1707: A Year That Will Resonate with Handel Lovers

Quantz, Handel and Bach caricatures, artist unknown.

The following is a guest post by David H. Plylar, Concert Office.

On Thursday, November 29th, the Library of Congress will present the outstanding Baroque ensemble La Risonanza in cooperation with the Embassy of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute of Washington, DC, in its first appearance in the United States. Half of the program consists of Vivaldi works from the 1720s (primarily concerti, including the cruelly inappropriate “Summer” from The Four Seasons—one at least better understands the key of G minor when heard at the onset of winter). The other half focuses on early works of Handel, composed during his highly productive period in Italy. You can view the complete program here (pdf).

It is not entirely clear as to when Handel left Hamburg, but he was in Rome by the beginning of 1707. This year would yield a wide variety of music that showed Handel’s blossoming mastery of his art; the works selected for performance by La Risonanza all date from 1707 (or are thought to date from that year). The programmed pieces fall into three categories related to vocal music: secular cantatas, an instrumental excerpt from an opera, and a sacred representative in the form of a Marian antiphon.

The secular cantatas are among the least known works in Handel’s output, and undeservedly so. It was not too long ago that these pieces were generally dismissed as preparatory works for Handel’s later and greater operas and oratorios, but even a casual listening gives the lie to that notion. The two cantatas to be heard (Notte placida e cheta, HWV 142, and Dietro l’orme fugaci, HWV 105) were written for a soprano soloist with a small accompanying ensemble. The texts are set as recitatives, accompanied recitatives (accompagnato, with other instruments joining in with the continuo), and arias. The recitative writing is highly dramatic, and especially with the aid of the ensemble the text comes alive. The aria writing is beautiful and refined, representing Handel quite well alongside the more well-known vocal works of his that were to follow.

An example of getting more use out of older music: Arnold Schoenberg’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, after Handel’s Concerto grosso op. 6/7. Reproduced by permission of Lawrence Schoenberg. Reproduced by permission of G. Schirmer, Inc.

The juxtaposition of a sacred work, Haec est regina virginum, alongside these secular cantatas shows both Handel’s range and versatility at the time. While Handel’s writing is appropriately more reserved in the sacred work, it is not devoid of the dramatic. Handel’s settings are text-specific, yet in some cases the music is interchangeable. A classic example dates from this period: many people know the popular aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s opera Rinaldo, written in 1711. What most do not know is that this same aria was actually written in 1707 setting a different text, and as part of Handel’s first oratorio: “Lascia la spina” from Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, HWV 46a.

Composers at this time were notorious for pillaging their own works for old material to use in new pieces. Actually, this practice continues even today; sometimes a good old idea is more useful in a pinch than a mediocre new one, and back then people did not have the instant access to recordings and scores that we have, and therefore it was easier for a composer to get away with it.

A similar act of self-thievery occurs in the concert’s opening number, the tripartite sinfonia from Vivaldi’s opera Dorilla in Tempe. The first two sections will likely be new to the audience (the slower second section is stunning), but the third will be instantly recognizable as the opening of “Spring” from The Four Seasons. The opera postdates the violin concerto, but the reference is not arbitrary; in fact the opening chorus of Dorilla in Tempe is a setting of this same material.

When a work as famous as “Summer” from The Four Seasons is programmed alongside less well-known pieces, it provides an opportunity for the audience to listen with fresh ears. Vivaldi made some interesting compositional decisions involving an associated text, and their impact was especially significant in the case of “Summer,” which is perhaps the least immediately “hummable” of the set. Vivaldi relies largely on textural and dramatic means to evoke the imagery. The poetic content of the first movement includes ideas as various as languishing in the heat, references to birds (the cuckoo, turtle dove and goldfinch), and winds both gentle and fierce (and a shepherd’s trepidation at the latter). These ideas are generally heard to be represented in the music, which shifts drastically with each new notion. Yet Vivaldi is clever in maintaining a structural hold on the material, utilizing the initial slow, halting music (succumbing to the heat) as a ritornello that returns between episodes. Vivaldi’s settings of bird calls are interesting in comparison to those of later composers (such as Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, Mahler or Messiaen); with Vivaldi they feel both isolated and integrated, the latter due to his skilful transitions and use of similar melodic shapes (such as a descending scale), sometimes readily apparent and at other times emerging from the texture. A great example of an emergent melody that is easy to recognize is the cuckoo call that appears right after the first “heat” section—the call is here represented by a descending minor third in the middle register, audibly isolated from the activity above and below.

It can sometimes be a scary proposition to go to a concert of music that is not well known—sometimes there is a good reason for that. In other cases such as this, performers take on the role of stewards, leading the lucky listener to new discoveries that will hopefully energize the further exploration of the music by performers and audiences alike.

La Risonanza
Fabio Bonizzoni, artistic director/keyboard
Yetzabel Arias Fernández, soprano
Marco Brolli, flute
Carlo Lazzaroni, Rosella Croce and Claudia Combs, violin
Gianni de Rosa, viola
Caterina Dell’Agnello, violoncello
Vanni Moretto, contrabass

Thursday, November 29, 2012, 8:00 p.m. Jefferson Building, Coolidge Auditorium

VIVALDI

  •  Dorilla in Tempe: Sinfonia, RV 709
  • Concerto for violin and cello in B-flat major, RV 547
  • Concerto for violin in G minor, RV 315, “L’estate” (Summer) from The Four Seasons

HANDEL

  •  Notte placida e cheta, HWV 142

VIVALDI

  • Concerto for flute and orchestra in G major, RV 437

HANDEL

  • Dietro l’orme fugaci (Armida abbandonata), HWV 105
  • Rodrigo: Passacaille, HWV 5
  • Haec est regina virginum, HWV 235

Pre-concert presentation: A conversation with Fabio Bonizzoni. 6:15 p.m. Jefferson Building, Whittall Pavilion.

Please note: if tickets are unavailable online, never fear! There are often up to 80 empty seats available for “sold out” concerts at start time. Interested patrons are strongly encouraged to come to the Library by 6:00 p.m. on concert nights to join the standby line for no-show tickets.

2 Comments

  1. kate
    February 3, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Trying to find scores for HWV 142 from which we can perform. Any hints?? Would be most grateful!

  2. Cait Miller
    February 6, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Hi, Kate – all reference questions should be submitted via e-mail using our Ask A Librarian reference service (http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-perform2.html). Our reference librarians are eager to help!

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