Overture and Dances to Alcina

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            Handel, of course, along with J.S. Bach is one of the great masters of the late Baroque period (the early eighteenth century).  Music from this time is not performed frequently on symphony concerts, but almost every music lover knows Handel’s Messiah, so that’s a good reference point for the style of this overture.  Before Handel turned to oratorios like the Messiah—to keep the income flowing in—he was the greatest composer of opera of the first half of the century.  Ensconced in London as a German writing Italian operas for the English, Handel enjoyed success after success before the English upper classes—understandably--grew tired of them.   Most didn’t speak Italian.  Alcina premièred in 1735 right after Handel took his productions to the newly-opened Covent Garden Theatre.   The story basically involves a rather salacious sorceress who has kidnapped a knight during the crusades, and whose magical powers are able to turn men into all kinds of things, from animals to rivers.

            You’ll have to imagine all of this as you hear the overture, for it is merely a curtain opener, without the condensed “story” of the opera in music so characteristic of later times.  The style of the overture is in the French manner, that is, it starts with a pompous slow section (think of the entrance of Louis IV, the Sun King—for that is fundamentally the origin) and then proceeds to a faster section that starts like a fugue.  After the theme of this section is worked over contrapuntally, the stately slow section of the beginning is returns.  Voila!—a French overture for an Italian opera. Remember, almost all of the overtures that one usually hears in the concert hall today are nineteenth century in origin, and start with a rapid tempo that usually has a slow, contrasting section in the middle somewhere, before ending with fireworks.   So, here is a good Baroque antidote for all that Romanticism!

            It is said that most Baroque music is either contrapuntal, aria-like, or a dance.   The story of Alcina lent itself admirably to the insertion of ballet to divert, entertain, and generally enhance the proceedings.  Remember the “French” overture?  Well, dance in opera is obligatory for the French, and Handel wrote a series of dances for this Italian opera with some other  French elements.   Featured dancer at the first production was the toast of European ballet, Mme. Marie Sallé.  She performed solos in many of the dances; the Musette, Gavotte, Sarabande, and  Menuett are commonly performed, today.  The musette attempts to imitate the sound of the French bagpipe, and so employs a sustained note underneath the melody.  Its popularity stems from the rather quaint fascination of the French nobility with shepherds and all things rustic (the sheep and peasant cottages are still there at Versailles). A gavotte is a French dance that sounds like it has an accent on the big second beat:  One and a TWO, etc.  The saraband is contrasting in every way, being of Mexican/Spanish origin, and is a slow, stately dance in three beats.  Finally, the familiar minuet, in three-four time, originated in the court of Louis IV, although it was a country dance then.  Long after the passing of the dance suite (such as this one that you are hearing) the minuet lived on as the dance movement in the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan