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The second Handel recording from the award-winning Dunedin Consort is a revelation. The album was a Finalist in the Baroque Vocal category in the 2009 Gramophone Awards.
The story is disarmingly simple: the nymph Galatea loves the shepherd Acis and he loves her. After an agonizingly protracted separation, they find each other and anticipate everlasting bliss. The giant, Polyphemus (the personification of Mount Etna in some of the earlier versions of the story), has his own ambitions for union with Galatea – her evident repulsion notwithstanding – and eventually kills Acis with an enormous rock (‘massy ruin’), one of only two actions in the entire drama. The final section of the story involves the inevitable lament for Acis and the sorrow of Galatea, the latter realizing that she can use her divine powers to turn Acis into an everlasting fountain. This, the second action, is the metamorphosis that restores order and contentment to the seemingly timeless paradise with which the story began. Despite the comparative lack of narrative flow (many of the arias following one another without the traditional link of recitative), Handel grasped the opportunity to make music the principal means of injecting new life into the pastoral genre, bringing out some of its central implications with a degree of insight and vividness that has seldom been matched. How does our civilization relate to a supposed state of nature or to a past ‘Golden Age’? How do we reconcile reason and the lessons of experience with physical and emotional urges that are undeniably present? Is the natural world at our command or is it always threatening to gain the upper hand?
Handel’s music can often evoke a state of nature that seems complete in itself and into which human voices enter almost unexpectedly (e.g. the beginning of the opening chorus ‘Oh, the pleasure of the plains!’) or surreptitiously (e.g. the final aria ‘Heart, the seat of soft delight’). A musical menagerie of nature skips along, seemingly oblivious to the feelings it stimulates in Galatea, in ‘Hush, ye pretty, pretty warbling choir!’, though just twice it seems to respond to her call, perhaps more in parody than sympathy. Yet when she exercises whatever divine power she has, at the end with ‘Heart, the seat of soft delight’, the rivulets of the music are delightfully compliant. She seems to teach the early modern human that, while we might not be able to control the volcanic raging of raw nature, we have enough of the divine spark of intelligence to be able to redirect a small watercourse. The music can also support and flesh out the emotions the characters undergo, whether the nervous questing of Acis (‘Where shall I seek the charming fair?’), his almost explosive tenderness in the wake of Galatea’s sexual appetite (‘Love in her eyes sits playing’), or his hapless pugnaciousness in ‘Love sounds th’ alarm’. If music can both underline and unify the emotions of groups – the unstoppable bubbling of happiness in ‘Happy, happy we!’ or the Purcellian funeral lament ‘Mourn, all ye muses’ – it can also provide a devastatingly ironic perspective. Just after Polyphemus intends to construct the largest possible pipe of ‘a hundred reeds of decent growth’, his attempt at wooing Galatea (‘O ruddier than the cherry’) is accompanied by the sopranino recorder, the smallest pipe that Handel could possibly find – an unmanning that is shamelessly direct. As Winton Dean has observed, the portrayal of Polyphemus as a comic character has its precedent in Ovid; ridiculing the darkest forces of nature is surely a healthy step on the way to learning how to control them. Meanwhile, the cynical Damon, ever free with his realistic, worldly advice for Acis, has one of the most compellingly energetic arias (‘Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?’) and also one of the most tender and moving numbers (‘Consider, fond shepherd’); it is as if the music gives an unusually subtle beauty to the mode of thought that surrenders unthinkingly neither to personal passion nor to the forces around us, but sizes up the situation with a degree of wry calculation (might we not be hearing something of the voice of Handel himself here?).
Most impressive of all is the way Handel balances the static and cyclic mood that dominates the lyric world with the notion of metamorphosis and development. The first ‘state’ of the drama, up to the duet ‘Happy, happy we!’, is one of timeless recurrence (as suggested by the cycle of seasons in the middle section of the opening chorus, the da capo form bringing the sense of recurrence to actuality in musical time). The love-pains and ultimate satisfaction of Acis and Galatea reflect a human experience common to all ages and cultures; they are thus historically unspecific. The Sinfonia and the duet act as highly energetic bookends to this state, as if the charge of the former sustains us through to that of the latter. An intermediate injection of movement is provided by Damon’s aria ‘Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?’, which is the only aria in this section that is not in triple or compound time. From this point onwards there is a sense that Acis and Galatea set up complementary metres in their arias (‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ in 12/8, followed by ‘As when the dove’ in 3/8) which somehow combine in the joyful gigue of ‘Happy, happy we!’. The junction between this duet and the entirely new world of the chorus ‘Wretched lovers!’ is one of the most striking wrenches in the piece, articulated by a break in later performances of the masque but apparently continuous at Cannons (unfortunately, it is impossible to convey this continuity in CD format, but this can be demonstrated in the downloadable version of this recording). This chorus is the first of several movements that ends differently from how it began, as the graphic depiction of the giant Polyphemus gradually dominates the texture, like a storm appearing on the horizon, and thus heralding his actual appearance.
Soon, though, the sequence of da capo arias is resumed (four of them, consecutively, are in triple time). The interventions of Coridon and Damon seem to step into the space of the characters they support; Coridon, continuing in the triple time of Polyphemus’s ‘Cease to beauty to be suing’ with ‘Would you gain the tender creature’, but tempering the latter’s minor mode with a move to the relative major. Damon’s ‘Consider, fond shepherd’ likewise follows on directly from Acis’s ‘Love sounds th’ alarm’ with a slower triple time that seems to temper the latter’s reckless mood (perhaps relating to the cross-beat ‘hemiola’ of the closing bars?). After this follows one of the most remarkable pieces of all, the trio ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains’. Here then is the obvious contrast of mood between the love duet of Acis and Galatea and the increasingly furious interjections of Polyphemus, culminating in his throwing of the rock, which Handel seems to represent in the final play-out (by a very prominent rupturing of the symmetrical da capo principle, which has dominated all arias and duets so far). Yet there is also the sense of foreboding created in the instrumental accompaniment (marked ‘staccato’), which seems both to support the lovers’ duet and to hint at what is to come. In all, the counterpoint of character, mood and steady transformation towards Polyphemus’s murderous act shows Handel as a composer with the sort of psychological insight usually accorded to Mozart and his followers. It may well be that he would not have devised such a transformatory process had he not felt the incentive to compensate for the static nature of the poetic genre as a whole.
The final transformation is, of course, that achieved by Galatea in her final aria, where the expected da capo form is subverted after the moment when she turns the dead Acis into a fountain. As Winton Dean and Ellen Harris have observed, fragments of the opening of the aria are extended and developed, with both the undulating motive and the final lines of text recast in the latter part of the closing chorus. The ‘missing’ da capo (missing, just like Acis himself, according to Harris) is thus aptly compensated by the recurrence of the new material in the final bars of the entertainment. If we cannot avoid death, at least lasting benefit can be found if we exercise the powers we still have. In all, Handel has presented a delightful picture of the human world as a place where the paradise of a mythological past is regained in modest increments, building on the lessons learned from inevitable tragedy.
The Cannons performing version of Acis and Galatea
While the musical forces at Cannons were excellent (they were, after all, led by the composer Johann Christoph Pepusch), their balance was idiosyncratic – even by the standards of the day. As Graydon Beeks has shown, the forces for the Cannons Anthems and Acis and Galatea seem to match those of the house records almost directly. The vocal complement contained no alto and consisted of a soprano, bass and three tenors (thus, presumably, necessitating the expansion of the masque from three voices to five, who together constituted the five-part chorus). The strings seemed to comprise three violins, two ‘cellos and bass (with no violas); however, given that at least one of the later Cannons Anthems seem to require a fourth violin, an extra player may have been available on occasions (Beeks suggests that this could have been Pepusch himself). The two oboists presumably doubled on recorders, thus providing a different sonority for Galatea’s final aria (and the first player providing the high recorder obbligato for ‘Hush, ye pretty, pretty warbling choir!’ and ‘O ruddier than the cherry’). Beeks has shown that a bassoonist was available at the time of the first performance too.
