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8.557057-58 - HANDEL: Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (L')
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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, HWV55

The story of the composition of the oratorio L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is connected with the development of the so-called English oratorio, that had its unobtrusive beginning with the composition of Esther, HWV50, in 1718. For fourteen years Handel wrote no oratorios, returning in 1732 to a form that would mark the musical culmination of his achievement.

The oratorio Esther is not only recognised by musicologists as the first work of its kind, but it is also Handel’s first work in English. The original biblical drama Esther by Jean Racine, written for the pupils of Madame de Maintenon at Saint-Cyr, was known in England through the translation by Thomas Brenton. It formed, with its special mixture of historical, literary and choral elements, the occasion for literary and musical exchanges between Handel and friends, fellow-guests of James Bridge, Earl of Carnarvon and Duke of Chandos.

It was friends, among them Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot, who brought the subject to Handel’s attention, discussing the historical dimensions and psychological implications of the biblical narrative of Ahasuerus and Haman, Esther and Mordecai, and inspiring the composition. It seems important to mention these circumstances, since the origins of Esther and of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato exhibit certain common elements connected with what we nowadays might call Handel’s ‘social milieu’.

Turning again to Esther, until 1732 the oratorio remained without any further resonance, neither were there reports of performances or editions. Esther fell into oblivion at a time when Handel was fully occupied in composing, rehearsing and performing operas for the Academy, tormented by the vanity of his singers, warding off intrigues and cabals, and acquiring rich patrons for his plans and projects. For these reasons he did not continue on the promising path on which he had set out with Esther. The score remained in the drawer. That changed at a stroke when Bernard Gates, Master of the Choristers in the Chapel Royal, on the occasion of Handel’s 47th birthday, to mark the occasion gave private performances of Esther at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on 23rd February and 1st and 3rd March 1732 to the delight of audiences. Much to the anger of ecclesiastical authorities the work was originally performed by male and female singers on the stage, yet in spite of the protests of the clergy against the alleged profanisation of biblical material the performances benefited from a stage setting.

This first ‘London’ performance had undreamed of consequences for all those involved. Among the audience sat a music-lover who to this day remains unknown, who thoroughly enjoyed the music and by devious means acquired the score and shortly afterwards arranged a public performance, announced under anonymous direction, to take place on 20th April 1732 at the Great Room, York Buildings in Villier Street. At that time there was no question of copyright. Handel was powerless. There was no legal way to prevent this pirated performance. What could he do?

The composer reacted immediately and directly, asking the librettist Samuel Humphreys to prepare a new version of the text, and dealt with his unknown competitors with a second expanded version of Esther, HWV50b, with arias, ensembles and choruses, which he newly composed or based on the earlier work. This he did in a few days, as time was pressing. The copyists then quickly made copies of the material and distributed it to the soloists, chorus and orchestra, while a massive publicity campaign made Londoners aware of the event.

The concert took place on 2nd May 1732 at the King’s Theatre. The audience reacted with enthusiasm, so that Handel gave six further performances of the expanded work in the space of a few weeks, on 2nd, 6th, 9th, 13th, 16th and 20th May. The triumph was absolute, and his unloved rival driven from the field. There were many reasons for this overwhelming success. The music is breath-taking, the arias and ensembles are full of melodic magic, as with his operas, while the choruses, the new special element of oratorio, Handel composed in such a way that they could also be performed by talented amateurs. This as it were ‘democratic’ aspect was, after the wonderful musical structure, the second important building-stone in the new form. Above all, however, the public saw with some satisfaction that their beloved English language was set to music and was a match for Italian, since that language, dominant as it was on the operatic stage, had become so unpopular that Aaron Hill in a letter to Handel spoke of ‘Italian slavery’.

With these performances of the second version of Esther and those of his masque Acis and Galatea, transformed into a serenata, Handel inroduced a completely new form of musical ‘entertainment’ to the London public. Opera was in a bad way. The egocentric behaviour of some of the stage stars, pampered by the public, had mounted to such arrogance, of so little service to the music that Handel turned some of them summarily out into the street. Nevertheless he did not want to dispense with a number of his noble patrons. Infatuated with their favourites, like Odysseus they were consumed by enthusiasm for the sound of their sirens and sought their personal political ends at first by power of persuasion, then with intrigues and finally through economic pressure. With Handel they had come to the wrong shop. He remained inexorable and made no concession to the taste of his patrons. Thereupon those whose hopes had not been realised set up a new operatic undertaking, the ‘Opera of the Nobility’, to see their own singers on the stage again. These rebels achieved only moderate success, but it was enough to aggravate further the already stretched financial situation of the Academy. Probably the success of Esther had also stimulated Handel into further pursuing the development of the new form, since he actually composed only shortly afterwards two other works on English texts with arias, ensembles, recitatives, accompanied recitatives and chorus parts, the oratorios, or, as he called them, sacred dramas Deborah, HWV51, performed on 17th March 1733 at the King’s Theatre in London, and Athalia, HWV52, performed on 10th June 1733 in the Oxford Sheldonian Theatre. In spite of the great success of the three oratorios it was years before Handel could finally set himself free from the world of opera. His heart was with opera, but how wrong he was.

