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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)

Handel’s Operas and Oratorios; Bach’s Cantatas and Passions; Domenico Scarlatti

CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The paradox is that Handel, the worldly spirit, is most characteristically represented in today’s repertory by his vocal music on sacred subjects, while Bach, the quintessential religious spirit, is largely represented by secular instrumental works. And yet it may be less a paradox than a testimonial to the thoroughly secular, theatrical atmosphere in which all music is now patronized and consumed, and the essentially secular, theatrical spirit that informs even Handel’s ostensibly sacred work—a spirit that modern audiences instinctively recognize and easily respond to. The modern audience, in short, recognizes and claims its own from both composers; and in this the modern audience behaves the way audiences have always behaved. Nor is it in any way surprising: Handel, not Bach, was present at the creation of “the modern audience.” Indeed, he helped create it.

Not that Handel’s secular instrumental output was by any means inconsiderable or obscure. We have already had a look at one of his two dozen concerti grossi, works that (simply because they were published) were far better known in their day than the Brandenburg Concertos or any other instrumental ensemble works of Bach (see Exx. 5-13 and 14). Handel also composed a number of solo organ concertos for himself to perform between the acts of his oratorios. In their origins they were thus theatrical works, but two books of them were published (one of them as a posthumous tribute) and became every organist’s property.

Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)

fig. 7-1a Portrait by Christoph Platzer, ca. 1710, believed to be the twenty-five-year-old Handel, who was then completing his Italian apprenticeship.

Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)

fig. 7-1b Full-length statue of Handel by Louis François Roubillac (1705–1762).

In addition, more than three dozen solo and trio sonatas by Handel survive, of which many also circulated widely in print during his lifetime. Except for a single trio sonata and some instrumental canons in a miscellaneous collection called The Musical Offering, and a single church cantata published by a municipal council to commemorate a civic occasion, the only works of Bach that were published during his lifetime were the keyboard compositions that he published himself.

Handel’s largest instrumental compositions, like Bach’s, were orchestral suites. And as befits the history of the genre, Handel’s orchestral suites were among the relatively few compositions of his that arose directly out of his employment by the Hanoverian kings of England. One was a kind of super-suite, an enormous medley of instrumental pieces of every description (but mostly dances) composed for performance on a barge that kept abreast of George I’s pleasure boat during a royal outing on the River Thames on 17 July 1717, later published as “Handel’s Celebrated Water Musick.” A whole day’s musical entertainment, it furnished enough pieces for three separate sequences (suites in F, D, and G) as arranged by the publisher.

Handel’s other big orchestral suite was composed for an enormous wind band (twenty-four oboes, twelve bassoons, nine trumpets, nine horns, and timpani, to which strings parts were added on publication) and performed on 27 April 1749 as part of the festivities surrounding the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle that ended the War of the Austrian Succession. This was a great diplomatic triumph for George II, who had personally led his troops in battle (the last time any British monarch has done so) and won important trade and colonial concessions from the other European powers, including a monopoly on the shipping of slaves from Africa to Spanish America. Handel’s suite was published as “The Musick for the Royal Fireworks.” In arrangements for modern symphony orchestra by the English conductor Sir Hamilton Harty, these suites of Handel’s were for a while staples of the concert repertoire—especially in England, where they served as a reminder of imperial glory. They are the only Handelian instrumental compositions ever to have gained modern repertory status comparable to that enjoyed by the “Branden-burgs,” and they lost it when England lost her empire. Handel’s instrumental music was always a sideline, and so it remains for audiences today, even though modern audiences value instrumental music far more highly than did the audience of Handel’s time and are much more likely to regard instrumental works as a composer’s primary legacy.

