A moment of joy on waking up

A few weeks back, I woke up to my Apple Music playing the joyous 2nd number (a chorus) in Handel’s oratorio / serenata / masque / pastoral (opera)  Acis and Galatea (c. 1718): “Oh, the pleasure of the plains!”. I let A&G run on for a while while I did morning things, and then was treated to the even more fabulous first-act closer, the duet “Happy, happy we!” for Galatea and Acis.

Not just wonderfully joyous — remember that joy is One of My Things (see my 4/20/2 posting “Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen!”) — but also a sweet recollection of coming across Handel’s work with Ann Daingerfield (Zwicky) 60 years ago.

(Just to note that the libretto is by John Gay, of Beggar’s Opera fame.)

“Oh the pleasure”. The text.

Oh, the pleasure of the plains!
Happy nymphs and happy swains,
Harmless, merry, free and gay,
Dance and sport the hours away.

For us the zephyr blows,
For us distills the dew,
For us unfolds the rose,
And flow’rs display their hue.

For us the winters rain,
For us the summers shine,
Spring swells for us the grain,
And autumn bleeds the wine.

Oh, the pleasure. . . da capo

(I have treasured “Harmless, merry, free and gay” for all these decades. Yes, I know, not my gay, but I am lighthearted (as well as queer).)

Nice performance by the Scholars Baroque Ensemble, on YouTube here.

“Happy we!” (Well, yes, it’s totally ungrammatical for me, but then I’m not an early 18th-century Englishman.) The text:

Happy we!
What joys I feel!
What charms I see
Of all youths/nymphs thou dearest boy/brightest fair!
Thou all my bliss, thou all my joy!
Happy. .. da capo

“Thou [art] all my bliss, thou [art] all my joy!” Oh my, oh my, I melt.

YouTube brings us what must be the most luminous performance ever of this duet: Peter Pears and Joan Sutherland with the Philomusica of London under Sir Adrian Boult (1959). It’s a jig, and these people could make the dead dance.

The oratorio or whatever. It’s metamorphic. Acis, sadly, dies, and Galatea transforms him into, oh my, a fountain (if you try to stage the thing, the fountain is a challenge for the set designer). But from Wikipedia:

Acis and Galatea was the pinnacle of pastoral opera in England. … As is typical of the genre, Acis and Galatea was written as a courtly entertainment about the simplicity of rural life and contains a significant amount of wit and self-parody. The secondary characters, Polyphemus and Damon, provide a significant amount of humor without diminishing the pathos of the tragedy of the primary characters, Acis and Galatea. The music of the first act is both elegant and sensual, while the final act takes on a more melancholy and plaintive tone.

… Since Acis and Galatea has been adapted many times, it is impossible to provide a single synopsis that accurately reflects every presentation of the work. The following is a synopsis for the typical two-act presentation of the work that is most often used for modern performances.

Act 1: Shepherds and nymphs enjoy “the pleasure of the plains”. Galatea, a semi-divine nymph, is in love with the shepherd Acis, and tries to hush the birds that ignite her passion for him (Recit.”Ye verdant plains” & Aria “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!”) Acis’s close friend, the shepherd Damon, provides counsel to the lovers as they pursue each other. He sings a beautiful siciliana-style serenade, “Love in her eyes sits playing”, upon their first meeting. The act closes with a duet by the young lovers, “Happy we”, which is echoed by a chorus …

Act 2: The opera shifts from its pastoral and sensual mood into an elegiac quality as the chorus warns Acis and Galatea about the arrival of a monstrous giant, Polyphemus, singing “no joy shall last”. The fugal minor-key of the chorus’s music along with the percussive lines in the lower instruments, indicating the heavy footsteps of the giant, provides an effective dramatic transition into the more serious nature of the second act. Polyphemus enters singing of his jealous love for Galatea, “I rage, I melt, I burn”, which is in a part-comic furioso accompanied recitative. This is followed by his aria “O ruddier than the cherry” which is written in counterpoint to a sopranino recorder. Polyphemus threatens force but is somewhat soothed by the impartial shepherd, Coridon (“Would you gain the tender creature”). Meanwhile, Acis ignores Damon’s warning of the fleeting existence of love’s delight (“Consider, fond shepherd”) and responds with hostility and the determination to resist (“Love sounds th’ alarm”). Acis and Galatea promise eternal fidelity to each other in what begins as a duet (“The flocks shall leave the mountains”) but ultimately turns into a trio when Polyphemus intrudes and in a rage murders Acis. Galatea, along with the chorus, mourns the loss of her love (“Must I my Acis still bemoan”). The chorus reminds her of her divinity and that with her powers she can transform Acis’s body into a beautiful fountain. The work closes with Galatea’s larghetto air, “Heart, the seat of soft delight”, in which she exerts her powers to enact the transformation, ending with the chorus celebrating Acis’s immortalisation.