The extent to which Handel suffered at the decline of opera is described by William Shield in the following moving words: ‘I have heard it related, that when Handel’s servant used to bring him his chocolate in a morning, he often stood with silent astonishment (until it was cold) to see his master’s tears mixing with the ink, as he penned his divine notes’. The wonderful works written in these years in spite of the unfavourable circumstances were Orlando in 1733, Arianna in 1734, Ariodante and Alcina in 1735, Atalanta in 1736, Arminio, Giustino and Berenice in the critical year 1737, Faramondo, Alessandro Severo and Serse in 1738, Jupiter in Argos (incidental music) in 1739 and Imeneo in 1740, and, as the last of his forty operas, Deidamia in 1741, all evidence of uncompromising will as of a singular wealth of musical invention and of almost inconceivable creative power.

In this period of his life Handel suffered from a severe illness. Demanding but unsuccessful struggles over the Academy, the similarly fruitless battles over the survival of a regular opera among different forms of organization that were demanded of him by often unreliable partners, took their toll on him. Completely exhausted, he allowed himself neither pause nor rest, was always negotiating with potential patrons, travelled yet again across Europe, struggled, quarreled with those around him, was reconciled again, composed, ate and drank. All to excess: in short, he did not know how to spare himself or those around him, and so it was first through his superhuman exertions that his exhausted body called a halt.

In 1737 he suffered a stroke and, after this, physical troubles and heavy depressions which neither the waters at Tunbridge Wells nor the brutal remedies of the time, emetics and blood-letting, could cure. A continuing paralysis of his right hand and general ill-health finally led in May 1737 to a breakdown. His illness gave rise to fears for the worst, and he was a difficult patient: ‘But tho’ he had the best advice, and tho’ the necessity of following it was urged to him in the most friendly manner, it was with the utmost difficulty that he was prevailed upon to do what was proper, when it was in any way disagreeable’ (Mainwaring). His friends succeeded in persuading him to leave London and take the waters at Aix-la-Chapelle, and he travelled there in September. The result was a miracle. The cure succeeded. The depressive moods disappeared, physical health returned, and his right hand began again to respond. Thankful, he returned to London.

The situation with opera had, for its part, in general not improved. That there was fear of bankruptcy had for some months been clear to all those involved. As a responsible partner Handel had to respond with his own means to the financial disaster. He had had the prudent foresight to set by financial reserves for some years. This saved him from a catastrophe. In spring 1738 he decided to invite the London public, with the help of friends, to a benefit concert at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on Tuesday 28th March, and to a work that he called, succinctly, ‘An Oratorio’, consisting of a hastily assembled compilation of arias from the oratorios Esther, Athalia, and Deborah, some Italian arias and the anthem Zadok the Priest, a pasticcio without any underlying plot. In the breaks between the acts he played organ concertos. This concert achieved absolutely incredible success. The London public felt itself called on to show solidarity and flocked in crowds to the opera house. On the same night the Earl of Egmont wrote in his diary: ‘In the evening I went to Hendel’s Oratorio, where I counted near 1,300 persons besides the gallery and the upper gallery. I suppose he got this night 1,000 L.’ The number of subscribers necessary for financing the new opera season, however, declined so that Johann Jacob Heidegger in the name of the management on 25th July 1738 threw in the towel. We read in the London Daily Post for 26th July 1738, the day after Heidegger’s announcement: ‘Whereas the Opera’s for the ensuing Season at the King’s Theatre in the Hay-Market, cannot be carried on as was intended, by Reason of the Subscription not being full, and that I could not agree with the Singers th’I offered One Thousand Guineas to One of them: I therefore think myself oblig’d to declare, that I give up the Undertaking for next Year, and that Mr. Drummond will be ready to repay the Money paid in, upon the Delivery of his Receipt: I also take this Opportunity to return my humble Thanks to all Persons, who were pleased to contribute towards my Endeavours of carrying on that Entertainment.’ The unparalleled contribution of the audience, reflected in their attendance at the benefit concert, as well as the end of the Academy opera, persuaded Handel to concentrate more on the composition of oratorios. On 23rd July 1738 he started work on Saul, HWV53. His librettist was Charles Jennens, the later librettist of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and of Messiah.

The first performance of Saul took place on 16th January 1739. The public flocked to it. It had been rumoured that the score was a rich one and with unheard of instruments, and they were not disappointed. The audience was enraptured. Following further performances of Saul Handel produced Alexander’s Feast and Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità, as well as a benefit concert for the impoverished or orphaned families of musicians. The season was extremely successful.

