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1. Pastoral Sounds
II/ Music

The sounds of early eighteenth-century pastoral: Handel, Pope, Gay, and Hughes

Jeffrey HOPES


Au début du dix-huitième siècle, le compositeur Georg Friedrich Haendel, ainsi que les poètes Alexander Pope, John Gay et John Hughes, se saisissent du langage et de l’esthétique du pastoral. Les Pastorals de Pope ont paru en 1709, The Shepherd’s Week de Gay en 1714. Les textes de six cantates anglaises par John Hughes ne furent publiés qu’après sa mort en 1735. La poésie de Pope présente un paysage sonore virgilien sophistiqué alors que celui de Gay est habité par des sonorités rustiques parodiques qui imitent la poésie de Spenser. Haendel consacra deux œuvres au mythe d’Acis et Galatée, la première (Aci, Galatea et Polifemo) composée avant son départ de l’Italie, en 1708, la seconde (Acis and Galatea) conçue lors de son séjour dans la maison londonienne de James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon, en 1718. Entre temps, son opéra pastoral, Il pastor fido, fut représenté en 1712. La musique d’Haendel façonne un langage pastoral qui puise dans des conventions du genre, mais qu’il détourne et manipule dans une perspective à la fois dramatique et psychologique. Avec Acis and Galatea, Haendel, Gay, Hughes et peut-être Pope collaborent à la création d’un nouveau langage pastoral anglais.

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1Pastoral in early eighteenth-century England underwent a significant revival, in poetry, music, opera and, rather later, in painting. Much of the pastoral tradition was imported, from Italy in particular, but also, in the case of painting, from Holland. In poetry and music, however, these foreign influences were supplemented by a conscious attempt to forge a distinctly English pastoral language. This was in particular true of the poets John Gay, Alexander Pope, John Hughes, and Ambrose Philips and of the composer George Frideric Handel whose arrival in England from Italy and Hanover transformed the English musical scene. Because this revival was above all poetic, musical and, to a degree, theatrical, sounds and the depiction of sounds play a significant role in defining what pastoral was and meant. I want here to explore these poetic and musical dimensions in two artistic areas which gradually converge. On the one hand I will examine the pastoral poetry of principally Pope and Gay; on the other, the pastoral music of Handel. The main works analysed will be Pope’s Pastorals (1709), Gay’s The Shepherd’s Week (1714) and Handel’s treatment of two of the founding texts of classical pastoral, the myth of Acis and Galatea, derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Giovanni Battista Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido, published in 1589. When Handel finally met Pope and Gay, the result was the pastoral entertainment Acis and Galatea whose libretto, mostly written by Gay, was set to music by Handel and first performed in 1718.

2One year before Handel came to England, Alexander Pope published his Pastorals, his first major work and one that was preceded by an important Preface on the origins and nature of pastoral poetry. Pope was concerned to distinguish the small number of true pastoral poems from the large number of false ones by defining the essential characteristics of the mode, but for our purposes what is important is the central place that sounds take both in the Preface and in the poems themselves. Singing, says Pope, is the most natural occupation for solitary shepherds and the first poem, Spring, deploys a whole series of metonymies for this original pastoral sound (Pope 123-128). The “Vernal Airs” (5) the Sicilian Muses play on their osiers or “slender Reed[s]” (11), inspire the lyre of the poem’s dedicatee, Sir William Turnbull, likened to the nightingale, before Strephon and Daphnis indulge in a singing contest. In Summer (Pope 129-132), nature resounds in echoes of the mourning shepherd Alexis who “borrows” Colin’s pipe from Spenser’s The Shepherd’s Calendar where he mourned Rosalinda. Autumn (Pope 132-135) sees the poet “singing” Hylas’s and Ægon’s lays (2) which bemoan their lovers, Delia (faithless) and Doris (dead). Hylas’s “melodious Moan / Taught Rocks to weep, and made the Mountains groan” (15-16). The wind carries Hylas’s sighs in yet another evocation of the human voice and the shepherd’s pipe while Ægon’s lament is punctuated by the refrain “Resound ye Hills, resound my mournful Strain!” (57), itself a musical device. Winter begins at midnight when Thyrsis has ceased deploring Daphne’s death and “silent Birds forget their tuneful Lays” (6). Daphne, before she died, had commanded the shepherds to sing around her grave. Thyrsis describes their lament using another refrain, “Fair Daphne’s dead, and Beauty is no more!” (28) which is varied at each recurrence. Here the absence of sound evokes its former presence. Yet it is through song that the muse depicts the absent music commemorating Daphne’s absence.

1. The poetic sounds of pastoral: Pope, Gay and Hughes

3The soundscape of Pope’s Pastorals is as idealized as the Golden Age which it depicts. It is not the sound of the muse’s song, the shepherd’s pipes, the song of the nightingale, the cavernous echoes, or the murmuring brooks which matter, but their evocation as the essential medium in which the original pastoral voice is depicted as expressing itself, a constant interplay of art (song and music) and nature. In his preface Pope cites Theocritus and Virgil as the two undisputed masters of pastoral, preferring the sophistication of the latter to the rusticity of the former. Whilst expressing great admiration for Tasso, he sees no influence of the ancients in the composition of L’Aminta, and it is the classical lineage that he is keen to foster. For Spenser, Pope reserves a number of detailed criticisms, pointing in particular to the Elizabethan poet’s use of tetrastich form and his recourse to a rustic English that was already out of date when Spenser wrote and in any case, was “spoken only by people of the lowest condition” (Pope 122). He praises Spenser’s depiction of human life in terms of the changing seasons of the year, but regards the division of his calendar into months as more artificial.

