Acis and Galatea

Poussin Polyphemus
Nicolas Poussin: Landscape with Polyphemus

Performance history
Dramatis Personae and scene breakdown
Some useful web links

A Masque, a Pastoral, and sometimes a Serenata

Music by George Frederic Handel, words mostly by John Gay, with adaptations from Pope, one song by Hughes

modern editions
Barnby rev Watkins Shaw 1974 (Novello)
Clifford Bartlett 1988 (Kings Music)

1718 Cannons; one-act without chorus Happy We; five soloists sang everything. Handel made no attempt to introduce it or Esther (also written for Cannons) to London.

1722 Songs published

1727 Songs sung at Bristol

1731 Performed at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre as benefit for tenor Philip Rochetti; cast: Leveridge Polypheme, Thos Salway (former Cannons treble?) Damon, Jean Laguerre Coridon, Mrs Wright Galatea. Perf described as Pastoral, probably staged.

1732/ May Advertised by Arne père as Pastoral Opera in season of English Opera at New (Little) Theatre, Haymarket - probably pirated. Cast: Thos Mountier Acis, Susanna Arne Galatea, Gustavus Waltz Polypheme, Susanna Mason Damon.

1732/ June Advertised by Handel “now revised” as a Serenata at the King’s: no action, but picturesque scenery, with Nymphs and Shepherds distributed about the landscape. Squashed Arne and his English Opera by weight of personnel, scenery, and orchestra - inflated original by incorporating quantities of Aci Galatea e Polifemo (1708, Rome) sung by the Italian opera singers augmented by some English ones, lots transposed and orchestrated, total dog’s dinner:

cast: Senesino Acis, Strada Galatea, Montagnana Polifemo.

pastoral subplot: Mrs Robinson Cloris, Mrs Davis Eurilla (both singing in English), Bagnolesi Filli, Bertolli Dorinda, Pinacci Silvio (in Italian), chorus sang impartially in both languages.

NB Both these versions were in 3 Acts.

1732-42 Handel continues to revise: cf BM MS RM 19.f.7

1733 Oxford, still with Italian numbers: NB Cloris sung by Mrs Wright, Consider fond shepherd transposed tone down.

1734 revived with Carestini as Acis: additional arias from Pastor Fido etc

1736 still bilingual, and no action on the stage.

1739 no Italians in company, so reverted to English text, though still Serenata: added chorus Happy we with carillon, but omitted various bits (rewritten as recit) to incorporate concert grossi. Cast: Beard Acis, Francesina Galatea, Reinhold Polypheme, Boy Damon (ie sop). NB Carillon also used in Saul (1738/39). Last chorus cut by 19 bars.

1742 Handel’s last arrangement, as Masque, for Dublin: Carillon removed from Happy we. However, still not in familiar form...

Frequently revived through 18th and 19th centuries, often as bouncy English pastoral (cf pantomimes), then as oratorio as Handel became sacred.

No act division in original: duet goes straight into chorus Wretched lovers.

Besetzung: sop, 3 tenors (though 1st tenor could be counter-tenor), bass: note against 1st tenor in Wretched lovers: “this part in Contralt”.

Band: 2vl, 2ob (+recorders), 2 vlc, b.c (NB no Kb, organ; flauto picciolo=flageolet)

NB Mozart wrote additonal wind parts in 1788

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The story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a fast-moving sequence of interlocking stories, describing nymphs and shepherds transformed into trees, rocks, rivers, or animals, quite often as a result of a Greek god indulging him or herself. Part traditional, part invented, they illustrate, amongst other things, the Pythagorean transmigration of souls. They also contain perhaps the most witty and ingenious writing that has come down to us from the ancient world. These stories caught the imagination of artists through ten centuries, and in spite of the decline of interest in classical literature through the last century we are still familiar with many of them (indeed, a new translation by Ted Hughes made the best-seller lists not so very long ago): the tales of Apollo and Daphne, Pan and Syrinx, Narcissus, Orpheus and Euridice, Pygmalion, whether we know of them through painting or sculpture or opera, they all derive eventually from the Metamorphoses.

In 1717 a new translation of the Metamorphoses was announced, by various gentlemen of fashion and letters, including Alexander Pope and his friend John Gay. Everybody with any literary pretensions wanted to contribute - it was very much the fashionable thing to do. Also in 1717 the Italian opera company in London was going through a bad time: the rival playhouses were mounting a lively attack, promoting patriotic English entertainments and the late English Orpheus Henry Purcell : they countered the Italian operas with English musical masques, as they called them, such as Dido and Aeneas. More seriously, the opera’s financial arrangements had become extremely confused, and the whole enterprise had to be suspended for two years, until the founding of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719 brought the great era of Italian - and Handelian - opera to London. Handel, not yet commissioned by the Academy, but already part of fashionable London society, found a niche well insulated from the problems of the opera, at the country house of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (later Duke of Chandos).

