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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel's Roman Cantatas

During the 17th century - in parallel with the development of the new forms of opera and oratorio - a form of secular (and occasionally sacred) vocal composition developed which came to be called the cantata. Unlike opera and oratorio, the Italian cantata in the 17th century was usually intended for domestic performance and by the end of the century had spread to other countries - most notably France - as the most important form of small-scale vocal composition.

(The term cantata simply means something that is sung, and it was often used as the opposite of sonata, which nearly always implied an instrumental work without voices.)

In Rome in the first decade of the 18th century cantatas were all the rage in the homes of wealthy patrons of the arts. Cantatas had developed into self-contained dramatic scenes, almost mini operas. The form was simple, a short series of recitatives and arias usually on some aspect of love: unrequited love, disappointment in love, happiness in love, love from afar, anger at being rejected in love and the like. And cantatas were an excellent training ground for the composer wishing to hone their skills in dramatic composition.

From 1706, while in his early 20s, an ambitious young German called Georg Friedrich Händel spent nearly four years in Italy, a period which provided him with the perfect training in vocal composition and prepared him for his chosen career as an opera composer. He had major operatic triumphs in both Venice and Florence but most of his time was spent in Rome where at the time, ironically, opera was banned by Papal decree.

Panini: View of Rome from the North, from below Monte Mario (1749)

This had little effect on the determined and prodigiously talented young German, though. Handel (to give the later, Anglicised version of his name) rapidly fell in with the right crowd: wealthy, noble patrons who loved his work and were willing to pay for it. There being no opportunity for opera in Rome, Handel instead put his skills to writing church music (which included the famous Dixit Dominus) and, above all, cantatas. His major patron was the Marchese (later Prince) Francesco Maria Marescotti Ruspoli, one of the wealthiest men in the city, and for Ruspoli (as well as a number of prominent Cardinals) Handel was more than happy to provide some of his finest early works: literally dozens of cantatas in addition to sacred and secular oratorios.

Handel's cantatas are divided into two types: those with continuo accompaniment alone and those requiring larger instrumental forces. About eighty continuo cantatas by Handel are known today and the evidence suggests that about two-thirds of these were composed in Rome between 1707 and 1709. Nearly all of these are for a single soprano voice, and they would have been performed in Ruspoli's (or some other patron's) palace as part of private entertainments.

Francesco Maria Ruspoli

Virtually all the cantatas follow the simple pattern of a sequence of connected recitatives and arias, usually two or three, sometimes more. The continuo accompaniment is a single figured bassline which can be played on keyboard alone, but which would more normally have been played by a cello or viola da gamba, with Handel himself realising the bassline on the harpsichord. Other chord-playing instruments, such as a lute, guitar or organ, could be added if they were available.

One of the earliest known cantatas is Nella stagion. A bill for the copying of the parts - information available for quite a few of the Roman cantatas which help their chronology - is dated 16 May 1707, the earliest document in the Ruspoli archives to mention a work by Handel. This is the second of its pair of recits and arias. In the recit the singer narrates part of a misunderstanding between a pair of lovers; the aria is the boy's reply, intended to reassure his girlfriend that he still loves her. [listen]

Not a lot is known about the singers for whom Handel wrote the cantatas. It is known, though, that the Italian soprano Margherita Durastanti, a woman also greatly supported in her career by Ruspoli, regularly performed in the Marchese's palace at the same time Handel was there and undoubtedly many of Handel's cantatas were written for her. Durastanti and Handel had a professional association which lasted many years; she sang in the first performance of La Resurrezione in Rome in 1708 and created the title role in his opera Agrippina in Venice in 1709. She went on to sing for him (and other composers) in London in the 1720s and Handel composed a number of major opera roles for her there, including Sesto in Julius Caesar.

Handel's Roman cantatas cover a wide range of emotional states and provided the budding opera composer with the perfect environment to practise his skills in the Italian operatic style of the day.

It's evident in all these works that Handel was not churning out stuff with little thought to its dramatic or emotional content. He used every opportunity to not only set the texts - which were pretty predictable - as imaginatively as possible. The second aria in his 1708 cantata Ditemi, o piante is a perfectly poised aria of joy and adoration of the beloved. [listen]

While the vast majority of Handel's continuo cantatas are for soprano, a couple of dozen or so are for alto voice. Many were arranged by Handel from one voice type to another and often it's difficult at this remove to know which version was the original, or even to know if the arrangement is by Handel. There are three cantatas for bass voice, although only one of these seems to have been originally conceived for bass, the cantata Nell'Africane selve. We don't know the singer for whom Handel intended this incredible piece but it was almost certainly the same bass who sang Polyphemus in Handel's original Italian setting of the Acis and Galatea story, called Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, which was performed in Naples in 1708. The cantata starts with a colourful, and improbable, recitative and aria describing the African lion stalking his prey in the forest, and Handel responded to this with music which must have been designed to not only show off a great singer but also his own powers of descriptive composition. The vocal range required spans nearly three octaves, from the C sharp below the bass stave to the high A above. [listen]

The three cantatas from which I've taken extracts so far in this article are among the shortest of Handel's continuo cantatas. Some contain more arias and become extended dramatic scenes in their own right. They show Handel's already highly-developed sense of dramatic pacing and balance, even at this early stage of his career. Perhaps his masterpiece among the eighty or so continuo cantatas - and probably the most famous - is O numi eterni, also known as La Lucrezia after the central character. This is a highly dramatic piece in eight movements: four recits with four arias. The singer takes on the persona of the Roman noblewoman Lucretia after she has been raped by Tarquinius, a story told by Livy and based on history.

