Handel (Rolland)/The Operas

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It remains for us, after having attempted to indicate the general characteristics of Handel's art, to sketch the technique of the different styles in which he worked.

To speak truly, it is difficult to speak of the opera or of the oratorio of Handel. It is necessary to say: of the operas or of the oratorios, for we do not find that they point back to any single type. We can verify here what we said at the commencement of this chapter, about the magnificent vitality of Handel in choosing amongst his art forms the different directions of the music of his times.

All the European tendencies at that time are reflected in his operas: the model of Keiser in his early works, the Venetian model in his Agrippina, the model of Scarlatti and Steffani in his first early operas; in the London works he soon introduces English influences, particularly in the rhythms. Then it was Bononcini whom he rivalled. Again, those great attempts of genius to create a new musical drama, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Orlando; later on, those charming ballet-operas inspired by France, Ariodante, Alcina; later still, those operas which point towards the opéra comique and the light style of the second half of the century, Serse Deidamia. . . . Handel continued to try every other style, without making any permanent choice as did Gluck, with whom alone he can be compared.

Without doubt (and it is his greatest fault in the theatre) he was constrained by the conventions of the Italian Opera at times and by the composition of his troupe of singers to overlook his choruses, and to write operas for solo voices, of which the principal rôles were cast for the Prima Donna and for the contralto,[1] but whenever he could, he wrote his operas with choruses, like Ariodante, Alcina, and he only owed it to himself that he did not give to the tenor or to the bass their place in the concert of voices.[2] If it was not possible to break the uniformity of the solo voices by the addition of choruses, still he enlivened these solos by the flexibility and the variety of his instrumental accompaniments. Such of his most celebrated airs, as the Garden scene in Rinaldo, "Augelletti che cantate," are only in truth an orchestral tone picture. The voice mingles itself only as an instrument,[3] and with what art Handel always decides his melodies in disengaging the beautiful lines, drawing all the parts possible in pure tone colours from single instruments, and from the voice isolated,—then united,—and what of his silences!

The appeal of his melodies is much more varied than one usually believes. If the Da Capo form abounds in his works,[4] it is necessary to admit that it was practically the only one of that period. In Almira, Handel uses the form of a little strophic song, very happily. For this, Keiser supplied him with models, and he never renounces the use of these little melodies, so simple and touching, almost bare, which speak direct to the soul. He seems to return to them even with special predilection in his last operas, Atalanta, Giustina, Serse, Deidamia.[5] He gives also to Hasse and to Graun the model of his six cavatinas, airs in two parts,[6] which they later on brought into prominence. We find his dramatic airs also have the second part and the repeat.[7]

Even in the Da Capo, however, he gives us a variety of forms! Not only does Handel use all styles, but how well does he blend the voices with the instruments in those airs of great brilliance and free virtuosity![8] With what predilection does he ply all these beautiful and learned contrapuntal tissues, as in the Cara sposa from Rinaldo or the Ombra cara from Radamisto; but he ever seeks new combinations for the old form. He was one of the first to adopt the little Airs da capo, which with Bononcini seems to have been so much the fashion at the commencement of the eighteenth century, and of which Agrippina and Ottone furnish such delightful examples.[9] To the second part of the air he gave a different character and movement from that of the first part.[10] Still further, in either of the parts several movements were combined.[11] Sometimes the second part was recitative,[12] or it was extremely condensed.[13] When Handel had choruses at his disposal in his oratorios, he often entrusted the Da Capo to the Chorus.[14] He went further: in Samson, after Micah has sung in the second act the first two parts of the air "Return, O God of Hosts," the chorus takes up the second part at the same time as Micah returns to the first part. Finally he attempts to divide the Da Capo between two characters, thus in the second act of Saul, Jonathan's solo "Sin not, King, against the youth," is followed by Saul's solo, then appearing note for note.

But the most glorious feat of Handel in vocal solos is the "recitative scene."