For Handel was first and last a composer for the theater, the one domain where Bach never set foot. His main medium was the opera seria, the form surveyed in chapter 4. There we had a close look at the genre as such. Here we can concentrate on Handel’s particular style as a theatrical composer. For our present purpose it will suffice to boil his entire quarter-century’s production for the King’s Theatre on the London Strand down to a single consummate example. Such an example will of course have to be a virtuoso aria giving vent to an overpowering emotional seizure; for an opera seria role, as we know, was the sum of the attitudes struck in reaction to the complicated but conventionalized unfolding of a moralizing plot in a language that was often neither the composer’s nor the audience’s. The great opera composer was the one who could give the cut-and-dried, obligatory attitudes a freshly vivid embodiment, and who could convey it essentially without words.

Nothing could serve our purpose better than an aria from Rodelinda, one of Handel’s most successful operas, first performed at the King’s Theatre on 13 February 1725, right in the brilliant middle of Handel’s operatic career, and revived many times thereafter. The libretto was an adaptation—by one of Handel’s chief literary collaborators, Nicola Francesco Haym, an expatriate Italian Jew who also acted as theater manager, stage director, and continuo cellist—of an earlier opera libretto, produced in Florence, that was based on a play by the French tragedian Pierre Corneille that was based on an episode from a seventh-century chronicle of Lombard (north Italian) history.

Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)

fig. 7-2 Caricature of the alto castrato Senesino, the natural soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, and the alto castrato Gaetano Berenstadt in a performance of Handel’s opera Flavio at the King’s Theater, London, in 1723.

The title character is the wife of Bertrarido, the heir to the throne of Lombardy, who has been displaced and forced into exile by a usurper, Grimoaldo, the Duke of Benevento, who has succeeded in his plan with the treasonable aid of Garibaldo, the Duke of Turin, a former ally of Bertrarido. The moral and emotional center of the plot is the steadfastness of Rodelinda’s love for Bertrarido and his for her, enabling both their reunion and Bertrarido’s restoration to his rightful throne.

The aria on which we focus, Bertrarido’s “Vivi, tiranno!” (Ex. 7-1), was actually added to the opera for its first revival, in December 1725, so as to give the noble Bertrarido a more heroic aspect and also to favor the famous alto castrato Senesino with a proper vehicle for displaying his transcendent vocal artistry. It is sung when Bertrarido, having killed Garibaldo off stage, returns to confront Grimoaldo. Instead of killing him outright, he hurls his sword to the ground at his rival’s feet and sings, contemptuously:


Vivi, tiranno,

io t’ho scampato;

svenami, ingrato,

sfoga il furor!

Live, o tyrant!

I have spared thee;

cut me open, ingrateful man,

pour out thy rage!


Volli salvarti

sol per mostrarti

ch’ho di mia sorte

più grande il cor!

I chose to save you

only to show you

that my fate has granted me

the greater heart!

Like a good seria character, Grimoaldo capitulates to this demonstration of austere magnanimity and gives up his claim to the throne.

“Vivi, tiranno!” is a perfect—and perfectly thrilling—specimen of aria as “concerto for voice and orchestra.” Its “A” section is structured exactly like a Vivaldi concerto, with a three-part ritornello that frames the whole, and returns piecemeal in between the vocal episodes (Ex. 7-1a). It symbolizes the aria’s affect—stormy indignation, thundering wrath (both as felt by Bertrarido and as summoned forth from Grimoaldo)—with string tremolos that can be related either to the old stile concitato or to the onomatopoetical writing we encountered in the storm episode from Vivaldi’s “Spring” concerto. As we know from chapter 4, such devices were standard procedure in the “simile arias” that formed the opera seria composer’s stock-in-trade. The tremolo clearly retains its meaning in Handel’s aria, even though there is no explicit simile (that is, no direct textual reference to the storm to which the characters’ emotions are being musically compared).

As in the most schematic concerto movement, the vocal part in “Vivi, tiranno!” never quotes or appropriates the music of the ritornello and never carries material over from episode to episode. It is a continually evolving part cast in relief against the dogged constancy of the ritornello. Indeed the opposition of solo and tutti is dramatized beyond anything we have seen in an instrumental concerto. It is made exceptionally tense—even hostile—by having the instruments continually insinuate the ritornello within the episodes whenever the singer pauses for breath, only to be silenced peremptorily on the voice’s return. This, too, is expressive of an unusually tense and hostile affect.

