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Handel: “Peer Gynt Suites”

The peasant Peer Gynt, a figure from Norwegian history, is as luckless as Voltaire’s Candide. Like many legendary rascals, he is a womanizer, and sinister to boot. He abandons his wife Solveig to the Norwegian forest, the better to seek out other pleasures, then returns some four decades later to find redemption in her love. Withal, Solveig has remained faithful.

The excerpts are arranged in an attractive succession for concert performance, not the order in which they occur in the play. Dawn comes upon a desert in North Africa; the sun first peaks through the clouds after the big climax, with the broad cello theme. Aside from that, the movement, with its fine writing for solo winds, is built entirely from repetition of the melody you hear in the first four bars. The music for the death of Peer’s mother Ase was heard both as an entr-acte and during Peer’s soliloquy at her deathbed. The movement is for muted strings alone, rising heavenward, then falling dead away in a sequence of chromatic motives. Anitra is an Arab girl whom Peer encounters in the course of his African adventures. She dances a mazurka and trio for his pleasure, accompanied by the muted strings of the previous movement, now with divided violas and cellos and a single triangle. The mountain king is ruler of the trolls, set to take vengeance on Peer for having seduced one of their maidens. There is a big orchestral crescendo and climax on a single theme. At the end (in the play, a chorus cries “kill him”) blows fall, and you are meant to imagine Peer writhing in agony.

The second Suite is much the more complex and artful. Peer has tired of Ingrid, a bride he seduced shortly after her wedding. Peer’s motive and a distant call of trumpet and four stopped horns frame her melancholy song on the low strings, cantabile. The Arabians dance with tamourine-dominated percussion and piccolos; the silky middle section is a solo turn for Anitra. The wizened old Peer Gynt returns to Norway on a boat. A storm blows up on the Norwegian coast, in the middle of which you hear Peer’s thoughts, quietly expressed in the first violin and cello, of the sunn African dawn. Like all musical storms, this one subsides, in this case into the last movement. It is among the aristocracy; at home, he was on the verge of being reprimanded when, in 1714, the Elector of Hanover himself was invited by the English Parliament to become King George I.

Handel spent the rest of his career in London, widely acknowledged to be the best composer since Purcell (d. 1695). He held a royal annuity, served the Duke of Chandos (1717), and then became director of the new Italian opera house called the Royal Academy of Music (1720). For that house, and later for the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, he composed and produced more than two dozen operas, virtually the totality of his work in the 1720’s and 30’s. In 1739, as the popularity of the Italian opera ebbed, he turned his attention from opera to oratorio -large dramatic works for soloists, chorus, and orchestra to biblical texts, but without scenery or costumes. This was the period of Saul, Israel in Egypt, and Messiah (1742)—then, as now, considered immortal works.

His eyesight failed in the early 1750s, though an assistant helped him continue his work. Handel died shortly after conducting an Easter performance of Messiah in 1759 and was buried with magnificent pomp at Westminster Abbey.

Handel is very nearly the equal of Bach in his mastery of high Baroque musical practice, yet Bach and Handel seemingly knew little or nothing of the other’s work. Handel’s music is brighter and simpler than Bach’s and therefore more direct and less demanding. He had an innate feeling for vocal melody and a sense of pacing that makes even the very lengthy oratorios seem much shorter than they are. His major orchestral works include the Water Music (1717) and Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), concerti grossi for solo string and wind instruments, and twelve organ concertos (1738 and 1740).

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