MuseData: George Frideric Handel

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1 Life

2 Operas

2.1 The Royal Academy (1719-28)

2.2 The Royal Academy (1729-34)

2.3 Covent Garden Theatre (1734-37)

The royal opera house at Covent Garden opened on December 7, 1732. Spoken plays constituted most of the repertory that the theater initially offered to the public. The theater was built by John Rich, manager of the Duke's Company at Lincoln Inn Fields. There Rich's singular success rested on his support for John Gay's highly successful Beggar's Opera (1728), a low-life work with simple songs and other incidental music that satirized Italian opera and those who admired it. Its popularity heightened existing tensions with serious opera.

The new theater lay within a district of produce and flower vendors sanctioned a century earlier by royal charter. This conferred on it the designation "royal" and the right (shared only with Drury Lane) to present spoken plays to the public. The idea of interleaving opera performances a few nights week created an opening for Handel. While Ariodante was taking shape, Handel composed ballet music for a revival of Il pastor fido and assembled the pastiche Oreste, both of which were performed at the theater late in 1734.

2.3.1 Ariodante (HWV 33)

Handel's Ariodante was composed between August and October 1734. The London Daily Post reported on January 1 (when the work was in rehearsal) that "the Scenes prepar'd for [it] are thought to excell any Thing of the Kind that has yet appear'd." [1] Opening on 8 January 1735, it was the first new opera entirely by Handel to be performed at the Royal Theatre at Convent Garden. The castrato Giovanni Carestini sang in the title role.

Antonio Salvi's text (then called Ginevra in Scozia) was originally composed in 1708 for a production (with music by Giacomo Perti) at Pratolino (Florence). It became better known through Carlo Francesco Pollarolo's setting (as Ariodante) for San Giovanni Grisostomo, Venice, in November 1716. It was this opera production that launched the stellar career of Faustina Bordoni, whose voice was by now celebrated throughout Europe.

Mark Stahura's 1994 edition of Ariodante, based on Handel's autograph in the British Library and made under contract with the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities (CCARH) with the help of Frances Bennion and Edmund Correia Jr., is available here: Ariodante score and parts.

2.3.2 Alcina (HWV 34)

Alcina opened at Covent Garden on 16 April 1735. The score, which had been started early in February, was completed only eight days earlier. Anna Maria Strada del Pò took the title role. It was a popular work, enjoying eighteen performances in 1735 and three more in 1737.

Beginning of the "Bird of May" (arrangement of the Musette movement) for violin and basso continuo from Handel's Alcina. Glasgow University Library.

Rich in the use of "woodland" instruments (flutes, piccolo, and oboes), a few excerpts took on a life of their own in such editions as John Walsh's Alcina for a flute, containing the overture, songs, and symphonys curiously transpos'd and fitted for the flute. John Bland's Bird of May: To a favorite aire in Alcina by Mr. Handel prompted John Simpson to issue Bird of May: To a nightingale....The adieu to the Spring Garden at Vaux Hall, and many further issues, all in 1735 and 1736. The basis for this "favourite aire" was nothing other than the Musette movement of the opera's overture. The rest of the eighteenth century, in which images of natural innocence were highly valued, was filled with musical depictions of nightingales.

The sorceress Alcina had a long history on the opera stage. Antonio Fanzaglia's libretto had been written for Riccardo Broschi's opera L'isola di Alcina, which had been performed in Rome in 1728. It was based on Cantos 6 and 7 of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso. The role of the knight Ruggiero is retained, but others have been modified. Handel, who had become acquainted with text during his visit to Italy in 1729, revised the music in 1736 and again in 1737, leading to a production in Brunswick in 1738.

Stage witches were intended to be alluring enchantresses. This set them radically apart from countless alleged witches, who had been burned at the stake in considerable numbers under the edict of James I. The subject was highly topical when Alcina was performed, because King George II would very soon modify James's Witchcraft Act (1604) by reducing the sentence to fines and imprisonment, with effect from June 24, 1736.