It was Keiser who taught him the art of those moving recitative-ariosi with orchestra, which he had already used in Almira, and of which, later on, J. S. Bach was to take from him the style. He never ceased to employ it in his London operas, and he gave the form a superb amplitude. They are not merely isolated recitatives or preambles to an extended solo.[15] The story of Cæsar in the third act of Giulio Cesare, Dall' ondoso periglio is one large musical picture, which expresses in its frame a symphonic prelude, a recitative, the two first parts of an air over the symphonic accompaniment of the opening, a second recitative, then the Da Capo. The scene of Bajazet's death in the last act of Tamerlano is composed of a series of recitatives with orchestra, and of airs joined together, and passes through all the nuances of feeling, forming from one stage to the other a veritable ladder of life. The scene of Admetes' agony at the opening of the opera of the same name equals in profundity, emotion, and dramatic liberty, the finest recitative scenes of Gluck. The "mad scene" in Orlando,[16] and that of Dejanira's despair in the third act of Hercules, surpasses them in boldness of realism, and frenetic passion. In the first, burlesque and tragic elements commingle with a truly Shakespearean art. The second is a mighty foaming river, raging with fury and grief. Neither of these two scenes have any analogy in the whole of the musical theatre of the eighteenth century. And Teseo, Rodelinda, Alessandro, Alcina, Semele, Joseph, Alexander Balus, Jephtha, all present recitative scenes, or combinations in the same scene of recitatives and very free airs, with instrumental interludes, no less original. Finally a sort of presentiment of the leit-motiv, and its psychological employment in Belshazzar, should be noticed, where certain instrumental phrases and recitatives seem attached to the character of Nitocris.[17]

· · · · ·

The study of Handel's recitatives and airs raises perhaps the greatest problem of artistic interpretation—that of vocal ornamentation.

We know that Handelian singers used to decorate his melodies with graces and melismatic figures, and cadenzas (often very considerable) which have disappeared for the greater part. Chrysander, in editing Handel's works, found them given as alternatives, and either suppressed them (those which were false to the historic sense of the text) or else rewrote them himself. It was in this last point that he stopped short of all possible guarantees of exactness, or at least of true resemblance. But his revisions found few supporters, and a discussion on his treatment of this subject has been recently raised amongst German musical writers.[18] This debate, the examination of which cannot be entered into in this volume, authorised, it seems, the following conclusions:

(1) The vocal ornaments were not improvised and left to the fancy of the singer, as is often asserted, but they were marked with precise indications in the singer's parts, and also in the score of the accompanying clavecinist:[19]
(2) They were not mere caprices of empty virtuosity, but the result of a reflective virtuosity, and subject to the general style of the piece. They served to accentuate more deeply the expression of the principal melodic lines.[20]

Yet what would be the advantage of restoring these ornaments? Our taste has changed since then, and a stricter reverence forbids us to risk tampering with works of the past by following slavishly such details of tradition and habit which have become meaningless and old-fashioned. Is it better to impose on the public of to-day the older works with all their marks of age improved away by the learning of later generations—or to adapt them soberly in the manner of true feeling, so as to enable them to continue to exercise on us their elevating power? Both sides have been well supported.[21] For myself I consider the first proposition bears on the publication of the scores, and the second on the musical renderings. The mind ought to seek and find out exactly what used to be the case, but when this is done the living are justified in claiming their rights, and by being allowed to reject ancient usages, only preserving such as render these works of genius truly vital.

· · · · ·

The vocal ensemble pieces hold a much humbler place in Italian Opera, and Handel has made fewer innovations on this ground than in the vocal solo. However, one finds some very interesting experiments here. His duets are often written in an imitative style, serious and rather sad, in the old Italian school of Provenzale and Steffani,[22] or in the Lully style, where the two voices mingle together note by note with exactitude.[23] But Atalanta and Poro furnish us also with duets of an alluring freedom and uncommon artistry. And in the duet in the third act of Orlando, Handel attempts to differentiate the characters of the weeping Angelica and the furious Roland.—Similarly with the trios written in the strict style of imitation, like that in Alcina, Act III, the trio in Acis and Galatea carefully defines the couple of lovers from the colossal figure of Polyphemus, the trio in Tamerlano contrasts the exasperated Tamerlano with Bajazet and with Asteria, who aggravated him, and the trio in the judgment of Solomon distinguishes the three diverse characters: the calm power of Solomon, the aggressive cries of the wicked mother, and the sorrowful supplications of the good mother. The trio from Susanna is no less free, but in the humorous style: one of the two old men madrigalises whilst the other menaces. The ensemble forms altogether a most vivid little scene which Mozart himself would not have disowned.[24] Quartets are rare. There are two little ones in the Triumph of Time, written in Rome. In Radamisto Handel made the attempt at a dramatic quartet, but rather clumsily, and with repeated Da Capo.[25] The most moving quartet is found in the second act of Jephtha. It is in Jephtha also, Act III, where the only quintet which he wrote is to be found.

The choruses in the Italian opera of the eighteenth century[26] were reduced to a rudimentary stage, and they consist merely of the union of the voices of soloists at the end of a piece, with certain banal and brilliant acclamations during the course of the action. Notwithstanding this, Handel wrote some stronger ones in Alcina; those of Giulio Cesare, Ariodante, and Atalanta, were also exceptional in the operas of his time. So with the final choruses Handel arranged after a fashion to escape from the current banality: that of Tamerlano is written in a melancholy dramatic vein; that of Orlando strives to preserve the individual character of their personality; that of Giulio Cesare is tacked on to a duet. There are also choruses of people; the Matelots in Giustino; that of the hunters in Deidamia, where the choruses take up the refrain from the air announced by the solo voice. It is the same in Alessandro, where the soldiers' chorus repeats Alessandro's hymn, slightly curtailed.

Finally, Handel frequently attempted to build up great musical architecture, raising it by successive stages from solos to ensemble pieces, and then to choruses. At the end of the first act of Ariodante, a duet (gavotte style) is taken up by the chorus, then danced without voices; finally sung and danced. The close of Act III from the same opera gives us a chain of processions, dances, and choruses. The final scenes of Alessandro constitute a veritable opera finale, 2 duets and a trio running into a chorus.

But it is in his oratorios that Handel attempted these ensemble vocal combinations on the larger scale, and principally that mixture of movements where the powerful contrasts of soli and chorus are grouped together in the same picture.

One sees what a variety of forms and styles he used. Handel was too universal and too objective to believe that one kind of art only was the true one. He believed in two kinds of music only, the good and the bad. Apart from that he appreciated all styles. Thus he has left masterpieces in every style, but he did not open any new way in opera for the simple reason that he went a long way in nearly all paths already opened up. Constantly he experimented, invented, and always with his singularly sure touch. He seemed to have an extraordinary penetrating knowledge in invention, and consequently few artistic regions remained for him to conquer. He made as masterly a use of the recitative as Gluck, or of the arioso as Mozart, writing the acts of Tamerlano, which are the closest and most heartrending dramas, in the manner of Iphigénie en Tauride, the most moving and passionate scenes in music such as certain pages of Admeto and Orlando, where the humorous and tragic are intermingled in the manner of Don Giovanni. He has experimented very happily here in new rhythms.[27] There were new forms, the dramatic duet or quartet, the descriptive symphony opening the opera,[28] refined orchestration,[29] choruses and dances.[30] Nothing seems to have obsessed him. In the following opera we find him returning to the ordinary forms of the Italian or German opera of his time.

