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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

Gabrieli Players, Paul McCreesh (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: May 2013
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson
Release date: May 2015
Total duration: 140 minutes 40 seconds

The Gabrieli’s first Handel recording in over a decade is particularly special, recreating in painstaking detail the 1740 first performance of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato which included an organ concerto and two concerti grossi. With a reputation as peerless Handelians, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort are here joined by a stunning array of soloists.


'Handel lovers can hardly fail to enjoy the mingled finesse and hedonistic delight of this new recording, its attractions enhanced by a stimulating essay from Handel scholar Ruth Smith' (Gramophone)

'The choral elements are scrupulously handled by the Gabrieli Consort, and the soloists are choice. Gillian Webster is the light, bright soprano, Laurence Kilsby the delightful treble, tenor Jeremy Ovenden brings his words to life, while Peter Harvey provides a solid baritone and Ashley Riches a confident bass' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'Handel's ravishing score, realised to perfection by Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli, evokes [the] scenes with colourful precision' (The Observer)» More

'Handel’s ravishing score, here realised to perfection by Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli forces, evokes these scenes with colourful precision' (The Guardian)» More

'McCreesh's direction is both alert and expressive, and his soloists are very fine. Gillian Webster shines in Penseroso's famous nightingale aria, Sweet Bird, and in the only duet in which mirth and melancholy come together—the sublime As steals the morn, one of Handel's greatest hits' (The Sunday Times)» More

'It’s a joy to hear the Gabrielis give us Handel again. The attention to detail, the vibrant tone, the briskly invigorating tempi, and the seamless ensemble are everything you could wish for' (Hi-Fi Plus)
‘Something of a gayer turn’: why Handel laid aside Messiah in 1740
During the 1730s Handel’s cultivated friends and the patriotic public were encouraging him to set great English poetry to music. They wanted Handel, whom they regarded as the finest composer that the world had ever known, to claim the artistic high-ground and give new life to the supreme cultural achievements of his adopted homeland. This was the agenda of Newburgh Hamilton, who arranged Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast for Handel to set in 1736, the score being opulently published in 1738. The following year Handel set Dryden’s shorter St Cecilia Ode; but in the mid-18th century Dryden did not rank as the greatest English poet.

In 1737 a monument to John Milton (1608-74), ‘the ornament and glory of his country’, was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, the pantheon of national heritage. After the Bible, Milton’s works were probably the most-read texts in Handel’s England. Paradise Lost was printed on average every year in the 18th century, twice as often as Shakespeare, and by the mid-century many would have agreed with the poet Elijah Fenton that it was ‘the noblest Poem, next to those of Homer and Virgil, that ever the wit of man produc’d’.

Unsurprisingly, Handel was offered librettos of Paradise Lost, in the hope of uniting the two greatest masters of the sublime, the period’s favourite mode of aesthetic uplift. He declined to set them. To our good fortune he responded very differently when two of his friends suggested two other Milton texts, and their detailed correspondence supplies us with the most extensive record of the genesis of any Handel masterpiece.

A tripartite collaboration
On 29 December 1739 Charles Jennens, who had recently provided Handel with the libretto of Saul (and maybe also Israel in Egypt), wrote from London to their mutual friend James Harris in Salisbury: ‘Having mention’d to Mr Handel your schemes of Allegro & Penseroso, I have made him impatient to see it in due Form & to set it immediately’. Jennens told Harris that he had offered Handel ‘a Collection from Scripture, which is more to my own Tast & (by his own Confession) to his too; but I believe he will not set it this year, being desirous to please the Town with something of a gayer Turn’. This ‘Collection from Scripture’ is apparently the first-ever mention of Jennens’ libretto of Messiah.

Apparently unoffended by Handel’s initial reaction to Messiah, Jennens saw an alternative but narrow window of opportunity to prompt Handel to do worthwhile work. He urged Harris, ‘execute your Plan without delay & send it up; or if you don’t care to do that, send me your Instructions, & I will make the best use I am able of them; but by all means let me know your Intentions by the next Post; for He is so eager, that I am afraid, if his demands are not answer’d very soon, He will be diverted to some less agreeable Design.’

