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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel Before England: Part 2

If you think this music sounds as though it was written by a young man out to impress his foreign hosts, you’d be right.

It’s pretty impressive, showy stuff. It was written by George Frideric Handel in Rome, a few weeks before his 22nd birthday. He’d been in the city for no more than two months yet he was already writing music like this, and for one of the city’s leading Cardinals, no less. How?

Van Lint: View of the Piazza Navona, Rome (c. 1730)

This article is the second in a series of three in which we’re exploring Handel’s first 25 years, the years before he went to England. In our last instalment we started with his birth in Halle in 1685 and followed the young genius through his early training with Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, his exposure to opera in Berlin and his employment under Reinhard Keiser at the opera in Hamburg. In Hamburg he wrote his first opera, Almira, but despite its success he clearly wanted to go to the place which was regarded as the home of opera, of singing itself, and of vocal composition: Italy.

According to Handel’s not-always-reliable biographer, John Mainwaring, the catalyst for the young composer’s visit to the Italian peninsula was his meeting in Hamburg with “a Prince of Tuscany”. This may have been Ferdinando de Medici (whose love of music was well-known), or his brother Gian’ Gastone de Medici; scholars are divided. This prince is said to have asked Handel to return to Italy with him, an offer the ever-independent musician refused. This brought about a turn of phrase in Mainwaring’s 1760 biography which is beloved of all Handel enthusiasts, when he goes on to say that Handel resolved ”to go to Italy on his own bottom, as soon as he could make purse for that occasion”.

What this certainly makes clear is that Handel was determined to go Italy on his own terms, and not as anyone’s lackey. He may have been able to use the Medici name as a calling card, but there is no evidence that either money or an offer of employment was forthcoming from the famous Florentine family.

We assume he went from Hamburg to Italy by land. A journey by sea was not out of the question; Hamburg was one of Europe’s major port cities. But the journey due south by land was more direct, despite the need to cross the Alps. We don’t know when he left Hamburg, but he was in Rome by the end of 1706. He may have taken the time to visit Venice and then Florence on the way - indeed a courtesy call to the Medici court in Florence would have been very likely given the meeting in Hamburg - but this is all conjecture. It was a tricky time to be in this part of the world, as the Italian peninsula was racked by the Wars of the Spanish Succession for the whole of the nearly four years Handel was there; travel would have been difficult at the best of times. And of course, it’s important to remember that there was no such thing as a nation called “Italy” at the time. Like “Germany”, the peninsula was made up of a patchwork of independent states, so border crossings were regular and tedious, even without a war going on.

Whatever his calling cards and connections, Handel managed to make it to the heights of artistic patronage in Rome very quickly. The first documentary evidence we have of his activities in the Eternal City is a diary entry for 14 January 1707 made by one Francesco Valesio. This entry records the presence of a young “Saxon” who had been playing the organ at St John Lateran and astonishing all who heard him.

St John Lateran, Rome (photo taken by me in 2019)

This is evidence loud and clear of Handel’s self-confidence and his ability to contact and impress the most important people around; he had done this in Hamburg and would do it again in London. St John Lateran was no ordinary church; it was the Pontifical Cathedral of Rome. His admirers included the most important musical patrons of the time, including three Cardinals (Pietro Ottoboni, Benedetto Pamphili and Carlo Colonna) and the Marquis (later Prince) Francesco Ruspoli.

Opera was under a Papal ban in Rome at the time and had been since 1698. It wasn’t lifted until 1709, by which time Handel had left. But in its place the secular cantata and the serenata filled the need for vocal music in the most fashionable circles and before long Handel was working for Ruspoli, providing a new cantata a week for his weekly artistic gatherings. The Roman cantatas are a huge part of the composer’s output which, despite many recent recordings, are little-known today.

Francesco Maria Ruspoli

A lavish cantata for soprano and a large body of instruments called Il delirio amoroso (The Delirium of Love) is one of the first works Handel wrote in Rome, on this occasion for Cardinal Pamphili (who also wrote the text). We heard the opening sinfonia from this at the start of the article and in the vocal writing we hear a completely new Handel compared to the music from Hamburg. It’s as if Rome brought forth an explosion of passion, of ideas and - above all - finesse in his writing. This aria from Il delirio amoroso reworks musical ideas from the notoriously awkward soprano aria from Almira which I discussed in Part 1. It’s altogether a more refined and beautiful piece of work. Demanding, yes, but gauche? Never. [listen]

What is fascinating about Handel’s immediate acceptance by the Catholic hierarchy of Rome is the fact that he was a Lutheran. Such things are less important to us today, but in 17th century Rome, these things mattered. Yet despite some gentle pressure applied to him to consider converting (which he gently rebuffed), he not only provided a huge amount of secular music like this cantata for the Cardinals (and Ruspoli) but he was also invite to write church music.