The most spectacular representation of rage, however, is reserved to the singer and takes the most appropriate form such a thing can take within a dramatic context.

Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)

ex. 7-1a George Frideric Handel, “Vivi, tiranno!” from Rodelinda, Act III, scene 8, mm. 1–18

Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)

ex. 7-1b George Frideric Handel, “Vivi, tiranno!” from Rodelinda, Act III, scene 8, mm. 68–81

The progressively fierce and florid coloratura in this aria is calculated to coincide on every occurrence with the word furor—“rage” itself. The singer literally “pours it out” as the text enjoins, setting Grimoaldo a compelling and exhausting example. The most furious moment of all comes when one of the singer’s rage-symbolizing roulades is cast in counterpoint against the stormy tremolandos in the accompanying parts (Ex. 7-1b).

The aria, in short, is a triumph of dramatically structured music—or of musically structured drama, if that seems a better way of putting it. The “purely musical” or structural aspects of the piece and the representational or expressive ones are utterly enmeshed. There is no way of describing the one without invoking the other. An intricately worked out and monumentally unified, thus potentially self-sufficient, musical structure serves to enhance and elevate the playing-out of a climactic dramatic scene. And the structure, in its lapidary wholeness, with contrasting midsection and suitably embellished reiteration, enables the singer-actor to reach a pitch that is both literally and figuratively beyond the range of spoken delivery.

Comparing Handel’s aria with the opera seria arias examined in chapter 4—mostly by actual Italian composers writing for actual Italian audiences—points up the somewhat paradoxical relationship of this great outsider to the tradition on which he fed. It is Handel who, for many modern historians and the small modern audience that still relishes revivals of opera seria, displays the genre at its best, owing to the balancing and tangling of musical and dramatic values just described. Handel’s work is indeed more craftsmanly and structurally complex than that of his actual Italian contemporaries, who were much concerned with streamlining and simplifying those very aspects of motivic structure and harmony that Handel continued to revel in.

His work, in short, was at once denser (and, to an audience foreign to the language of the play, perhaps more interesting) and stylistically more conservative. In his far more active counterpoint (just compare his bass line to Vinci’s or Broschi’s in chapter 4) he affirms his German organist’s heritage after all, for all his Italian sojourning and acclimatizing. And by making his music more interesting in its own right than that of his Italian contemporaries, he gave performers correspondingly less room to maneuver and dominate the show.

In this way, for all that Handel seems to dominate modern memory of the opera seria, and despite his unquestioned dominance of the local London scene (at least for a while), he was never a truly typical seria composer, and as time went on, his work became outmoded. Unlike the actual Italian product, his operas never traveled well but remained a local and somewhat anomalous English phenomenon, admired by foreign visitors but nevertheless regarded as strange. A crisis was reached when Farinelli—the greatest of the castratos, with whose typical vehicles we are already familiar—refused to sing for Handel and in fact joined a rival company set up in ruinous opposition to him. The 1734 pastiche production of Artaserse sampled in chapter 4 was in fact a deliberate effort, on the part of the rival Opera of the Nobility, to depose Handel from his preeminence and, Grimoaldo-like, usurp his place in the affections of the London opera audience.

Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)

fig. 7-3 A scene from Gay and Pepusch’s Beggar’s Opera as painted in 1729 by William Hogarth. The wife and the lover of Macheath the highwayman plead with their respective fathers to spare his life.

Handel’s grip on the London public, or at least its most aristocratic faction, had already been challenged somewhat in the 1720s by a series of easy, tuneful operas by Giovanni Bononcini (1670–1747) imported to London together with their composer, a somewhat older man than Handel but one whose style was more idiomatically Italian andup-to-date. Another bad omen for Handel, the worst in fact, was the huge success in 1728 of The Beggar’s Opera, a so-called “ballad opera” by John Gay, with a libretto in English, spoken dialogue in place of recitative, and a score consisting entirely of popular songs arranged by a German expatriate composer named Johann Pepusch (1667–1752).