Handel needed a new work for the remainder of his 1739-40 season, which—in the absence of enough Italian singers in London to make an Italian opera production viable—became his first season entirely of English word-settings. In encouraging Harris to develop his plan for a Milton setting, Jennens, always keen to forward Handel’s career in what he considered the right directions, was providing Handel with a chance to trump the competition. In 1738 Thomas Arne had produced a musical-dramatic adaptation of Milton’s Mask which was so successful that Milton’s drama was henceforth known by the name of Arne’s setting: Comus. If Handel had any doubts as to the viability of Milton at the theatre box office, the popularity of Comus would have reassured him. Moreover, it is likely that Handel and his friends thought that his reputation required him to produce a rejoinder: a Milton setting of his own.

Harris was a philosopher of ethics and aesthetics with a Europe-wide reputation, an amateur librettist and composer, and founder of a flourishing music festival in Salisbury. He was also a devotee of Handel’s music—he and Jennens were members of the club of ‘Handelists’ supporting and encouraging the composer—and an ardent admirer of Milton’s poetry. The essence of his ‘schemes of Allegro & Penseroso’, a dovetailing alternation of sections of Milton’s twin poems, played brilliantly to Handel’s need for blocks of contrasting or complementary material.

The libretto became a triumvirate collaboration. Having received the draft and taken it to Handel, Jennens reported back to Harris that Handel was breaking the sequence into smaller segments, to achieve more contrast: ‘He seemed not perfectly satisfyed with your division, as having too much of the Penseroso together, which would consequently occasion too much grave musick without intermission, & would tire the audience. He … resolved upon a more minute division.’ Out of Harris’ original five alternating L’Allegro and Il Penseroso sections, Handel, possibly with Jennens’ assistance, made 16. Handel’s concern not to ‘tire the audience’ bespeaks his need to balance his own desire to experiment—so evident in this composition—with the expectations of his broad audience.

Harris detailed particular features of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso for Handel’s guidance, explaining that the ‘grand contrast of Mirth and Melancholy’ contains further juxtapositions, of town and country in L’Allegro, and of times of day in Il Penseroso. But in fact, L’Allegro itself also progresses through time, so that, as Graydon Beeks has pointed out, retaining the order of each poem’s events while combining them introduced a contrary motion, Allegro moving through the world from dawn to night, Penseroso seeking seclusion from night to dawn. In the Handel/Jennens rearrangement of Harris’ draft, the wit of the ‘grand contrast’ is sharpened, so that, for example, the opening dismissals of each mood (the ‘execration of its contrary’) abut each other, as do the two birdsong airs. Allegro is woken by a lark at dawn and Penseroso eavesdrops on, or rather competes with, the evening’s nightingale. But the contrasts are not simple, for the vignettes have fluctuating reality. Some of Milton’s word-pictures are visions, others are stories, and most of them are desired rather than actual states. Moreover the constant switching between differing times and differing locations is often implied, not narrated. In his setting Handel realised and heightened the contrasts: the airs and choruses flow one to another with hardly any punctuating recitative, encouraging the listener to surrender to a mesmerising tapestry of anticipation and surprise.

Harris loved Handel’s choral writing—an important constituent of the oratorios and a major distinguishing feature from his Italian operas. The libretto’s first draft contained 13 of them, which Handel later reduced to eight. Milton’s two poems are in the first person singular, recounting the moods of an individual moving through the world or withdrawing from it. Society is only referred to: watched with enjoyment by Allegro, and avoided by Penseroso. Setting some of the words for chorus created a seismic shift, as society is made actual and given a voice, and relationships are newly suggested between the individual and society. The life of the community, which is only narrated in Milton, is enacted through Harris’ and Handel’s introduction of choruses.

