Acis and Galatea - G.F. Handel

An unusual but authentic recording of the Original Cannons Performing Version from 1718.

Acis and Galatea - G.F. Handel

  • Dunedin Consort & Players
  • John Butt - Director
  • Susan Hamilton - Galatea
  • Nicholas Mulroy - Acis
  • Thomas Hobbs - Damon
  • Nicholas Hurndall Smith - Coridon
  • Matthew Brook - Polyphemus

Acis & Galatea, HWV 49a 
G.F. Handel - Original Cannons Performing Version (1718)

Handel's brief period (1717-1718) at Cannons (near Edgware) as composer to James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon, was to prove an excellent catalyst for his future success in England. Here, with the handful of professional musicians who constituted the ‘Cannons Concert', he could experiment with instrumental genres and dramas involving English texts without the habitual financial pressures of public performance. His eleven Cannons Anthems constituted his most extensive single collection of English church music and Esther (HWV 50a, then called The Oratorium) became the prototype for the English oratorio, which was to sustain the latter part of his career. Equally important was the pastoral ‘entertainment', Acis and Galatea, which was his first setting of a substantial dramatic English text. He had already set this story - derived from the version in Ovid's Metamorphoses - in an Italian Serenata of 1708 (Acis, Galatea e Polifemo, HWV 72), and poetry in the pastoral genre was well suited to the da capo aria form that Handel had long cultivated in his Italian dramatic works. He was clearly on excellent terms with the major figures in the literary movement concerned with defining and developing English pastoral poetry, a circle centred around another of Handel's patrons. The leading theorist and practitioner was Alexander Pope, whose models lie behind several numbers in Handel's libretto (e.g. ‘Wretched lovers!' and ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains'), closely followed by John Gay, who probably wrote much of the text. Brian Trowell has suggested convincingly that, at some stage in the process of creating Acis and Galatea, it was decided to expand it from a three-character piece (involving Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus alone, as in Handel's Italian setting) to one with an advisor each for Acis and Polyphemus - Damon and Coridon respectively. According to Trowell, much of the newer poetry was added by John Hughes, but other poets might have been involved too, such as one of the Cannons tenors, John Blackley. As Graydon Beeks notes, Blackley wrote the libretto for at least one cantata by Johann Christoph Pepusch, director of the Cannons Concert.

The story is disarmingly simple: the nymph Galatea loves the shepherd Acis and he loves her. After an agonizingly protracted separation, they find each other and anticipate everlasting bliss. The giant, Polyphemus (the personification of Mount Etna in some of the earlier versions of the story), has his own ambitions for union with Galatea - her evident repulsion notwithstanding - and eventually kills Acis with an enormous rock (‘massy ruin'), one of only two actions in the entire drama. The final section of the story involves the inevitable lament for Acis and the sorrow of Galatea, the latter realizing that she can use her divine powers to turn Acis into an everlasting fountain. This, the second action, is the metamorphosis that restores order and contentment to the seemingly timeless paradise with which the story began. Despite the comparative lack of narrative flow (many of the arias following one another without the traditional link of recitative), Handel grasped the opportunity to make music the principal means of injecting new life into the pastoral genre, bringing out some of its central implications with a degree of insight and vividness that has seldom been matched. 

©John Butt, 2008

Acis and Galatea - G.F. Handel

Acis and Galatea - G.F. Handel is available for sale from Dunedin Consort.

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