4Pope’s critique of Spenser is of great importance when we come to his friend, and Handel’s future collaborator, John Gay who in 1714 published The Shepherd’s Week. The Proeme, addressed to the “Courteous Reader” is written in precisely the rustic and old-fashioned style that Pope had criticised in Spenser. Gay claims (ironically of course) that he has “hit on the right simple Eclogue after the true ancient guise of Theocritus” and that he is henceforth alone on “this plain high-way of Pastoral.” He goes on to insist on the necessary concordance of pastoral poetry with the reality of country life and in particular of Britain’s “honest and industrious ploughmen” (Gay 28). As for the Golden Age:

Not ignorant I am, what a rout and rabblement of critical gallimawfry hath been made of late days by certain young men of insipid delicacy, concerning, I wist not what, Golden Age, and other outrageous conceits, to which they would confine Pastoral. Whereof, I avow, I account nought at all, knowing no age so justly to be instiled Golden, as this of our Soveraign Lady Queen ANNE. (Gay 28)

5He declares his affinity to the rustic language of Theocritus and to Spenser’s pastoral idiom, though he thinks that “his [Spenser’s] shepherd’s boy at some times raised his rustic reed to rhimes more rumbling than rural” (Gay 29). Echoing Pope, Gay criticizes Spenser’s injection of religious polemics into his pastoral poetry and adopts a division into days of the week that responds to Pope’s criticism of the yearly units of his model. Yet Gay clearly comes down on the side of earthy rusticity against the airy nothings of Italian pastoral. The language of his shepherds is

such as is neither spoken by the country maiden nor the courtly dame; nay, not only such as in the present times is not uttered, but was never uttered it times past: and, if I judge aright, will never be uttered in times future. It having too much of the country to be fit for the court, too much of the court to be fit for the country; too much of the language of old times to be fit for the present, too much of the present to have been fit for the old, and too much of both to be fit for any time to come. (Gay 29)

6To help the reader through his “uncouth pastoral terms” (Gay 30) Gay annexes an “Alphabetical Catalogue of Names, Plants, Flowers, Fruits, Birds, Beasts, Insects, and other material things mentioned in these Pastorals” at the end of the poem (Gay 55-56).

7The six pastorals that make up The Shepherd’s Week (preceded by the verse dedication to Viscount Bolingbroke) are thus clearly modelled on Spenser, but without the allegorical, political and religious content. The result is a rustic pastoral verse that sometimes borders on the anti- or mock pastoral but also proposes a distinctly British alternative both to Italian pastoral and to Pope’s refined Virgilian collection. Gay’s shepherds and dairy maids are neither innocent nor refined, their names copied from or modelled on those of Spenser: Lobbin, Cuddy, Blouzelinda, Buxoma, Colin Clout, Bumkinet, Hobnelia and so forth. Landscape and soundscape are distinctly English, the idealized nature of Italian pastoral transformed into the plants and animals of a familiar countryside. Thus Marian, in Tuesday; or, The Ditty (Gay 36-38), laments the loss of faithless Colin Clout who has abandoned her for Cic’ly. She recalls how as they worked together, Colin threshing, she would be “Lost in the musick of the whirling flail” (57). Wednesday; or, The Dumps (Gay 39-42), in which Sparabella ‘wails’ (not bewails) her Bumkinet who has gone off with Clumsilis, begins:

The wailings of a maiden I recite,
A maiden fair, that
Sparabella hight.
Such strains ne’er warble in the linnet’s throat,
Nor the gay goldfinch chaunts so sweet a note.
No magpie chatter’d, nor the painted jay,
No ox was heard to low, nor ass to bray.
No rusling breezes play’d the leaves among,
While thus her madrigal the damsel sung. (1-8)

8Here, as in Thursday, or, The Spell (Gay 43-46), Gay parodies Pope’s use of refrains, while in Friday; or, The Dirge (Gay 46-50), Bumkinet tries to cheer up Grubbinol, saddened by the death of Blouzelinda, so that he will join him in singing some ballads. There are more ballads in Saturday; or, The Flights (Gay 51-54) which features the drunken musician Bowzybeus:

That Bowzybeus who could sweetly sing,
Or with the rozin’d bow torment the string;
Bowzybeus who with finger’s speed
Could call soft warblings from the breathing reed;
Bowzybeus who with jocund tongue,
Ballads and roundelays and catches sung.
They loudly laugh to see the damsel’s fright,
And in disport surround the drunken wight. (23-30)

9Just as Gay would later replace Italian airs by English tunes and words in The Beggar’s Opera, so here he substitutes homely familiar sounds for the disincarnated sounds of Italian pastoral.

10Gay’s poem is often seen as a parody of Ambrose Philips’s Pastorals which had appeared in 1710. While this is undoubtedly part of Gay’s project, reading The Shepherd’s Week in relation to Pope’s Pastorals and the Spenserian tradition highlights the national sentiment behind his mock-pastoral poetry. Gay was not the only one to want to wrest pastoral from the grasp of Italian poets, composers and castrati. John Hughes, another poet belonging to the Burlington circle, seems to have written the words to the Six English Cantatas for which Johann Christoph Pepusch wrote the music. Pepusch was in residence at Cannons when Handel was there and he of course later orchestrated the music for The Beggar’s Opera. The dating of his English Cantatas is unclear; they were published together in 1720 but may well have been composed separately earlier. The poems appear in the two volumes of Poems on Several Occasions by John Hughes, published fifteen years after the poet’s death, in 1735, where they bear the title Six Cantata’s or Poems for Musick. After the Manner of the Italians. Contrary to what is stated on the title page of this edition, the Preface does not appear in the 1720 edition of Pepusch’s music. It seems likely that the collaboration between Hughes and Pepusch dates from their acquaintance at Cannons in 1717-18. In his Preface, Hughes highlights the importance of writing music to English words, opining that poets should be encouraged to “make it their Diversion to improve a sort of Verse, in regular Measures purposely fitted for Musick, and which, of all the Modern kinds, seems to be the only one that can now properly be call’d Lyrick” (Hughes I 128-129). He regrets that poets and musicians are “often perfect Strangers to the other” (Hughes I 129) whereas poetry and music are described in the same terms:

The Expressions of Harmony, Cadence, and a good Ear, which are said to be so necessary in Poetry, being all borrow’d from Musick, shew at least, if they signify any thing, that it wou’d be no improper Help for a Poet to understand more than the Metaphorical Sense of them. And on the other hand, a Composer can never judge where to lay the Accent of his Musick, who does not know, or is not made sensible, where the Words have the greatest Beauty and Force. (Hughes I 129)

11According to Hughes, Pepusch, who like Handel was of German origin, was here setting English words for the first time.

12The patriotic nature of the enterprise is obvious from the first cantata entitled “On English Beauty” or “The Island of Beauty” in Pepusch’s score. The music however is resolutely Italian in style and the words still inhabit the world of Italian pastoral, as can be seen in this recitative from the fifth Cantata, “To Corydon”:

While CORYDON the lonely Shepherd try’d
His tuneful Flute, and charm’d the Grove,
The jealous Nightingales that strove
To trace his Notes, contending dy’d;
At last he hears within a Myrtle Shade
An Echo answer all his Strain,
Love stole the Pipe of sleeping Pan, and play’d,
Then with his Voice decoys the list’ning Swain. (Hughes I 137).

13What is most significant about Hughes’ texts and his Preface is the way he proposes to write English lyrics specifically for a musical setting. As we shall see later, Gay, Hughes and possibly Pope did precisely the same thing for Acis and Galatea.

2. Handel’s musical meta-pastoral

  • 1 References to these works, including the libretti, are to the recordings listed in the discography (...)

14The musical language of the Italian pastoral tradition derives from the poetic and dramatic evocation of the lives of shepherds and shepherdesses in the Golden Age. As Raymond Monelle has shown, it comprises a number of conventions which translate the situations and images of pastoral poetry into sound. Handel’s pastoral music is however far richer than such conventionality might suggest because the composer exploits different dimensions of musical language such as sonority, meter and rhythm, tonality, melody, harmony, and musical imagery, combining them in ways which allow not just for the evocation of pastoral through a musical equivalent of ut pictura poesis, but which take us into the realms of irony, characterisation, drama and psychology, so that Handel’s pastoral language becomes more of a commentary on pastoral than a simple application of pastoral conventions. I shall illustrate this by looking briefly at some of its main ingredients, in particular, instrumental colour, meter and rhythm and tonality in the three works I have chosen to study here: Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, Il Pastor Fido and Acis and Galatea.1

15In 1706 the 21 year old George Frideric Handel left Hamburg, where he had been working as a harpsichordist and a violinist and where his first two operas had been produced, for Rome. During the crucial Italian years of his musical life he wrote a variety of religious works such as the Dixit Dominus or La Resurrezione, his first fully Italian operas which were performed in Florence and Venice as opera was banned at this time in Rome, as well as numerous secular cantatas, including pastoral entertainments for rich patrons such as the Cardinal Ottoboni. One of these was Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, composed while Handel was in Naples in June 1708. When Handel arrived in England at the end of 1710 having previously been appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, the future George I, he immediately sought to take advantage of the new fashion for Italian opera in London, writing, or rather putting together Rinaldo which was first performed in February 1711. After a brief return to Hanover, Handel was back in London in mid-October 1712 having taken intensive English classes. On November 22nd his pastoral opera Il Pastor Fido, to a libretto by Giacomo Rossi based on Guarini’s play, was performed at the Haymarket theatre where it held the stage for just seven nights.

  • 2 In compositions of the early eighteenth century the word “flute” can mean either a recorder or a ba (...)

16The works of Handel’s Italian period are highly innovative in their use of instrumental colour and nowhere is this truer than in his pastoral compositions. The most emblematic pastoral instrumental sonority is that of recorders or flutes2 which Handel uses in all three works and which are used to evoke two main pastoral figures; firstly the shepherds’ pipes, as in Mirtillo’s aria “Caro Amor” at the beginning of Act 2 of Il Pastor Fido in which he pleads for respite from the love he feels for Amarilli so that he can sleep. This aria derives from that sung by Maria Magdalena in the oratorio La Resurrezione (1707) where the two recorders similarly accompany a gentle nocturnal lament. Mirtillo’s aria contains other pastoral elements, however, which strengthen its impact: a drone base, evoking the simplicity of rural life and the 3/8 metre, typical of the lilting triple time which is invariably associated with the gentler aspects of pastoral. Another example of the association of recorders or flutes with rural love is Galatea’s final aria “Hear the seat of soft delight” in Acis and Galatea, where the strings’ gentle dotted rhythms, which evoke the “burbling fountain” into which Acis has been transformed, are doubled by two recorders evoking the two lovers, the effect being enhanced by the way in which they mostly double the lower viola line. Again, elements of the drone base are present, but this time the aria is in alla breve time. In Aci, Galatea e Polifemo an appropriately solitary recorder is used to ironic effect in Polifemo’s extraordinary aria “Fra l’ombre” to depict the contrast between the repulsive giant and his grotesque longing for Galatea. The mockery of his amorous feelings is mirrored in Polyphemus’s “O ruddier than the cherry” in Acis and Galatea where the smallest of the recorder family, the sopranino, similarly mocks the giant’s sexual pretensions. The second application of recorders is to birdsong. Birds represent the innocent freedom which the nymphs and shepherds have either lost or for which they long, but this innocence is frequently contrasted with the pain of love, so combining the two pastoral figures. Both Aci, Galatea e Polifemo and Il Pastor Fido contain birdsong arias with treble and sopranino recorders: “Qui l’augel da pianta in piñata” and “Augelletti, ruscelletti” contrast the happy bird with the lover’s afflicted soul (Mirtillo in the first, Acis in the second) while in the first act of Acis and Galatea the sopranino recorder accompanies Galtea’s “Hush, ye pretty warbling choir!”

17Handel often uses the oboe to suggest plaintiveness. Again, the instrument is closely associated with the shepherd’s pipes, even more so in that it is a reed instrument. A good example is “Sforzano a piangere” from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo in which Galatea anticipates Acis’s suffering (and so her own) at the hands of Polifemo. After she explains her grief to Acis, he laments the effects of Polifemo’s jealousy in another, more lively aria, which evokes both the passion of jealousy and an amorous playfulness which he is incapable of feeling. The oboe obbligato both echoes that in Galatea’s aria and underlines Acis’s own pain. In Acis and Galatea, Galtea’s aria “As when the dove laments her love” features an oboe both to express the pain that the return of her love dissipates and the love itself, associated with the dove. As a result, the oboe actually imitates a flute. It returns in Damon’s “Consider, fond shepherd” which warns against the ephemeral nature of the pleasures of love and in Galatea’s lament for her lost lover, “Must I my Acis still bemoan” where her complaint is countered by the chorus’s call for her to “cease to grieve.”

18Il Pastor Fido has much less instrumental colour than the other two works. In the first act there are no solo wind instrument accompaniments, the oboes only occasionally doubling the violins. Act II briefly bursts into colour, first with “Caro Amor” mentioned above, then with the pizzicato accompaniment to Eurilla’s “Occhi bella,” suggesting both the way she creeps up on Mirtillo and her deception in pretending to help him to win over Amarilli whilst in fact attempting to replace her in his affections. The bassoon accompaniment to Mirtillo’s aria “Allor che sorge astro lucent” evokes his own self-deception, not the only time that Handel uses the bassoon to ambiguous effect, the most obvious and well-known example being “Scherza Infida” from Ariodante (1735). It is only in the final aria of this act that the oboes return in another ambiguous evocation both of Eurilla’s joy and her knowledge that her rival still stands in her way. But we have to wait until the seventh scene of Act III to hear the plaintive oboe briefly accompanying Amarilli’s lament that she has deceived her beloved Mirtillo and must now die believing that he has abandoned her. Other instruments that Handel uses to pastoral effect are horns to depict hunting, both literal and metaphorical, including, in Silvio’s “Sol nel mezzo risuona del core” vocal imitations of horns, a solo cello evoking introspection and festive trumpets.

  • 3 See Monelle, p. 215-17 for a discussion of the Siciliana rhythm.

19The association of triple time with pastoral is ancient yet its origins are obscure.3 In addition to their connections with rustic dance forms, the simple triple meters (3/4, 3/8) the compound duple and quadruple meters (6/8 and 12/8) in which the two or four beats are divided into three notes and the rarer 6/4 and 3/2, have frequently been seen as more relaxed and ‘feminine’ than squarer double or quadruple time. Yet the symbolic, religious significance of triple time and divisions into three notes per beat should not be neglected, both through the association with the trinity and because of the numerous religious connotations of pastoral. Two are particularly important: Christ is depicted as a shepherd to his flock, so giving rise the figure of the pastor, and the church’s mission of pastoral care; and the nativity is a fundamentally pastoral scene in which the shepherds play an important part. Whatever its origins and its significance, the association between triple time and pastoral was well established by Handel’s time and it becomes increasingly important in the three works we are looking at.

20In all three works, triple time and compound 6/8 and 12/8 meters are common. In Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, they are outnumbered by double and quadruple time signatures, but in Il Pastor Fido they predominate (14 arias as against 9 for double or quadruple time) as they do in Acis and Galatea which also contains two 12/8 numbers and one in 9/16. However, as with instrumental colour, it is the combination of meter with other elements of musical language which enables Handel to develop his meta-pastoral language. One example from each work will suffice to illustrate the way in which he plays with his audience’s knowledge of and familiarisation with the musical language of pastoral. In Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, Polifemo’s aria “Sibilar l’angui d’Aletto” in which he sings of the “foul poison slithering in my breast” (Rio velen mi serpe i petto) when he thinks of Galatea, is not an anguished expression of desire and jealousy (jealousy arias are invariably in double or quadruple time) but a 3/8 aria in D major accompanied by martial trumpets and oboe. The effect is to mock the crude longing of the giant who inspires not fear but the ridicule that this incongruous juxtaposition of pastoral elements suggests.

21In Il Pastor Fido, after the extended overture with its alternation of double or quadruple and triple time numbers followed by three quadruple time arias, the first triple time aria of the opera is Eurilla’s “Di goder il bel ch’adoro” in which she sings of her intention to deceive Amarilla by making her believe that Mirtillo is in love with her: Sarà guida al mio Tesoro la menzogna in dolce aspetto she sings, and in effect the whole aria is “dressed up” in the colours of pastoral – triple time and the highly pastoral key of A major. But it is also the rhythmic ambiguity of this aria that so subtly underlines Eurilla’s lies, the four bar phrases in 3/4 time sounding as if they were in 6/4 or 12/8 compound time. The message could hardly be clearer; those who believe in pastoral innocence are naïve and easily duped. The contrast between Eurilla’s deception and Mirtillo’s naivety is indeed one of the principal themes of the opera. In Act II, Mirtillo’s “Allor che sorge astro lucent” is an aria of self-deception, his deluded optimism in a new-found serenity underlined by the bassoon, Handel’s favourite “deception” instrument. The first of the two compound time airs in Acis and Galatea also exploits this rhythmic ambiguity. “Hush, ye pretty warbling choir” juxtaposes the “warbling” triplets of the sopranino recorder to Galatea’s steadying semiquavers which deceive us into thinking she is singing in double time. Even more rhythmically ambiguous is Polyphemus’s “Cease to beauty to be suing,” the first beat of the first bar sounding like an upbeat to two double time bars. The “hidden” triple time remains associated with pastoral love as opposed to Polyphemus’s more martial tones.

22The tonal colouring of pastoral works also obeys a number of conventions, some of them linked to the instrumental colouring involved, others simply the result of usage. Because Handel never uses horns in these three works, he escapes the tonal restraints of writing for the instrument. The trumpets in Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, the only one of the three works to use them, play in D. Flutes and oboes, however, are much more tonally mobile so that instrumental constraints are largely avoided. Handel does, however, conform to the accepted connotations of pastoral keys: G and especially F major are “earthy” pastoral keys, B flat and E flat are more “liquid”; minor keys are used for laments and complaints (G minor, D minor and C minor particularly, but also E minor, B minor, A minor, F sharp minor and F minor). The latter is used in Aci, Galatea e Polifemo and in Acis and Galatea to depict the death of Acis. The keys of B flat and E flat often denote pastoral bliss but they carry water connotations in Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. In Acis and Galatea, B flat and its dominant F, subdominant G and related major and minor keys, structure the entire work in a way that makes it both far more tightly organised in tonal terms than the others and less varied. Il Pastor Fido makes more use of the key of A (major and minor) to vary the overall focus on C, G and F on the one hand and B flat and E flat on the other. It is Aci, Galatea e Polifemo which is by far the most adventurous of the three works in this respect, not just in the variety of keys used, but in the juxtaposition of widely differing tonalities in the arias linked by some necessarily chromatic recitatives, as for instance when we move from the agitated and unusually un-earthy F major of Galatea’s “S’agita in mezzo all’onde” to the first of the work’s three terzetti in B minor. Most spectacularly, the final five arias, including the final two terzetti, are written in the radically different keys of F# minor, F minor, B flat major, E major and D major. Such tonal variety (which means that a work that begins in B flat finishes in D), is abandoned first partially in Il Pastor Fido, then more radically in Acis and Galatea where Handel both deliberately shortens, or even eliminates the recitatives to suit English taste and simplifies the tonal palette, so removing the need for elaborate links between distant keys.

23This brief analysis of certain elements of Handel’s pastoral musical language does less than justice to the sophistication of his approach to an apparently simple and highly codified genre. Handel’s pastorals were initially written for Italian audiences who were highly familiar with the norms of the language that he uses, appropriates, subverts and parodies. In England he was forced to modify this language for an audience that was both less attuned to Italian music and in search of more recognisably English forms of pastoral.

3. Acis and Galatea: the sounds of English pastoral

24Before examining further the poetic and musical project of Acis and Galatea, it is worth reflecting on the disappointing reception given to Il Pastor Fido in 1712. In writing an Italian pastoral opera, Handel could be forgiven for thinking that he was tapping into a style that would please an English audience. Italian opera, despite the whining of patriotic critics, was increasingly popular and the renewed interest in pastoral seemed to have been confirmed by the success of Bononcini’s pastoral opera Camilla, performed at Drury Lane theatre in 1706 in an English translation. Yet the first entirely Italian opera performed in England, Jakob Greber’s pastoral Gli amori di Ergasto (The Loves of Ergasto), which opened the 1705 season at the Queen’s theatre, was a flop as the anonymous author of A Critical Discourse upon Opera’s in England, and a Means proposed for their Improvement appended to a translation of François Raguenet’s Paralèle des italiens et des François, en ce qui regarde la Musique et les opéra (1702) remarked:

The Theatre in the Hay-Market open’d with a Pastoral Compos’d by Gia —— o Gr —— r, a German, who had Study’d Composition in Italy. This was the first Pastoral that had ever been Presented on the English Stage, and prov’d fatal to that Theatre, and so indeed have all the rest, for none of ‘em ever Took; so that the Undertakers of the Opera ought to tremble at the very Name of Pastoral, as will more plainly appear from what follows. (A Comparison 66)

25Pastoral, it seemed, would only “take” in England if it was beefed up by an addition of florid arias which could hide the lack of action and the essential softness and delicacy of the genre. This is what had been done to The Triumph of Love, set to music on the order of Handel’s Roman patron, Cardinal Ottoboni, by Carlo Cesarini, Giovannino del’ Violone and Francisco Gasparini. The author of the Critical Discourse can only deplore the result,

insomuch that this Pastoral was perfectly chang’d from its former Being, and that soft Milk which nourishes the happy Shepherds on the fertile Arcadian Plains, grew hard and sower, and so curdled in the Stomachs of those that Tasted it, that they were Surfeited with the first Meal, and dar’d not venture a second time on such disagreeable unwholsom Food. (A Comparison 74)

26Handel’s unadulterated Il Pastor Fido did no better, and when Handel took it out of retirement in 1732, he too was obliged to fill it out with extra arias.

27By 1717 then, Handel had not only become used to the vagaries of English taste, he had also met the most prominent pastoral poets of the day and had acquired a greater command of the English language which he had started to set to music in the birthday ode for Queen Anne and, possibly, the cantata Venus and Adonis, the text of which, by John Hughes, figures in the Poems on Several Occasions cited above. Only two arias survive, though their attribution remains uncertain. Handel thus felt able to venture on a further pastoral composition, but one which he confined to a private performance at Cannons. His Italian operas of the intervening years had been broadly successful, and he did not want to risk damaging his reputation with a pastoral failure. This, and the fact that the musical resources available at Cannons were small-scale, resulted in a work whose musical genre has always been difficult to define but which can best be seen as an English pastoral. He was not alone working in this field: Johann Ernst Galliard (another German émigré) had penned his pastoral opera Calypso and Telemachus in 1712. As we have seen, Handel had already set the story of Acis and Galatea, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in 1708, prior to his arrival in England. The differences between the dramatic frames of Aci, Galatea e Polifemo and Acis and Galatea are many: the earlier wedding serenata sets a libretto by Nicola Giuvo which, after a brief depiction of dawn, immediately introduces the water motif that anticipates the final transformation of Aci, crushed by Polifemo’s rock, into a brook which flows into the sea into which Galatea has plunged. Polifemo is a repulsive figure to whom Handel gives some astonishing music, both grotesque and beautiful, written for the virtuouso bass Antonio Manno. The water imagery is pervasive and it is the metonymy of water, tears, blood, brooks and sea which unites the text. The passion of the two lovers and the jealousy of Polifemo are sublimated in liquid metamorphosis. The apparent paradox of performing a story of thwarted love for a wedding is surely explicable in the way they are united at the end, a clear metaphor for the passage from love and passion to marital union.

28It was only in 1718, by which time George was on the throne, that Handel attempted a further pastoral entertainment, his masque Acis and Galatea, composed to an English text by John Gay, with contributions by John Hughes and possibly Alexander Pope, poets whom Handel had already frequented at the London home of the young Richard Earl of Burlington who was already a major patron of the arts. Acis and Galatea was written and first performed during Handel’s residence at another rich London patron’s house, Cannons, the home of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon. The work was revised and expanded in the early 1730s, as was Il Pastor Fido.

29Acis and Galatea is a much less watery affair than its predecessor. Although Galatea mentions “Purling streams and bubbling fountains” in her first accompagnato, the text is firmly grounded in the plains of the opening chorus. Acis’s final transformation is into a God and the blood he leaves on the ground spouts into a fountain. Much more than in the earlier work, it is Acis and Galatea’s love for each other that is highlighted. Polyphemus is less grotesque, at times made to seem almost comic. There are however echoes of Giuvo’s text in the trio which unites him and the lovers (“The flocks shall leave the mountains”) whose words echo Pope’s Autumn pastoral (40-46), which does not mean that Pope wrote them. The multiple borrowings, both musical and textual, that can be discerned in Acis and Galatea should not obscure the cogent nature of its aesthetic project. Despite references to grapes and vines, the pastoral landscape is much closer to England than Italy. Whilst there are none of the clover-grass, turnips, hempseed and marygolds of The Shepherd’s Week, roses, lilies, cherries and plums, larks and doves (we are spared the ubiquitous nightingale), not to mention frequent showers, pull the pastoral story in the direction of England. Most significantly, the concise verse of Gay’s libretto is perfectly adapted to a musical setting. The variety of meters used, like the different perspectives opened up by the introduction of the warning and admonishing characters of Damon and Coridon and the inclusion of a chorus, provide Handel with a text that steers a middle way between Pope’s polished couplets and Spenser’s rustic tetrastiches. Recitative, which always had English audiences fidgeting, is, as we have seen, reduced to a minimum and frequently replaced by more colourful accompagnati.

30Acis and Galatea constitutes a synthesis between Handel’s Italian pastoral language and that of his English librettists. It also continues his meta-pastoral exploration of pastoral sounds, but in a way which, I would argue, actually dramatizes Handel’s own personal engagement with the genre as he seeks to adapt to his new cultural environment. This can best be seen in the trajectory of Acis and Galatea from its idyllic beginning to the complexities of the second part of the work. In the first part, Handel consciously adapts his music to the simple, rustic rhythms of the libretto. The springing, lithe rhythms of the short overture set the tone for what is to come. In the first chorus “Oh ye pleasures of the plains!” accompanied by a drone bass, Handel’s music accentuates the natural anapaests of Gay’s verse, just as the dotted rhythm of the central section espouses Gay’s marked iambs. There are more dotted rhythm iambs in “Where shall I seek the charming fair?” while Acis’s “Lover in her eyes sits playing” uses the slow lilting triplets associated with the Siciliana (but here in 12/8, not 6/8). This rural idyll, full of pastoral clichés, is interrupted by the totally different chorus that begins part two, lamenting the fate of the “wretched lovers” which, with the approach of Polyphemus, develops into an elaborate double fugue, the final section evoking the ground shaking as the giant walks. Polyphemus is however more of an ogre out of a children’s story than the lecherous monster of Aci. “Cease to beauty to be suing” is ostensibly written in 3/4 but Polyphemus transforms it into a gallumping, off-beat 6/4, an awkwardness that Coridon’s admonitory “Would you gain the tender creature” moderates to a regular 3/8 a meter. Acis’s energetic “Love sounds th’alarm” includes martial oboe fanfares. It is now his turn to be corrected, this time by Damon, in “Consider, fond shepherd” which brings us back to slower triple time (3/4). It is difficult not to see in these two admonitory arias, a correction of the highly imaginative arias that precede them, as if Handel were dramatising the way he was being brought to heel and obliged to respect a codified and normative English pastoral genre that he himself is largely forging. This is an impression that is confirmed by the trio that follows in which the plodding walking base of Acis and Galatea’s duo, evokes, despite the actual meaning of the lines, the flocks leaving the mountains, the doves leaving the wood and the nymphs the forest, their duet constantly interrupted by Polyphemus crying that he cannot bear it. The death of Acis seems thus to be the logical conclusion of the normalisation of pastoral that precedes it. The chorus’s lament seems all the more poignant because of the way it seems to weep not only the death of Acis but the passing of Handel’s pastoral experiments, associated as they were with the extraordinarily innovative works of his Italian period and his early years in England. The consolatory chorus then bids Galatea “Bewail not whom thou canst relieve” and Acis is transformed into a fountain that promises to water the (English) plains. Once this cathartic moment has been attained, Galatea’s final air, in which the water imagery finally emerges in the murmuring dotted rhythms and the final chorus in the work’s home key of B flat, restore a sense of well-being.

31Acis and Galatea is a highly stylised pastoral work, its text finely crafted with a clear, patriotic and didactic aim. The music represents a conscious attempt to conform to English taste and so to transform a classical or Italian tradition into something an English audience would feel more comfortable with. Its musical language distils pastoral sounds which Gay’s and Hughes’ text had already codified from an English pastoral tradition, that of Spenser and Gay on the one hand and of Pope on the other. It evokes an ever-receding Golden Age, one whose imagined sounds are constantly evoked, transformed, and codified in poetic texts and in a musical language that is subjected to the increasingly normative forces of English taste as they were formulated by Pope, Gay and Hughes, but also Burlington, Chandos, Pepusch and others. Handel’s success in Britain depended on his ability to adapt his own creative powers and proficiency to meet the expectations of an audience which did not hesitate to reject and disparage whatever did not please them. It might be thought that at Cannons, Handel was protected from the pressures of commercial demand, and to an extent this was true. But he was also in the process of learning how he could appeal to English audiences, be it in religious music, such as the oratorio Esther or the Chandos anthems, in music for public occasions like the Water Music suites, the Te Deum written at the Peace of Utrecht or the Queen’s Birthday Ode, in chamber music, of which Handel wrote a great deal and which brought him a steady income, and of course in opera, where the stakes, and the risks, were high. Handel understood that he could not rely only on Italian opera to secure his place at the heart of the English musical establishment and that he needed to be able to set English texts. But he went further, seeking to develop an English compositional style just as Gay and Pope had forged a hybrid, but distinctively English style of pastoral poetry. That there was a loss along the way seems undeniable, but Handel accepted it as the necessary price to pay for a cultural, social and political assimilation that would enable him to dominate English music for the next forty years. Seen in this context, Acis and Galatea is both the end of an engagement with Italian pastoral that had begun with his arrival in Rome in 1706 and the beginning of a new era of composition in which pastoral, always a problematic mode for the British, would play a less prominent role.

