Acis and Galatia

by George Frideric Handel

Program notes by Paul Zweifel

(copyright 2005)

Statue of Acis and Galatea in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was born in Halle, Germany where, in 1702, he entered the university to study law. However in less than a year he left for Hamburg to continue the study of music which he had begun as a young boy. (At the age of 12 he was already assistant organist at the Halle cathedral.)

Handel spent the years 1706-1710 traveling in Italy, there developing his Italianate composition style and, in particular, his taste for Italian opera. In 1710 he returned to Germany where he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover who, in 1714, became King George I of England. By this time Handel had emigrated to London where he and the king were famously "reconciled" (Handel, who had left Germany after promising to return after a year, had overstayed his leave).1 Except for a short trip to Italy in 1728-29, Handel spent the rest of his life in London.

In England Handel continued with the composition of Italian operas already begun in Florence (Rodrigo, 1707) and Venice (Agrippina, 1709). The maturity of his style, already evident in Agrippina became much more evident in his first work for the London stage (Rinaldo, 1711) and indeed today Rinaldo, along with Giulio Cesare (1724), are considered by most musiclogists to be his finest operas.

By the time Acis and Galatea was written, in 1718, there was already considerable sentiment contra Italian opera in England, to a large extent fomented by the inability of the English opera-going public to understand the words.2 So Acis was written in English, and was advertised not as an "opera" but as a "masque." This choice of terminology was more than a little strange as the so-called "masque" style of entertainment, which had been so popular in the 17th centuries (Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones being Englandís principal masquers), had died out with the Restoration. These entertainments were rather like variety shows, involving a hodge-podge of singing, dancing, recitationsóyou name it, they had it. Not at all similar to Acis and Galatea.

In any event, for some reason Handel termed his pastoral opera a "masque"; it is admittedly different from the normal opera in that it is short and there are only four characters (one very minor) plus chorus. It resembles somewhat the Italian "intermezzi," short musicals played between the acts of opera seria, Pergolesiís La Serva Padrona being a well-known example. (It is possible that Acis was intended to be presented privately at the estate of the Duke of Chandos; if so, this would account for its minimalist structure.) Acis also is very baroque in style; in particular most of the arias are of da capo type. That is, they are composed of three sections, the third a reprise of the first (except that the singers were expected to introduce ad lib melismatic embellishments the second time through). Most people are already familiar with this style from Handelís Messiah.

Acis based on a story written by the Greek Sicilian poet Theocritus about 275 BCE and then repeated in Book 13 of Ovidís Metamorphoses. Recall that Ovid only repeated stories that he had obtained elsewhere; he never created anything original. And all of his tales had to do with changes of some sort, as the title of his work implies, for example of Narcissus into a flower and Echo into a refrain. The story of Acis has to do with the metamorphosis of the shepherd boy Acis into a river.

Acis was killed by the Cyclops Polyphemus, the same Cyclops who was later blinded by Odysseus in Book 9 of the Odyssey.3 Polyphemus and Galatea were both in love with the sea nymph Galatea. When she expressed her preference for Acis (to the extent, it seems, of coupling with him in a grotto) Polyphemus discovered them and, in a jealous rage, crushed the 16-year-old Acis with a rock. Acis was thereupon changed into a river by Galatea (who had that power, being a goddess). The river still exists today in the Catania plain of Sicily, although it flows entirely underground. Many towns and villages in that area bear the name of Acis (Aci in Italian). One finds, inter alia, Acireale, Acicastello, Aci Catena, Aci Trezza, and Aci San Filippo.

The Acis-Galatea legend was a popular subject in the 1600ís and early 1700ís, having been set by such composers as Charpentier, Lully, John Eccles and Handel himself in an earlier version (as a cantata).

It is interesting that the legend of the Cyclops originated from Mount Etna which is, after all, a one-eyed monster which hurls rocks. The coast of the Ionian Sea, just below Etna, is known as the Costa dei Cicopli to this day, from the large number of Etna boulders strewn all around. Since the Cyclops were sons of Poseidon, the god of the sea, this suggests that the early inhabitants of Sicily viewed Etna as having risen from the sea, a pretty up-to-date scientific view of the origin of volcanic islands. The plural Cicopli expresses the fact that Etna has several rock-spewing craters.

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        1. This reconciliation was the occasion for the composition of one of Handelís most enduring instrumental pieces, "Water Music."
         2. In the April 3, 1711 issue of the Spectator, John Addison wrote a lengthy diatribe against Italian opera, including     the words: " Öour Great-grandchildren will be very curious to know the Reason why their Forefathers used to sit like an Audience of Foreigners in their own country, and to hear whole Plays acted before them in a Tongue which they did not understand." By the mid 1720ís, the emergence of English ballad opera (like John Gayís Beggarsí Opera) was the beginning of the end for Italian opera in England. Handel turned his attention to oratorio, producing works like Messiah which far surpass his operatic endeavors.
          3. Strictly speaking, the Cyclops who killed Galatea should be called "Polyphemus 2." Polyphemus 1 was not a Cyclops at all, but rather one of Jasonís Argonauts. "Cyclops" comes from the Greek word "Kuklops" meaning "round eye," as the entire race had but a single eye, in the middle of the forehead. James Joyce, in Chapter 12 of Ulysses, the "Cyclops episode," has Leopold Bloom tangling with a one-eyed anti-Semite (known only as the "Citizen") in Barney Kiernanís pub.