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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL, G.F.: Acis and Galatea (Kotoski, Gordon, Siebert, Opalach, Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra, Schwarz)
Acis and Galatea, variously described as a pastoral, a ‘little opera’ and a masque, is one of Handel’s most popular works. It is a delectable succession of pastoral airs, love-lorn lyrics, and sprightly or mourning choruses, spiced by the pungent and unforgettable interjection of the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who destroys the idyll of the shepherd Acis and the nymph Galatea. Handel had first turned to the subject in a cantata written in Naples in 1708. His English work, formally a masque, went through several stages until the two-act version of 1739 written principally by John Gay and graced by Handel’s exquisite music.
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Acis and Galatea, HWV 49
A Masque in Two Acts
Words by John Gay and others
Galatea – Dawn Kotoski, Soprano
Acis – David Gordon, Tenor
Damon – Glenn Siebert, Tenor
Polyphemus – Jan Opalach, Bass
Scott Goff, Flute
Judy Kriewall, Piccolo
Bernard Shapiro, Oboe
Susan Williams, Cello
Michael G. Morgan, Double Bass
Jillon Stoppels Dupree, Harpsichord and Organ
Seattle Symphony Chorale
(Richard Sparks, Director of Chorale Activities)
There is an element of paradox about the career of George Frideric Handel. Born in Halle in 1685, the son of a distinguished and elderly barber-surgeon by his second wife, he gave up other studies in order to become a musician, working first in Hamburg at the opera, as composer and harpsichordist. From there he moved to the source of all opera, Italy, where he made a name for himself as a composer and performer. A meeting in Venice with Baron Kielmansegge led him to Hanover as Kapellmeister and from there, almost immediately, to London, where he was invited to provide music for the newly established Italian opera. It was, then, primarily as a composer of Italian opera that Handel made his early reputation there.
Xenophobia has always run strong in England, and while ready, in the interests of Protestantism, to accept a German king as successor to Queen Anne, the public was less wholehearted in its support of foreign opera. Common sense found some objection to the artificiality of the form, supported by the strong existing literary and dramatic traditions of the country. It seemed that John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a political parody of grand opera, in the satirical vein of Henry Fielding’s novel Jonathan Wild, appealed to a much wider public than any foreign entertainment ever could.
Handel was deeply concerned in the business of Italian opera, and when rivalry of an opposing company and fickle popular taste suggested the need for change, he turned instead to a form of music that seemed admirably suited to London audiences. English oratorio provided what was essentially an Italianate operatic entertainment, at least as far as the music was concerned. It had the advantage, however, of being in English, and the further attraction of an appeal, through its choice of subjects and texts, to Protestant religious proclivities.
Although Handel’s oratorios were to fascinate generation after generation of English choral singers and exercise an effect so overwhelming as to paralyse future English musical creativity, in their own time they suffered variable fortunes at the box-office. There were critics who found something unsuitable in the mixture of sacred and secular, and audiences came and went as fashions changed from season to season. In the end, though, it was the creation of this new and peculiarly English artistic and religious compromise that ensured Handel’s lasting fame, with a series of works that continued in performance until shortly before his death in April 1759 and subsequently formed the basis of popular English choral repertoire into the following centuries.
The pastoral has a long history in European culture, stemming from Theocritus and his Alexandrian contemporaries, handed on through Virgil to find further development in Renaissance Italy and in the newly developing form of Italian opera. The essence of pastoral, which takes for its subject the lives and loves of shepherds and shepherdesses, lies in its urban view of the countryside, an idealised Arcadia, without winter and rough weather, where little work is done, as shepherds sit idly upon the rocks, birds sing madrigals and where the only ills come from unrequited love, where rejection often proves fatal.
The story of Acis and Galatea has its earliest surviving literary source in Theocritus in the third century BC. It owed its Renaissance resurgence to the treatment of the subject in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the inspiration for paintings by Claude and by Poussin. The Sicilian shepherd Acis, son of Faunus and a river-nymph, is in love with Galatea, in origin a sea-nymph, but depicted as a shepherdess. Acis is killed by his rival, the Cyclops Polyphemus, who crushes him under a rock, and is turned into a river.
Handel’s first treatment of the subject of Acis and Galatea was in the summer of 1708 in Naples. There he completed a cantata or serenade, apparently composed for the wedding of the Duca d’Alvito and the niece of Beatrice Sanseverino, which took place, seemingly in the composer’s absence, in July. The following decade in England, Handel had, in 1717, accepted the appointment of composer-in-residence to James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and, from 1719, Duke of Chandos, a man who had made his fortune as Paymaster-General during Marlborough’s campaigns on the Continent. It was for Cannons, the magnificent house that Brydges had had built for him at Edgware, that Handel, in 1718, turned again to the subject of Acis and Galatea in a masque, a miniature English opera, with a libretto by John Gay and contributions from Alexander Pope and John Hughes. Gay, who was ten years later to write The Beggar’s Opera, had poured ridicule on attempts by some English poets to explore a vein of pastoral realism, much as Shakespeare, a hundred years or so earlier, had, in As You Like It, mocked pastoral pretensions. In Acis and Galatea Gay provides an example of the true Greco-Roman form. The work was given a successful production at Cannons, where Pepusch, the composer responsible for collecting music for The Beggar’s Opera, was director of music.
In 1731 a benefit performance of Acis and Galatea was given at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. This was followed, in 1732, by the announcement of an unauthorised performance for the New Theatre, in the Haymarket, a direct challenge to Handel, who was presenting Italian opera at the King’s Theatre opposite. In response Handel mounted his own production of Acis and Galatea as a three-act serenata, in a bilingual version that now included additional elements taken from his Italian Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, from the Italian cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, and elsewhere. This was to be revived successfully in further performances during the following years. In 1739 Handel devised an entirely English version of the work, of which there were further performances, but it seems that he never put on performances of the two-act English version now familiar to audiences.
The text suggests the setting of the performance. The scene is ‘a rural Prospect, with Rocks, Groves, Fountains and Grotto’s, amongst which will be disposed a Chorus of Nymphs and Shepherds, Habits, and every other decoration suited to the Subject’. In the first act all is well. The sea nymph Galatea is in love with the shepherd Acis, who is seen searching for her. The lovers are given friendly advice by another shepherd, Damon, who suggests that Acis has been neglecting his flocks, but, with the lovers now together, all ends in happiness and rejoicing. The second act is in a darker mood. The chorus warns of danger to come. The one-eyed giant Polyphemus, a monster, is jealous and, in a contrapuntal outburst, threatens Acis. Damon urges prudence on Polyphemus, but the lovers promise to be true to each other, while Polyphemus expresses his jealous anger, finally crushing his rival under a great rock. The chorus and Galatea mourn, but she remembers her semi-divine nature and miraculously turns the dead Acis into a river, to the general satisfaction of the chorus.
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