Opera / Oratorio night at the ABS Festival & Academy is always a musical highlight. This summer’s program on Friday July 18 will be no different as ABS and the Festival Orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas will present Handel’s 1740 pastoral ode, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.
The work is neither opera nor oratorio, but rather a meditation on the quixotic nature of humanity. It has no roles; each vocal soloist embodies a different element of the ode’s text and sings arias that more closely resemble poetic recitation. The work synthesizes John Milton’s poems L’Allegro (“the joyous one”) and Il Penseroso (“the pensive one”) into a single work along with a third voice, Il Moderato (“the moderate one”), contributed by Charles Jennens. A few years after creating L’Allegro together, Jennens and Handel would collaborate again on Messiah.
One of Handel’s most popular works during his lifetime
L’Allegro was an immensely popular work during Handel’s lifetime. Like Messiah, the composer did not labor long over its creation, composing and orchestrating L’Allegro between January 19th and February 9th, 1740. The work premiered a few weeks later on February 27 at London’s Royal Theatre, receiving a total of five performances that season. Handel’s concerti grossi were played between the different parts and the last part was introduced by his Organ Concerto in B flat. L’Allegro was a hit and revived in London in 1741 and 1743 and, along with his classic pastorale Acis and Galatea, featured heavily in Handel’s 1741-42 sojourn in Ireland. Following its premiere, L’Allegro proved to be a malleable work and its essence was not diminished or hindered by the integration of different instrumental works between the scenes or when given without the Il Moderato section.
While Milton’s poetry was held in high esteem throughout eighteenth-century in London, Handel’s reputation was undergoing a dramatic reappraisal in 1740. Having withdrawn from the field of Italian opera, Handel virtually created his career anew at this time as an oratorio composer. Musical London was not wholly behind Handel’s efforts at the beginning. One Handel advocate wrote an anonymous letter to the London Daily Post on April 4, 1741, defending the composer against a cabal that was brewing in the city. Among his entreaties to civility among the pro- and contra- partisans, the observer included a brief review of a performance of L’Allegro:
The Performance itself (the Musick as well as the Poetry) is noble and elevated, well devised, and of great Propriety. The Musician and the Poet walk Hand in Hand, and seem to vie which shall better express that beautiful Contrast of Mirth and Melancholy, which you have quite thro’ the “Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” and the happy Success which Mr. Handel has had in the Composition of this particular Piece, will appear, to any one, who listens with Attention to it, the strongest Argument for the Truth of what I have said, That Musick is really a Language understood by the Soul, tho’ only a pleasing Sound to the Ear.
L’Allegro continues to be one of Handel’s most beloved works centuries later. Of all his large-scale works, musicians and audiences alike are drawn to the work for its gentle mirth and wit, and its gorgeous melodies are among the composer’s best. Indeed, L’Allegro conveys its humanist message with both power and subtlety and yields a stirring effect. ABS’s single July 18 performance of Handel’s ode to humanity and its many moods will undoubtedly draw a tremendous crowd. Be sure to get your tickets for L’Allegro and other Festival attractions now, before it’s too late.