This country house, called Cannons, was at Edgware, far enough from London to be pleasantly rural, though not so far that one couldn’t ride back to be in town for dinner. Brydges had made a fortune and acquired a title through fairly dubious financial dealings, but was eager to spend his money in the pursuit of art. He kept a small band of musicians and a large number of landscape gardeners in constant employment on his vast and luxurious estate. Handel was too grand to be his house composer - Pepusch held that post - but for nearly two years, during which time there are no records of his being in London, he is thought to have enjoyed the Earl’s patronage at Cannons, composing the “Chandos” anthems for the Earl’s chapel, and also a “little opera”.

Handel had already encountered the theme: in Rome, in 1708, he had composed a Serenata called Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. However, Acis and Galatea is completely different, and owes much more to the contemporary London cultural scene. John Gay wrote the libretto with some help from Alexander Pope, John Hughes, and the Queen’s physician John Arbuthnot, and Handel composed the music in the spring of 1718. He called it at first a Masque, since it was short and in English. Its subsequent performance history is very complicated: Handel revived it several times in later years, changing it every time, and sometimes incorporating music from the earlier Italian Serenata. It was immensely popular in all its incarnations - King George III himself commanded no fewer than 24 performances.

Away from the oversophisticated society of Town, to an equally mannered version of the country - what could be more appropriate than a pastoral tale taken from the currently fashionable Ovid, a tale of nymphs and shepherds, or rather town society dressed up as shepherds, who find Nature at her rawest, in the shape of Polypheme, who is an excellent if physically repulsive farmer with an unfortunate habit of eating people.

Their understandable disgust at Polypheme is at first very much that of the weekend visitor to the country who inadvertently steps in a cowpat. Polypheme is at first a figure of fun, unfashionably offering plums and cream instead of civilised poetic metaphors, but when rejected, he reveals his truly savage side. Their mockery changes to genuine fear at the destructive power he unleashes.

But the soul cannot be utterly destroyed, a belief common both to Pythagorean Ovid and Christian Handel, and what began, long before Ovid, as a curious story of demi-gods (invented partly to explain a river-name), becomes a parable on Nature, Art, the destructive power of hate, and the transforming power of love, as Acis becomes a part of Nature, in the shape of a gentle life-giving river, inspiration of poets to come.

This is the eighteenth century: the aesthetic system dictates that physical ugliness is supposed to be the indication of an ugly soul. In this case Polypheme is ugly because he is vain, unrestrained, irrational and gives in to his nastiest passions. However, John Gay was writing for an educated, witty audience, who knew perfectly well that things are not so simple, and that beautiful people can be shallow, ugly people can have genuine feelings, and that gentleness and destruction are equally Natural.

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Dramatis Personae
Galatea soprano
Acis tenor
Damon tenor
Coridon tenor [1718]
[Clori] mezzo [1733]
Polypheme bass

Chorus SSATTB [orig GC3C4C4F]

Orchestra: 1718: vl, vl, ob, ob (doubling recorders), bassoon, basso continuo.
1732 revival includes viola and carillon in extra chorus.


Sinfonia: presto/ adagio
Chorus [SSATB]: O the pleasure of the plains
Solo [T in orig] and chorus: For us the zephyr blows
Chorus da capo

Recit accomp Galatea Ye verdant plains
Air (flauto piccolo) Hush ye pretty warbling choir

Air (oboe) Acis Where shall I seek the charming fair

Recit Damon Stay shepherd stay
Air Shepherd what art thou pursuing

Recit Acis Lo here my love
Air Love in her eyes

Recit Galatea O didst thou know
Air (oboe) As when the dove

Duet Happy we

Chorus [GC3C4F] Happy we


Chorus [GC3C4C4F] Wretched lovers

Recit accomp Polypheme I rage
Air (flauto piccolo octavo) O ruddier than the cherry

Recit Polypheme/ Galatea Whither fairest
Air Polypheme Cease to Beauty to be suing

Air Damon [Coridon] Would you gain the tender creature

Recit Acis His hideous love
Air Love sounds the alarm

Air Damon [Clori?] Consider fond shepherd

Recit Galatea Cease o cease thou gentle youth
Trio The flocks shall leave the mountains

Recit accomp Acis Help Galatea

Chorus Mourn all ye Muses

Air and chorus Must I my Acis/ Cease Galatea

Recit Galatea Tis done
Air (recorders) Heart the seat of soft delight

Chorus (GC3C4C4F) Galatea dry thy tears

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Some links to Handel webpages
The Handel House in London
The Handel House in Halle nb includes a very useful links page

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