Program Notes: Delirio Amoroso – Handel’s Italian Years

Georg Friedrich Händelby Alexander Weimann

Just over three centuries ago, Handel, in his early 20’s, was directing the springtime Florence performances of his opera Rodrigo. This opera was commissioned by the Tuscan prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, who met Handel in Hamburg in the winter of 1705-06 and invited him to his home country, Italy.

During his Italian tour from 1706 to1710, Handel, made his biggest impact in Rome, where he was courted by the most powerful musical patrons. Soon after arriving, he was appointed composer-in-residence for Francesco Maria Ruspoli, one of the wealthiest men in Rome. Handel wrote numerous cantatas for him, many involving the young soprano star Margherita Durastante. Ruspoli himself however, was in a patronage competition with all the other wealthy music lovers among the cardinals, in particular Ottoboni and Pamphili. In 1707, Pamphili commissioned Handel to write the music for one of his own cantata texts, Delirio amoroso. The opening sonata for the Seattle Baroque Orchestra concert.

Before he traveled to Italy, Handel spent more than two years in Hamburg, first playing violin in the opera orchestra and then composing four operas for the civic theatre. For a young composer so engaged with opera, Rome was a challenge and the perfect place to nurture his writing skills: Even though opera was mostly banished in Rome by a papal decree for a decade, and reinstated only in 1710 after Handel’s departure from Italy, audiences were starving for substitutes: oratorios on sacred subjects, on the quasi-dramatic serenatas, and on cantatas based on secular (commonly romantic or erotic) subjects. Handel must have sensed the collective craving, because subsequently, he created almost one hundred cantatas, some large-scale in scope, plus serenatas, duets, and oratorios.

All these Roman pieces contributed to his mastery of the opera style and his later success as a composer of opera, and finally oratorio, in England. In Handel’s early pieces we find, in a nutshell, everything that carried him on for the rest of his life.

In Rome, Handel came into close contact with two of the most prolific musicians of the time, the violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli, and the opera, oratorio, and cantata composer Alessandro Scarlatti. Both these musicians had an effect on Handel’s own music, Corelli through his instrumental music, and Scarlatti through his vocal pieces. Corelli brought the concerto grosso to a peak at the beginning of the 18th century, as can be heard in his op. 6-7. He drew upon the work of earlier composers of instrumental forms, in particular Alessandro Stradella, whose Sonata de viole (instruments of the violin-viola-family) is also presented on tonight’s program. Stradella was the first composer to establish the concerto grosso form with its competition between the concertino, a soloist or group of soloists, and the ripieno, a larger group of string players. By 1706, Corelli’s fully developed concerti grossi had become preeminent not just in Rome and Italy but also north of the Alps.

During their overlapping months in Rome, from 1706 to 1708, Handel and Scarlatti must have heard each other’s music on numerous occasions. Scarlatti’s oratorio, Cain, il primo omicidio, was performed during Lent in Venice, 1707, not long after two of his operas had also been performed there. The sinfonia for Cain is typical of the Italian form at the time, a slower section between two fast sections and a display of solo violin figuration in the opening section. Similarly Handel used the three-part form and elaborate solo violin music in his sinfonia for his first Roman oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (June, 1707), which he used a year later for La Resurrezione. However, for his two Italian operas, Rodrigo and Agrippina (1709), both represented on tonight’s program, Handel relied on the French style of overture with a slow, dotted-rhythm first section followed by a faster, imitative one. The overture for Rodrigo is followed by several dances from that opera concluding with an extended pasacaille with an Italianate concertato contrast between a solo violin and the orchestra.

Although Handel wrote little independent instrumental music during his Italian sojourn, he performed frequently on the harpsichord and organ. Often these were impromptu performances at social gatherings and the accounts of them leave no doubt that his brilliance as a keyboard performer was received with astonishment and great acclaim. With his opera, Agrippina, the final work he composed and had performed in Italy, Handel capitalized on his reputation as a virtuoso performer. After the first performance he inserted a new aria with virtuoso parts for both a soprano and himself on the harpsichord. But he stole the show with an improvised cadenza — without the soprano. Many years later in England, Handel established his practice of playing keyboard solos between the acts of his oratorio performances. This practice was a formalized recreation of his Italian impromptu performances. It is the impetus for presenting his solo chaconne in an interlude role for this concert.

Seattle Baroque Orchestra performs Delirio Amoroso – Handel’s Italian Years April 26, 2014 at Town Hall Seattle. Click here to learn more.

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