May 2007

Acis and Galatea

A masque in two acts
Music by G.F. Handel; arranged by W.A. Mozart (K 566)
Libretto by John Gay

Galatea, a sea-nymph:  Rebecca Bottone
Acis, a shepherd:             John McMunn
Damon, a shepherd:       Robert Murray
Polyphemus, a giant:     Vojtech Safarik

Cantandum Joanna Benson, Gilly French, Lydia McLean, Helen Prentice, Fiona Sharp, Jessica Streeting, Gabrielle Ward-Smith soprano; Lesley Batty, Lucy Chambers, Barbara Davies, Carolyn Pascall, Catharine Robertson alto; Jeremy Kemball, Teehan Page, William Petter, Kevin Walsh tenor; Chris Hodges, Tom Kennedy, Aidan Sproat bass.

The London Mozart Players

Semi-staging: John Arthur
Conductor: Richard Dickins

a concert with Bampton Classical Opera

Handel composed two entirely different short dramatic works on this mythical tale of love, death, and metamorphosis (after Ovid). In 1708, during his short but productive stay in Italy, he composed a ‘serenata’ entitled Aci, Galatea, e Polifemo. The present work followed in about 1720, and is a ‘Masque’, composed for the delectation of the Duke of Chandos, for whom Handel worked at Cannons; it was originally given by very small forces, possibly no more than seven instruments, and with soloists singing the choruses.

The story is simple. The action takes place in the Mediterranean, presumably on the island where Odysseus later got the better of the monster Polyphemus, son of the sea-god Neptune and a Cyclops, a race whose distinguishing features were gigantic stature and having only one eye. Acis, an Arcadian shepherd, and Galatea, a nymph and consequently immortal, are in love; but she has also attracted the unwelcome attention of Polyphemus. Rejected despite the charm of his wooing (he has one of the best-loved tunes, ‘O ruddier than the cherry’), the enraged monster flings a rock at Acis and kills him. The grief-stricken Galatea is partly consoled when, at the suggestion of the chorus, she uses her magical powers to turn her dead lover into a stream: ‘be thou immortal, though thou art not mine’.

The words are by John Gay (1685–1732), whose poetry veers between the pastoral and satirical, and who later devised The Beggar’s Opera, one of whose targets was Handelian opera. Lines such as ‘Love in her eyes sits playing, And sheds delicious death’, or ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ are memorable in themselves, and neatly distinguish the tender, humble love of Acis from the clumsy possessiveness of Polyphemus. ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains, the woods the turtle doves’ is less happy (the turtle doves will stay in the woods, not the other way about). Nevertheless this courageous lovers’ duet forms a magnificent climax when Polyphemus turns it into a trio, singing a completely different kind of music, and finally flinging his rock (‘massy ruin’). It is verse admirably suited to musical setting, and Gay’s poetry stimulated Handel to discover, from the very first, his own gracious and imaginative response to the English language.

During his early years in England, Handel was mainly concerned with Italian opera. Other than a number of sacred and courtly works, he had so far set little in English. This grants Acis exceptional historical importance, as the first of a series that included, besides sacred oratorios, other masterpieces on mythological topics, notably Semele and Hercules. There is considerable stylistic overlap between these works and opera, in that solo singers are given ample opportunity to display their prowess in arias. Another operatic feature is the role of Damon, who has no dramatic function other than to offer impartial advice to both lovers of Galatea. However, for commercial reasons operas seldom used choruses; and even ensembles of soloists were relatively unusual. In his concert works Handel could employ a chorus, and although more than half the numbers in Acis are arias, textural variety is ensured by these, and by a duet and a trio. For a later performance he devised a choral version of the duet (‘Happy we’), to provide a satisfying finish to Part I; and he combines solo and chorus in dialogue after the death of Acis. The central chorus (‘Wretched lovers’), vividly evokes the approaching monster; the forerunner of many splendidly moral oratorio choruses, yielding musically to none.

For the larger London public in 1732, Handel, never averse to recycling his own material (and others’), made a new ‘pastoral entertainment’ by blending his Italian and English works on this subject. But the English Acis survived this maltreatment. It was quickly pirated, and Handel responded, exploiting its popularity by presenting new ‘authentic’ versions, though seldom the same one twice. Acis was published more than once in Handel’s lifetime, and the most complete published version became canonical: it formed the basis for nearly all known performances after Handel’s own time, and there have been many, for Acis was always one of his most popular works – indeed, his most popular secular drama. In the nineteenth century it even generated a number of comical parodies.

