The da capo aria was the musical mainstay of late Italian Baroque opera, an A-B-A form for setting short, usually contrasting, strophes, with a return (da capo – to the head) to the initial words and music. Like Italian opera itself, the da capo aria was much admired and imitated throughout Europe. Handel hardly needed a sojourn in Italy to “reconcile him to the style and taste which prevailed there,” as a visiting Italian noble reportedly advised him, although Handel did spend the better part of three years there, very profitably in every way. Handel is estimated to have written over 1000 da capo arias in the course of his career, filling his operas and oratorios.
The oratorio L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato was premiered in February 1740, a time when Handel was still also writing and producing opera. James Harris, a member of the circle of friends who were taking a keen interest in Handel’s development of large-scale English works, noted “Allegro” and “Penseroso” (basically, happy and sad) aspects to Handel’s own personality and took lines from two poems by John Milton for a proposed new work. At Handel’s request, Charles Jennens – another member of the circle, soon to create the libretto for Messiah – revised it and added a third part in praise of moderation. (Handel himself cut that third part from his performances of the work after 1742.)
The theme and its pastoral imagery inspired Handel fully. The da capo aria known generally simply as “Sweet Bird” comes from the middle of Part I, and is sung by the allegorical character Penseroso. An obbligato flute provides the pictorial warbling in the main section. The bird song is absent in the contrasting middle section in the parallel minor mode, with steadily pulsed chords in the strings.
In 1713 Handel was the latest thing in the hotly contested opera world of London, but still very much an establishment outsider, when he made his only attempt at a court ode, with mixed results. Queen Anne’s illness prevented its performance, but she evidently appreciated the gesture, for later that year she took him into her official service, with an annual pension. “Eternal Source of Light Divine” is not a da capo aria, but rather the short, through-composed ceremonial opening statement of the Ode. It was originally written for Richard Elford, a high tenor who sang in the choirs of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral as well as the Chapel Royal, with a stately trumpet part that echoes the voice.
The oratorio Samson, drafted while Handel was working simultaneously on Messiah in 1741, is another work based on Milton’s poetry. Brilliant arias with trumpet obbligatos were standard practice for moments of grand ceremony and celebration in operas and oratorios, and “Let the Bright Seraphim” comes at the very end of Samson, just before the final chorus. Sung by an anonymous “Israelitish Woman,” the aria summons the celestial hosts of seraphim and cherubim to hail the dead hero, with trumpet figures responding to the singer. In the oratorio the aria proceeds directly into the chorus after its contrasting section (without trumpet, in the relative minor mode), but as an excerpt it makes the full da capo return readily.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.