Part 3 No 1: Sinfonia [0'35]
Hyperion’s Record of the Month sees the long overdue return to the studio of The King’s Consort, under the baton of the group’s newly appointed Artistic Director Matthew Halls. Here the ensemble presents the premiere recording of Handel’s Parnasso in Festa: a unique example in Handel’s enormous creative career of a fully-fledged celebratory serenata (or Festa teatrale). This form was rare in England but had developed in parallel with opera in Italy, where it was popular for commemorating special occasions of international significance. Parnasso in Festa was written for Princess Anne’s marriage to Prince William of Orange.
In Handel’s serenata three of the Muses, their leader Apollo, his son Orpheus, and Mars (god of War) gather at the feast celebrating the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis. The mythological musicians Apollo and Orfeo must have been particularly appealing for Handel here. Unlike many composers, he never composed an opera about Orpheus and Euridice. His only depiction of the mythical musician in his entire output forms the core of the serenata’s middle part. For a composer who later excelled at representing the musical ikons Timotheus and St Cecilia, and who was described by contemporaries as ‘the Orpheus of our age’, the depiction of Orfeo is fascinating. Created two years before Alexander’s Feast, and five years before A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, the emotional centre of Parnasso in Festa is devoted to a study of the power of music.
This magnificent masterpiece has long been starved of wide attention. It is presented here in a dazzling performance by an exceptional group of musicians, and graced by a stellar line-up of soloists led by Carolyn Sampson.
Other recommended albums
Tausch: Double Clarinet Concertos; Süssmayr: Concerto movement
CDH55188 Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
The 1733–4 season was the last of the so-called Second Academy’s five-year tenure at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, which had commenced under the management of Handel and the theatre impresario Heidegger after the Royal Academy of Music fell apart in 1728. This was also the first season during which Handel’s opera company competed against the newly formed ‘Opera of the Nobility’, which presented its debut season at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre. All of Handel’s leading singers had defected during the summer of 1733, with the exception of the loyal soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò. The rivalry between the two opera companies provoked assertive artistic planning. Handel opened his season on 30 October 1733—two months earlier than the Opera of the Nobility—in order to attract the London opera audience first. The composer resorted to a particularly high number of pasticcios featuring arias by the modern and fashionable composers Vinci (Semiramide and Arbace) and Hasse (Caio Fabricio), probably to pre-empt the new stylistic competition from the Opera of the Nobility’s Neapolitan composer and music director Nicola Porpora.
Handel’s season also included revivals of Ottone, Deborah, Sosarme, Acis and Galatea, and concluded with an elaborate revision of his old opera Il pastor fido. The composer created only two new works for this season, but both were deliberately reserved for performance until after Christmas, perhaps in order to draw in those members of his audience who spent the middle part of each winter away from London. The autograph score of Arianna in Creta had been completed on 5 October 1733, but the opera was premiered on 26 January 1734, and provided some much needed stability with a decent run of sixteen performances.
On Monday 11 March 1734 the Daily Journal advertised that Handel’s next entertainment would be Parnasso in Festa, and described it as ‘an Essay of several different Sorts of Harmony’. This received four performances, but such a low number should not be interpreted as an indication of box-office failure: it was a serenata intended as a topical celebration of Princess Anne’s marriage to Prince William of Orange. The Opera of the Nobility also contributed to the public festivities with Porpora’s oratorio Davide e Berseaba, although Paolo Rolli’s libretto based on the Biblical tale of adultery, murder and tragically enforced penitence was surely an ill-advised choice.
The court attended the first performance of Parnasso in Festa on 13 March 1734, and the wedding ceremony took place the following day at the Queen’s Chapel, St James’s Palace. The elegant chapel built by Inigo Jones had scarcely been used since the 1690s, but the wedding could not be held in the Chapel Royal because it was undergoing renovation work. However, it was the first royal wedding held in London since 1683, and George II organized a lavish ceremony, which included Handel’s anthem This is the day which the Lord hath made (HWV262). The prominence of Handel’s music in both ceremonial and public spheres was entirely appropriate because Princess Anne had been his favourite pupil and was a devoted supporter of his music. It is alleged that in 1734 Handel said to the German visitor Jacob Wilhelm Lustig: ‘Since I left your native Hamburg … nothing on earth could induce me to teach music, with one exception—Anne, the flower of princesses.’