  1. See the vocal distribution of some of the London Operas:
    Radamisto (1720): 4 Sopranos (of which 3 parts are male characters), 1 Alto, 1 Tenor, 1 Bass.
    Floridante (1722): 2 Sopranos, 2 Contraltos, 2 Basses.
    Giulio Cesare (1724): 2 Sopranos, 2 Altos, 1 Contralto (Caesar's rôle), 2 Basses.
    Tamerlano (1724): 2 Sopranos, 1 Contralto (male rôle), 1 Alto (Tamerlano), 1 Tenor, 1 Bass.
    Admeto (1727): 2 Sopranos, 2 Altos, 1 Contralto (Admeto), 2 Basses.
    Orlando (1732): 2 Sopranos, 1 Alto (Medora), 1 Contralto (Orlando), 1 Bass.
    Deidamia (1747): 3 Sopranos (one is Achilles' rôle), 1 Contralto (Ulysses), 2 Basses.
    It is the same in the Oratorios, where one finds such a work as Joseph (1744) written for 2 Sopranos, 2 Altos, 1 Contralto (Joseph), 2 Tenors, and 2 Basses.
    Thus, without speaking of the shocking inconsistencies of the parts thus travestied, the balance of voices tends to fall off as we go from high to low.
  2. In 1729 he went to Italy to find an heroic tenor, Pio Fabri; unfortunately he could not secure him for two years.—Acis and Galatea (1720) is written for 2 Tenors, 1 Soprano, and 1 Bass.—The most tragic rôle in Tamerlano (1724) (that of Bajazet) was written for the Tenor, Borosini.—Rodelinda, Scipione, Alessandro, all contain Tenor rôles.—On the other hand, Handel was not satisfied with having in his theatre the most celebrated basses of the century, the famous Boschi and Montagnana, for whom he wrote such fine rôles, such as that of Zoroaster in Orlando, and Polyphemus in Acis and Galatea; but he aimed at having several important rôles all taken by Basses in the same Opera. In his first version of Athaliah (1733) he had written a duet for Basses for Joad and Mathan. But the defection of Montagnana obliged him to give up this idea, which he could only realise in Israel in Egypt.
  3. See also Giulio Cesare, Atalanta, or Orlando.
  4. Especially in certain concert operas, such as Alcina (1735), and also in the last work of Handel, in which one feels his final torpor, The Triumph of Time.
  5. See those Oratorios in which he is not afraid, when necessary, of introducing little popular songs, as that of the little waiting-maid in Susanna (1749).
  6. See the air of Medea at the beginning of the second act of Teseo; Dolce riposo. See also Ariodante and Hercules.
  7. Such as the air at the opening of Radamisto; Sommi Dei.—I will mention also the airs written over a Ground-Bass accompaniment without Da Capo, of which the most beautiful type is the Spirito amato of Cleofide, in Poro.
  8. For example the air, Per dar pregio, in Roderigo. The oboe plays a great part in these musical jousts. Such an air as that in Teseo is like a little Concerto for Oboe.
  9. They are extremely short. Some are popular songs. Others in Agrippina have just a phrase. Many of these arietti da capo, in Teseo, in Ottone, make one think of those in Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide.
  10. In Rinaldo, the air, Ah crudel il pianto mio, the first part is a sorrowful largo, the second a furious presto.—The finest example of this freedom is the air of Timotheus at the beginning of the second act of Alexander's Feast. The two parts in this air differ not only by the movements but by the instrumental colouring, by the harmonic character, and by the very essence of the thought; they are two different poems which are joined together, but each being complete in itself.
  11. Examples ; Teseo, Medea's; Moriro, ma vendioata; Amadigi air, T'amai quanf il mio cor.
  12. Riccardo I, air, Morte, vieni.
  13. In the airs da capo of Ariodante, the second part is restricted to five bars.
  14. L' Allegro ed Penseroso, 1st air, Part 3, Come with native lustre shine; after the 2nd part comes a recitative, then the chorus sings the Da Capo.—In Alexander's Feast the air, He sung Darius, great and good; after the 2nd part comes a recitative, then the Da Capo with Chorus, but altogether free; to speak truly, the Da Capo is only in the instrumental accompaniment.