For the 1739/40 season Handel hired from John Rich the smaller theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and on Thursday 22nd November, St Cecilia’s Day, opened the season with his Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, a setting of Dryden’s text, excerpts from Alexander’s Feast and Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità, and two ‘new Concerto’s for Instruments’ and an organ concerto. On 13th December followed the performance of the serenata Acis and Galatea, together with several instrumental works.

On 19th January 1740 Handel began the composition of the third secular Ode of the season, the oratorio L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. At the beginning I mentioned certain parallels between this oratorio and the first, Esther, and also the fact that the new work owed its composition to Handel’s milieu. As at Cannons there were again good friends, on this occasion the philosopher James Harris, the fourth Earl of Shaftesbury, and Charles Jennens, who, in conversation, drew Handel’s attention to John Milton’s poems. The form of the poems appealed at once to the composer. Charles Jennens was chosen to be involved in the arrangement of the libretto. The first two acts are versions of the two poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, which reflect on the merits of the two opposite but finally complementary characters in a series of images and scenes. It was evidently James Harris who proposed that it might be possible to link the two poems together to make a dialogue of contrasted imagery and setting. In a letter to James Harris on 29th December 1739 Charles Jennens reported that he had told Handel of the plan and made him impatient soon to see the text: ‘Having mention’d to Mr. Handel your schemes of Allegro & Penseroso, I have made him impatient to see it in due form & to set it immediately. I beg therefore that you will execute your Plan without delay and send it up; or if you don’t care to do that, send me your Instructions, & I will make the best use I am able of them; but by all means let me know your Intentions by the next Post for he is so eager that I am afraid, if his demands are not answer’d very soon, He will be diverted to some less agreeable Design.’

James Harris produced his sketch in the the next two weeks. Not only did he choose the texts, but also made proposals concerning the music, pitch, instrumentation, and choice of singers. Handel was glad to receive the text, although he was not always completely in agreement with the combination of the poems, ‘too much of the Penseroso together, which would consequently occasion too much grave music without intermission’. For this reason he asked Charles Jennens to re-arrange the text with this in mind and also asked him for a third part, a conclusion, to bring the poems together into ‘one Moral Design’. For this he thought of a passage from Milton’s At a Solemn Musick, Blessed pair of sirens.

Charles Jennens met the first request, but as far as the third part was concerned, decided to write it himself. He created a third person, Il Moderato, who made it his business with reflections guided by level-headedness and reason to bring about a reconciliation between Milton’s two opposite standpoints, Allegro and Penseroso. James Harris proposed overtures for each part. Handel, however, obstinately refused ‘to make so much as one’. He decided instead to perform ‘one of his 12 new concertos’.

On 4th February 1740, within three weeks of receiving the libretto, Handel completed the composition. The first performance took place on 27th February, when the London Daily Post announced: ‘Never perform’d before. At the Theatre Royal at Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, this Day . . . will be perform’d L’Allegro il Penseroso ed il Moderato. With two new Concerto’s for several Instruments, and a new Concerto on the Organ . . .’ Pit and Galleries to be open’d at Four, and Boxes at Five. Particular Care is taken to have the House secur’d against the Cold, constant Fires being order’d to be kept in the House, till the Time of Performance.’

With the unusual reference to the care with which the theatre management promised to protect the audience from cold, the circumstances were that for weeks London had been subject to a cold spell of unusual intensity. Oxen were roasted on the spit on the frozen Thames, and in the evenings people sat shivering by their fires or huddled by their ovens. For this reason the attendance at the first performance was pitiful, although Handel had announced in the newspaper that the theatre would be effectively heated.

The composer was not discouraged by this, and arranged three further performances before Easter and one more on 23rd April 1740. This suggests that the London public had come to appreciate the work, in spite of the criticism of the last part of the text, written by Charles Jennens. Il Moderato was not only the target of a series of objections and sometimes malicious remarks. Yet this text had inspired Handel to write wonderful music and met with his full satisfaction. The following year, after the performance of the oratorio in Dublin, he reported to Charles Jennens that ‘the words of the Moderato are vastly admired’.

Note on the text

John Milton wrote his two poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso in 1632 at the age of 24. In the same year he took the degree of Master of Arts at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and left the university, where he had spent the previous seven years, to return to the house his father had bought at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, after an active life as a scrivener in London. In the first of the two poems Milton seeks to banish melancholy, recalling the delights of country life and of the cities, with their theatres and pageantry, matters to appeal to the sanguine man. The second poem banishes ‘vain, deluding joys’ and welcomes melancholy and contemplation, considering now the pleasures of the mind.

Joachim Carlos Martini
English version by Keith Anderson


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