Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Baroque Era > L'Allegro (Handel)
George Frideric Handel
"L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," the first two movements of which contain a musical setting of Milton's well-known poem, was written in the seventeen days from January 19 to February 6, 1740, and was first performed on the twenty-seventh of the latter month at the Royal Theatre, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London. The text of the first two parts is by Milton, Allegro, as is well known, chanting the praises of pleasure, Penseroso those of melancholy; Allegro represented by tenor and Penseroso by soprano, and each supported by a chorus which joins in the discussion of the two moods.
The work opens without overture, its place having originally been supplied by an orchestral concerto. In vigorous and very dramatic recitative Allegro bids "Loathed Melancholy" hence, followed by Penseroso, who in a few bars of recitative far less vigorously consigns "vain, deluding joys" to "some idle brain"; Allegro replies with the first aria ("Come, come, thou Goddess fair"), a beautifully free and flowing melody, responded to by Penseroso, who in an aria of stately rhythm appeals to his goddess ("Divinest Melancholy"). Now Allegro summons his retinue of mirth ("Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee"), and the chorus takes up the jovial in the same temper. The aria itself is well known as the laughing-song. Indeed, both aria and chorus are full of unrestrained mirth, and go laughingly along in genuine musical giggles. The effect is still further enhanced by the next aria for Allegro ("Come and trip it as you go"), a graceful minuet, which is also taken by the chorus. After a recitative by Penseroso ("Come, pensive Nun"), and the aria ("Come, but keep thy wonted State"), the first penseroso chorus occurs ("Join with thee calm Peace and Quiet"), a short but beautiful passage of tranquil harmony. Once more in a recitative Allegro bids "Loathed Melancholy" hence, and then in the aria ("Mirth, admit me of thy Crew") leading into chorus, sings of the lark, "startling dull Night" and bidding good-morrow at his window -- a brilliant number accompanied with an imitation of the lark's song. Penseroso replies with an equally brilliant song ("Sweet Bird that shun'st the noise of Folly"), in which the nightingale plays the part of accompaniment. Another aria by Allegro ("Oft listening how the Hounds and Horn") gives an opportunity for a blithe and jocund hunting-song for the bass, followed by one of the most beautiful numbers in the work ("Oft on a plat of rising ground"), sung by Penseroso, in which the ringing of the far-off curfew, "swinging slow, with sullen roar," is introduced with telling effect. This is followed by a quiet, meditative aria ("Far from all resorts of Mirth"), when once again Allegro takes up the strain in two arias ("Let me wander not unseen") and ("Straight mine Eye hath caught new Pleasures"). The first part closes with the Allegro aria and chorus ("Or let the merry Bells ring round!"), full of the very spirit of joy and youth ; and ending with an exquisite harmonic effect as the gay crowd creep to bed, "by whispering winds soon lulled to sleep."
The second part begins with a stately recitative and aria by Penseroso ("Sometimes let gorgeous Tragedy"), followed by one of the most characteristic arias in the work ("But oh, sad Virgin, that thy Power might raise!") in which the passage ("Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing") is accompanied by long, persistent trills that admirably suit the words. The next number "(Populous Cities please me then") is a very descriptive solo for Allegro, with chorus which begins in canon form for the voices and then turns to a lively movement as it pictures the knights celebrating their triumphs and the "store of ladies" awarding prizes to their gallants. Again Allegro in a graceful aria sings ("There let Hymen oft appear"). It is followed by a charming canzonet ("Hide me from Day's garish Eye") for Penseroso, which leads to an aria for Allegro ("I'll to the well-trod Stage anon"), opening in genuinely theatrical style, and then changing to a delightfully melodious warble at the words ("Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's Child"). This is followed by three characteristic arias ("And ever, against eating Cares"), ("Orpheus himself may heave his Head"),and ("These Delights, if thou canst give") -- the last with chorus.