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Second Sight - Music with Wilfrid Mellers

5. The Tyrant as Hero.
Reflections on a Handel opera

'... beautifully sung by Natasha March and Elisabeth Cragg'


During Europe's Heroic Age -- roughly speaking, from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century -- Man grew so proud of his heroic accomplishments that he imagined that anything God could do he ought to be able to do better. Our reason, abetted by our will, seemed irresistible: so at Europe's sundry centres of power autocratic societies invented myths, precipitated into artistic conventions, that paid homage to Man in the Highest. Among the most potent of these conventions was Heroic Opera (opera seria) which, nurtured in Italy on the Italian language, eventually pervaded most of Europe, especially France of the almighty Roi Solei, Germany and Austria, and, more peripherally, the Scandinavian countries.

Silla. An opera in 3 acts by George Frideric Handel (c) 2000 SOMM Recordings

Such operas, created by people acutely conscious of being conscious, were stylized in their forms and rigid in their ethical rather than religious formulations. They dealt in the potent passions of people who believed, or at least hoped, that man could play God, taking as heroes and heroines men and women deriving from the god-aspiring humans of classical antiquity, or from historical but legendary power-addicts who were often tyrants. The pieces' reliance on man-made values, despite frequent rhetorical appeals to 'the gods', meant that these myths were prone to be morally confused and confusing; indeed, heroic opera may have been the main medium through which people attempted courageously to confront, if inadequately to control, their confusions. Significantly the greatest composer of heroic operas, Handel, was a European rather than a national figure. Born in Germany, he displayed dazzling precocity as a student in Italy, but established a mature career in England where, in the second decade of the 18th century, he came as a fashionable pragmatist as well as famous artist, ostensibly to sell Italian opera to our rapidly rising, potentially affluent, middle class. In this new world ethical values were spread more widely and broadly, while being less meticulously defined, than they were in Italy and France. Handel's supremacy lies in the fact that, though his scale of values is still strictly schematic in being measured by the limitations of human intellect and will, it allows, in incipient democracy, for both variety and depth of human motivation.

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Copyright © 31 March 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK







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