In Norway Handel (1685–1759) is thought of as Georg Friedrich Händel, a German composer who lived and worked in England, which indeed he was. However, he spent his early youth – from 1706 to 1710 – in Italy. These were decisive years for him, as it was here, in Florence, Rome and Venice, that he became familiar with Italian opera. It was here in 1707 he composed his first opera in the Italian language, Rodrigo, for the Cocomero Theatre. Based on a libretto by Francesco Silvani, it was originally entitled To Overcome Oneself is the Greater Victory, but took the name of its historical hero, the last Visigothic king of Hispania. The intricate plot is most definitely about winning over oneself, but the person who does so is not Rodrigo but his spurned queen Esilena. This evening’s concert contains several excerpts from this opera.
There are also excerpts from the second opera Handel wrote in Italy, Agrippina. Its librettist, the eminent cardinal Vincenzo Grimani (1652/55–1710), became viceroy of Naples in 1708. The plot tells of how Agrippina the younger, the third wife of Emperor Claudius (41–54 AD), contrived to gain the imperial throne for Nero, her son from her first marriage, with catastrophic results. It is believed Handel wrote the opera in Rome in 1708 for performance at the cardinal’s own theatre in Venice in the Carnevale season. Full of irony, deception, intrigue and humorous escapades, it is well suited to carnival time, but the cardinal introduced a new feature which Handel had the astuteness to take advantage of: there are far more arias than recitatives. Musically he quoted liberally from his own and others’ works, and the result was a huge success.
Handel also wrote a comic cantata, Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, subtitled A Faithful Heart Hopes in Vain, about a pretty shepherdess who loves two young men, but loses both when they discover her fickleness. It was written for the Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli in 1707. In the same year Handel also composed the oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment), to a libretto by cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. He later reworked the oratorio, replacing disillusionment in the title with truth – in this case the same thing. We shall hear excerpts from both works, which were so good that Handel frequently borrowed musical material from them in later works but with new texts.
In his years in Italy Handel also composed instrumental music, including his Concerto Grosso in B flat major, a work in five movements modelled on Arcangelo Corelli’s (1653–1713) Twelve Concerti Grossi, opus 6, as opposed to Antonio Vivaldi’s three-movement model favoured by Johann Sebastian Bach. Handel wrote the Concerto Grosso to be performed in Rome alongside his oratorios, odes, overtures, arias and sonatas, resulting in a wealth of variety. All of these genres are represented in the concert programme.
Amongst the sacred music Handel composed in Italy is Salve Regina in G minor, commissioned in 1707 by Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli. The words of this Hymn to the Virgin are generally believed to have been written by the German monk Hermann of Reichenau in 1054, with the possible exception of the final lines – O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria – a twelfth century addition popularly ascribed to St Bernard of Clairvaux. Handel’s Salve Regina was first performed on Trinity Sunday in the private chapel of the Marchese. Although a Lutheran, Handel had no objections to extolling the Virgin Mary to please his patrons, and the Roman prelates had no qualms in commissioning a work from a protestant.
Even though the entire concert is devoted to the youthful Handel, the composer we encounter is by no means immature. This Saxon – as he was known in Italy – was an early developer.
Text: Gunnar Danbolt
English version: Roger Martin