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Les Arts Florissants

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants

It seems only appropriate for a work built around oppositions, contrasts and contraries that it’s easier to define L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato by what it is not, rather than what it is.

The piece isn’t strictly an oratorio or an ode, neither is it a masque, a cantata, nor its more expansive cousin a serenata. The product of multiple creators, professional and amateur, including Milton and Handel as well as Messiah librettist Charles Jennens and politician-philosopher James Harris, it’s a work in which form and content are uniquely entwined, a piece so endlessly adapted and reworked that no definitive score can exist. Perhaps this explains the work’s comparative neglect: it’s harder to love what we cannot grasp or name. It’s certainly no fault of a score that finds Handel at his most bewitchingly inventive.

It is best, then, to take L’Allegro on its own terms: an ‘entertainment’, as Jennens simply described it, that pairs Milton’s lyrical, pastoral verse with some of Handel’s most ravishing music, an endlessly attractive and varied sequence of words and music – a string of pearls linked less by narrative or drama than by theme and tone. To understand the piece is to see it in context: the product of the changing milieu and mood of London’s concert and opera-going public in the first half of the 18th century.

Composed in 1740, L’Allegro’s story really begins in 1732 and the London premieres of two very different works. Both Acis and Galatea and Esther had their origins in Handel’s time at Cannons over a decade earlier – works produced for private performances for the composer’s patron, the Duke of Chandos. Since those early days in England, Handel had established himself during the 1720s as London’s leading opera composer and impresario with hits including Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare and Alcina

But competition and a market rapidly becoming saturated, rendered unstable not only by audience weariness but scheming cabals and singers’ volatile egos, led Handel – the eternal entrepreneur – to explore new musical territory. An unauthorised performance of Esther by a rival in April 1732 seems to have spurred the composer to reclaim ownership with his own series of performances of a new and expanded version of the score at the King’s Theatre in May. Success was immediate. Audiences who had tired of Italian exoticism were delighted to hear Handel setting English words, and the sacred oratorio in English was born. It was a similar story with the masque Acis, expanded by the composer in 1732 into a full-length serenata. 

The two works represent a sea-change in Handel’s focus, a shift away from Italian opera towards the English works – predominately sacred oratorios – that would dominate the latter part of the composer’s career. The secular text of L’Allegro (which, despite its Italian title, is in English) sets it apart, and while both this and the libretto’s gentle subject-matter – a debate between a cheerful man and a serious one, each represented not by a character but a series of self-contained vignettes and episodes – might suggest a lightweight, disposable sort of ‘entertainment’, the result is rather an exercise in lightly worn philosophy and musical sophistication. 

The challenge of an extended work with neither narrative nor characters is immense, as 19th-century Handel biographer Victor Schoelcher makes clear. ‘It required,’ he writes, ‘all the boldness of genius to attempt a subject so eminently undramatic. Never had music to depend upon herself so entirely’. This last comment rather grandly dismisses both Milton’s two short pastoral poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, the original source of the piece, and their elegant interweaving by Charles Jennens, who also supplied a third voice – Il Moderato – a position of moderation and middle-ground that fulfilled the composer’s desire for a final resolution that would unite both contraries in ‘one Moral Design’. 

While the synopsis may indeed be ‘eminently undramatic’, the contrasts that animate Milton’s verse and the vividness of their supporting imagery, context and language seems to have fired Handel to unusual creativity. This is no black and white opposition: just as L’Allegro can be gentle, melancholy and contemplative as well as exuberant, so Il Penseroso can be rapturously, ecstatically passionate.

The argument unfolds on several levels; not only is L’Allegro’s progression from dawn to dusk set against Il Penseroso’s dusk to dawn, with the lively lark answered by the melancholy beauty of the nightingale, but scenes from town are juxtaposed with country idylls, scenes of courtly aristocracy with peasant lives, while the individual meditations of the arias are framed by collective society in the work’s many choruses. No sooner do we settle into one mood, mode or setting than we are plunged headlong into another. 

