Händel and the Poet’s Way to a Good Life

Meditation time. © Charles Thibo

Driving to the office with Baroque music can be very stimulating to ponder the future of the world, the question of Good and Evil, and if that sounds grandiose to you, well, I indulge in 45 minutes of meditation where others have written 2-hour-long oratorios about the same subject. We have already met the wonderful composer Emilio di Cavalieri, who lived at the threshold from the Renaissance to the Baroque era and who, in his monumental work “Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo” imagined a dialogue between the soul and the body: In songs, madrigals and recitals, the two allegorical characters argue about worldly lust and spiritual salvation.

Some 140 years later Georg Friedrich Händel had a similar idea. Already much infatuated with the English literature at the time, he set John Milton’s poems “L’Allegro” (The Joyous One) and “Il Penseroso” (The Thoughtful One) to music and had a third part, originating from William Shakespeare’s drama “The Tempest” added: Il Moderato (The Moderate One). Händel collaborated in this endeavour closely with his favourite librettist Charles Jennens. Milton’s poems depict on the one hand and idealized day at the country, with all the sensory elements of such a pastoral scene to be enjoyed by L’Allegro and on the other hand by Il Penseroso taking a meditative walk in the woods followed by time devoted to studying books in a high, lonely tower and resting peacefully in cloister.

Instrumental gems and contrasting arias

Händel wrote this exceptional piece (HWV 55) for two soprano, one alto, one tenor, one bass voice and chorus and by alternating verses form the two poems he creates a musical dynamic that make this secular oratorio a most enjoyable piece of music, despite its considerable length. Donald Burrows, who has compiled an excellent biography of Händel, writes the “episodic progression of picturesque movements presented musical opportunities which Handel fulfilled with wit, invention and good judgment: there are small-scale, momentary pleasure in the sounds of the hunting horn, the merry bells, the cricket and the bellman, as well as a picture gallery of successive contrasting arias, describing diverse scenes both pastoral […] and urban…”

The third part was added by Jennens upon Händel’s request, most likely to present the audience with a kind of balanced conclusion. “The alternation of ‘Allegro’ and ‘Penseroso’ moods could not continue forever, and, without some other mediation, any conclusion would appear to leave one side as a winner”, Burrows explains. Such a unilateral end would have contradicted the spirit of the work as it strives to highlight the complementary nature of both moods, joy and melancholy, a life devoted with an element of fun and an element of meditation.

“With Jennens’ Moderato Handel contends honorably and in the case of the air, accompagnato and chorus, ‘Come with native lustre shine’ and the duet ‘As steals the morn, with distinction” writes Donald Teeters, the music director of the Boston Cecilia that has performed the oratorio since the 1970s.

I suggest you grant yourself a two-hours-break to fill it with fun and meditation with the recording of L’Allegro, il Penseroso et il Moderato, HWV 55 by the Gabrieli Players and the Gabrieli Consort led by Paul McCreesh and the soloists Gillian Webster, Jeremy Ovenden, Ashley Riches and Peter Harvey.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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