Italy, the masters in greatest esteem were ALLESSANDRO SCARLATTI, GASPARINI and LOTTI. The first of these he became acquainted with at Cardinal OTTOBONI’s. Here also he became known to DOMINICO SCARLATTI, now living in Spain, and author of the celebrated lessons. As he was an exquisite player on the harpsichord, the Cardinal was resolved to bring him and HANDEL together for a trial of skill.7

(Apparently, Scarlatti won on the harpsichord and Handel on the organ.) But we need not be too indebted to Alessandro for one of Handel’s favourite airs. He himself had ‘borrowed’ not only the music but even the lyrics (the whole song, in other words) from Pietro Marc'Antonio Cesti.

This recycling of music, from composer to composer, and in self-quotation, was typical of the baroque period. It makes it perhaps slightly easier to understand how Handel could produce over forty operas and over twenty oratorios along with hundreds of other compositions. But the remarkable adventures of this one tune need not compromise our sense of Handel’s originality. Our idea of original composition is a recent one. Handel’s period did not seek orginality for its own sake. As Alexander Pope put it in 1711, in the same year as Handel’s first London production:

True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc’d at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind8

The subtle musical variations in each incarnation of the song, and the diversity of operatic and dramatic contexts to which it is applied, all give Handel’s treatment recurrent delight.

Note: for those who want to follow the genesis of this song for themselves, though the original hint was given by Chrysander, there are three important modern sources: Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) [particularly p.120]; Winton Dean, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) [p.501 and Appendix E, p.646]; and Siegfried Flesch and Bernd Baselt, Händel-Handbuch, Band 1: Lebens- und Schaffensdaten / Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis: Bühnenwerke (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag, 1978), p.109. Between them, these sources identify a further use in Handel, in an Air for Harpsichord (HWV 468), and another composer’s use of the same theme before Handel, in 1700 (in Reinhard Keiser’s La forza della virtù).


1 Rinaldo, an Opera (London: Thomas Howlatt, 1711)

2 Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p.174

 3 Rinaldo, p.12

4 Dean and Knapp, p.174

5 John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1760), pp.52-53

6 Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Biography (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955), p.126

7 Mainwaring, pp.59-60

8The Poems of Alexander Pope, Vol. I, ed. E. Audra and Aubrey Williams (London: Methuen, 1961, pp.272-73

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