The society of L’Allegro’s libretto is the most genial and the most comprehensive that Handel ever treated. Milton’s poetry moves from court to village, from castle to cottage, from landscape to back yard, and across every class of entertainment: courtly jousts, masques, plays, hunting, country dances, fairy tales. Man and nature are in harmony in Milton’s poems, as they are in Handel’s score. Handel’s audience would have heard all this as wishful thinking. When L’Allegro was first performed, during the season of 1739-40, England had been experiencing a particularly savage winter; the price of wheat jumped 30%, and there were food riots in the north, west and east of the country. Moreover, England was embroiled in a war which lasted from 1739 to 1748. As so often in Handel’s works, especially his English ones, the image of contentment is shot through with a sense of wistfulness.

Il Moderato
The triumvirate’s libretto was still a two-part work, and Handel judged it insufficient to fill an evening. Leafing through his Milton, he came upon At a Solemn Musick (‘Blest pair of sirens’), and asked Jennens to make of it a text for a concluding part. But Jennens recognised that Milton’s ecstatic depiction of a Christian heaven would subvert the integrity of the planned composition, commenting to Harris, ‘it has no sort of connection with the other’. Jennens’ sense of dramatic appropriateness won out over his ingrained desire to preach through Handel. More in keeping with Handel’s desire for something ‘of a gayer turn’, he suggested a secular solution: ‘a Moderator should interpose, & reduce the disputants to reason. On this account, & in compliance with the needs of Mr. Handel … I mean to add some verses to Milton’s.’ Handel agreed, and Jennens’ Il Moderato was the result: the longest original English text written for Handel.

Il Moderato follows Milton in personifying human propensities. But whereas L’Allegro and Il Penseroso are descriptive, Il Moderato is prescriptive, recommends the way to achieve a contented life: the golden mean between mirth and melancholy. L’Allegro and Il Penseroso contrast with each other; Il Moderato sets up its own contrast, of moderate versus extreme behaviour. Whereas in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso the opposite temperament is laughingly dismissed at the outset, Il Moderato rejects extreme behaviour of any kind. Specifically, we are warned that, whatever your temperament, trying too hard for happiness and nothing else is self-defeating and self-destructive.

Unlike Milton’s poems, Il Moderato contemplates not only the relationship of the individual with society, but the relationship of one individual with another. As Jennens wrote, Il Moderato ‘united those two independent Poems in one Moral Design’: the temperaments are no longer opposed but are brought together. While we are to imagine Moderato as the guiding voice of part three, the culminating famed duet for soprano and tenor, ‘As steals the morn’, based on lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is marked by Handel: ‘L’Allegro & il Penseroso’.

For all its spellbinding beauty, the duet’s sense is ambiguous. Are we to understand that Moderato’s ‘Truth’ has dissolved Allegro’s and Penseroso’s ‘fancies’, unclouded their minds, and restored them to clear thinking? Are we to infer that on rejecting excesses, the characters can productively adopt aspects of a balanced temperament? Or do they have to abandon their identities in surrendering to reason and become purely intellectual in order to recognise ‘Truth’? If the last is what Jennens meant, then Handel’s setting is a terrific instance of the composer overriding his librettist, for the duet is less expressive of intellectual daylight than of the sensuousness of music itself. Indeed, it is the very music that Allegro requested in part two: ‘Such as the meeting soul may pierce / In notes, with many a winding bout / Of linked sweetness long drawn out’.