This cynical slap in the face of “noble” entertainments like the seria had an unprecedented run of sixty-two performances during its first season (for a Handel opera a run of fifteen performances was considered a great success), and, altogether amazingly, was revived every season for the rest of the eighteenth century and beyond. (It has had hit revivals even in the twentieth century and spawned a huge number of spinoffs and adaptations, including some very famous ones like the Threepenny Opera of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.) On every level from its plot (set among thieves and other London lowlifes) to its “moral” (namely, that morals are sheer hypocrisy) to its musical and dramatic allusions (full of swipes at operatic conventions and lofty “Handelian” style), The Beggar’s Opera has been characterized as “frivolously nihilistic.”1 But it also played into a prejudice that was the very opposite of frivolous or nihilistic—namely, a peculiarly English version of the old prejudice (as old, we may recall, as Plato) against “delicious” music as a corrupting force that was inimical to the public welfare. The “soft and effeminate Musick which abounds in the Italian Opera,” wrote the playwright John Dennis (1657–1734), a particularly vociferous London critic, “by soothing the Senses, and making a Man too much in love with himself, makes him too little fond of the Publick; so by emasculating and dissolving the Mind, it shakes the very Foundation of Fortitude, and so is destructive of both Branches of the publick Spirit.”2 In an Essay upon Publick Spirit published in 1711, the year of Handel’s London debut, Dennis even argued that British wives should keep their men away from the opera lest they become “effeminate” (by which he meant homosexual). And he proceeded to attach this issue to one that mattered in Britain as it mattered at that time nowhere else on earth—the issue of patriotism, and its attendant religious bigotry:

Is there not an implicit Contract between all the People of every Nation, to espouse one another’s Interest against all Foreigners whatsoever? But would not any one swear, to observe the Conduct of [opera lovers], they were protected by Italians in their Liberty, their Property, and their Religion against Britons? For why else should they prefer Italian Sound to British Sense, Italian Nonsense to British Reason, the Blockheads of Italy to their own Countrymen, who have Wit; and the Luxury, and Effeminacy of the most profligate Portion of the Globe to British Virtue?

One need hardly add that all of these fears and intolerances intersected on the sexually ambiguous figure of the castrato, the very epitome of Italian license and excess, who added insult to injury by commanding princely fees far beyond the earning power of domestic singers. In the same year that Dennis’s essay appeared, Joseph Addison, the eminent satirist, poked malicious fun at the castrati and their fans through an invented character, “Squire Squeekum, who by his Voice seems (if I may use the Expression) to be ‘cut out’ for an Italian Singer.”3

The Beggar’s Opera gave all of these resentful views a colossal boost. Its success was a presage that the opera seria, even Handel’s, could no longer count on the English audience to take it seriously. And indeed, within a decade of its production, both Handel’s own opera company and the Opera of the Nobility had gone bankrupt. Neither Handel nor the castrati were the losers, though. As Christopher Hogwood, a notable performer of Handel’s music and a leader in the revival of an “authentic” period style of presenting it, has shrewdly observed, if The Beggar’s Opera was a bad omen it was because it “killed not the Italian opera but the chances of serious English opera”4—something that would not emerge until the twentieth century, and then only briefly.


(1) Robert D. Hume, “The Beggar’s Opera,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. I (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 377.

(2) John Dennis, “An Essay on the Opera’s [sic] after the Italian Manner, Which are about to be Establish’d on the English Stage: With Some Reflections on the Damage Which They May Bring to the Publick” (1706), quoted in Richard Leppert, “Imagery, Musical Confrontation and Cultural Difference in Early 18th-Century London,” Early Music XIV (1986): 337.

(3) The Spectator, no. 205 (25 October 1711); quoted in Leppert, “Imagery, Musical Confrontation and Cultural Difference,” p. 331.

(4) Christopher Hogwood, Handel (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), p. 142.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-07.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-07.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-07.xml