32Early eighteenth-century pastoral posits an idealised relationship between people and their natural environment. The sounds that both emerge from and evoke it are conceptualised as natural, innocent and simple. Yet the musical and poetic works I have been studying are anything but straightforward. What I have called Handel’s meta-pastoral language also informs Pope’s and Gay’s poetry which is full of allusion, irony and ambiguity. The depiction of pastoral innocence is highly sophisticated, its poetic and musical sounds full of complex resonances and suggestiveness. Nowhere is this truer than in the transformation of classical and Italian pastoral into a consciously English language. For all the Italian inspiration behind English pastoral, Handel, Pope, Gay, Hughes and others were engaged in the conscious fashioning of an English pastoral mode whose ultimate triumph was the appearance of naturalness, the naturalisation of pastoral and the creation of pastoral soundscapes whose complexity belies their supposedly innocent origins.

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Primary sources

Anon. A Critical Discourse upon Opera’s in England, and a Means proposed for their Improvement in [Raguenet, François], A Comparison between the French and Italian Musick and Opera’s. Translated from the French; with some Remarks. London: William Lewis, 1709. Print.

Gay, John. The Shepherd’s Week (1714). Ed. G.C. Faber. The Poetical Works of John Gay. London: Oxford University Press, 1926. Print.

Hughes, John. Poems on Several Occasions. With some Select Essays in Prose. 2 vols., London: J. Tonson and J. Watts, 1735. Print.

Philips, Ambrose. Pastorals. London: H. Hills, 1710. Print.

Pope, Alexander. Pastorals, with a Discourse on Pastorals (1709). Ed. John Butt. The Poems of Alexander Pope. London: Methuen, 1963. Print.

Raguenet, François. Paralèle des italiens et des François, en ce qui regarde la Musique et les opéra. Paris: Jean Moreau, 1702. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. The Shepheardes Calender. Ed. Richard A. McCabe. Edmund Spenser: The Shorter Poems. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Secondary sources

Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. Martelsham: Boydell Press, 2009. Print.

Dean, Winton. Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959. Print.

Harris, Ellen T. Handel and the Pastoral Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print.

Harris, Ellen T. Handel as Orpheus. Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas. New Haven: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.

Lang, Paul Henry. George Frideric Handel. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Print.

Monelle, Raymond. The Musical Topic, Hunt, Military and Pastoral (Musical Meaning & Interpretation). Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006. Print.

Discography and scores

Handel, George Frideric. Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, Serenata HW 72, libretto by Nicola Giuvo, 1708. La Risonanza direction Fabio Bonizzoni. Glossa, 2013.

Handel, George Frideric. Il pastor fido HWV 8a, libretto by Giacomo Rossi, 1712. La Nuova Musica direction David Bates. Harmonia Mundi, 2012.

Handel, George Frideric. Acis and Galatea HWV 49a, text by John Gay, John Hughes and Alexander Pope, Original Cannons Performing Version, 1708. Dunedin Consort and Players, direction John Butt. Linn, 2008.

Handel, George Frideric. La Resurrezione, libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, 1708. Collegium 1704 directed by Václav Luks. YouTube. 20 May 2013. Web. 2 April 2016.

The following online scores were used in the preparation of this article:

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. IMSLP Petrucci music library. 7 January 2015. Web. 2 April 2016.

Il pastor fido. IMSLP Petrucci music library. 20 December 2015. Web. 2 April 2016.

Acis and Galatea. IMSLP Petrucci music library. 7 October 2015. Web. 2 April 2016.

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1 References to these works, including the libretti, are to the recordings listed in the discography which also contains easily accessible online scores.

2 In compositions of the early eighteenth century the word “flute” can mean either a recorder or a baroque (transverse) flute. Recorders, which existed in a variety of sizes and tonalities, were more commonly used as is the case on all three recordings referred to in this article, though sometimes Handel specifies that a transverse flute should be used. Both recorders and flutes were made of wood, thus adding to their pastoral significance.

3 See Monelle, p. 215-17 for a discussion of the Siciliana rhythm.

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Jeffrey HOPES, « The sounds of early eighteenth-century pastoral: Handel, Pope, Gay, and Hughes », E-rea [En ligne], 14.2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2017, consulté le 22 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Jeffrey HOPES

Université d’Orléans
Jeffrey Hopes is Professor of English studies at the University of Orleans in France where he is a member of the POLEN research group (Pouvoirs, Lettres, Normes, EA 4710). He has published on eighteenth-century literature, in particular the theatre, the novel and life-writing, as well as on aspects of eighteenth-century religion and philosophy.

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