Program III Handel's Roman Holiday
Friday, August 2nd at 7:30 p.m. at St. Augustine’s in-the-woods
Sunday, August 4th at 3 p.m. at St. Augustine’s in-the-woods

A program of dramatic, passionate and virtuosic music written while Handel was a young man in Rome. Amanda Forsythe brings Handel's greatest heroines to life!

Agrippina condotto a morire                                                    George Frederick Handel (1685-1759)

Trio Sonata – Op. 4, No. 1                                                                        Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)

Col partir la bella Clori                                                                                                        G. F. Handel


Sarei troppo felice                                                                                                                G.F. Handel

Trio Sonata in G major,  Op. 5, No. 4                                                                                  G.F. Handel
Allegro – A tempo ordinario

Armida abbandonata                                                                                                           G.F. Handel


Amanda Forsythe, soprano
Tekla Cunningham, violin
Elisabeth Reed, violoncello
Stephen Stubbs, lute and baroque guitar
Henry Lebedinsky, harpsichord

Roman Holiday – Program note:

Handel made his way from his hometown of Halle some 200 miles northward to the international port city of Hamburg at the tender age of 17. Hamburg was known as the Venice of the North and it lived up to that reputation not only as an attractive port city, as much a crossroads of the northern seas as Venice was of the Mediterranean, but in musical terms, it followed the Venetian creation of public opera in the late 1630’s with its own public opera some 40 years later, the famous Goose-Market opera. From then until its ultimate demise in the 1730’s, the Hamburg opera was Germany’s leading musical institution and fostered the talents of generations of Germany’s best composers including Handel, Telemann and Reinhard Keiser. When Handel arrived there in 1704, the leading composer (and tenor!) of the Hamburg opera (other than Keiser) was Johann Mattheson who took the somewhat younger Handel under his wing and encouraged him in the composition of his first opera Almira in 1705.  The opera was a great success – and shows Handel to be a brilliant musical dramatist from his first attempt. Dramatic vocal music would remain the center of Handel’s musical world for the rest of his life, and he knew that the epicenter of the musical world and the birthplace of opera was Italy; already by 1706 he was on his way to Rome where he remained for most of the following three years.

In Rome, the abundantly talented (and strikingly handsome) young musical lion came almost immediately to the attention of all of the most important musical patrons of the City – Cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphilli and the Marquis Ruspoli in particular commissioned Handel to write cantatas and eventually oratorios featuring all the best singers in Rome – which, at that point, was tantamount to saying the best singers in the world. Several of them, particularly Margherita Durastanti, would go on to be associated with Handel even into his years in London. Handel was resident for long periods in the Palazzo of Cardinal Ruspoli where he regularly presented musical soirees featuring his newest cantatas sung by these singers. As he had learned the forms of German opera in Hamburg, here in Rome he imbibed the sophisticated Italian style and also the pervasive ethos of the Pastoral. The renaissance and baroque periods had revived a kind of poetry from Ancient Greek and Roman forms which evoked a poetic vision of nymphs and shepherds living in an idealized pastoral landscape where life and art were so intertwined that it became believable that they “spoke” to each other in song. This conceit was fundamental to the suspension of disbelief in the form of the opera where characters indeed sing to each other instead of speaking. In Rome, in the elevated circles of Handel’s patrons, this intentional confusion between life and art was underlined by everyone assuming pastoral nicknames and writing poems to each other in this pastoral guise and by the establishment of the influential literary club known as the Arcadian Academy of Rome. In this male-dominated society of the Roman clergy and the artists they patronized, Handel’s creations displayed one element which was not characteristic of his contemporaries: his emphasis on the emotional lives of women.

