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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759):
Apollo e Dafne * Music for The Alchemist
George Frideric Handel was born in Halle in 1685, the son of a successful barber-surgeon and his much younger, second wife. His father opposed his sons early musical ambitions and after his fathers death Handel duly matriculated at the University in Halle in February 1702, as his father had insisted. He was able to seize the chance of employment as organist at the Calvinist Cathedral the following month, holding the position for a year, until his departure for Hamburg. There he worked at the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, contributing in the latter capacity to the Italian operatic repertoire of the house. At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, he travelled, in 1706, to Italy, where he won considerable success during the next four years. Connections he had made in Venice, brought appointment in 1710 as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. From here he was granted immediate leave to fulfil a commission in London.
Handels first opera for London was Rinaldo, with which he won general acclaim, and after little over a year in Hanover again, he returned to England in the autumn of 1712. The following year he took up residence at Burlington House in Piccadilly as a guest of Lord Burlington. He had, at the same time, accepted a commission from Queen Anne for his first contributions to the English liturgy, settings of the Te Deum and Jubilate in celebration of the Peace of Utrecht. After a brief period in Germany in the summer of 1716, Handel returned to England, joining the establishment of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (sic) and later Duke of Chandos, at Cannons, near Edgware. Principally, over the following years, Handel established himself as a composer of Italian opera, for which there was a fashionable audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musical life of the English capital. He enjoyed the royal patronage of George I, Elector of Hanover, who had succeeded to the English throne in 1715, on the death of Queen Anne, and on the death of the former in 1727 was commissioned to provide anthems for the coronation of George II. In the following years he was again called upon to provide music for royal occasions. At the same time his involvement with Italian opera brought increasing commercial difficulties, particularly after the establishment of a rival opera company in 1733 under the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, himself later a strong supporter of Handel.
While Handels work in Italian opera continued, with a final opera to be staged in 1741, he increasingly turned his attention to a new English form, that of the oratorio. This had certain very practical advantages, in language, lack of the need for expensive spectacle and the increasing employment of native singers. The content of oratorios appealed to English Protestant susceptibilities, providing a winning synthesis of religion and entertainment, and offering no offence to those who had found operatic conventions ridiculous in a city with strong pre-existent dramatic traditions. Handels first English oratorio, in 1732, was Esther, with a libretto based on Racine, followed, in 1733, by the biblical Deborah in March and in July Athalia. During the following years he continued to develop the form, chiefly on biblical subjects but with an occasional excursion into the mythological. These works, with their Italianate melodies, strong choral writing and demonstrable dramatic sense, ensured their composers continued popularity and dominance, particularly, after his death, with the wider development of choral singing in the nineteenth century. Handels most famous oratorio, Messiah, was first performed in 1742, his last, Jephtha, ten years later. While Messiah may be exceptional in its ambitious subject, most treat narratives derived from the Old Testament, well characterized by the composers own descriptive title of them as sacred dramas.
Handel died in London in April 1759 and was buried, as he had requested, in Westminster Abbey. There he was commemorated three years later by an imaginative and slightly improbable monument by Louis François Roubiliac, who had provided, thirty years before, a statue of the composer for the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall. In the Abbey he is represented in his night-cap and slippers, in the guise of Apollo, an indication of his popular reputation. His funeral drew a crowd of some three thousand mourners, while posthumous Handel celebrations could muster a similar audience in the Abbey, with a proportionate number of performers.
Handel composed the majority of his cantatas between 1707 and 1710 during his productive apprenticeship in Italy. Many of them were strongly influenced by the chamber cantatas of Domenico Scarlattis father, Alessandro, a celebrated opera composer whose secular cantatas were widely sung. These pieces were very simply constructed and usually consisted of a couple of da capo arias, each preceded by a brief recitative, the so-called R-A-R-A form. Their subject matter was similarly stylized. Love was the preferred theme and the setting was invariably a never-never-land of lush pastoral groves inhabited by fickle nymphs and shepherds endlessly bemoaning the bitter-sweet pains which Cupids arrows brought them.
Handel must have written hundreds of such pieces for soirées at the palaces of the great and good. Mostly they were quite modest affairs for a single singer and continuo accompaniment, but in Rome, where public opera was forbidden, the form positively flourished, and many works grew to mini-operatic proportions, with several singers in real character rôles and a small orchestra for support. This was an elite entertainment then, and one in which composers, poets and performers were free to experiment with new ideas which would have been alien to the rigid conventions governing contemporary opera seria. In Apollo e Dafne, Handels most ambitious cantata, we can hear him flexing his operatic muscles and honing his emerging dramatic skills to brilliant effect.
Apollo e Dafne was probably begun in Venice in 1709, but was not completed until after Handels arrival in Hanover in 1710, to take up his appointment as Kapellmeister to the Elector. The instrumentation is more colourful than usual, and in addition to the usual strings Handel added a flute, a pair of oboes and a bassoon. The musical structure is relatively simple, with a succession of emotionally varied da capo arias and a pair of duets for the two main characters, Dafne, a soprano, and Apollo, a bass. Since Handels original overture has not survived, this performance is prefaced by the opening movement of his Concerto Opus 3, No.1, which was probably composed at the same time.
The plot is a mythological storm in a teacup. As the cantata opens we find the God Apollo basking in the limelight, having just released Greece from the menaces of a fearful python. Feeling rather full of himself he boasts that even Cupids archery is no match for his bow and arrow. How wrong he is. Apollo soon spies the lovely Dafne and is instantly smitten. Overawed or distrustful, she very sensibly rejects him. Apollo runs the full gamut of charm and seduction, but Dafne remains unimpressed, claiming that she would rather die than sacrifice her honour. Apollo presses the point, and Dafne is only able to resist his clutches by turning herself into a laurel tree. Apollo reluctantly comes to terms with his fate in a final aria of extraordinary pathos.
Like Apollo e Dafne, the music for The Alchemist was also composed in Italy. It found its way to England by an uncertain route, and nearly a year ahead of its composer, thanks to the bare-faced cheek of a musical pirate. All but one of the movements were taken without permission from the extended overture to Handels first Italian opera Rodrigo, first heard in Florence in 1707. Back in England the unknown arranger pressed the music into service in a revival of Ben Jonsons hundred-year-old comedy The Alchemist, given at the Queens Theatre in the Haymarket in January 1710.
From the time of Henry Purcell English theatre audiences had enjoyed listening to music as they gathered before the performance as well as at the end of each act of the play. Handels music was therefore divided up into nine act tunes, disposed between the First Music, played by way of overture, and the Second Music, which was interspersed between the acts of the play. Only the second movement, a Prelude, was probably the work of the anonymous hack himself; it is closer in style to the frantic mood of the play than the easy elegance of Handels fashionable Italian manner. In this form the recycled music for The Alchemist was almost certainly the first by Handel performed in England. It must have been well received, since it was published in full just a few months later, though the composers identity continued to remain a secret. In an age before copyright laws it is highly unlikely that Handel ever saw a penny of profit from either the performance or publication of this music, but with hindsight we can see that The Alchemist was a trail-blazing free sample from a composer who would, within a few months, begin his half-century reign over English musical life.