The text for La Lucrezia is by one of Handel's Roman patrons, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, and it was almost certainly given its first performance by Margherita Durastanti. That Handel could create such a powerful work for forces no greater than a single voice and continuo is simply remarkable. In the 20th century the cantata was orchestrated by Raymond Leppard, but Handel's original is still as powerful as ever. His portrayal of the woman's fury, heartbreak, desolation and suicide is shattering. In this aria we hear Lucretia's bitter cry for revenge against the man who has brought her dishonour. [listen]

Rembrandt: Lucretia (1664)

While most of Handel's cantatas require a single voice, some call for more than one. One cantata tells the light, comical story - typical of these sorts of pieces - of the shepherd and shepherdess Tirsis and Silvie, and Handel sets this as a pastoral dialogue for the two characters. As the two never sing simultaneously the piece could just as easily be sung by one singer taking both roles. The piece is also remarkable in that it is Handel's only cantata in French, something the composer took to heart in writing the music. Rather than just setting French words in the Italian style, there is ample evidence in this piece that Handel was well-informed regarding French styles as well and cut his musical cloth accordingly. The text seems to come from original French sources too, rather than being an Italian text translated into French just for the heck of it. Such distinctions of national style were very important to artists in the 18th century, and Handel was not about to be shown up as someone who didn't know his Italian style from his French. [listen]

Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili

In addition to the eighty or so continuo cantatas in Handel's catalogue there are a number of larger scale cantatas which require more instruments than just a continuo accompaniment. Some of these are on the same sort of scale in terms of length as the continuo cantatas; it's just that Handel's patrons sometimes made larger instrumental resources available . There are about 25 cantatas for one or two voices plus instruments, and a further seven larger-scale dramatic cantatas which closely approach the world of opera. Nearly all these works date from Handel's time in Rome.

Of the cantatas for one or two voices plus instruments, several stand out. Tra le fiamme dates from 1707 and uses one voice - a soprano - accompanied by oboes, recorders, viola da gamba, violins and continuo. Like La Lucrezia, it too has a text by Pamphili; on this occasion the text plays with the image of flight. A moth which flies too close to the flame risks being burnt, and Icarus and Daedalus suffered their fate by flying too close to the sun, just as someone who loves risks pain by loving someone who deceives.

Handel's musical palette here is delicious, as his is ability to create a world of flirtation and danger. There is a school of thought, most recently represented in the researches of the Handel scholar Ellen T. Harris, that the circles in which Handel moved in Rome at this time were, in selected company, openly homosexual. There is even evidence to suggest that Pamphili himself was attracted to Handel (he even wrote a cantata text in praise of the composer, which Handel set to music) so the image of flying close to a dangerous source of heat perhaps had some significance for the men who attended the first performance. [listen]

Another instrumentally-accompanied cantata from Handel's early months in Rome is Tu fedel? tu costante? This work is listed in the same copyist's bill in 1707 which mentioned Nella stagion, referred to earlier.

Written on a smaller scale than Tra le fiamme, this work requires only two violins in addition to the soprano and continuo, but again, the intense drama of the text gave Handel a wonderful opportunity to strut his operatic stuff. Perhaps he relished the idea of setting a text which broke the mould somewhat and depicted a woman emphatically rejecting her fickle lover. This is in stark contrast to the sentiments of female protagonists which normally inhabit these sorts of pieces.

This recording of Tu fedel? uses multiple violins per part rather than solo instruments, a perfectly viable option for these works which function well in either chamber or quasi-orchestral mode. After an instrumental sonata, the voice enters with her disdainful cry of "You, faithful? You, constant? That is so not true!" In the following aria the woman rebukes her lover in no uncertain terms, including a line which says, "Any woman would be a fool to believe in your constancy and faithfulness. Wicked, faithless man, faithless liar!" Ouch. [listen]

Some of Handel's cantatas are on a much larger scale even than these works. The so-called dramatic cantatas are really like small operas. Whereas the continuo cantatas and the instrumental cantatas usually have two, three or four pairs or recits and arias, the dramatic cantatas are much larger. Aminta e Fillide (Amyntas and Phyllis), for example, requires only two singers (the two characters mentioned in the title, both sung by sopranos) but had in its original version nine pairs of movements. It takes about three quarters of an hour in performance. The border between these large cantatas and Handel's even larger secular Italian oratorio, Il trionfo del tempo, written around the same time, is very blurred. Were they sung as concert works - either with the music or from memory - or were they acted out like an opera? The truth is these pieces can withstand all manner of treatment as they are eminently flexible. What is constantly in evidence is Handel's innate dramatic flair in setting Italian texts.

In addition to the two singers, Aminta e Fillide requires modest instrumental forces: three violin parts and continuo. But the range of emotional states is very wide indeed. After all manner or pleadings and rejections and begging and anguish, Amyntas finally wins Phyllis over. Their union at the end is made manifest aurally in the only duet the two singers have in the whole work. It's a gorgeously indulgent piece of writing which points the way to the wonderful duets Handel would write in the operas and oratorios over the next forty or more years. [listen]

Handel's Italian cantatas comprise perhaps the least-known part of his enormous output, but they are glorious examples of his writing which supplement our increasing understanding of his operas. And thankfully they are starting to be more regularly performed and recorded in recent years, meaning there is hope that they'll become better known.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2013.

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