The wordbook published for the King’s Theatre audience in 1734 shows that the full title of the serenata is Parnasso in festa, per li sponsali di Teti e Peleo (the incorrect title ‘Il Parnasso in Festa’ seems to have been invented in the nineteenth century by Friedrich Chrysander for his complete edition of Handel’s works). It is the unique example in Handel’s enormous creative career of a fully fledged celebratory serenata (or Festa teatrale). This form was rare in England but had developed in parallel with opera in Italy, where it was popular for commemorating special occasions of international significance, such as royal weddings. It was expected that a ‘serenata’ would be an evening’s worth of large-scale secular entertainment. Although sometimes presented in theatres with lavish scenery, serenatas were generally performed as a concert without stage action. Librettos would usually make a specific reference relevant to the occasion being celebrated, and the simple narrative would provide opportunities for allegorical or mythological characters to perform music in a variety of moods.
Parnasso in Festa is set on Mount Parnassus, a mountain in central Greece (just north of Delphi). The ancient Greeks associated Mount Parnassus with Apollo, the god of the Arts and a renowned musician, and believed it to be the home of the nine sacred Muses. Each of these granddaughters of Zeus was traditionally invoked by poets and artists as presiding over a particular art or science: Calliope (literally ‘beautiful voice’, the Muse of epic poetry, and mother of Orpheus), Clio (literally ‘celebrate’, the Muse of history), Erato (erotic poetry), Euterpe (literally ‘well-pleasing’, the Muse of music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (sacred song), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy). In Handel’s serenata three of the Muses (Calliope, Clio and Euterpe), their leader Apollo, his son Orpheus, Mars (god of War) and the huntress Clori gather at the feast celebrating the nuptials of the mortal king Peleus (one of Jason’s Argonauts) and the sea-nymph Thetis. Peleus had won his bride by holding her to the ground despite her violent changing of forms. The wedding feast was an auspicious occasion in Greek mythology: the uninvited goddess of Discord, Eris, threw out the golden apple that led to the contest judged by the Trojan prince Paris; Peleus and Thetis were the parents of Achilles.
There is no evidence to suggest that there was any conscious connection between the war-like omens in the original myth and Handel’s serenata; the bass role of Mars was presumably a sensible solution for the provision of musical and poetic contrast with the other roles sung by higher voices. The mythological setting of a wedding feast on Mount Parnassus with contributions from various immortals in differing sentiments and musical moods was an attractive foundation for Handel’s entertainment, and it would not have been difficult for the King’s Theatre audience to draw a general parallel between the rejoicing about the marriage between Peleus and Thetis and the union of Anne of Hanover and William of Orange. The libretto is anonymous, and no older Italian models for the text have yet been identified. The 1734 wordbook was ‘Done into English by Mr. George Oldmixon’.
The mythological musicians Apollo and Orfeo might have been particularly appealing for Handel. Unlike many composers, he never composed an opera about the legend of Orpheus and Euridice. His only depiction of the mythical musician in his entire output forms the core of the serenata’s middle part. For a composer who later excelled at representing the musical legends Timotheus and St Cecilia, and who was described by contemporaries as ‘the Orpheus of our age’, the depiction of Orfeo is notably fascinating. Created two years before Alexander’s Feast, and five years before A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, the emotional centre of Parnasso in Festa is devoted to a study of the power of music. It is surely deliberate that Handel assigned the only accompanied recitative in the serenata to Orfeo, at the heart of the work.
It is intriguing that Handel gave prominence to the story of Apollo’s ill-fated pursuit of the nymph Daphne in Part 1 of the serenata. Twenty-four years earlier the composer had depicted this story in his Italian cantata La terra è liberata (Apollo e Dafne, HWV122). Princess Anne was born at Hanover in November 1709, shortly before Handel completed the cantata there (although he probably began writing it in Venice). Thus it is among the very small group of a few works that he probably composed—and perhaps performed—whilst working as the Elector of Hanover’s Kapellmeister. Anne would have been too young to remember much about Handel’s arrival at Hanover in 1710, or his appointment at the Herrenhausen court by her grandfather. But it is poignant that for his serenata composed to celebrate the first Hanoverian wedding in London, Handel transparently revisited the exact same myth that probably marked his first contribution to the royal family’s musical life at Hanover. The prominence of the story in Parnasso in Festa was noted by the Earl of Egmont, who wrote in his diary on 23 March 1734: ‘I went to the Opera House in the Haymarket to hear Hendel’s Serenata composed in honour of the marriage, called Apollo and Daphnis.’
