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Handel left Hamburg for Italy in the latter part of 1706, and left Italy for Germany about March 1710, after the success of his opera Agrippina during the touristheavy Venice carnival season made him an international star. Documentation of his comings and goings in Italy is so spotty that we don’t know whether he traveled back to Hamburg in the winter of 1707/08 to direct two of his operas, which would have occupied months.

But we do know that he composed two operas and about 85 cantatas in Italy. Unstaged and relatively small in scale, cantatas were a private, lower-budget substitute for opera, especially in Rome, where opera was often banned because the Papacy disapproved of its flock going to theaters to see lavishly staged stories about Roman gods doing immoral things. So Handel instead thrived by writing cantatas that often involved those same pagan deities, for performance in the palaces of wealthy patrons, including several cardinals. Like much of the music he wrote in Italy, the cantatas had little performance value in Germany or England, so he repurposed, rethought, and reworked their musical ideas into other forms during the rest of his career.

We have some detailed information about where and when some of Handel’s Italian cantatas were composed and performed, but Apollo e Dafne is not one of them. The only evidence about it is its paper. In the 1700s, paper was typically bought from local makers who identified themselves with watermarks on each sheet. Handel wrote part of Apollo e Dafne on paper made in Venice, and the rest on paper made in Hanover, a strong indication that he began the cantata at the end of his Italian sojourn and finished it about the time he became Kapellmeister at the court of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, in June 1710.

Like so many musical stories in Handel’s time, Apollo e Dafne is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a first-century extended poetic retelling of mythology with a bit of actual Roman history thrown in. In Ovid’s version, Apollo has just killed the giant serpent Python with many arrows from his bow. Impressed with himself, the sun god establishes the Pythian Games to commemorate his triumph, and belittles Cupid’s prowess as an archer. Cupid responds by telling Apollo, “your bow may strike at all things, but mine can strike at you.” He then shoots Apollo with a golden arrow that will make him fall immediately in love, and shoots the nymph Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus, with a leaden arrow to make her reject all love. Apollo falls in love with Daphne, who flees from him. As he is about to catch her, she prays to her father to destroy her beauty so Apollo will leave her alone. Peneus, perhaps overly enthusiastic in granting her wish, turns her into a laurel tree. Foiled forever in his pursuit, Apollo nonetheless honors her by making a laurel wreath the symbol of victory.

Handel’s librettist refashioned the story by cutting all the narration and the parts for Cupid and Peneus. Immediately after Apollo’s boasting of his superiority over Cupid in archery (to fanfare figures reworked from Handel’s 1707 “Saeviat Tellus Inter Rigores,” part of what is now known as his “Roman” or “Carmelite” Vespers), Daphne appears and Apollo falls instantly in love with her. There is no mention of a leaden arrow; instead, a strong-willed and self-motivated Daphne chooses to remain a virgin because she has dedicated herself to Diana (also called Cynthia), the virgin goddess of the hunt. In Ovid’s poetry, Daphne says nothing until she prays for deliverance. Handel’s cantata is the opposite: Daphne debates with Apollo on equal terms, but is silent when she transforms, so that we are made aware of it only from the startled Apollo’s description.

The cantata uses modest resources to produce great variety. Apollo and Daphne sing at the same time in only one number, but each of them gets a wealth of instrumental partners.

The cantata has no overture and begins with a recitative, which is unusual enough that it is typically assumed that Handel composed an introductory movement that has been lost, so another Handel piece is often used to open the cantata.

-Howard Posner