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The Choice of Hercules, HWV69

'Handel: The Choice of Hercules' (CDA67298)
Handel: The Choice of Hercules
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No 01: Sinfonia
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Track 1 on CDA67298 [1'18] Last few CD copies remaining
No 02. Accompagnato: See Hercules! how smiles yon myrtle plain (Pleasure)
No 03. Air: Come, blooming boy (Pleasure)
No 04. Air: There the brisk sparkling nectar drain (Pleasure)
No 05. Solo and Chorus: While for thy arms that beauty glows (Pleasure)
No 06. Recitative: Away, mistaken wretch, away! (Virtue)
No 07. Air: This manly youth's exalted mind (Virtue)
No 08. Recitative: Rise, youth! exalt thyself and me! (Virtue)
No 09. Air: Go, assert thy heav'nly race (Virtue)
No 10. Recitative: In peace, in war (Virtue)
No 11. Solo and Chorus: So shalt thou gain immortal praise (Virtue)
No 12. Recitative: Hearst thou, what dangers then thou must engage? (Pleasure)
No 13. Solo and Chorus: Turn thee, youth, to joy and love (Pleasure)
No 14. Recitative: Short is my way, fair, easy, smooth and plain (Pleasure/Hercules)
No 15. Air: Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay (Hercules)
No 16. Air: Enjoy the sweet Elysian grove (Attendant on Pleasure)
No 17. Recitative: Oh! whither, reason, dost thou fly? (Hercules)
No 18. Trio: Where shall I go? (Hercules/Pleasure/Virtue)
No 19. Recitative: Mount, mount the steep ascent (Virtue)
No 20. Air: Mount, mount the steep ascent (Virtue)
No 21. Chorus: Arise! mount the steep ascent
No 22. Recitative: The sounds breathe fire celestial (Hercules)
No 23. Air: Lead, goddess, lead the way! (Hercules)
No 24. Chorus: Virtue will place thee in that blest abode

The Choice of Hercules, HWV69
When Handel introduced English oratorio to London in the 1730s, he did not confine himself to sacred subjects. The stories of classical myth were also important to him, and alongside Esther, Deborah, Athalia, Saul and Israel in Egypt, he also produced Acis and Galatea, Parnasso in Festa and Alexander’s Feast, with texts based on Roman and Greek literature, as well as the wholly English Ode for St Cecilia’s Day and L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. The secular works were not called oratorios, but were presented in the manner associated with oratorio – on the stages of theatres, but not acted. In 1741/2 Handel gave a highly successful season of oratorio-style concerts in Dublin, again mixing sacred and secular works; it culminated with the first performances of Messiah. On his return to London Handel decided to abandon Italian opera for ever, and confine himself to works in oratorio format mostly performed during Lent; but he was still keen to explore classical myth. His audiences, however, had become hostile to non-Biblical subjects, and only a few of Handel’s keenest supporters applauded the sensuous delights of Semele, produced in 1744, or the dramatic power of Hercules the year after. From then on Handel kept to sacred subjects, until an ill-fated project undertaken in the winter of 1749/50 led to the production of his last realization of a classical tale.

The project that came to grief was Alceste, a play by the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett intended for production at Covent Garden Theatre in the early part of 1750. Smollett took the story from the myth best known from a play by the Greek dramatist Euripides and already treated in music by Lully and (in the opera Admeto) by Handel himself: Alcestis, the loyal wife of king Admetus of Thessaly, dies to save her husband from a mortal illness, but is rescued from the underworld by Hercules and restored to life. There was substantial provision for music within the play, rather in the manner of the old semi-operas by Purcell and others, and this was provided by Handel, apparently at the instigation of John Rich, the manager of Covent Garden. The first version of the score was written between 27 December 1749 and 8 January 1750, and the play went into rehearsal. Handel’s enthusiasm for the project is clear from the high quality of the music, and the fact that he was happy to replace two songs written for Cecilia Arne with entirely new settings.

It seems, however, that Rich and Smollett quarrelled – Rich may have got cold feet about the expense of the show – and the whole project was cancelled, leaving Handel with a hour of superb music on his hands and no context to perform it. (Smollett’s play, never published, is now lost.)

Handel was never one to allow good music to go to waste, and by the summer of 1750 he had come up with the plan of reusing as much of it as possible in a new form. The result was The Choice of Hercules, in effect a one-act dramatic cantata in English, and as such unique in Handel’s output. (It is not related to the musical drama Hercules.) Handel produced the score between 28 June and 5 July, adapting several numbers from the Alceste music and adding new ones. The Choice of Hercules was first performed at Covent Garden on 1 March 1751 as ‘an additional New Act’ concluding a performance of the ode Alexander’s Feast. The cast is not certain, but probably consisted of the soprano Giulia Frasi (Pleasure), the mezzo Caterina Galli (Virtue), the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni (Hercules) and the tenor Thomas Lowe (Attendant on Pleasure). At subsequent revivals, in 1753 and 1755, The Choice of Hercules was performed between the two parts of Alexander’s Feast, and was called an ‘Interlude’, the title Handel had originally given it in his autograph score.

We cannot be sure why Handel hit upon The Choice of Hercules as a subject – it may well have been proposed to him by one of his supporters – but there are several reasons why it could have come to his attention. The earliest source for the story is the Memorabilia or Memoirs of Socrates, II.1.21–34, by the Greek historian Xenophon (c428–c354 BC), where it is presented as a summary by Socrates of a lost poem by Prodicus of Ceos. Hercules, on the verge of manhood, is contemplating his future. Two women appear to him. One, eager and seductive, shows him a path which seems to offer easy progress to a life of indolent pleasure. ‘My friends’, she says, ‘call me Happiness (eudaimonia), but to those who hate me I am known as Vice (kakia)’. The second woman, tall and austerely beautiful, is identified as Virtue. She warns Hercules that what is truly good can only be obtained though hard effort; only by following the rougher and steeper path she indicates can Hercules gain supreme glory. Which path Hercules chooses is not directly stated, but Xenophon’s readers, knowing that Hercules had gained a place in the heavens as a reward for his many heroic deeds, did not need to be told.

The story became a fairly popular subject for Renaissance and Baroque painters (including Paolo Veronese, Nicholas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens, Annibale Caracci and Sebastiano Ricci) and was made accessible to English readers in a paraphrase by Joseph Addison, published in The Tatler of 22 November 1709. Several poetic treatments followed, and the story was set musically in the late 1730s by Maurice Greene as The Judgment of Hercules: A Masque (though unfortunately only John Hoadly’s libretto survives) and later by John Stanley. (These compositions had been anticipated by J S Bach’s musical treatment of the story in his secular cantata Hercules auf dem Scheideweg, BWV213, performed at Leipzig in September 1733 to celebrate the birthday of the eleven-year-old Crown Prince of Saxony. Much of the music was re-used in the Christmas Oratorio.) The subject also interested the third Earl of Shaftesbury (father of the fourth Earl, a good friend of Handel), who commissioned the artist Paolo de Matteis (1662–1728) to produce a painting from a detailed specification, published in 1713 as A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgement of Hercules. (Matteis completed the commission: his definitive version is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and there is another version in Temple Newsam House, near Leeds.)

The immediate inspiration for Handel’s cantata is a poetic version of the story published in 1747 in Joseph Spence’s Polymetis (a massive treatise comparing literary descriptions of classical images with their depictions in ancient statuary) and reprinted the following year in an anthology edited by Robert Dodsley (A Collection of Poems, vol. 3). An earlier version had been published in Glasgow in 1743. The author was not named in these publications, but was later identified as Robert Lowth (1710–1787), Professor of Poetry at Oxford in the 1740s and a leading cleric. It is from this source that the libretto of Handel’s The Choice of Hercules is adapted – probably by Thomas Morell (1703–1784), his regular collaborator at the time. The task of converting the poem to dramatic form entailed heavy abridgement as well the addition of new material, and the librettist had to fit new words to existing music in the case of the items taken from the Alceste music. (One number, ‘Enjoy the sweet Elysian grove’, retained Smollett’s original lyric, which was printed in inverted commas in the wordbook by way of acknowledgement.) Not many lines of Lowth’s poem remain, and perhaps the substitution of the name ‘Pleasure’ for Lowth’s ‘Sloth’ weakens the moral argument, but on the whole the libretto works extremely well and shows little sign of its complex origins.

The same may be said of Handel’s music. The noble opening sinfonia was originally intended to mark Hercules’ return from the underworld in Alceste, and so is entirely apt for the entrance of the young Hercules in the new drama. Another, more remarkable, sinfonia from Alceste, with a built-in crescendo, heralds the appearance of Pleasure. The music settles into an accompanied recitative for Pleasure, who then commends the delights she offers in two contrasted arias. The first, rather wistful, is an adaptation of an Alceste chorus, the second (‘There the brisk sparkling nectar drain’) a new and exuberant composition in the latest pre-classical manner, with a bass line making much use of repeated notes and a pair of horns adding richness to the orchestral texture. (There must be a suspicion that some as yet undetected musical borrowing may be involved in this piece: the equally forward-looking duet ‘These labours past’ in Handel’s Jephtha has recently shown to be based on a duet in a serenata by Galuppi.) The first solo returns, extended by the original choral material from Alceste. Virtue now appears, again with two solos. Both are adapted from arias which Handel discarded while revising the Alceste score, the first (with flute) reworking material from a slumber song, and the second musically identical with a song for a Siren. A chorus with a curious hopping rhythm (adapted from a wedding chorus in Alceste) promises the reward of fame if Virtue’s advice is followed; trumpets hint at future glory. Pleasure renews her enticement. She and the chorus encourage Hercules to make up his mind with a dance-like number in the style of a gavotte, solo and choral music alternating. Hercules finally makes his first vocal entry, resisting Pleasure, but, in the especially beautiful aria ‘Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay’, wondering whether he can continue to do so. (The aria is adapted from an alternative version of the Alceste slumber song.) An Attendant on Pleasure offers a vision of the Elysian Fields in the aria taken without change from Alceste (except for the deletion of its middle section and da capo). Handel now brings all three main characters together in a vivid, newly composed, trio, setting Hercules’ persistent cries of ‘Where shall I go?’ against the conflicting pleas of the two goddesses. Virtue finally wins the day by more-or-less ordering Hercules to follow her, first in a declamatory accompanied recitative and then in a short but emphatic solo. The chorus, again reinforced by trumpets, repeatedly call Hercules to his ‘native skies’. (He is the son of Jupiter, and so can regard the heavens as his natural home.) He sets out on the path of Virtue, declaring his decision in a minor-key aria derived from music in Alceste associated with Charon, the ferryman of Hades. The final chorus, promising that Hercules will be ‘Crown’d with immortal youth, among the gods a god’, is also in a minor key – it is derived from the Gloria of a Missa brevis by Antonio Lotti which Handel had copied out a couple of years earlier – as if to suggest that the morally correct conclusion, with its dismissal of Pleasure, is not wholly a matter for rejoicing.

from notes by Anthony Hicks © 2002

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Details for CDA67298 track 21
No 21, Chorus: Arise! mount the steep ascent
Recording date
31 March 2001
Recording venue
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Ben Turner
Recording engineer
Philip Hobbs
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  1. Handel: The Choice of Hercules (CDA67298)
    Disc 1 Track 21
    Release date: April 2002
    Last few CD copies remaining
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