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni

It was in Rome in 1707 that he wrote a sensational collection of sacred music, much of which has been connected in some way with the Feast of Our Lady of Carmel, 16 July. In April of that year he completed the first piece in what might have been designed to be a complete set of Vespers, a setting of the psalm Dixit Dominus. Whether this was intended for, or performed at, the event in July is uncertain. What is not in question is that here, the mature Handel explodes onto the stage in a huge work for choir, soloists and orchestra of staggering difficulty and complexity. This is the earliest of his works to be regularly performed today, much loved of choirs brave enough to tackle it. This is the first movement. [listen]

I mean, where did that come from? Nothing in the music he studied in Halle under Zachow, nothing he heard at the opera in Berlin or experienced in Hamburg sounded like that. And nothing in the admittedly dazzling but altogether more intimate secular cantatas could have prepared anyone for the onslaught of the Dixit Dominus. And over its dozen or so movements, the 22 year old Handel pushes every button conceivable to set the age-old psalm text in a way unmatched before or since. The Dixit is the explosive start of the mature Handel, and all the more explosive for being completely unexpected.

The middle months of 1707 were intensely busy for the young composer. At around the same time as writing the Dixit Dominus, he composed a large-scale secular oratorio in Italian called Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment). The text, again by Cardinal Pamphili, is as close to an opera as could be allowed in Rome at the time. It’s in two parts, lasting more than two hours, but was given - as we would say - “in concert”, and not with action, although an elaborately decorated stage set would most likely have been provided for the four singers and the orchestra. Unlike the later English oratorios, the Italian oratorios - like most Italian operas - have no chorus.

Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili

The fascinating thing about so many of the Italian works is the way Handel plundered them for ideas later in life, sometimes up to 40 years later. Il trionfo contains the first version of an aria which would later become famous in Rinaldo in London, and many other movements similarly provided ideas which he developed in different directions later. That consideration aside, though, Il trionfo is a first-rate work, and every aria is full of wit and charm. This aria comes from Part Two... [listen]

Then in June and July of 1707 a veritable torrent of vivid, dazzling sacred music poured forth from Handel’s imagination. Some of this most definitely was performed in the church of Santa Maria del Monte on the feast of Our Lady of Carmel, the principal feast day for the Carmelite order of nuns. A strong tradition already existed for a great deal of concerted music in second Vespers on this day, and the fact that Handel - a Lutheran, remember - wrote music for such a high-profile occasion is testament to his acceptance and admiration within Roman society. Whether all the music was performed in the one service is open to question, but in addition to the Dixit Dominus he now added two more psalm settings on a similar scale (Laudate pueri and Nisi Dominus), a setting of the Salve regina, a dazzling motet for castrato and orchestra called Saeviat tellus, and a number of shorter antiphons.

The Salve regina and Saeviat tellus are stunningly original. In the former, a hymn to the Virgin begging for help, Handel captures the Mannerist, Counter-Reformation anguish and fervour of the text in a way which builds on the traditions of Monteverdi and Gesualdo. It’s music which sounds like it was written by a life-long Catholic. This is the second movement. [listen]

The motet, Saeviat tellus, follows the pattern, popular in the early 18th century, of a concerto in all but name for voice and orchestra, ending with an Alleluia movement. (Perhaps the best known, and possibly last, example of this is Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate. Vivaldi wrote a number of such pieces, and JS Bach’s Cantata BWV51 is a German-language example.) Given the references in the text to the Carmelites standing firm against the wiles of the devil, it seems certain that this was sung at the Carmelite celebrations in July. It is one of Handel’s most challenging works for solo soprano (a castrato would have sung it as women weren’t allowed to sing in church), with the first movement containing a number of high Ds, the highest note he ever wrote for the soprano voice. It also contains a textural feature that he used often in his early works, and especially in Italy, namely the pairing of voice and oboe in virtuosic display. [listen]

Cardinal Carlo Colonna

Quite apart from the music which may have a connection with the Carmelites, Handel wrote a number of other sacred works setting Latin texts in the first half of 1707. But all this was secondary to his main occupation: providing cantatas both small- and large-scale for Ruspoli, in whose palace he lived for at least part of his time in Rome. Handel scholars have been grateful for the preservation of the Ruspoli archives from this period, which contain dated accounts of payments to copyists for the various works performed there, including many by Handel. Sadly, similar material for the Pamphili and Ottoboni palaces - where he also performed - haven’t survived.

Ruspoli’s accounts show that Handel provided at least 12 continuo cantatas and five orchestrally-accompanied cantatas for the establishment in 1707. The continuo cantatas include two which set non-Italian texts - one in French, the other in Spanish - probably written for a gathering at which Ruspoli entertained dignitaries from France and Spain.

