Baroque Festival: Handel and Vivaldi Arias

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra 2024 Baroque Festival. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Before the symphony gained prestige in the second half of the 18th century, concertos and arias were the star genres of the Baroque era. Opera originated in the late 1500s as a Carnival entertainment mixing music, poetry, and theater. By 1650 it had become a brisk business, with public theaters operating in Venice and other Italian cities.

Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in D major, RV 562a

Antonio Vivaldi wrote the original version of this Concerto in D major in 1716 and titled it per la solennità di S. Lorenzo, a Benedictine monastery in Venice, where it presumably premiered. Vivaldi’s friend and student Johann Georg Pisendel may have added the horn parts for his Dresden ensemble, and the timpani are later additions as well. The version of this concerto catalogued as RV 562a was performed in Amsterdam with an alternate second movement.

Antonio Vivaldi: Arias

Though most famous today for his 500 or so concertos, Vivaldi also wrote something like 50 operas. Dorilla in Tempe is a “heroic-pastorale melodrama” on a Greek theme, premiered in Venice in November 1726. The fiery aria Rete, Iacci, e strali adopra (With nets, cords, and arrows) was actually written by another composer, Giacomelli Geminiano, for a different opera. Vivaldi borrowed it and changed the words for a later production of Dorilla, an accepted practice of the day.

Ottone in villa was Vivaldi’s first opera, premiered in Vincenza in May 1713. The title role is the real-life Roman emperor Otho, an unlucky guy who reigned for three months in 69 CE, the “Year of Four Emperors” that followed the death of Nero. The aria Leggi almeno, tiranna infedele (Read at last, faithless tyrant) is sung by Caio, a young man (originally played by a castrato) who is Ottone’s rival for the love of Cleonilla. He has just penned a letter to her confessing his feelings.

La fida ninfa was commissioned in 1732 for the opening of Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico. The plot involves a group of captives on the Island of Naxos, which is ruled by a pirate. Licori, a young woman, is the latest victim, but she doesn’t know her lost love is also a hostage there (in disguise and now helping the pirate, Stockholm-syndrome style). In “Alma oppressa da sorte” (A soul oppressed by cruel fate), she accepts being shackled by the ankle, but rues being shackled by her heart.

George Frideric Handel: Concertos

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany, and after a stint working as a violinist, keyboardist, and fledgling opera composer in Hamburg, he traveled to Italy in 1706 and spent most of his time in Rome and other Italian cities until 1710. Having soaked himself in the most elegant Italian styles, he moved back to Germany, but by 1712 found a new home in England, where he gained renown and became a British subject in 1727 by a special Act of Parliament.

Most of the Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 3, No. 2, probably dates from the 1710s, but it was assembled by the London publisher John Walsh in 1734 from bits of other pieces and released as an unauthorized edition. The Concerto for Organ in D minor, Op. 7, No. 4, was written for Handel himself to play between sections of oratorios, with further improvisations between the movements of the concerto. The first and third movements are wonderfully moody, while the second riffs on a cheerful tune by Telemann, and the finale is punchy and assured.

George Frideric Handel: Arias

Agrippina (1709) was written for Venice at the end of Handel’s Italian period, while Rinaldo (1711) was written a few years later for London, which had developed a taste for Italian opera—even if written by a German. Rinaldo is a medieval epic about a crusading knight. Molto voglio (I want a lot) is sung by Armida, the queen of Damascus and a sorceress who plots to conquer the world. Later, Rinaldo’s fiancé, Almirena, is held captive, and Lascia ch’io pianga (Let me weep) is her heartfelt lament.

Like Vivaldi’s OttoneAgrippina is set in the Roman Empire around Nero’s chaotic reign (probably a satirical allegory for then-current power struggles between the Habsburgs and Pope Clement XI). Agrippina is Nero’s conniving mother, who in “Ogni vento” (Every wind) envisions her son sailing smoothly into the imperial throne.

Theodora (1750) and Samson (1743) are both English oratorios—un-staged concert dramas, most often on religious or Greek mythological stories. Theodora is about a 4th-century Christian martyr sentenced to serve as a prostitute for pagans—“With darkness deep” she wishes to disappear or die instead. Samson tells the Old Testament story of Samson and Delilah—“Let the bright seraphim” is sung at the very end by an anonymous Israelite, accompanied by a blazing trumpet solo, saluting Samson who just gave his life to defeat the Philistines.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.