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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL: Acis and Galatea
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Acis and Galatea, HWV 49b
There is an element of paradox about the career of George Frideric Handel. Born in Hallé 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 whole-hearted 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 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 B.C. 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 stream.
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 Beatrice Sanseverino, which took place, seemingly in the composer's absence, in July, In England in the following decade Handel had, in 1717, accepted the appointment of composer-in-residence to James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and, from 17l9, 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 17l8, turned again to the subject of Acis and Galatea in a masque, a miniature English opera, with a 1ibretto by John Gay. Gay, who was ten years later to write The Beggar's Opera, had poured ridicule on attempts by some Eng1ish poets to explore a vein of pastoral realism, much as Shakespeare, a hundred years or so ear1ier, 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 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, in aversion that now included additional elements taken from his Italian Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, and this was to be revived successfully in further performances during the following years.
The first English version of Acis and Galatea at Cannons had been for relatively small forces. The orchestra there consisted of two oboes, one doubling flute and recorder, two violins, two cellos and harpsichord, with the solo singers combining in the choruses. The 1732 version at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket was on a larger scale, with additions from the Italian work of 1708. There were further revisions up to 1736. The present performance is based on the version originally written for Cannons, with the part of Damon, the shepherd who urges Acis to moderate his passion, given to a countertenor, as in the King's Theatre performances. The two arias of Damon have been arranged for the Scholars Baroque Ensemble by Andrew Lawrence-King. The chorus Happy we and Damon's aria Would you gain the tender creature? are here omitted, since they represent later additions to the original work, the aria with words by another poet.
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
The Scholars Baroque ensemble was founded in 1987 by David van Asch with the idea of complementing the 'a capella' work of the vocal quartet The Scholars. This latter group, consisting also of the soprano Kym Amps, counter tenor Angus Davidson and tenor Robin Doveton. has had worldwide success during the last twenty years. The members of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble are all specialists in the field of baroque music and play original instruments (or copies) using contemporary techniques. Singers and players work together without a director to produce their own versions of great baroque masterworks such as Bach's St John Passion, Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, Purcell's The Fairy Queen, Dido and Aeneas and Handel's Messiah, all of which have been recorded for Naxos. Performances of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble have been acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps because the artistic aim of the ensemble goes beyond that of so-called 'authenticity'; more important is the clarity and vitality achieved by the use of a minimum number of players and singers to apart (often only one), a common practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
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HANDEL: Acis and Galatea