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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL, G.: Semele [Oratorio] (Martini)
Handel’s oratorio Semele was composed in 1743 and tells of a beautiful mortal (Semele), whose short but spectacular love affair with Jupiter, King of the Gods, comes to a terrifying end in consequence of both her own vanity and the scheming of Jupiter’s insanely jealous wife Juno. Written at the peak of Handel’s powers, it is crammed with his most sparkling and dramatic music: spectacular orchestral numbers and powerful choruses combine with heart-stopping arias, including the popular Where’er you walk and the coloratura showpiece Myself I shall adore.
By Robert Hugill
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Georg Friedrich Händel, later more generally known under the English forms of name that he assumed in London, 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 son’s early musical ambitions and after his father’s death Handel duly entered the University in Halle in 1702 as a student of law, 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, to work there 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.
Handel’s first opera for London was Rinaldo, with which he won general acclaim, and after little over a year in Hanover, he returned to England. It was here that he now established himself as a composer of Italian opera and of other forms of vocal and instrumental music, for which there was an eager audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musical life of the English capital. His involvement with Italian opera as a composer and organizer continued, eventually under the royal patronage of George I, Elector of Hanover, who had succeeded to the English throne in 1715, on the death of Queen Anne, but by 1733, with the establishment of a rival opera company under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, there were obvious commercial difficulties.
While Handel’s 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. Handel’s 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, with a libretto by Samuel Humphreys, his earlier collaborator, derived from Racine and biblical sources. The next English oratorio relying on biblical sources was Saul, first performed at the King’s Theatre in London on 16th January 1739 and revived on a number of subsequent occasions.
During the following years Handel continued to develop the form of the oratorio, 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 composer’s continued popularity and dominance, particularly, after his death, with the wider development of choral singing in the nineteenth century. Handel’s 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 of his oratorios treat narratives derived from the Old Testament, well characterized by the composer’s 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, to be commemorated there 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, in his night-cap and slippers, as Apollo, for the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall, 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.
In 1743 Handel decided to attempt a new form of work in The Story of Semele, taking a libretto written by William Congreve, which had been set in 1707 by John Eccles. Possibly Congreve had intended his work to open the new theatre in the Haymarket, a collaboration with Vanbrugh, but by 1707 fashions were changing, with Italian opera now ousting these early attempts at English opera, and Semele was never performed. For his purposes Handel revised the original libretto, perhaps with the help of Newburgh Hamilton, who had provided Handel with earlier English libretti.
The changes limited the amount of recitative, altered aria texts and added choruses. Early in 1744 Handel was able to announce an ambitious series of twelve Lenten performances at Covent Garden, opening with his new secular oratorio Semele. The use of the word ‘oratorio’ to describe what Handel’s collaborator in Messiah, Charles Jennens, described as ‘a bawdy opera’ aroused some controversy at the time and has had an adverse effect on the popularity of a work that Handel himself called ‘an English opera’. For his treatment of the subject Congreve drew on the Metamorphoses of Ovid.
Semele, daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes, is betrothed to Athamas, Prince of Boeotia, and the first of the three acts into which the work is divided opens in the temple of Juno. The priests carry out their rites, a sacrifice is offered and flames arise, after which the golden statue of the goddess is seen to bow. This seems to signify divine assent to the betrothal of Semele and Athamas, and Cadmus tells his daughter not to delay further. Semele, however, is beloved of Jupiter and is, therefore, at a loss. Athamas thinks that she is about to agree to his proposal, while Semele’s sister, Ino, is herself distressed, in view of her own love for Athamas. Thunder is heard and the fire on the altar of Juno is extinguished, an ominous event, the sign of which the priests seek to avert, as Jove himself seems to descend to quench the flames. The fire is rekindled, but is again extinguished. There is a loud clap of thunder and the altar sinks. The priests put an end to the ceremony, fearing the anger of Jupiter. Athamas is distraught, while Ino has renewed hope. Cadmus appears, with his attendants, expressing pity for Athamas. He tells how, as he, with Semele, left the shrine of Juno, flames of light suddenly appeared around his daughter’s head and an eagle descended, seized Semele, and flew away. The news is distressing to Athamas, but auspicious for Ino. Priests enter, telling Cadmus to rejoice with songs of triumph. Semele is heard in her enjoyment of endless pleasure, endless love, in the arms of Jupiter.
The second act is set in a pleasant country. Juno now seeks revenge in the destruction of Semele. Iris, her messenger, reminds her of the difficulties that lie in her way. Juno’s answer is to seek the aid of Somnus, god of sleep, in sealing with sleep the eyes of the dragons that guard the place where Semele is lodged. The scene changes to an apartment in the palace of Semele. She sleeps, attended by Loves and Zephyrs. She wakes and is joined by Jupiter, who enjoins her to trust him; he wears human guise, but is not, like men, deceitful. A chorus of Loves and Zephyrs celebrates the scene. Semele, however, sighs, troubled at her fears when her lover is absent, since she is a mere mortal. Jupiter understands her drift, but promises to amuse her by bringing her sister to her. He is invisible to Ino but transforms the scene into Arcadia, with happy nymphs and swains. Semele welcomes her sister, who tells of her journey through the air. Nymphs and swains sing in happiness.
The third act opens in the cave of Somnus, who lies on his bed, only to be woken by Juno and Iris. He relapses into sleep, but Juno knows how to wake him with the promise of the sight of his beloved Pasithea. Somnus rouses himself and Juno bids him captivate Jupiter and send him a dream of Semele to kindle his desire. Then he must give her his rod to charm the sentinels on Mount Cithaeron and put Ino to sleep, so that Juno can assume her form. In the following scene Juno appears as Ino to Semele. She shows her a mirror, reflecting Semele’s transformed beauty, suggesting immortality. Semele gazes on her reflection and her beauty, worthy of an immortal. Juno advises her to tell Jupiter to approach her bed not as a mortal but in his true form as a god, an encounter that will win her immortality. Semele is convinced, promising to grant her sister similar immortality. Juno leaves her, with Semele’s destruction now ensured.
Jupiter enters, attempting to embrace Semele, who draws back. She makes him swear by the Stygian lake to grant her request and once he has sworn, she urges him to come to her in his true form, as a god. Jupiter regrets his oath, which will bring death to Semele, even, it seems, if he appears in his gentlest form. She sees Jupiter descending in full majesty in a cloud, with lightning and thunder, and repents of her temerity, dying as the cloud bursts and she and her palace disappear.
The scene changes again to a pleasant country, where all express their terror and astonishment and priests draw the moral that all should keep to their proper place. Ino does not know how she was transported, but has been told by Hermes, in a vision, that Jupiter has ordained that she should marry Athamas. Cadmus obeys the god and joins their hands, while Athamas is happy with the turn of events. Cadmus sees some new arrival, as a bright cloud settles on Mount Cithaeron, opening to reveal Apollo, the god of prophecy. He announces future happiness and foretells the rise from Semele’s ashes of a god mightier than Love. This is Bacchus, who will put an end to sighing and sorrow, to general satisfaction.
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HANDEL, G.: Semele [Oratorio] (Martini)