The 1868 edition of Alcina by the Händel Gesellschaft (the German Handel Society) is available for viewing and download (1868 edition of Handel's Alcina at the Vifamusik website)

2.3.3 Atalanta (HWV 35)

Handel's Atalanta was first performed on 12 May 1736. Composed one year earlier, it came to form part of a festive period immediately following the wedding of Frederick, Prince of Wales (April 27), the eldest son of King George II, to Princess Augusta of Saxony-Coburg-Gotha. The same season had begun on May 5 with a revival of Ariodante, now featuring the Italian castrato Gioacchino Conti ("Ghiziello"). Conti's range, which extended to c3, was exceptionally high and Handel exploited its capabilities. He won the great praise of Lord Shaftesbury, who immediately called him "one of the best Performers in this Kingdom". By the day before Atalanta opened Shaftsbury had come to rank Conti above Farinelli, the best known castrato of the time, for his greater agility and pitch control.

The original text of this pastorale, by Belisario Valeriani, was entitled La caccia in Etolia when it was written. Its first setting, by Fortunato Chelleri, was performed in Ferrara, 1715). The libretto formed the basis of revivals and new settings given in Modena (1716), Ravenna (1726), Florence (1727), and Vienna (1733).

Handel's autograph for Atalanta is in the British Library, with further material in the Manchester Public Library.

2.3.4 Arminio (HWV 36)

Composed in September 1736, Arminio was first performed at Covent Garden on 12 January 1737. Antonio Salvi's text on Arminius (Hermann), the Germanic chief who defeated Roman legions in the first years of the first century, had been written for an earlier setting (Pratolino, 1703) by Alessandro Scarlatti. The subject itself had been treated in Venetian operas of the later seventeenth century.

Arminio was not by any measure one of Handel's more successful operas. After its initial six performances, it had no revivals, nor did it generate any significant number of circulated offshoots. Some cast members were little known to London audiences. In particular, the castrato Domenico Annibali, who sang in the title role, was well known at the Dresden court, his principal place of employment, for his appearances in the operas of Johann Adolf Hasse, but had no particular impact in London.

The German Handel Society edition is available for download from Vifamusik: Arminio (1882 edn.).

2.3.5 Giustino (HWV 37)

Composed during a three-week period starting on August 14, 1736, Giustino had its premier at Covent Garden on February 17, 1737. It was more successful than Arminio in that ten performances were given over a four-month period. The text had been inspired by that of Niccolò Beregan (Venice 1683), for Giovanni Legrenzi's like-named work, and its adaptation by Pietro Pariati (Bologna 1711; Rome 1724).

A flute arrangement of the "overture, songs and symphonys" was published soon after its premier by John Walsh (London, 1737) under the title Justin. Specific items within the work were recycled by Handel in subsequent operas and oratorios. The Händel Gesellschaft edition can be downloaded from Vifamusik: Giustino.

2.3.6 Berenice (HWV 38)

Berenice, the final opera in Handel's Covent Garden series, opened on May 18 1737. Handel had composed it from mid-December to late January. Anna Maria Strada del Pò was featured in the title role.

Its libretto, by Antonio Salvi, had been written in 1709 for performance at the Villa of Pratolino (Florence). As a subject for dramatization, Berenice had much older roots in Renaissance commedia. Interest in had been rekindled in the late seventeenth century by Racine's stage tragedy. It was conveyed to the musical stage by a spectacular setting for the Contarini Villa at Piazzola (near Treviso). The work was recast for Venice (1711) as Le gare di politica e di Amore by Gio. Maria Ruggieri.

The Händel Gesellschaft edition is available for download from Vifamusik: Berenice.

2.4 King's Theatre, Haymarket (1738-39)

2.4.1 Faramondo (HWV 39)

Handel's first opera for the King's Theater opened on January 3, 1738. Faramondo, based on a libretto by Apostolo Zeno, was composed between November 15 and December 24, 1737.

2.4.2 Serse (HWV 40)

The music for Serse, based on librettos by Niccolo Minato and Silvio Stampiglia, was composed on the heels of Faramondo, between December 26 (1737) and February 14 (1738). Its first performance took place on April 15.

2.5 Theatre Royal, Lincoln's Inn Fields (1740-1741)

2.5.1 Imeneo (HWV 41)

Handel composed the music for Imeneo in September 1738 and revised it in October 1740. The first performance took place on St. Cecilia's Day (November 22) of that year in the Theatre Royal at Lincoln's Inn Fields. The text was derived from one by Silvio Stampiglia.

2.5.2 Deidamia (HWV 42)

Just after completing ImeneoHandel began work on Deidamia. For it he turned to a libretto by Paolo Antonio Rolli. His score was completed by November 20. The work had its first performance on January 10, 1741, at the Theatre Royal.