As he had done with his Venetian opera Agrippina and first London opera Rinaldo, Handel reshaped a considerable amount of previously composed music for the score of Parnasso in Festa. Much of the music was adapted from his oratorio Athalia, which had been first performed at Oxford on 10 July 1733. The oratorio had not yet been revived in London, and it is possible that Princess Anne expressed a desire to hear some of the music before she left for her new marital home in the Netherlands. Handel presumably recognized the quality of the Athalia music and doubtless wished to perform it for his London audience, but his company of opera singers in the 1733–4 season was almost entirely Italian, and four of them were new to England and unable to sing comfortably in English. It was impractical and risky to introduce an English oratorio with this cast (a year later Handel took the practical decision to revive Athalia in a bilingual version); moreover, an oratorio recounting the overthrow of an usurping tyrannical monarch was hardly a sensible diplomatic choice for celebrating a Hanoverian royal wedding, not least with its potentially Jacobite subtext about the true bloodline of rightful kings being restored to the throne.
Parnasso in Festa was not only an ideal libretto text for the festive occasion, but it was also crafted by its anonymous author in such a way that its texts were ideal for Handel to refit some outstanding music that was new to his London public. The eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney observed that the music ‘was new to the ears of the greatest part of a London audience; and Handel with all the riches of his genius and invention, was very economical, and as frequently turned and patched up his old productions, as if he had laboured under indigence of thought.’ Burney was one of the few scholars to have taken Parnasso in Festa seriously, and, upon closer inspection, it is certainly a serious error to dismiss the serenata as a mere pasticcio of minimal artistic significance. There is a substantial amount of new music, much of it very impressive in quality, such as Apollo’s charismatic aria ‘Torni pure’, the exuberant hunting chorus ‘O quanto bella gloria’, the charming pastoral ‘Non tardate Fauni ancora’, and the spectacular finale (which Burney appraised as ‘conducted with great fire and spirit’). The chorus ‘S’accenda pur’ is based on a Passacaglia composed for Radamisto in 1720, but has choral parts skilfully grafted onto it. In total, there are nine freshly created numbers, and several items taken from Athalia are substantially reworked (e.g. Apollo’s first aria ‘Gran Tonante’ is derived from ‘Jerusalem, thou shalt no more’, but is considerably re-composed). Anthony Hicks judged that the serenata ‘has a clear identity of its own … There is nothing to suggest that the serenata was put together in haste or in a spirit of cynicism.’
Moreover, some of the borrowed Athalia music works superbly in transformed contexts. In the Oxford oratorio ‘Hark! his thunders round me roll’ conveyed Mathan’s trembling fear through the unfolding tension and acceleration of speeds in the orchestral accompaniment, with quavers quickly moving to semiquavers on the change of harmony, and then with anguished flourishes of demisemiquavers. In Parnasso in Festa, the Muse Calliope is given the identical accompaniment, with the vocal part adjusted from tenor to mezzo-soprano. Instead of the wicked apostate priest meeting his gloomy fate, Handel’s music (now with the Italian text ‘Già le furie vedo ancor’’) is equally perfect at illustrating the furies plaguing Orpheus. Likewise, the lamenting solo and chorus ‘O Lord whom we adore’ (Athalia) is superbly transformed into Orfeo’s expression of grief over his lost Euridice (‘Ho perso il caro ben’’), and the chorus ‘The gods who chosen blessings shed’ (for a chorus of pagan attendants in Athalia) is perfectly adapted for ‘Coralli e perle’, with its horns now representing conch-blowing Tritons.
The original cast of Parnasso in Festa was the same company of opera singers that had just performed Arianna in Creta. Apollo was sung by the mezzo-soprano castrato Giovanni Carestini. Clio was sung by soprano Anna Strada del Pò. The soprano castrato Carlo Scalzi took the role of Orfeo, and Calliope was sung by Margherita Durastanti (Handel’s prima donna in Italy many years before, the 1734 season was her swansong on the London stage). The huntress Clori—the name Cloride is a mistake in Chrysander’s edition—was sung by Maria Caterina Negri. Her sister Rosa Negri sang the role of Euterpe. Mars was sung by the bass Gustavus Waltz.
