At barely 18 years of age, George Frideric Handel moved from Halle to the more significant musical center of Hamburg where he flourished as a professional musician. Two years later, his opera Almira (1705) received its premiere and was a smash success. The young composer so impressed a Medici prince in attendance that he was subsequently invited to come to Italy, opera’s birthplace.
Handel wasted no time in gathering up his things and heading south on a modified Grand Tour, not only taking in the sites but also searching for patrons and steady work as a musician. He paid his first visit to the prince in Florence, but before long he found his way to the Eternal City, Rome. On January 14, 1707, the Roman diarist Francesco Valesio recorded the arrival of the 22-year-old German musician:
“There has arrived in this city a Saxon who is an excellent harpsichord player and composer of music who today exhibited his prowess by playing the organ at St. John Lateran to the astonishment of everybody.”
The Rome that Handel arrived in was one of stark social stratification between the haves and have-nots. The seat of secular power in the city rested with the nobility, a small enclave of influential families and wealthy citizens. Perhaps even more powerful were the papal orders–cardinals, bishops, and priests–which constituted another influential social strata. Compared with the comfort and privilege afforded the nobility and clergy, the majority of Rome’s 150,000 citizens in 1707 lived in destitution and squalor. Unsafe habitations were squeezed into tight alcoves, huddled along the outlines of the ruins of antiquity, or scattered between the city’s many magnificent churches and monasteries. Devastating fires and disease were a constant threat among the poorest communities.
Aided by his impressive, public display of musicianship at St. John’s, Handel quickly became the darling of Roman society upon arriving in town. A coterie of wealthy supporters fought for the composer’s favor and showered him with patronage and commissions. Secular music, especially opera, was explicitly forbidden by Papal decree, so Handel was enlisted by his admirers to invigorate the local musical culture by composing works for church services. Handel’s compositions not only breathed new life into Roman church services, but also inspired the best local musicians and many visiting players. As a favor to Cardinal Colonna, Handel composed music for the Vespers, or evening services, of the Carmelite Order at the Santa Maria di Monte Santo. His motet, Saeviat tellus inter rigores (“Though the earth is full of savagery and harshness”), celebrates the Order with bravura melodies in the Italian style for the soprano soloist – the Carmelite nuns must have had some extraordinary singers in 1707! Handel composed several other works for the Vespers, including settings for Salve Regina, Nisi Dominus, and Laudate Pueri. His magnificent tour-de-force choral work, Dixit Dominus, also dates from this same period, though probably was not a commission for the Carmelites’ Vespers.
Handel’s Roman works open ABS Festival on August 5
Handel’s extraordinary sacred music from his youthful Roman sojourn will open this summer’s ABS Festival & Academy, “An Italian Journey,” on August 5. For the opening night concert, Jeffrey Thomas leads the period-instrumentalist specialists of ABS, the American Bach Choir, and five vocal soloists in a program that includes Saviat tellus inter rigores, with soprano Mary Wilson as the vocal soloist (you can also hear ABS and Wilson perform his Laudate Pueri from the Roman period on the ABS CD “Mary Wilson Sings Handel“), Nisi Dominus, and Dixit Dominus. Do not miss this opportunity to experience the first flowering of Handel’s genius performed by the outstanding artists of ABS. Along with Handel’s music of for the Roman Vespers, the program will also include Antonio Vivaldi’s Salve Regina and the famous Gloria as examples of the Italian style from around the same time, but 326 miles away in Venice. Take “An Italian Journey” with ABS this summer, beginning August 5th!
Note: During his Roman sojourn, Handel also composed two oratorios–La Resurrezione and Il trionfo del tempo e del disanganno–that received elaborate performances at the private residences of his patrons. You can hear Jeffrey Thomas and ABS perform Handel’s La Resurrezione, a marvel of creative power and imagination, in May 2017. Mark your calendars now, purchase tickets, and continue your tour of Handel’s brilliant Roman period with ABS next season!