3 Incidental Music

3.1 The Alchemist (HWV 43)

Handel's incidental music for Ben Jonson's play was scored for a minimal ensemble of string quartet, two oboes, and basso continuo. Elements of it were composed as early as 1710. It was performed on December 20, 1733.

3.2 There is a blissful shade of bow'rs (HWV 44)

In June 1745 Handel traveled to Exton, the estate of the Earl of Gainsborogh, where John Milton's Comus was to be performed. He obliged his host by composing this serenata, which consists only of three airs and a later famous chorus, "Happy, happy, happy plains," which is repeated after each air.

3.3 Alceste (HWV 45)

Tobias Smollett's play (also known as Alcides) features the muse Calliope, the god Apollo, and Charon, boatman of Hades. Handel composed incidental music for it between December 27, 1749, and January 8, 1750. No performance is documented. It is a substantial work with an overture, a "grand entree," several choruses, and arias for the principal singers. Some numbers soon appeared in Alexander Balus.

4 Early Oratorios (1707-1718)

Handel's early oratorios are largely lost. The first two were composed in Rome. The third may not have been performed at all. The first and fourth same to life after extensive revisions in the 1730s.

4.1 Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (BWV 46a, 46b)

The first version of this oratorio was composed in Rome in the spring of 1707. A sSecond version (46b) was assembled, with extensive new music and the addition of bassoon and horns in the spring of 1737 in London. It was performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on March 23, 1737.

4.2 La Resurrezzione di Nostro Signor Gesù Cristo (BWV 47)

La resurrezione was performed at the Palazzo Bonelli, Rome, on Easter (April 8) 1708. Music not extant. The libretto was by Carlo Sigidsmondo Capece.

4.3 Der für die Sünde der Welt (Brockes Passion, BWV 48)

The Brockes Passion was composed in London in 1716/17 but was performed in Hamburg Cathedral on April 3, 1719.

5 Masques

Handel's move to England led him to set English poetry and librettos as circumstances demand. Despite complaints about his poor spoken English, he was a willing learner and an apt pupil.

5.1 Acis and Galatea (HWV 49a, 49b)

The two versions of Acis and Galatea, a masque in two acts, were based on John Gay's work, which was derived from texts by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and John Hughes (1677-1720). They were separated by 14 years. The earlier version features four soloists, a chorus, and a wind-and-string orchestra. It evokes bucolic scenes (as in Galatea's "Yet verdant plains and woody mountains") and abounds in good cheer, into which Polyphemus intrudes. This version was performed at Cannons, the home of the Duke of Chandos, in the summer of 1718.

The later version(HWV49b) was performed at the King's Theatre, Haymarket, on June 10, 1732. Two vocal roles were added, and the orchestra was more varied. It was now in three parts with substantially revised and expanded music. Handel's autograph manuscript is here.

5.2 Esther (HWV 50a)

The masque version of Esther (HWV 50a) was composed in 1718. It was dedicated to the Earl of Carnarvon, later the Duke of Chandos, and was performed for the first time at his estate, Cannons, around August 23, 1720.

It had strong synergies with London social and literary circles of the time. Derived from the Old-Testament book of the same name, its text was composed of passages from Alexander Pope [2], John Gay [3], and the satirist John Arbuthnot [4]. Arbuthnot was a friend of Handel's in the 1710s and played an important role in establishing the Royal Academy of Music in 1719.

The masque (HWV 50a), which was also known under the title Haman and Mordecai, consisted of only six scenes. The text was derived from Jean Racine's drama of 1689 by Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot (1667-1735).

6 Later Oratorios (1733-1751)

The revisions to Esther that Handel made in 1732 seemed to revive his interest in the genre. Most of the oratorios he wrote over the next eighteen years enjoyed significant popularity. Their choruses became a stimulus to the formation of choral societies. The choral societies in turn made their own modifications to the works, thus feeding the mill of revised versions. Meanwhile, London publishers undertook to publish both arias from Handel's operas and various pieces from the oratorios. Many oratorios were published in their entirety in the later half of the century, even though the publication of an entire opera was all but known.

