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8.660165-67 - HANDEL: Rinaldo
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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Rinaldo, HWV 7a

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle in 1685, the son of an elderly and distinguished barber-surgeon by his second wife, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. He showed an early interest in music, an activity not altogether encouraged by his father, whose patron, the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, intervened in the boy’s favour. His father died in 1697 but Handel’s general and musical education continued, allowing him, five years later, to matriculate at the University of Halle, and to accept, a month afterwards, the position of organist at the Calvinist cathedral. The following year he abandoned his studies and his native town in order to embark on a career as a musician.

Handel’s first employment was in the city of Hamburg. There he worked at the opera, at first as a rank-and-file second violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, establishing his first connection with England by giving lessons to the son of the English Resident. In Hamburg he was associated with Johann Mattheson, a musician his senior by four years, who was, rightly or wrongly, to claim a share in Handel’s education as a composer. From Hamburg Handel travelled in 1706 to Italy, at the invitation of Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, heir to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He was to remain there until 1710, spending time in Florence, in Venice, and in Rome, absorbing more fully the Italian style that he had already attempted in opera in Hamburg, and impressing audiences with his ability as an organist and harpsichord-player.

It was through his acquaintance with Baron Kielmansegge, Master of Horse to the Elector of Hanover, whom he met in Venice, and perhaps through an earlier meeting with the Elector’s brother, Prince Ernst August, that Handel found himself offered the position of Kapellmeister in Hanover, an appointment followed, according to prior agreement, by immediate leave of absence for twelve months.

In moving north Handel seems to have had London in mind as a possibly rich field for musical speculation. England was under the rule of Queen Anne, the second of the daughters of the exiled Catholic King James II. The last of the Stuarts was to be succeeded after her death in 1714 by the Elector of Hanover, who ascended the English throne as King George I. On his first visit to London Handel had remained for eight months, seeing to the mounting early in 1711 of his new Italian opera Rinaldo, with a libretto based on an outline sketch by Aaron Hill. He then returned to Hanover, but after fifteen months he was back once more in London, with leave from the Elector to stay for a reasonable length of time. Handel in the event settled in England for the rest of his life, whether with or without the approval of his patron is not clear. He was, however, to enjoy royal patronage after the accession of George I.

In London Handel was concerned to a considerable extent with the Italian opera, a risky venture that was to undergo various changes of fortune during the following decades. Later in his career he was to turn to English oratorio, a form that, in his hands, had all the musical advantages of Italian opera without the disadvantage of a foreign language, lavish production costs or liability to native criticism on the grounds of improbability or incomprehensibility. Handel wrote music for other occasions, for the church and for the pleasure gardens, and enjoyed immense popularity and esteem, his pre-eminence serving to eclipse lesser talents. He died in 1759.

London had a well established dramatic tradition. Purcell and his contemporaries had contributed to the genre more recently known as ‘semi-opera’, in which spoken drama was coupled with a separate and parallel musical element. This was proving less satisfactory, particularly since Purcell’s death in 1695. The early years of the eighteenth century brought various experiments in operatic entertainment, often in the form of pasticcio, as rival impresarios sought to attract audiences. Attempts at English opera had led nowhere, with Thomas Clayton’s setting of Joseph Addison’s Rosamund, the first entirely sung English opera, a notable failure in 1707, withdrawn after three performances. France had, with Lully, found its own operatic tradition, and in Germany Italian opera companies had found a place. In London Italian singers appeared with some success in concerts or in musical interludes between the acts of plays and, amid the confusing commercial rivalry of the London theatres and their supporters, the time seemed to have come at last for Italian opera in its true form.

There had been attempts to lure the composer Bononcini to England, but the first Italian opera composer of significant reputation to work in London was Handel, who reached the city towards the end of 1710. His opera Rinaldo was based on a scenario by Aaron Hill, the enthusiastic young director of the Haymarket Theatre, whose ambition, as he declared in his Preface to the libretto of Rinaldo, had been to establish ‘English opera more splendid than her Mother, the Italian’. Based on an episode from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, the Italian libretto, by Giacomo Rossi, was published with an English translation by Hill. Rossi himself regretted, in his own preface to the libretto, that he had had to write at some speed, while Handel had seemingly accomplished his part in the work in the space of a fortnight. He might have added that Handel made some use of words that he had already set earlier and that these had to be incorporated into the libretto. Much of the music, in fact, however revised or remodelled, was drawn from earlier compositions, written during Handel’s years in Italy.

Rinaldo opened at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, on 24th February 1711. The cast included the highly praised alto castrato Nicolò Grimaldi, known as Nicolini, as Rinaldo, the contralto Francesca Vanini- Boschi as Goffredo, the alto castrato Valentino Urbani, known as Valentini, as Eustazio, the soprano Isabella Girardeau as Almirena, the soprano Elisabetta Pilotti- Schiavonetti as Armida, the bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi as Argante, and the alto castrato Giuseppe Cassani as the Christian magician. The opera was successful and had fifteen performances in the season, with later revisions and performances in the following years. While Rinaldo won public success, there were those who took exception to the inevitable lack of verisimilitude. Addison, in particular, writing in The Spectator on 6th March, mocked the inclusion of real sparrows ‘to act the part of Singing Birds in a delightful Grove’, with the likely consequences of such casting, the description of Armida as an ‘Amazonian Enchantress’, the presence of a heterodox ‘Christian- Conjuror’, and ‘Nicolini exposed to a Tempest in Robes of Ermin, and sailing in an open Boat upon a Sea of Paste-Board’. Addison returned to the subject of opera in later papers, finding more to praise in Lully’s French opera. Whatever Addison’s objections, as the unsuccessful author of Rosamund, spectacle was an important part of Rinaldo, with the requisite transformation scenes common to Italian opera of the time and, indeed, to English semi-opera.

For Rinaldo Handel borrowed extensively from his earlier compositions. Some of these are listed in the synopsis below. A fuller account of Handel’s borrowings is given in Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 by Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp (Oxford, 1987), where due acknowledgement is made to the work of Dr John H. Roberts on this subject.

Keith Anderson


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