The ‘Chorus of Nymphs and Shepherds’ described in the libretto were most likely the soloists mentioned above, in accordance with customary operatic practice. The composer’s indications on the newly written choruses suggest that the soprano and alto lines had no further reinforcement, but additional tenors and basses were presumably hired to form a balanced chorus of three singers to each chorus part. (A slightly bigger choir has been utilized in this performance, but we make no apology for the splendid sound it makes.) Handel’s opera orchestra normally consisted of about twenty-four string players, oboes, bassoons, two harpsichords and theorbo, but the score makes plentiful use of additional flutes, recorders, horns, trumpets and timpani (which are marked timpani scordati, i.e. muted or muffled like a funeral drum, in the chorus ‘Nel petto sento’ that opens Part 2). The present performance adopts the authentic practice of doubling trumpets with horns sounding an octave lower, although the surviving sources do not indicate exactly how much and when the horns played, so some editorial conjecture has been required. Handel and his copyists omitted all references to the organ when transcribing instrumental parts in the full score from Athalia, which suggests that the instrument was deliberately excluded from the performances in 1734 (indeed, Handel never used an organ in any of his operas).
On 11 March 1734 the Daily Journal anticipated that the entertainment was to be an extraordinary event:
We hear amongst other publick Diversions that are prepared for the Solemnity of the approaching Nuptials, there is to be perform’d at the Opera House in the Haymarket, on Wednesday next, a Serenata, call’d, Parnasso in Festa. The Fable is, Apollo and the Muses, celebrating the Marriage of Thetis and Peleus. There is one standing Scene which is Mount Parnassus, on which sit Apollo and the Muses, assisted with other proper Characters, emblematically dress’d, the whole Appearance being extreamly magnificent. The Musick is no less entertaining, being contrived with so great a variety, that all sorts of Musick are properly introduc’d in single Songs, Duetto’s, &c. intermix’d with Chorus’s, some what in the Style of Oratorio’s. People have been waiting with Impatience for this Piece, the celebrated Mr. Handel having exerted his utmost Skill in it.’
As far as we can tell, the serenata was popular. A brief review in The Bee reported that ‘Last Night Mr Handell’s new Serenata … was received with the greatest Applause; the Piece containing the most exquisite Harmony ever furnish’d from the Stage, and the Disposition of the Performers being contriv’d in a very grand and magnificent Manner.’ We do not know how the stage was set for the performers, but an attractive visual element was evidently a significant aspect of the serenata’s success. Not all of Handel’s most fervent followers were able to attend. On 20 March 1734 Ann Granville wrote from Gloucester to her sister Mary Pendarves (later Mrs Delany): ‘Oh the Serenata! could I have heard it, of the Anthem Mr Handel composed for the Princess! ’tis a horrid thing to be removed from all harmony.’ Perhaps she was able to hear some of the newly composed choral numbers two months later, when they were incorporated into a substantially revised version of Il pastor fido. It was unusual for Handel to recycle music quite so quickly and blatantly, which suggests that Parnasso in Festa was well liked by his audience. On 24 January 1736 Handel’s friend the Earl of Shaftesbury wrote to James Harris with an enthusiastic report of hearing Handel play through his new masterpiece Alexander’s Feast: ‘It is the most pleasing (I think) of anything scarce he has yet made[,] much in the taste of the best part of Acis & Galat[ea] or the Parnasso in Festo.’
Handel’s own estimation of Parnasso in Festa might be indicated by his decision to revive the work in three later seasons: there were two performances at Covent Garden in March 1737, and a single performance at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in November 1740 (which required an announcement in the London Daily Post that ‘Perticular Care has been taken to air the House well, and keep it warm’); Handel’s last revival of the work was at the King’s Theatre on 14 March 1741 (Princess Anne’s seventh wedding anniversary)—the original scenery and costumes had been preserved, and were re-used for the occasion.
