Mercoledi Musicale

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Georg Frederick Handel in 1685 in Halle, Germany.  He was to move to England at the age of 25 and spent most of his life there composing some of the greatest music of his, or any other, time.

Jerome Hines – Hercules
Archivio storico – La Scala

When I was growing up performances of Handel were pretty limited – a few of the oratorios, of course Messiah, and some of the organ pieces and that was pretty much it.  There were revivals of some of the operas in Europe, normally in bastardized versions with basses singing castrato roles, da capos and whole arias cut, and with large orchestras.  In 1958 one such memorable (?) La Scala production of Hercules was given with  Jerome Hines, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Franco Corelli and Fedora Barbieri.  None of those singers, as marvellous as they were,  could be considered a Handel singer by a stretch of anyone’s imagination – though at over 6 feet tall Jerome Hines (left) was an impressive looking Hercules.

Fortunately at the same time there was an emerging Handel Renaissance in English music circles led by people such as Charles Farncombe with his Handel Opera Society, and Sir Anthony Lewis.  Edward Dent and Winton Dean became strong advocates for the operas and Dean’s critical studies* of the operas and oratorios became seminal works in the resurgence of interest and performances of Handel’s works.

And at the same time a generation of singers was appearing in the United Kingdom who were displaying both the ability and the techniques to sing Handel in a manner closer to the style of his time.  Janet Baker, Elizabeth Harwood, Heather Harper, Anthony Rolf Johnson, Richard Lewis, James Bowman, Valerie Masterson et al sang in operas and oratorios with the Handel Society, Sadler’s Wells which became the now endangered English National Opera**, and Covent Garden.

Sutherland-SamsonIt was at the later theatre  that on November 15, 1958 as the first night of Handel’s oratorio Samson with Jon Vickers as the hero drew to a close that a young soprano stepped out of the crowd of Israelites to triumphantly celebrate the victory of the blind hero over the Philistines.

Let the bright seraphim
in burning row,
Their loud, uplifted angel trumpets blow.

Let the cherubic host,
in tuneful choirs,
Touch their immortal harps
with golden wires.

Let the bright seraphim
in burning row,
Their loud, uplifted angel trumpets blow.

She was never to step back into the crowd again.


Several months later Joan Sutherland was to star in a revival of Lucia di Lammamoor which set her on the road to operatic stardom.  She became La Stupenda and for the next thirty years was to dominate world operatic stages.  In all those years, to my ears at least, I don’t believe she ever produced anything as thrilling as this joyous cry to the angels, summoning them to honour the fallen Samson.

On this day in 1711: The London première of Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel, the first Italian opera written for the London stage.

*I thought I’d check the the availability of Dean’s books and discovered that I can get a used copy of his Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques for only $404.00 or new for $754.00.  Seminal works indeed.

**My good friend David over at I’ll Think of Something Later has forwarded a petition to me addressed to the Board of Directors of the ENO.  They are proposing to make massive cuts to their permanent staff that will cripple and possibly destroy the company.  He has asked me to sign it – which given the many wonderful performances I’ve attended there in the past I was more than willing to do.  Should you so desire might I ask you to do the same – the arts are more important to the life’s blood of a country than politicians believe.  Just click here if you are so inclined:

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

6 thoughts on “Mercoledi Musicale”

  1. I have just finished a study on the Story of Sampson in The Book of Judges. I am quite curious to hear how Mr. Handel handled it.

    1. Mr Handel and his librettist Mr Hamilton used Milton’s unperformed and some say unperformable Samson Agonistes as the basis for their oratorio. Milton shows us the blinded and imprisoned Samson who allowed worldly things to render him blind physically as well as spiritually. Touch of the old puritan misogynist there.

  2. That recording of ‘Let the bright seraphim’ came down from the roof of Westminster Abbey at Joanie’s funeral service. Will never forget it.

  3. There is a very impressive obelisk soaring skyward from the median in a major street in town, dedicated to our fallen boys in gray from the 1860’s, which has written on it: ‘Bright Angels Come and Guard Our Sleeping Heroes’. I’m thinking of borrowing that for myself, changing it to one hero, of course…

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