Apollo ~ About the Music With less than a third of their lives lived, two young composers embarked on journeys that would prove formative to their creative futures. In the 18th century, young musicians of promise and some means might set out on a grand tour of study and performance; soaking in the culture, improving their language skills, and forging international connections. George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were two of these musical grand tourists.
In 1706, at the age of 21, Handel traveled to Italy at the invitation of members of the Medici family, where he worked with musicians such as Arcangelo Corelli, and became the darling of the circles surrounding cardinals Pietro Ottoboni, Benedetto Pamphili, and Carlo Colonna., all patrons of the arts and especially of musicians and composers. This Italian sojourn, which took him to Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice, exposed Handel to the Italian style and compositional opportunities which catapulted his development as a composer, particularly of vocal forms.
Likewise, in 1766, at the age of 11, Mozart set off on a grand concert tour of Germany, Belgium, France, England, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. He performed at leading courts and theatres, and equally importantly, heard performances of works by many of the most celebrated composers of the day.
Two cosmopolitan youthful, 18th-century composers, two characterizations of Apollo, and one budding contemporary composer set the stage for today’s performance.
Edwin Sung Overture to Apollo e Dafne (2016)
The original overture to Handel’s Apollo e Dafne has not survived. The performance tradition has evolved to substitute another of the composer’s instrumental works, typically a movement from one of the Concerto Grossi. Today we break with tradition to present a new overture composed by Edwin Sung, the winner of our Handel Overture Composition Competition. This new work blends the instrumentation, harmony, and character of Handel and Mozart.
The composer, Edwin Sung, writes about his overture:
The Apollo e Dafne Overture has the same tonality as the beginning of Apollo e Dafne - B-flat major - in order to facilitate the establishment of connection between them. The overture, similar to a typical French Overture layout, is divided into two sections. The first of which is a slow introduction in a consistently dotted rhythmic fashion, and ends in the dominant key. The second section is a relatively lively fugue, with more contrapuntal compositional techniques being featured in it. The tonality at a later stage in this section becomes ambiguous as key modulations become more frequent; this is followed by a brief resolution in a perfect cadence to end this overture, which is shortly followed by the opening of the Apollo e Dafne.
Handel Apollo e Dafne, HWV 122 (1709-10)
When papal edicts banned public performances of opera in Rome in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, opera audiences and composers turned to dramatic cantatas for lust, hysteria and death. Under cover of portraying mythological or historical figures, cantatas could treat the same subjects without risking papal displeasure or legal action. Handel’s Apollo e Dafne is perhaps the greatest example of one of these miniature ‘pocket’ operas, masquerading behind the pseudonym of ‘cantata’.
Apollo e Dafne is among the last of the cantatas Handel composed in Italy, and comprises one of the richest sources of Handelian compositional parody: he re-used all but one of its arias and duets in later operas or oratorios, some multiple times. Full of exquisite music, its harmonic adventure, vivid instrumentation, virtuosic vocal writing and vitality characterize Handel’s early years.
Apollo e Dafne tells a well-known and touching story drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and theatrically etched with Handel’s colorful music. Although it is Dafne who undergoes physical transformation, Apollo undergoes an equally dramatic emotional metamorphosis. The braggadocio warrior who, in his jaunty opening aria, boasts about delivering Greece from a savage dragon becomes, by the end, a chastened lover who vents his grief with nobility and restraint.
The story begins with Apollo’s heroism, and the middle of it plays out as comedy. But the tone turns suddenly tragic when Apollo mourns Dafne’s transformation into a bay laurel tree, and pledges to wear her leaves as a laurel of victory. The final aria, in the fashion of music written for French lyric tragedy, portrays Apollo’s denouement. Our tale ends with a poignant lesson: the inevitable choice between reason and love, duty and passion.
Mozart Apollo et Hyacinthus, K. 38 (1767)
Mozart’s first true opera is by any standard a remarkable achievement. Composed in 1767 when he was only eleven years old, Apollo et Hyacinthus was commissioned by the secondary school, or gymnasium, attached to Salzburg’s Benedictine University.While it is bewildering that anyone could write an opera of any merit at such an age, the depth of character development and rich connection to melodic beauty and rhythmic intensity is truly astonishing.