6.1 Esther (BWV 50b)

Esther had perhaps the longest run of any of Handel's oratorios. When Handel revised his earlier masque (HWV 50a) to flesh out the Esther (HWV 50b) in 1732, he added substantial material. (Handel'authograph manuscript for Esther is here.) This second version (HWV 50b) is a fully fledged oratorio of three acts requiring a large cast and orchestra. Its first performance was given at the King's Theater, Haymarket, on May 2, 1732.

It was performed, with minor revisions, over and over for the next 25 years. Its success served as a stimulus to many of Handel's later oratorios. Printed versions were offered by William Randall (1776) and H. Wright (c. 1783). Two others close to Handel's works--the editors John Walsh and Samuel Arnold--were subscribers.

6.2 Deborah (HWV 51)

Handel included pieces from several earlier works in Deborah, a three-act oratorio based on the text of Samuel Humphreys. He completed the score in February 1733. It was performed at the King's Theater, Haymarket, on March 17 of that year. Deborah had repeated performances through 1756. Together with Esther and Athalia, it was one of his most famous oratorios. A partial autograph is here.

6.3 Athalia (HWV 52)

The text for the oratior Athalia was written by Samuel Humphreys, who derived it from Jean-Baptiste Racine (1691). This oratorio had its premiere in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, on July 10, 1733. It had numerous other performances through 1756. The autograph manuscript is here.

6.4 Saul (HWV 53)

Composed summer 1738, Saul was first performed in the Haymarket Theatre on January 16, 1739. The libretto, based on the First and Second Books of Samuel, was by Charles Jennens. Like many of Handel's mature oratorios, it had a long afterlife (London performances 1739-1754), followed by a continued presence in print. Saul may represent the pinnacle of Handel's efforts of constantly rethink his material. Some folios are a blizzard of changes, with the underlying music rendered difficult to decipher. The full autograph manuscript is here.

A London edition (by William Randall) of 1773 may be seen at the Haendel-Haus in Halle, Germany (Handel's birthplace). Consult the "Digitalisate: Musikalien- und Büchersammlun" [Digitized music and books] section of the "Bibliothek" [Library] at this link: [5].

6.5 Israel in Egypt (HWV 54)

Israel in Egypt portrays the lamentations of the Israelites for the death of Joseph and that narrates their exodus. The manuscripts was completed on November 1, 1738. The first performance was given at the King's Theatre on April 4, 1739. Many of its choruses are well-known and foreshadow those of Messiah. The oratorio was performed through 1758.

6.6 L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato (HWV 55)

Most of us would not think of this adaptation of John Milton's L'Allegro ed il Penseroso (1632) as having the makings of an oratorio, but with the addition of Charles Jennens' Il Moderato to give it a three-part structure, that is what it became. Its rich orchestration adds trumpet, timpani, and carillon to Handel's more usual wind-and-string core. It had its premiere at the Theatre Royal on February 27, 1740. The role of Moderation is modest, but its inclusion is necessary for the final chorus, "Thy pleasures, Moderation, give, in them alone we truly live." The work quickly found an audience in Dublin and enjoyed considerable popularity through 1755.

6.7 Messiah (HWV 56)

6.7.1 Handel in Dublin

Handel had been invited by the Duke of Devonshire, who was then Viceroy of Ireland, to go to Dublin in the autumn of 1741. He had many enthusiastic fans in the English community there. A series of subscription concerts that was organized there late in the year was a raging success. Some of his best loved works were featured. They included the Te Deum and Jubilate (December 10); L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed il Moderato (December 23, on John Milton's text [6]; repeated by command of the Viceroy on January 13, 1742); and a double bill featuring Acis and Galatea with Alexander's Feast on January 20th, with an encore performance a week later. Each concert included concertos in addition to vocal and choral works. The concerts were given in the new Neale's Music Hall on Fishamble St. Handel wrote to Charles Jennens on December 29, 1741 that the most recent subscription concert [December 23] attracted an audience of 600, among which were not only "Ladyes of Distinction" but also "many Bishops, Deans, Heads of the Colledge, [and] the most eminent People in the Law...all of which are very much taken with [Milton's] poetry."[Baselt, IV, 341].

The series continued with some of Handel's best loved works--Acis and Galatea paired with The Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, based on the text of John Dryden [7], on January 20 and 27, 1742. Jonathan Swift [8], then dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral [9], Dublin, was persuaded by the growing reputation of the performances to permit eight of his singers to join the weekly programs of the Charitable Musical Society (through which all the concerts were benefits).