This recording is the first to present Handel’s original version of L’Allegro, premiered on 27 February 1740. On that occasion the Italian-trained soprano Elisabeth Duparc (‘La Francesina’) sang Penseroso. Allegro was shared by an unknown boy treble, the great actor-tenor John Beard, and the bass Henry Reinhold. The bass William Savage represented Moderato. Handel generally revised a work to suit his company and audience when he repeated it in subsequent seasons, and so this original version of L’Allegro was heard only at its first five performances. A season later the work was expanded with settings of additional portions of Milton’s text; some of his singers were Italian opera soloists, and one of them, the castrato Andreoni, sang in Italian. In later years Handel dropped Il Moderato—though not in Dublin, whence he wrote to assure Jennens that his words were ‘vastly admired’. Later still, he paired the first two parts with his Ode to St Cecilia (1739), giving L’Allegro, after all, a religious finale. Very likely from the start of the collaboration he had foreseen its wonderful potential for adaptation, to the benefit of his own interests, his singers’ talents, and the tastes of his audience. Nevertheless, there is greater clarity and sense of purpose in this first version than he ever achieved in later revisions.

Ruth Smith © 2015

Although Handel only performed L’Allegro 13 times between 1740 and 1743, he continually tinkered with the structure of the oratorio, adding arias and altering the order of movements before eventually replacing Il Moderato in its entirety. The autograph is consequently a rather messy document full of scorings out, additional leaves, and appendices; even the first performance of L’Allegro contained modifications from the music prematurely published by Walsh.

The structure of the 1740 performances can be readily elucidated; the autograph is clarified by both the printed wordbook that accompanied these performances and several fair manuscript copies that derive from the original version. There remains some fine detail for which the sources are equivocal. A da capo of ‘Populous cities please me then’ is either present, missing, or crossed out in various manuscripts; it is here restored. The truncated da capo ritornello of ‘Sweet bird’ may be surprising to modern ears, but its presence is unanimous across the sources. Likewise the air ‘Come, but keep thy wonted state’ elides into the chorus ‘Join with thee calm Peace and Quiet’ without the expected final soprano phrase and orchestral ritornello added by Handel for later versions.

The orchestration of the score is at times more problematic, requiring practical decisions to resolve conflicts between the musical sources. The instrumentation of Handel’s bass line is, as ever, unclear and the use of oboes in the ritornellos of several arias is also uncertain. The archival orchestral parts prepared under the supervision of Jennens for his private library provide a certain amount of guidance as to the use of the wind, but they are not necessarily to be taken at face value, as they often differ from what is explicitly marked in Handel’s autograph and the contemporary manuscript scores. The autograph and one manuscript copy also call for a ‘Basson Grosso’ during the short chorus ‘There let the pealing organ blow’; however, the presumably substantial bass of Handel’s new pedal organ in the Theatre Royal probably made this soon redundant. The sparse opening of the first recitative was originally scored solely for the bassi—bassoons, cellos, and basses—the rest of the orchestra only being added in later performances. The conflicting source material for the wind writing in L’Allegro presumably reflects the ad libitum function of these instruments and their inclusion has been treated with freedom.

Further questions of instrumentation surround the cello and the carillon. The mellifluous cello solo in ‘But O! sad virgin’ most likely demands a small instrument with an upper fifth string, not merely because of the technical demands of the high writing, but also because of the character of the aria. In common with the other solos Handel wrote for his principal cellist, Francisco Caporale, the cello represents music in its mythical state. A lyrical quality is present in all these obbligatos; ‘But O! sad virgin’ uniquely requires a fleetness and lightness of timbre that is naturally provided by the thinner treble strings of a small cello. Surviving English instruments from the 1720s by Barak Norman and contemporary iconography support the use of such an instrument in this air.

The only extant music for the carillon in L’Allegro is notated on paper associated with Handel’s 1741-2 visit to Dublin. The instrument, first used by Handel in 1738 for Saul, does not appear in either the autograph or contemporary manuscript copies of L’Allegro. The second 1740 Walsh printing of the songs, however, includes the cryptic marking, ‘Sym’ at the beginning of bar two of ‘Or let the merry bells ring round’, coinciding with the music in the later Dublin manuscript. This marking seems most likely refer to the carillon, suggesting its use from the earliest performances.