[Digression: why not Galatea and Acis? Pairings of names are ordered according to several principles, two powerful ones being: Male Before Female; Shorter (in number of syllables) Before Longer. Both would predict the actually occurring order, Acis and Galatea. But the action is driven by Galatea’s desire for Acis, the central action turns on the contestation between Polyphemus and Acis for Galatea’s love, and Galatea’s action resolves the tragedy of Acis’s death, by transforming his body into a fountain — so, according to a third ordering principle, More Significant (in the context) Before Less Significant, the work should have been called Galatea and Acis. (There is a considerable literature on these ordering principles.)

Male Before Female predicts Arnold and Ann. Shorter Before Longer predicts Ann and Arnold. More Significant Before Less Significant predicts one or the other, depending on the context; my parents said Arnold and Ann, her family said Ann and Arnold, no surprise.

The principles are preferences or tendencies, not rigid rules, and there’s a certain amount of idiosyncrasy in what actually gets said or written. Some of the literature on the principles looks at second-level effects: when two principles are in conflict, are there tendencies as to which one prevails? (The answer is yes.)]

You’ve heard the music, now look at the art. Specifically, Nicolas Poussin’s Acis and Galatea (1627-28):

From the National Gallery of Ireland online collection site:

This arcadian [AZ: and sex-drenched] scene was inspired by a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book XIII). In the foreground, the lovers Acis and Galatea embrace, as tritons and nereids frolic [AZ: frolic isn’t the word I would have chosen] in the waves. Behind them, the one-eyed giant Polyphemus sits on a promontory overlooking the sea. He plays a love song to Galatea on the syrinx. Winged amorini hold drapery to shield the ill-fated couple from his view. In Ovid’s poem, Polyphemus, whose ardour for Galatea was unrequited, hurled a rock at Acis in a jealous rage and killed him. While the mood in the foreground of the painting is playful and sensual, the isolated figure of Polyphemus and the dark clouds overhead convey a sense of pathos and foreboding.

(A nereid is a sea-nymph (much like a mermaid); a triton is the male counterpart; amorini are cupids; a syrinx is a set of panpipes.)

And about Poussin, from Wikipedia:

Nicolas Poussin (June 1594 – 19 November 1665) was the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, although he spent most of his working life in Rome. Most of his works were on religious and mythological subjects painted for a small group of Italian and French collectors. He returned to Paris for a brief period to serve as First Painter to the King under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, but soon returned to Rome and resumed his more traditional themes.

… Each of Poussin’s paintings told a story. Though he had little formal education, Poussin became very knowledgeable in the nuances of religious history, mythology and classical literature, and, usually after consulting with his clients, took his subjects from these topics. Many of his paintings combined several different incidents, occurring at different times, into the same painting, in order to tell the story, and the affetti, or facial expressions of the participants, showed their different reactions. Aside from his self-portraits, Poussin never painted contemporary subjects.


4 Responses to “A moment of joy on waking up”

  1. Ellen Kaisse Says:

    I didn’t know about the Sutherland-Pears version, which is super. I am rather partial to this one — with puppets, no less, and Czech (I think) subtitles! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcPCviY9l78

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Oh, that *is* wonderful. Yes, Czech; the music director — isn’t she great to watch? — is Czech. And then there’s the puppet theatre.

      Thank you!

      • Ellen Kaisse Says:

        Yes, love the music director. Reminds me a bit or two of the women shown working with Marin Alsop on the NPR Great Performances show.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    One of the first concerts I ever performed with the Boston Cecilia, a chorus in which I sang fro 1974 to 2003, was a concert performance of Acis and Galatea, and I remember the fun I had singing “free and gay” over and over, with the word gay landing repeatedly on a high F for the basses.

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