Enhanced Program Notes – Handel Hercules: Fate and Faithfulness

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner

King’s Theatre, London

Queen Mary II, by Peter Lely

Iole with Heracles in the house of Eurytus, as depicted on the 7th century Eurytos column-crater, Louvre

Deianeira and the dying centaur Nessus, sketch by Howard Pyle c. 1888

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed Hercules, to a libretto by Thomas Broughton, with his usual speed; he began writing on July 19, 1744 and completed it less than one month later. For the January 1745 premiere at King’s Theatre in Haymarket, he made some revisions, mostly to expand the role of Lichas for one of his favorite singers, Mrs. Susanna Cibber. Although performed only twice that year, Handel revived Hercules in 1749 and again in 1752. Handel referred to Hercules as “Music Drama;” that is, a work without staging or costumes but on a secular topic and filled with the musical conventions of opera (recitatives and florid arias) in addition to choruses.

While the story of Hercules takes places after the title character and his second wife, Dejanira, have moved to Trachis, certain events from Hercules’ past figure prominently in this work. The first is that Hercules is the son of Jupiter and a mortal woman. Jupiter’s infidelities anger his wife Juno, who often exacts her revenge on the mortals who were born from his affairs. This is true of Hercules; he kills his first family in a fit of rage, possibly induced by Juno as punishment for her husband’s unfaithfulness.

Hercules by John Singer Sargent 1921

For this crime, the Delphic oracle instructs Hercules to serve a king, who orders him to perform tasks now known as the Twelve Labors. In the Second Labor, Hercules kills the Hydra, a many-headed serpent, and uses its venom to make poisoned arrows. After completing the Labors, Hercules enters an archery match to win the right to marry the princess Iole. He wins the contest, but Iole’s father refuses to allow the marriage because of Hercules’ past.

Now married to Dejanira, Hercules and his family move to Trachis after another incident in which Hercules kills a man. On the journey to their new home, Hercules entrusts Dejanira to the centaur Nessus while crossing a river. When Nessus tries to assault Dejanira, Hercules shoots him with a poisoned arrow. As Nessus is dying he gives Dejanira fabric soaked in his blood and tells her that it is a love charm.

Hercules, Deianira and the Centaur Nessus, by Bartholomäus Spranger, 1580 – 1582

As Handel’s music drama opens, Dejanira has given up hope that Hercules, also called Alcides, will return from his most recent absence. Lichas, a herald, prays for Hercules’ safe return and that “No longer, fate, relentless frown,” a reference to Hercules’ past and also a foreshadowing of his demise.

By alternating phrases in the instrumental introduction between smooth and detached articulations, Handel suggests that Lichas’ prayer is in vain. Dejanira echoes these same sentiments in her air, “The world, when day’s career is run.” Her air begins hopefully with rising lines and a major key,

but turns to more somber tones at “deplore in thickest gloom of grief.”

Dejanira’s son Hyllus, explaining that he sought the help of the priests in learning about his father’s fate, describes a vision of “the valiant chief in death laid low,” ultimately a future, not an immediate, prediction. Dejanira, now even more heart-broken than before, envisions being with her husband in death. In the unadorned air “There in myrtle shades reclin’d” Handel highlights the words “love”

and “eternity” with flourishes.

Framed by short passages for strings, only the basso continuo accompanies Dejanira’s music, underscoring her sincerity.

After Hyllus promises to find his father, the chorus sings “O filial piety.” In the first and last sections of this chorus, Handel doubles the chorus with instruments, creating an imposing mood that reflects Hyllus’ resolve,

and sets the middle section in imitation and at a faster pace.

Just as Hyllus is about to leave, Hercules’ return is announced.

Hercules explains that he left to battle the Oechalian king, who had refused to allow Hercules to marry his daughter, Iole, even though Hercules had won the archery contest. Returning victorious over Oechalia, and with Iole as one of the captives, Hercules believes that he has changed his fate.