  15. Handel has found a musical language passing by imperceptible steps from recitative secco, almost spoken, to recitativo accompagnato, then to the air. In Scipione (1726) the phrases of the accompanied recitative are enshrined in small frameworks of spoken recitative (see p. 23 of the Complete Handel Edition, the air, Oh sventurati). The final air in the first act is a compromise between speech and, song. The accompanied recitative runs naturally into the air.
  16. In the chain of Recitatives and Airs of all kinds which succeed or mingle themselves with it, with an astonishing freedom reflecting one after another, or even at the same time the contradictory ideas which course through Roland's mind, Handel does not hesitate to use unusual rhythms, as the 5-8 here which gives a stronger impression of the hero's madness.
  17. It is necessary to consider to some extent the Arias buffi. Some have denied Handel the gift of humour. They cannot know him well. He is full of humour, and often expresses it in his works. In his first opera, Almira, the rôle of Tabarco is in the comic style of Keiser and of Telemann. It is the same feeling which gives certain traits a little caricaturesque to the rôle of St. Peter in the Passion after Brockes. The Polyphemus in Acis and Galatea has a fine amplitude of rough buffoonery. But in Agrippina Handel derived his subtle irony from Italy; and the light style with its minute touches and its jerky rhythms from Vinci and Pergolesi (to the letter) appear with Handel in Teseo (1713). Radamisto, Rodelinda, Alessandro, Tolomeo, Partenope, Orlando, Atalanta afford numerous examples. The scene where Alexander and Roxane are asleep (or pretend to be) is a little scene of musical comedy. Serse and Deidamia are like tragicomedies, the action of which points to opéra comique. But his gift of humour takes another turn in his oratorios, where Handel not only creates complex and colossal types, such as Delilah or Haraphah in Samson, or as the two old men in Susanna, but where his Olympian laugh breaks out in the choruses of L' Allegro, shaking the sides of the audience with irresistible laughter.
  18. See especially Hugo Goldschmidt: Treatise on Vocal Ornaments, Volume I, 1907; Max Seiffert: Die Verzierung der Sologesänge in Haendels Messias (I.M.G., July-September, 1907, and Monthly Bulletin of I.M.G., February, 1908); Rudolf Wustmann: Zwei Messias-probleme (Monthly Bulletin I.M.G., January, February, 1908).
  19. M. Seiffert has given a description of the whole series of copies of Handel Operas and Oratorios in the Lennard collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. There are to be found there (in pencil) the indication of the ornaments and vocalises executed by the singers. According to M. Seiffert these indications were by Christopher Smith, the friend and factotum of Handel. According to Mr. Goldschmidt they were put in at the end of the eighteenth century. In any case they show a vocal tradition which affords a good opportunity of preserving for us the physiognomy of the musical ornaments of Handel's time.
  20. This is especially true of the oratorios. In the operas, the ornamentation was much more elaborate and more irrelevant to the expression.
  21. The first, by Mr. Seiffert; the second, by Mr. Goldschmidt.
  22. Teseo, duet, Addio, mio caro bene; Esther, duet by Esther and Ahasuerus: "Who calls my parting soul?"
  23. Arminio (1737), duet from Act III. It is to be noticed that Arminio opens also with a duet, a very exceptional thing.
    Other duets are in the Sicilian style, as, for instance, that in Giulio Cesare, or in the popular English style of the hornpipe, as that of Teofane and Otho in Ottone; A' teneri affetti.
  24. There are to be found also some fine trios in a serious yet virile style in the Passion according to Brockes (trio of the believing souls: O Donnerwort!) and in the Chandos Anthems.
  25. See also the quartet in Act I of Semele.
  26. With the exception of the Italian operas played at Venice, in which (thanks to Fux) the tradition of vocal polyphony is maintained—a tradition to be put to such good use later by Hasse and especially Jommelli.
  27. The 5-8 time in Orlando; the 9-8 in Berenice.
  28. The Introduction to Riccardo I represents a vessel wrecked in a tempestuous sea.
  29. Giulio Cesare: Scene on Parnassus.
  30. Ariodante, Alcina.