Acis and Galatea: Handel the comedian

Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. Third stop: Canons Park.

There are dozens of unique sights you can marvel at when visiting London. Canons Park is not one of them. On the contrary, it’s reassuring in its ordinariness. It’s the perfect spot when you want a vacation from vacationing.

The main place of interest is the extensive park that gave its name to this suburb. These are the former grounds of Cannons house, the humble dwellings of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, and one of the first English patrons of Handel.

James Brydges, patron of G.F. Handel

Handel supposedly lived under the Duke’s roof from 1717 until 1719. Here, he wrote my favorite among his theatre works: Acis and Galatea. It was probably first performed in what is now Canons Park. The setting would have looked like a typical 18th century pleasure world of rocks, fountains and grottos.

Pastoral scene

Like this, but slightly less French.

I had to imagine all that when I listened to the whole piece – sitting on a 21st century park bench. Within minutes, the plodding joggers and poorly rested young mothers turned into joyful shepherds and seductive nymphs. Such is the power of music.

The story

Strictly speaking, Acis and Galatea is not an opera but a pastoral masque. What’s the difference? For one thing, a masque probably wasn’t fully acted out. It’s also a lot shorter, because it was usually performed as a light intermezzo in between acts of real operatic works.

Pastoral stories were very popular during the 17th and 18th centuries. They looked exactly like you imagine them: horny shepherds and shepherdesses chasing each other through a decor of idealized nature.

On a (slightly) deeper level, the pastoral deals with true love. Specifically the idea that it cannot depend on duty – like a marriage – but only truly exists in a world that is unconnected to the rules of society.

Paqtoral love scene

Hót.

The story of Acis and Galatea, which is based on Ovid, perfectly fits that description. I’m barely simplifying when I summarize the action as:

  • The nymph Galatea is looking for the shepherd Acis.
  • The shepherd Acis is looking for the nymph Galatea.
  • Acis and Galatea find each other and sing merrily.
  • The cyclops Polyphemus declares his love for Galatea.
  • Polyphemus gets angry when Galatea doesn’t love him back.
  • Polyphemus kills Acis.
  • Galatea is very sad and uses her divine powers to give Acis eternal life – in the form of a fountain.

The music

The story of Acis and Galatea was probably suggested to Handel by John Gay and Alexander Pope. They were members of the Scribblers Club: a circle of gentlemen who believed in the power of the classical pastoral.

Incidentally, it’s his connection to ‘arcadian’ gentlemen’s clubs like these that’s partly responsible for the rumor that Handel was gay.

In any case, we owe these gentlemen our gratitude. Because Acis and Galatea holds a unique position in Handel’s oeuvre.

You see, during this period, Handel was mainly bent on making it as a composer of Italian operas. And the typical Italian opera of those days was as boring as watching paint dry. It consisted of an endless parade of characters who sang their highly standardized arias – barely interacting with each other.

Were Handel’s Italian operas any different? Not really. Although they contain a lot of lovely music, I dare anyone to sit through one of them without checking her clock at least once.

The beginning of Acis and Galatea is a lot like Italian opera: lovely but entirely conventional. Luckily, before boredom sets in, Polyphemus breaks into the arcadian order. And he also tears the musical canvas:

After this wonderful dramatic entry, we soon realize that Polyphemus is not a horrific monster at all. He’s an amiable simpleton. A bit crude, maybe, but more fun to be around than the pretentious couple that dominated the first act.

He immediately launches into a kind of English country song – the first aria that breaks with the typical ABA form:

Acis and Galatea now becomes a work where two (musical) worlds collide: the high-brow pastoral of the title characters and the low-brow parody of Polyphemus. This culminates in a trio that I think is one of the most powerful moments in the history of musical drama:

While Acis and Galatea croon a beautiful, but also artificial ode to the purity of their love … Polyphemus’ ‘counterpoint’ is as clumsy as it is real. His words aren’t poetry but cries from the heart: “Fury … Rage … I cannot bear.” His music isn’t melody but a loose succession of the simplest of intervals: octaves, seconds.

And yet, when it comes together, the sum is much larger than its parts. It’s the work of a dramatic genius.

Acis and Galatea and Mozart

A dramatic genius, it seems, who was not always very aware of his greatest strengths. According to some sources, Handel wasn’t so keen on the idea of making a buffoon of Polyphemus. And in later revisions, he lessened the comic character a bit.

Seventy years after the premiere of Acis and Galatea, Acis und Galatea was performed in Vienna. It was a re-orchestration of Handel’s masque by Mozart – whose own comic pieces take up three spots in the list of the ten most popular operas today. Their stars have names like Papageno, Figaro and Leporello. They should all doff their hats at their modest predecessor: the amiable monster Polyphemus.

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