Hercules grants Iole her freedom and proclaims, “from war to love I fly.” In the air that follows, “The god of battle quits the bloody field,”

Handel chooses a unison violin accompaniment that also doubles the voice at times, confirming Hercules’ decision “my cares to lose in gentle Dejanira’s fond embrace.” The exhilarating final Chorus of Act 1 is a dance-infused celebration of Hercules’ return with shifting textures and instrumental pairings that completes the emotional journey of this act from utter despair to “rapturous joys.”

Upon hearing about her husband’s latest conquest, Dejanira exclaims, “love, jealousy and rage at once distract me!”

In the subsequent air punctuated by the basso continuo and violins, Dejanira shows how disillusioned she is by Iole’s presence in Trachis.

Reminiscent of how Lichas and Hyllus tried to console Dejanira about Hercules’ absence in Act 1, Iole now explains Hercules’ actions as rooted in ambition, not love. Iole, for her part, then cautions Dejanira about the dangers of jealousy, while the ominous instrumental opening of the chorus “Jealousy!” comments on Dejanira’s state of mind.

In the second section of the chorus, Handel sets the text “trifles’ light as floating air” in figures that move quickly through the voices, yet cannot completely banish the weighty mood.

Still, Dejanira refuses to believe that Hercules is faithful. Against this backdrop, Hyllus and Iole declare their love for one another.

With all her worry over Hercules’ fate in Act 1 now transformed into confusion and distrust, Dejanira remembers that she was given a cloak that causes the wearer to fall in love. She decides that Hercules must wear this garment “dipt in Nessus’ blood … to revive th’expiring flame of love.” Once that decision is made, Dejanira reconciles with Iole. The hymn-like texture of the final Chorus of Act 2, “Love and Hymen, hand in hand,” is a prayer to love and marriage, reflecting both Dejanira’s and Iole’s hope in their respective futures.

Dejanira’s hope is destroyed with the opening of Act 3 in which the truth about Nessus’ garment is revealed: the cloak Dejanira gave to Hercules was drenched with a poison that burnt and melted Hercules’ flesh.

Death of Hercules, by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1634

Beginning with the opening Sinfonia, the music of Act 3 moves between rage and grief. In Hercules’ accompanied recitative “O Jove, what land is this” Handel vividly sets Hercules’ torments with jagged lines in the strings to represent his anger and confusion.

After a brief moment in which Hercules understands his fate, Handel creates an agitated section that gives full voice to his agony.

Handel then draws musical parallels between Hercules and Dejanira with the instrumental accompaniment to Dejanira’s recitative, “Where shall I fly?” which also features sharply drawn musical lines.

As she dramatically moves through disbelief, realization, and grief over Hercules’ physical torture, Dejanira expresses her own emotional torment in a restless sputter of musical lines

alternating with a slowly sinking melody.

As Hercules is dying, he tells Hyllus he wishes to be carried to the summit of Mount Oeta and set upon a funeral pyre. Yet, even as Hercules’ spirit is lifted to heaven, the series of events that he put into place come full circle as a priest announces that the gods approve the marriage of Hyllus and Iole, and the final celebratory chorus extols “the deathless chief, by virtue to the starry mansions rais’d.”

In adapting the story of Hercules, Thomas Broughton reshaped the title character’s actions to align with the 18th century idea of a hero. This Hercules wants only to be with his wife Dejanira; his last conquest, as Iole suggests in Act 2 is about Hercules’ ambition, not her. Of course, in the source myth, Hercules’ actions are not blameless; he takes the captive Iole as his mistress and, as he is dying, orders his young son Hyllus to marry her.

The performances this weekend are the first H+H performances of Hercules. Only the chorus “Tyrants no more shall dread” has been performed earlier, one of many choruses and several airs in an 1885 H+H concert to celebrate Handel’s 200th birthday.

Teresa M. Neff

[[April, 2018]]