Filling the gap where characters would normally be with musical colour, Handel uses a large and varied orchestra to support his vocal soloists. There are obbligato cameos for flute, horn, organ, cello, bassoon and trumpet, as well as a carillon that brings the words of chorus ‘Or let the merry bells’ to jangling life. Hunts, jousts, masques and dances give an abstract debate a richly human face that laughs (‘Haste thee nymph’) and yearns (‘Hide me from day’s garish eye’), broods (‘Sometimes let gorgeous tragedy’) and finally (in the exquisite duet ‘As steals the morn’) finds peaceful resolution.

The effect of so many vivid, short episodes, each crowding swiftly in on the one before, is cinematic. Unfettered by restrictions of staging and conventional drama, Handel creates a freewheeling musical fantasy – a musical kaleidoscope of sound, image and sensation.

© Alexandra Coghlan

Programme and performers

George Frideric Handel L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato (uncut)

Part one
Concerto Grosso Op 6, No 10 in D Minor – Ouverture
1. L’Allegro Tenor recitative accompany,d
‘Hence! loathed Melancholy’
2. Il Penseroso Soprano recitative accompany,d
‘Hence! vain deluding joys’
3. L’Allegro Treble air
‘Come, thou goddess, fair and free’
4. Il Penseroso Soprano air
‘Come rather, goddess, sage and holy’
5. L’Allegro Tenor air & chorus
‘Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee’
6. L’Allegro Tenor air & chorus
‘Come and trip it as you go’
7. Il Penseroso Soprano recitative accompany,d
‘Come, pensive nun, devout and pure’
8. Il Penseroso Soprano air & chorus
‘Come, but keep thy wonted state’
9. L’Allegro Tenor & Treble recitative
‘Hence loathed Melancholy’
10. L’Allegro Treble air
‘Mirth, admit me of thy crew’
11. Il Penseroso Soprano recitative accompany,d
‘First, and chief, on golden wing’
12. Il Penseroso Soprano air
‘Sweet bird, that shuns’t the noise of folly’
13. L’Allegro Bass recitative
‘Mirth, admit me of thy crew’
14. Il Penseroso Soprano air
‘Oft on a plat of rising ground’
15. L’Allegro Tenor recitative
‘If I give thee honour due’
16. L’Allegro Tenor air
‘Let me wander, not unseen’
19a. L’Allegro Treble air & chorus
‘Or let the merry bells ring round’

Part two
20a. Il Penseroso Soprano recitative accompany,d
‘Hence vain deluding joys’
30. Il 22. 22. Il Penseroso Soprano air
‘But O! sad virgin, that thy power’
Il Penseroso Soprano recitative
‘Thus, Night, oft see me in thy pale career’
23. L’Allegro chorus (with Bass)
‘Populous cities please me then’
24. L’Allegro Tenor air
‘There let Hymen oft appear’
25. Il Penseroso Soprano recitative accompany,d
‘Me, when the sun begins to fling’
26. Il Penseroso Soprano air
‘Hide me from day’s garish eye’
27. L’Allegro Tenor air
‘I’ll to the well-trod stage anon’
28. L’Allegro Treble air
‘And ever against eating cares’
30. L’Allegro Tenor air & chorus
‘These delights if thou canst give’
31. Il Penseroso chorus (with Soprano)
‘There let the pealing organ blow’
33. Il Penseroso chorus (with Soprano)
‘These pleasures, Melancholy, give’

Part three
34. Il Moderato Bass recitative accompany,d
‘Hence! boast not, ye profane’
35. Il Moderato Bass air
Come, with native lustre shine
36. Il Moderato Bass recitative accompany,d
& chorus
‘Sweet temp’rance in thy right hand bear’
37. Il Moderato Soprano air
‘Come, with gentle hand restrain’
Il Moderato Tenor recitate
‘No more short life they then will spend’
38. Il Moderato Tenor air
‘Each action will derive new grace’
39. L’Allegro & Il Penseroso Soprano & Tenor duet
‘As steals the morn upon the night’
40. Il Moderato chorus
‘Thy pleasure, Moderation, give’


Les Arts Florissants

William Christie director

Rachel Redmond soprano

Leo Jemison boy soprano

James Way tenor

Sreten Manojlovic bass baritone


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