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A decade before Handel and his band made such a splash on the Thames, he came to Rome, an unlikely place for a young man who had attracted the attention of Italian patrons through his operas. Opera was banned in Rome because the Church deemed it immoral and irreligious, full of the pagan gods and non-Christian doings of classical antiquity. Some of Handel’s patrons were high-ranking clerics, however, whose view of life and the arts was more worldly than the Vatican’s official one. They were current with the latest trends in music and literature, including the Renaissance notion that classical antiquity represented the peak of art and science, and the love of the pastoral conceit, in which shepherds and shepherdesses fell in and out of love in an idealized Arcadia. Some of those clerics, including Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, an amateur poet who kept a fine musical establishment, even belonged to an Arcadian society. Pamphili wrote a poetic ode to Handel, calling him greater than Orpheus. Many years later in England, Handel derided the flattery and said Pamphili had been an “old fool” in writing it.
With opera off limits, Handel wrote some Latin liturgical music, an Italian oratorio, and Italian cantatas. Unable to use that music when he left Italy, he cannibalized much of it for his English works, including the Water Music. For the February 1707 cantata Il delirio amoroso (The Delirium of Love), Pamphili wrote the libretto which, sure enough, deals with non-Christian doings of classical antiquity, and assumes familiarity with its mythology: Avernus was a term used for both mythological Hades and Christian Hell, and Phlegethon and Acheron were two of the five rivers of Hades. There are several Chlorises in Greek mythology, but to Arcadians like Pamphili, Chloris and Thyrsis were also a stock pair of lovers in pastoral scenes. In this one, Chloris dreams that she descends, Orpheus-like, into Hades to bring back the deceased Thyrsis, who never requited her love when he was alive. He rejects her even in Hades, but she generously takes him to the Elysian fields anyway.
Handel’s setting showed off Pamphili’s musicians, with prominent solos for oboe, violin, cello, and recorder. A cantata was expected to follow the forms of opera seria: a recitative set the scene, which would then be reflected on in a da capo aria consisting of a line or couplet set in a main section, followed by another line or couplet in a contrasting middle section, followed by a complete repeat of the main section). The aria’s main section typically began and ended with an instrumental ritornello. Handel departed from the convention only with good reason. In the second aria, for example, instead of coming before the singer’s entrance, the instrumental ritornello interrupts it, as if Chloris realizes the import of having left earthly light behind only after she says it. On the arrival in Elysium, the entire structure changes, with an orchestral entrée (much of it appropriated from Hamburg composer Reinhard Keiser), followed by Chloris singing a simple two-verse song interspersed with repetitions of an instrumental minuet – a sequence so unusual, especially in a cantata, that it may indicate that Handel was expecting staged action or dancing.