In Almira, Handel had already demonstrated his ability to inhabit the emotional states of women in moments of passion or distress. One of his first great arias was the monumental jealousy aria for Almira herself called Geloso tormento. As always in Handel’s career, he recognized the permanent value of his greatest creations and re-used them when the opportunity arose (this one returning in his first great Italian oratorio Il trionfo dell’ tempo in 1708.) Now in the context of the Italian cantata for the delectation of Rome’s musical elite – he sought out iconic women of tragic fate in order to create music of unparalleled intensity. The sorceress Armida from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemma Liberata, provided a scenario of the abandoned woman strongly reminiscent of Monteverdi’s seminal lament of the abandoned Arianna (from the lost opera of 1608) Lasciate mi morire. Just like Monteverdi’s heroine, Armida must witness her lover sailing away, and in the same way conjures the wind, the sea and the monsters of the deep to kill and punish him, before subsiding into the tragic realization that she still loves him too much to go through with the spell. Moving from the realm of epic poetry to that of history – and of course the history of Ancient Rome was omnipresent in Rome of the baroque period – Handel fixed on the personage of the Empress Agrippina (who in 1710 would also be the subject of Handel’s only opera for the Venetian stage). In the cantata Agrippina condotto a morire, the poet has chosen the moment when Agrippina has been condemned to death by her own son, the Emperor Nero. We observe her struggling with the emotions of rage and the instinct for revenge doing battle with her natural love for her son. Neither emotion can gain the final upper hand, and she goes stoically to her death as the only escape from the untenable collision of such strong feelings.

This artistic mining of the topos of the Donna abbandonata was certainly not new when Handel wrote his Roman cantatas in the first decade of the 18th century. Exactly a century before, Monteverdi had written his opera Arianna, and the role was taken in the end not by the singer for whom it had been written (Monteverdi’s young protégé Catarina Martinelli had tragically died from smallpox before the premier) but rather by the actress Virginia Andreini who like her predecessor Isabella Andreini had specialized in “mad” roles. We now believe that the survival of Arianna’s lament, despite the disappearance of the rest of the score, is likely due to the fact that Virginia went on performing this iconic lament scene in various contexts and courts for years in her role as the prima donna of the commedia troupe known as I gelosi. At the establishment of the Venetian public opera in the 1630’s, the first prima donna to emerge,

Anna Renzi, like her commedia dell’arte forbears Isabella  and Virginia Andreini, also specialized in “mad scenes” including those of Ottavia in Monteverdi’s Poppea of 1642. The artistic gold to be mined in the representation of women in moments of passionate extremes is sown deeply into the nature of opera (one need only think of Lucia di Lamermoor for a prime example from the 19th century) but it made Handel’s Roman cantatas stand out sharply from the polite world of the Arcaduan Academy that dominated the Rome of the early 18th century and is one of the reasons that his cantatas and operas continue to speak to us today.

Handel’s Roman solo cantatas are of two principal types: for voice and basso continuo or for voice, basso continuo and two violins. Armida and Agrippina are of the latter type whereas Sarei troppo felice is an example of the former, and one which has been known until recently only in incomplete form. The eminent Handel scholar Ellen Harris provided me a facsimile of the original from which I made a new edition and we recently performed and recorded it with Amanda Forsythe with the Boston Early Music Festival. In this cantata, also concerning an abandoned woman (or should I say Nymph?) we know only that her betrayer is Fileno, and from the standard lexicon of nymphs and shepherds made popular in Gaurini’s Il Pastor Fido, that she is the lamenting Nymph named Clori. Finally the aria Col partir la bella Clori is a a single aria from the basso continuo cantata Ah, che purtroppo e vero. It has long been my single favorite aria from the cantatas, and for this occasion I have transformed it into a member of the other genre by providing some new parts for two violins. I hope the effect will be better than putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa!

We have no purely instrumental music from Handel’s Roman sojourn, but he was clearly influenced by the great violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli who specialized in instrumental music. Corelli sometimes led the orchestra for Handel’s large-scale performances and there is a famous anecdote in which Corelli protested that he didn’t understand the French style of Handel’s overtures, whereupon Handel snatched the violin from Corelli’s hands and demonstrated the technique. Corelli’s works became the iconic models for a generation of composers in trio sonatas (Opus 4), solo sonatas (opus 5) and Concerti Grossi (opus 6). When Handel turned his hand to the composition and publication of such works in the 1730’s Corelli’s model is clearly still in his mind, including the fact that he published his own great collection of Concerti Grossi as his own opus 6.

For the composer of the omnipresent Messiah, it may be surprising to learn that the early cantatas have remained virtually unknown and unperformed until quite recently. Only in 1977 was there a dissertation which presented an overview of the cantatas, and only with the publication of Professor Harris’s book Handel as Orpheus – Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, in 2001, was there a study which presented an in-depth look at the music, texts and origins of this treasure trove of compositional genius. Certainly Handel himself knew the value of what he had created in a few short years in Italy, returning to it time and again for material for his mature operas and oratorios.

Stephen Stubbs, 2018