Handel, his friends and supporters, and even the London newspapers, seem to have regarded the serenata as something special. But modern performers have been either unaware of its merit or dissuaded from taking it seriously by inaccurate verdicts such as Winton Dean’s remark that ‘The work is of no importance in itself’. One of the few exceptions was Burney, who remarked in his A General History of Music that the arias assigned to Apollo and Orpheus ‘must have been thought in 1734, worthy of the character to which they were assigned’. He also proposed that ‘The Italian words are adjusted to the Music with such intelligence and attention to accent and expression, that if we were not acquainted with the new and particular occasion on which Parnasso in Festa was prepared, it would be difficult to discover whether the Music was originally composed for that serenata, or for the oratorio of Athalia’. The enthusiastic biographer and scholar Paul Henry Lang believed that the serenata is ‘so skillfully arranged and blended that it … offer[s] never-ending pleasant surprises’. More recently, Anthony Hicks has been an effective champion for the serenata. But apart from a few such isolated advocates, this magnificent masterpiece has been starved of the wider attention that can only come from frequent performances and disseminated recordings. After 1741, Parnasso in Festa was not performed until the Handel Opera Society’s revival 230 years later. There have been occasional revivals since, such as at the London Handel Festival in 1984 and 1997, and the Göttingen Handel Festival in 2005. But now this recording presents a valuable opportunity to be charmed by its entertaining libretto and vivacious music. The excitable comment in the Daily Journal quoted above retains some special poignancy: ‘People have been waiting with Impatience for this Piece, the celebrated Mr. Handel having exerted his utmost Skill in it.’
In Part 2 Calliope feels a fire within her breast ‘to sing of Orpheus and his heavenly lyre’. The huntress Clori, Clio and Euterpe (the Muse of music) all express admiration for Orfeo: ‘He who can please Hell’s gloomy powers and touch their hearts, must sure touch ours.’ Apollo attempts to persuade his son Orfeo to forget his grief. Clio observes that Orfeo’s singing can silence nature and make birds forget to sing. But the huntress Clori complains that ‘in Apollo’s palace shall we ne’er no sounds but softening accents hear?’ The chorus provides the sort of music Clori prefers and observes that the glorious hunter ‘ne’er feels love’s tormenting wound’. Clori proclaims that ‘Among the windings of the woods I chase wild beasts, and ever is my heart at ease; … fearless of danger from the snares of love’. Calliope ignores the splendid hunting digression, and asks Orfeo ‘Why turned you back your greedy eyes, when from Hell you came?’ and in her aria she describes how he is still tormented by the Furies after losing Euridice. In the only accompanied recitative during the serenata, Orfeo wishes that he could ‘the sad remembrance lose’ and laments that he finds no pleasure in Elysium. In his aria, he grieves that ‘never will my sky be clear’ and asks the chorus to have pity on his grief. Apollo consoles his son, suggesting that ‘your love’s so chaste and pure a flame as will the fury of infernals tame’. Clio tells Orfeo that ‘Glory and honour are your due’. They insist that the virtues of the royal couple Peleus and Thetis will bless the earth with greatness to equal Orfeo’s power. Upon Apollo’s command, Neptune’s Tritons sound their trumpets and celebrate ‘the illustrious hymeneal day of Thetis and Peleus’. Handel uses horns instead of trumpets, which perhaps illustrates the libretto’s reference to the Tritons playing musical instruments that look like shells.
The final part concentrates on the rejoicing at the marriage between Peleus and Thetis. The sinfonia announces the arrival of Mars, who pays tribute to the offspring of the Gods ‘on their nuptial day, their future glory to declare’. The chorus proclaims the fame of the royal couple’s glory and love. The music continues straight into Mars’s blessing of the royal couple: ‘virtue will always their companion be … A race of heroes they will give.’ Orfeo compares the royal couple to ‘A lovely riv’let from its spring’ which ‘does all its silver brightness bring’. Calliope calls upon Peleus to emulate the heroic deeds of his ancestors. Apollo invites nymphs and swains to prepare an offering ‘of fruits and fragant flowers … to this happy pair’. Clio hopes that the royal couple shall be an example of virtue to the world for the remainder of their lives, and that the Gods of Death will be generous to them. Euterpe describes how the royal couple shall win and delight the hearts of all their subjects. Apollo promises that ‘Succeeding heroes to the end of time, shall from this pair descend’. The chorus announces to the newly weds that Jove has decreed that ‘they shall ever happy be’.
David Vickers © 2008