Of the orchestral cantatas, one of the most impressive is Clori, Tirsi e Fileno (Chloris, Thyrsis and Philenus), which is almost on the scale of the oratorio Il trionfo. It calls for three singers and orchestra, and is in two parts lasting an hour and a quarter. Yet again we have a work which, but for the fact that it wasn’t staged, is an opera in all but name. These large scale cantatas and oratorios gave the young Handel (remember, he was still only 22) the perfect training for writing opera. Whether cantata, oratorio or serenata, these works in the Italian style all had the recitative and da capo aria structure which was the backbone of opera. For a composer, it really didn’t matter if the work was staged or not; the musical forms were identical. And hearing the finesse and dramatic energy in the music for Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, it’s hard to believe that this was written only two and a half years after the composition of Almira in Hamburg. There’s an elegance, balance and logic about this music which is enchanting. [listen]

So in his first year in Italy, spent almost entirely in Rome, Handel made enormous progress both musically and socially. He clearly moved with ease among the high and mighty (a trait perhaps learned from his father) and had a strongly independent frame of mind coupled with an unshakable belief in his talents.

But now it was time for him to progress, in his eyes at least, from cantatas, oratorios and church music to the main game: opera. With no opportunity for opera in Rome, the call came from Florence, probably via the Medici connections, to write an opera for that city.


In late 1707 Handel composed his first opera for Italy, Rodrigo, and here he was presented with a very different text to those he’d been used to in Hamburg. Hamburg followed the Venetian tradition or mixing comic and serious situations in tangled, often completely silly intrigues. But in Florence, recent attempts to reform opera had taken hold, and the result was a far more formal, dignified musical drama. Comic situations were almost completely avoided, hence the generic term for this sort of opera: opera seria (serious opera).

Until recently, the music for Rodrigo was thought to have been mostly lost. Handel’s original draft score survives but there are major sections missing. And comparing this to the published libretto which accompanied the performances in Florence, it’s clear that he made many changes to the draft once he’d met the singers and sized up the situation in that city, but none of the Florence changes are known to have survived. The surviving parts of the draft score were published in the 19th century.

In the mid 20th century, though, great progress was made, and almost all the missing parts of the original draft version – generally regarded by scholars as being superior to the version which was actually performed in Florence – have been discovered in various libraries and archives. Only an aria and a duet are missing, and these have been reconstructed (based on other Handel works) to enable Rodrigo to be heard again. It received its first performance since 1707 in 1984.

Rodrigo is a huge advance on Almira. Indeed, given the quality of all the music Handel had written in Rome it would be surprising if it wasn’t. Lasting about two and a half hours, Rodrigo shows that the lessons in not only writing dramatic music, but in sustaining drama over longer periods, had been learnt.

This aria from the second act (taken from the ground-breaking 1999 recording conducted by the late Alan Curtis) shows Handel’s willingness to put drama before formality and keep his audience guessing. The tempo changes frequently, reflecting Esilena’s rage towards Florinda (her husband Rodrigo’s mistress) and her own grief at his betrayal. [listen]

Rodrigo contains many reworkings of earlier musical ideas, some going back to Almira, others from the more recent Roman music, but in every case Handel’s instincts are sharper, his development of themes more interesting and the results more satisfying. He always did this, re-using and re-developing his own musical ideas or those of others; it was a part of the way he worked. He wasn’t trying to dupe anyone, and it was well-known that he did this. In reference to his re-use of ideas from other composers, the historian Charles Burney said that Handel took pebbles and turned them into diamonds. But in the Italian works the ideas are almost entirely new at this stage, and with each work these diamonds keep getting shinier and shinier.

We have no idea how the Florentine audience received Rodrigo, but it did provide the one occasion for which there is any evidence at all of Handel having an affair. Mainwaring refers to the soprano Vittoria – presumably Vittoria Tarquini (a woman, not a castrato) – as having played a role in Rodrigo, but the available evidence indicates that while she sang in a number of operas in Florence that season, Handel’s Rodrigo was not one of them. Still, the gossip was that she and Handel were briefly lovers; such a rumour was still being touted three years later in Germany when he went to Hanover. No other specific mention of a romantic attachment in Handel’s life is known, although Mainwaring goes on to suggest Vittoria wasn’t the only one by saying, “his amours were rather short of duration, always within the pale of his own profession”.

Vittoria Traquini (1708 medallion)

At the end of 1707 Handel may have gone to Venice for the Carnival season but there’s no firm evidence to support this. The pair of operas written back in 1706 – Florindo and Daphne – were finally performed in Hamburg, and it’s possible he may have gone back to supervise these, but most scholars believe they were performed in his absence. The fact is, we don’t know for sure what his movements were at the end of 1707 after performing Rodrigo in Florence. He was certainly back in Rome at the start of 1708 and it’s from this point – with some of the greatest music of the Italian period ahead – that we’ll conclude our exploration of Handel before England in our next post. We’ll end here with the final ensemble of Rodrigo. Enjoy. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2016.

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