Around this point hinges a misunderstanding in what would otherwise be the most authoritative modern edition of Acis and Galatea (Hallische Händel-Ausgabe), which interprets sources containing reference to the bassoon as evidence of a second distinct performing version of the piece later in 1718. This edition thus privileges the autograph (which contains no reference to bassoon) as the ‘original’ performing version of the piece and consequently undervalues several other revisions that were almost certainly made for the first performance. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that while Handel’s composing autograph survives, his revised score is lost (his practice was normally to commission a working copy, sometimes referred to as the ‘performing score’ or ‘conducting score’, that contained changes he made in the run-up to performances, and which superseded the workings of the autograph, at least in terms of performing versions).
Nevertheless, there is a collection of manuscripts preserving strong traces of the lost score, headed by one (dated 1718), largely in the hand of a copyist who later became closely associated with the preparation of Handel’s performing scores, J. C. Smith (senior). This is part of the collection of the Earl of Malmesbury, now lodged at the Hampshire Record Office. While this does not contain any of the tell-tale signs of Handel’s own hand (which would be the case with a true ‘performing score’) it does indeed seem to be the copy of such a score. Most striking is the designation of the five chorus lines with the names of the five characters, thus suggesting that the work was originally performed with just the five singers and no extra chorus (indeed, Handel’s autograph similarly gives the names of some of the original singers for the vocal parts of the first chorus). The Malmesbury score also confirms the character of Coridon, whose aria was only prepared for in the autograph score, and which became associated with Damon in some of the later performances (and in modern editions).
Beeks and Anthony Hicks note several other important differences with the autograph text: Handel originally marked the opening of ‘Wretched lovers!’ as a ‘cello solo, but sources preserving the tradition of the performing score mark this ‘tutti li bassi’, thus implying a much fuller sound at the outset. The decision to use a small recorder (‘flauto piccolo ottavo’) for ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ was also probably made before the first performance, and the ‘cello and harpsichord originally specified for the beginning of ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan’ was expanded with bassoon. The fact that the bassoon is specifically noted for this movement might suggest that it is not used continuously elsewhere (the same goes for the double bass and second ’cello). Certainly, later sources suggest that the bassoon was used mainly in the opening and closing instrumental ritornelli of arias (but throughout in those for bass), and this was taken as the starting point for this recording, but, in the absence of clear evidence of Handel’s practice here, the layout of the continuo section was developed on an ad hoc basis (likewise for the places where the oboes might double the violin parts).
Closer study of the Malmesbury score suggests a few further refinements that Handel may have made for the first performance: it seems to confirm that no oboes were used in ‘Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?’ (something which can be inferred by the range and style of the instrumental line but which is not indicated in modern editions); it contains some differences of underlay and rhythm, some (but not all) of which could be read as improvements rather than errors. Finally, and most interestingly, several of the arias begin with a ‘segue’ marking (i.e. an indication that they should ‘follow on’); if these do derive from Handel himself, they suggest that he made particular efforts to cultivate a sense of continuity, something requiring more attention given the large number of arias in a row and the comparative lack of connecting recitative. In sum, it seems that Handel took the peculiarities of both the pastoral genre and the forces available to him seriously, giving considerable attention to the opportunities afforded by a small, chamber-like situation. While Handel’s music normally benefits from a large number of string players, for instance, here he has carefully devised the violin parts so that they double one another when a more incisive sound is needed, but are otherwise subtly integrated with oboes and voices to create a sonority of particular flexibility and intimacy.
John Butt © 2008
John Butt © 2008