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Handel's "Acis and Galatea" Newly Available

In a supplementary edition based on the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, Bärenreiter has released the vocal score [BA 4039a] of one of Handel's most popular works, Acis and Galatea, edited by Wolfram Windszus from whose preface we quote:

Handel's masque Acis and Galatea has come down to us in two distinct versions sanctioned by the composer: the original conception of 1718, and the revision of 1739 and 1742 respectively. This species of stage work was related to the early eighteenth-century English masque by virtue of its choral numbers and straightforward formal design, and to the Italian serenata due to its use of one voice to a part in the choruses. In the England of Handel's day it was given a multitude of generic names: besides "masques," such works were often called "little operas," "English operas," or "pastoral operas" (the term "serenata" had not yet entered English parlance). Handel himself did not specify the genre of Acis and Galatea in his autograph score, and probably as a result uncertainty arose among copyists, printers, and performers as to the work's proper designation, for it has come down to us with a confusing array of generic titles. Handel wrote the piece for James Brydges (1674-1744), Earl of Carnarvon and later Duke of Chandos, at whose country estate in Cannons the composer spent the years 1717 and 1718.

Ever since the latter half of the seventeenth century, the complex of myths surrounding the figures of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus, though largely used as material for operas, also provided the basis for lesser dramatic forms. In 1686 Lully wrote a pastorale héroique entitled Acis et Galathée for Paris; John Eccle's masque Acis and Galatea enjoyed great popularity in London from 1701 to 1723 (Handel was very probably acquainted with this work), and Giovanni Bononcini mounted an opera, Polifemo, at Charlottenburg near Berlin in 1702. Indeed, Handel himself had already set the subject in 1708, in a serenata a tre entitled Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (HWV 72), and he returned to this setting for his bilingual serenata Acis and Galatea of 1732 (HWV 49b).

The definitive poetic treatment of this material, which originally consisted of isolated myths, derives from Book 13 of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The librettists made use of John Dryden's English translation of 1717, The Story of Acis, Polyphemus and Galatea. The libretto for Handel's masque, which was presumably planned as a serenata a tre voci, was a collaborative effort on the part of John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes. All three men were well acquainted with Handel from the years they had spent with the Earl of Burlington in Piccadilly (1713-17).

The beauty, poise, and easy accessibility of Acis and Galatea, along with its small orchestra and the minor demands it places on executants, made it one of the post popular pieces in the entire Handel repertoire. No other work of Handel's was copied out so frequently or printed complete at such an early date (1743). After the first public performance in March 1731, at a benefit concert for the tenor Philip Rochetti in London, the masque received some fifty performances during Handel's lifetime, making it his most frequently performed work altogether.

Nor did this situation change after Handel's death. On the Continent, Gottfried von Swieten and his Society for the Cultivation of Early Music (founded in 1780) were instrumental in promoting Handel's oratorios. Mozart reorchestrated four of Handel's works at von Swieten's behest, beginning with Acis and Galatea in 1788 (K. 566). His arrangement was performed three times. In Berlin, the young Mendelssohn produced an arrangement of Acis and Galatea in 1828 and gave the work at the Sing-Akademie. Isolated numbers from Acis and Galatea were often heard in mixed concert programs, especially the terzetto "The flocks shall leave the mountains."

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