Twentieth-century versions are equally dependent on the canonical version, although some have attempted to restore Handel’s original choral disposition (soprano, three tenors, and bass). It was evidently the canonical version that was pressed into Mozart’s hands by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, and Mozart’s catalogue tells us that he completed his arrangement in November 1788, adding a suitably pastoral Larghetto (‘Musette’) from Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.6 and a short Largo from Op.6 No.7, as a suitable preparation for ‘Wretched Lovers’ (curiously translated as ‘Arme Hirten’: ‘Unfortunate Shepherds’). Van Swieten, Imperial librarian and censor, had introduced him to the music of the Bach family, and reintroduced that of Handel, soon after Mozart settled in Vienna in 1781. Nearly all music performed in public at this time was new, or at least modern. Mozart joined other musicians in assisting Swieten’s project of reviving older music by making modern arrangements, at first for string quartet, to be admired in Sunday afternoon gatherings in the baron’s house. Mozart’s personal style was powerfully affected by this immersion in the Baroque. He probably took an interest in Swieten’s major project, a series of oratorio performances, some of them before a paying public. These were directed by Joseph Starzer, who, before Mozart, undertook to modernize Handel’s orchestration; his version of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was once wrongly attributed to Mozart. In 1787 Starzer died and Swieten naturally turned to Mozart to take over the musical direction (one hopes for a fee, but how much is unknown). The main offering in 1787 was an oratorio by C.P.E. Bach, and in 1789 Handel’s Messiah. In between came Mozart’s first arrangement, Acis; for 1790 he arranged two St Cecilia odes.

The idea behind such arrangements was to accommodate Handel’s sound-world with modern expectations of dramatic music, and so improve the taste of the contemporary Viennese public. Handel’s musical textures look thin on paper because he expected them to be expertly filled out by the continuo – a keyboard player realising the figured bass, not only in recitatives, but throughout. He composed fuller orchestral textures in support of the chorus, or for special effect, whereas in Mozart’s time they were routine, and the continuo was being abandoned; thus Handel’s textures would have sounded hopelessly archaic. Hence Mozart considerably expanded the viola, second violin, and bassoon parts to fill out the texture. More radically, he supplied classical-style natural horn parts in several movements, sustained or punctuating the music rhythmically (when Handel uses horns, they are soloists: there are none in his Acis). And still more anachronistically, he added parts for his beloved clarinets.

Mozart probably wrote the clarinet parts for his friends the Stadler brothers. It was for Anton Stadler that, the following year, he composed the clarinet quintet, and about that time he embarked on the concerto, completed only in 1791 and thus among his last works. In Acis and Galatea Mozart sometimes doubles clarinets with the oboes that Handel did use; sometimes (as at the opening of the overture) he allows them to usurp the solo work for oboes, fundamentally changing the colour of the music. But he does not substitute mechanically; it is noticeable that he omitted clarinets in both the arias for the monster Polyphemus. Indeed, not even oboes are added to ‘O ruddier than the cherry’, almost unaltered by Mozart except that a modern (transverse) flute was more likely to have played the solo than Handel’s recorder or flageolet, which sounds an octave higher, like a piccolo.

Clarinets, then, are instruments of love, an application found in Mozart’s later operas; they appear, for instance, with the Countess in Figaro (‘Porgi amor’), and in his next opera are more associated with Donna Elvira, the woman who vainly loves Don Giovanni, than with the vengeful Donna Anna, who does not. In Acis Mozart is at his most imaginative, and skilful, in the solo for Galatea after the death of her lover: ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan?’ Handel composed the introduction as an oboe solo with cello and keyboard continuo. Mozart transformed this into a quartet for two clarinets and two bassoons, realising the harmony and counterpoint implied by Handel’s bass; the second clarinet and first bassoon are accordingly Mozart’s own, and very beautiful, composition. The effect is (for 1788) entirely modern, but no less moving, and Mozart preserves the dramatic contrast when the chorus enters with ‘Cease, Galatea, cease to grieve’, where all the strings join in.

In this era of ‘historically informed performance’ it may seem shocking, but the Viennese would never have swallowed Handel without some sweetening, and the baron’s activities are vindicated by their climax, the two late oratorios Swieten devised for Haydn (The Creation and The Seasons). Meanwhile we perform this version because it is Mozart, not Starzer, and because Mozart did his work with skill, charm, respect, and love.

Julian Rushton
Julian Rushton is Emeritus Professor of Music, University of Leeds and the Chairman of Musica Britannica.