The three concertos
Handel wrote no overture, as each part of L’Allegro was prefaced by a new concerto. These were given considerable prominence in the advertisement carried by The London Daily Post for the first performance:

Never perform’d before.
AT the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln’s Inn
Fields, this Day, will be perform’d
L’Allegro il Penseroso ed il Moderato.
With two new CONCERTO’s for several Instruments

The wordbook for the 1740 performances suggests that the concertos were very much an integral part of the oratorio: ‘PART the FIRST … A NEW CONCERTO for several instruments … RECITATIVE, accompany’d’.

The ‘two new CONCERTO’s for several Instruments’ were taken from the set of ‘TWELVE GRAND CONCERTOS’ composed in the Autumn of 1739 and later numbered Op 6 by Handel’s publisher, Walsh. These concertos were first performed throughout the 1739-40 season, although it is not known which concertos were performed on which evening. Two manuscript copies of L’Allegro contain a concerto grosso prepended to the work. Anthony Hicks has previously drawn attention to a copy in the British Library, which includes a manuscript score for the D major concerto, Op 6 No 10. Another manuscript source, part of the Coke Collection, inserts a Walsh print of the basso continuo from the G major concerto, Op 6 No 1. Colin Coleman, however, has dated this part to the late 18th century. Neither of these manuscripts include a concerto grosso before part two, or a copy of the organ concerto before part three.

The decision to perform the G major concerto, Op 6 No 1, before part one and the E minor concerto, Op 6 No 3, before part two was guided by the relationship between the keys of the opening movement of each part and those of the concertos. In the oratorios for which Handel composed an overture, he overwhelmingly favours music in the same key as the subsequent vocal movement. The organ concerto that precedes part three is similarly in the same key as the opening movement. Certainly the G major concerto has much lively Allegro-like music and likewise the E minor concerto has many wistful, Penseroso-like moments. This recording thus recreates, perhaps for the first time, the substantial role that instrumental music played between the parts of Handel’s oratorios and similar works.

The ‘NEW CONCERTO on the ORGAN’ is certainly the work now known as Op 7 No 1. This concerto presents conundrums to the player on a number of levels: discrepancies in manuscript and printed version, several moments simply marked ‘Org. ad lib’, and a significant pedal part, unique amongst Handel’s organ works. This last would not in itself be problematic but for the fact that British organs of the day generally lacked pedals and the pipes to go with them. What instrument did Handel play, then, in the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in February 1740? There is information about two comparable theatre instruments (Jordan’s organ at Covent Garden Theatre and Byfield’s at Drury Lane) but neither had pedals, instead being furnished with typical English long-compass keyboards down to GG. It is also known anecdotally that Handel enjoyed going to play the organ at St Paul’s Cathedral where there were indeed some pedals, perhaps reminding him nostalgically of instruments in his native Halle. Could it have been that Handel’s German pedal prowess and an innately inventive streak prompted him to rig up an instrument specially for the occasion? Certainly the virtuoso pedal part in Op 7 No 1, played out literally before their eyes, would have been a wow to the audience in Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre, unused to such podal exertions.

For this recording we have had to imagine what such an organ might have been like. The 2004 William Drake organ of Deptford parish church recreates an organ of 1745 (indeed some of the case and pipes survive from this date), voiced in the style of Jordan and Byfield. Such an organ, with its colourful reed stops and pungent Cornet, seems to suit this most kaleidoscopic and demonstrative of concertos, especially in the ‘trio’ section, marked explicitly for the very unenglish texture of two manuals and pedal. The Deptford organ has a full set of modern pedals, which have been exploited freely, even introducing pedal solos into the several ad libitum passages. For practical reasons, a large chamber organ is used for continuo in all the choruses with the exception of ‘There let the pealing organ blow’ and its associated improvised fugue. This instrument is the 2001 Goetze and Gwynn organ made for the Handel House Trust, based on those of Richard Bridge and Thomas Parker, who built the chamber organ which belonged to Charles Jennens and which still exists in close to its original condition today.

Christopher Suckling & William Whitehead © 2015

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