6.8 Samson (HWV 57)

Handel's three-act oratorio Samson is based on Newburgh Hamilton's reworking of John Milton's epic poem Samson Agonistes of 1671. It was composed in September and October 1741, revised in 1742, and performed for the first time on February 18, 1743 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Several revivals followed over the coming years. It remained in the repertory up to Handel's death.

Handel's autograph is here.

6.9 Semele (HWV 58)

Handel's oratorio Semele is indebted to a 1706 opera of the same name set by John Eccles on a text by William Congreve, who in turn was inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses. Handel's music was composed in the early summer of 1743. The premiere took place at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Semele is notable for its numerous choruses, imaginative orchestration, and the punctuation of Jupiter's rage. These traits build as a steady crescendo through all of Handel's oratorios of the 1740s, although Semele had few revivals in Handel's lifetime.

Handel's autograph score is here.

6.10 Joseph and his brethren (HWV 59)

The oratorio Joseph and his brethren is based on a text by James Miller's paraphrase from the Book of Moses. Its premiere was given at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, opn March 2, 1744. It had revivals in 1745, 1747, and 1751. Handel's autograph score is here.

6.11 Hercules (HWV 60)

Hercules, a three-act "musical drama," was fashioned by Thomas Broughton (1704-1744) from material by Sophocles and Ovid. The music was composed in 1744, while the first performance took place at the King's Theatre, Haymarket, on January 5, 1745. The work was revived in 1749 and 1752. The autograph manuscript is available here.

6.12 Belshazzar (HWV 61)

Composed autumn 1743. Performed 1745-1758.

6.13 Judas Maccabaeus (HWV 63)

Composed summer 1746. Revised many times. Performed 1747-1759.

6.14 Joshua (HWV 64)

Composed summer 1747. Performed 1748-54.

6.15 Alexander Balus (HWV 65)

Composed summer 1947. Performed 1748, 1754.

6.16 Susanna (HWV 66)

Handel's oratorio Susanna, which is based on a story from the Apocrypha here conveyed in an anonymous text, had its first performance in London on February 10, 1749, six months after it was completed. It was shortened ten years later, but Handel did not live to attend the second performance (March 9, 1759). Both performances took place at Covent Garden.

Handel's Susanna (HWV 66)
     Full score (front matter, part 1, part 2, part 3)
     Choral score
     Vocal score
Oboe 1, Oboe 2, Trumpet Violin 1, Violin 2, Violin 3, Viola, Basso continuo

6.17 Solomon (HWV 67)

Composed spring 1748. Performed 1749, 1759.

6.18 Theodora (HWV 68)

Composed summer 1749. Performed 1750, 1755.

6.19 Jephtha (HWV 70)

Composed Jan-August 1751. Performed 1752-1758.

7 Odes and Serenatas

7.1 Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (HWV 74)

Composed 1713, revised 1714, but not performed.

7.2 Acis and Galatea (HWV 49)

composed 1718. Revised 1732.

7.3 Alexander's Feast (HWV 75)

Handel composed the music for John Dryden's poem Alexander's Feast, or The Power of Music in 1736. It proved to be one of his best-loved works. Performances continued through 1755.

After his defeat of Darius in ancient Persopolis [10] (modern-day Iran) in 330 BCE, Alexander held a lavish feast. The poem Handel set was adapted by Newburgh Hamilton [11] from the original work by John Dryden. Published in 1697, three years before Dryden's death, it was subtitled A Song in Honor of St. Cecilia, and was written to celebrate the feast (November 22) of the patroness saint of musicians. Every verse was followed by a chorus.

Hamilton, who was from County Tyrone (Ireland), also wrote the texts for Handel's Samson (1743) and the Occasional Oratorio (1746).

7.4 Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (HWV 76)

Composed in 1739 on Dryden's "From harmony, from heav'nly harmony," the Ode for St. Cecilia's Day was first performed at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theater, with Alexander's Feast on November 22, 1739. It enjoyed instant popularity. In concerts it was usually paired with other odes and serenatas from this period.

7.5 L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato (HWV 55)

Composed 1740 on text adapted from Milton by J. Harris and Charles Jennens (part III). Performed through 1755.

8 Instrumental Music

9 References

  • William H. Grattan Flood. A History of Irish Music.