Handel: Apollo e Dafne

Listen to audio excerpts: 

Saturday, February 3, Emmanuel Church, Boston
Sunday, February 4, First Unitarian Church, Worcester


Overture to Rodrigo, HWV 5    George Frideric Handel  (1685-1759)
    Overture • Gigue • Sarabande • Matelot • Menuet  
    Boureé I and II • Menuet • Passacaille    

Trio Sonata in B Minor, HWV 386b    Handel
    Allegro, ma non troppo

Suite in G Major, from Water Music, HWV 350    Handel
        Rigadoun I and II       
        Menuet I and II
        Country Dance I and II


La terra è liberata (Apollo e Dafne), HWV 122    Handel

Jayne West, soprano
Aaron Engebreth, baritone
Suzanne Stumpf, traverso; Judy Bedford, bassoon
Geoffrey Burgess and Joyce Alper, oboes
Christina Day Martinson, and Susanna Ogata, violins
Marcia Cassidy, viola; Daniel Ryan, cello; Jane Hershey, violone; Michael Bahmann, harpsichord


Program Notes

In 1706 when the twenty-one year old Handel was in Hamburg performing at and writing his first operas for the Hamburg Opera, he was given the opportunity to travel to Italy under the auspices of Prince Ferdinand de Medici. A headstrong and fiercely independent youth, he decided to make the trip independently rather than traveling in the retinue of the Prince, and arrived in Florence in late 1706. This Italian sojourn, which took him to Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice, offered Handel exposure to the Italian style and compositional opportunities which were to catapult his development as a composer, particularly of vocal forms. Indeed, it is in the church music, cantatas, and operas of his Italian years that Handel’s bold and vigorous harmonic language and dramatic flair had its first flowering, with the production of compositions he would draw from in later works. This program presents two works from Handel’s Italian period, along with two instrumental works composed later in England.

During his stay in Italy, Handel was called upon to write cantatas for private performances at the palaces of his patrons. The scale of these cantatas range from intimate solo pieces with continuo to quasi-operatic works for multiple voices and large instrumental ensembles. Apollo e Dafne is among the latest of the cantatas composed in Italy, and arguably, the finest. It was begun in Venice around 1709 and completed in Hanover in 1710. The text is a retelling of the ancient myth in which Apollo, son of Zeus, falls in love with Daphne, the daughter of the river god Peneus. Daphne spurns Apollo’s amorous advances, ultimately leaving his love unrequited by appealing to Peneus for help. Peneus assists his daughter in evading her suitor by transforming her into a laurel tree.

This touching story is vividly portrayed in Handel’s cantata through colorful musical characterizations of the protagonists. The boldness and brashness of the archer-god is brought out in the jaunty writing in the first two arias, featuring wide leaps and passagework in the vocal line, with brilliant fanfare-like instrumental writing. By contrast, Daphne’s first aria is a mellifluous pastorale, with a solo wind line accompanied by pizzicato strings. The dramatic development of the story is masterfully expressed in the ensuing arias, in which solos for oboe, violin, bassoon, and cello are featured. In the final aria, which is arresting in its musical simplicity and directness, Apollo mourns Daphne’s transformation but pledges to wear her leaves instead as a laurel of victory.

Handel wrote his first Italian opera, Rodrigo, while in Florence. The work’s overture consists of the customary French style slow-fast-slow sequence appended with a suite of dances. This overture-suite made its way to London, where it was performed as incidental music to Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist in 1710. The work was subsequently pirated and published by John Walsh as the work of “an Italian master.”

While English audiences may have already been unwittingly introduced to Handel’s instrumental works through the Rodrigo overture, Handel’s reputation in England became firmly established by 1717 when he composed what has become one of his most popular instrumental pieces: the Water Music. This work, an amalgam of dance movements which have been organized into three suites, was commissioned by King George I for outdoor entertainment. The original event must have been a delight for the ears and eyes of its participants and witnesses. The musicians, who numbered around 50, performed in an open barge, while the King, nobles, and many others were assembled in accompanying barges. The G Major suite is the most intimate of Water Music’s three suites, not only by virtue of its instrumentation which features flutes and bassoon, but in the charm of its dance movements, particularly the country dance-like final movement.

Handel’s chamber and orchestral works, which generally followed Italian forms and conventions, were among his most popular works in England. They became widely disseminated principally through the publications of John Walsh, who became Handel’s regular publisher in the early 1730s. The Trio Sonata in B Minor opens his opus 2 and was published by Walsh around 1730. The work follows the four-movement slow-fast-slow-fast plan that was established by Corelli and imitated by his followers. While the first, second, and last movements employ extensive motivic imitation, Handel composed the third movement in the style of a vocal aria. Here, after first participating in the opening ensemble “tutti,” the flute is given a soaring melody over the rich, undulating accompaniment.

© Daniel Ryan and Suzanne Stumpf