Since 1617 the grammar school attached to Salzburg’s Benedictine University had had a tradition of performing an annual Latin play. In May 1767 the third year students a performed a five-act Latin tragedy, Clementia Croesi (‘The Clemency of Croesus’). Over the years it had also become customary for a short musical entertainment, or ‘intermedium’, to be interpolated within the main play; this was also in Latin, and provided relief from the didactic nature of the main play while ultimately reinforcing its often-moralistic message.
Clementia Croesi was written by a Benedictine monk and professor, Rufinus Widl. Based on Herodotus, this story dealt with the accidental death in a hunting accident of the son of King Croesus. Widl turned to the mythological story of Apollo and the murdered Hyacinth, based mostly on Ovid, in writing the libretto for Mozart’s intermedium.
In Ovid’s version of the story, Apollo is in love with Hyacinth. They start playing with a discus: Hyacinth is so impressed by the skill and strength of Apollo’s first throw that he enthusiastically runs to retrieve the discus as it falls. ; However, the discus ricochets off a rock and strikes Hyacinth a mortal blow to the head. A grief-stricken Apollo refuses to let Hades claim the boy, and instead creates a flower, the hyacinth, from his spilled blood. Other accounts of the myth add the character of Zephyrus, Apollo’s rival for the affections of Hyacinth. In this version, the jealous Zephyrus deliberately blows Apollo’s discus off course and causes it to strike Hyacinth.
In support of the analogous themes of Clementia Croesi, and to make the story more acceptable to 18th century audiences, Brother Widl adapted the plot still further, adding the characters of Melia and Oebalus. Melia becomes the object of Apollo’s now heterosexual love, with Zephyrus providing the treachery and deceit propelling the drama forward, while Oebalus is now responsible for banishing Apollo from his kingdom. The result is a theme of forgiveness and redemption, foreshadowing some of Mozart’s later operas such as La clemenza di Tito.
The opera is divided into three parts and given classical titles: the Prologue was performed before the play, Chorus I after the second act, and Chorus II before the fifth and final act. For today’s performance, all the secco recitatives have been replaced by narration. The soloists for the first performance were all boys ranging in age from 12 to 18; Oebalus was sung by a 22 year-old student in moral theology and canon law.
However, Mozart made few technical concessions to the youthfulness of his original singers. The child composer’s playful precociousness reveals itself in the dramatic word painting, expansive vocal ranges (especially for Melia) and highly effective orchestration that add dimension to the characters. In addition we hear perhaps the influences from his recent grand tour: the vanity aria for Melia in Act II “Laetare, iocari,” characterized by jubilant virtuosity with demanding coloratura, harkens back to Morgana’s “Tornami a vagheggiar” from Handel’s Alcina, and the powerful aria for Oebalus in Act III “Ut navis in aequore luxuriante” lamenting the death of his son. We hear as well as the grandeur of the opening chorus, reminiscent of the French operatic master Christoph Willibald Gluck.
Of special note and significance are the two marvelous duets. They not only reveal an astounding grasp of character and motivation for a young composer, but also strongly intimate the mature operatic genius to come. The Act II conflict duet “Discede crudelis!” for the acrimonious Melia and the assuaging, yet pleading Apollo, extraordinarily demonstrates Mozart’s uncanny skill at enabling two distinctly different emotions to coexist in the same music. The emotional climax of the score is undoubtedly the Act III duet between Oebalus and Melia, “Natus cadit, Atque Deus.” A piece of remarkable sophistication and breathtaking beauty, it is scored for muted first violins against rippling violas and pizzicato second violins, cello and bass amidst the warm pillow of horns creating a sublime texture for the father-daughter lament. Here, possibly for the first time, we encounter the transcendence found in the slow movements of some of the mature piano concertos. In fact Mozart soon recycled this music for the Andante of his Symphony in F Major, K. 43 that same year, and it also perhaps served as the inspiration for the ravishing trio from Cosí fan tutte, “Soave sia il vento” some twenty-three years later.
Apollo et Hyacinthus depicts such a wholly integrated operatic world in miniature, encompassing the widest array of emotion in every note; it is easy to forget this vivacious, fresh work is that of an eleven year old boy