“Musical Paintings” – 100th Anniversary of the Handel Opera Renaissance

This year, we are celebrating a special anniversary: 100 years ago, the first performance of a Baroque opera – and at the same time, of a Handel opera – in over 150 years took place in Göttingen. The man of the moment in 1920 was Oskar Hagen. He had studied art history and musicology, and in 1913 attended the university in Halle an der Saale, where he did a doctorate. Here, he met Hermann Abert, the professor of the musicology seminar founded by the latter in 1913. And it was here that the idea of reviving stage performances of Handel’s operas was born. This was finally realised in 1920 with the performance of Handel’s Rodelinda in Göttingen, to which city Oskar Hagen had moved in 1918 after being offered a position by the university. He was supported in this endeavour by another native of Halle: the architect and interior designer Paul Thiersch, who since 1915 had been the director and reformer of the Halle School of Trades (Hallesche Handwerkerschule), which in 1922 became the “City of Halle Workshops, Burg Giebichenstein State and Municipal Arts and Crafts School”. The success of the performance of Rodelinda in Göttingen was an enduring one: in the following years, further Handel operas were performed – and not only in that university town of Lower Saxony: all over Germany, including in Halle in 1922, Handel’s operatic œuvre was rediscovered, which is why 1920 is referred to as the year in which the Handel opera renaissance began.

By choosing “Musical Paintings” as the festival title, we want to pay homage to the art historian and musicologist Oskar Hagen, who repeatedly brought these two art forms together in his studies. One evident approach was to take a close look in particular at Handel’s oratorios, which contain a multitude of examples of tone painting. Israel in Egypt is one famous example. Not only the words tell of hailstones, frogs, flies and darkness: Handel also evokes them forcefully in the music. Even contemporaries noticed Handel’s particular penchant for tone painting. For example, Karl Friedrich Zelter referred to it in a letter dated 14 November 1828 to Goethe: “The ear becomes the eye, one wants to distinguish colours, shapes, genders.”

It is therefore not to be wondered at that if you also look for tone painting in Handel’s operas too, you find it. It occurs especially when in the libretti natural phenomena are used as metaphors. Countless thunderstorms and tempests at sea are found in the aria texts, reflecting the feelings at any given time of the protagonist in question – and Handel makes use of this to unleash veritable storms of music. He creates haunting nocturnal images, depicts Arcadian and pastoral images in music; one hears the sounds of animals – Handel makes frequent use of birdsong – and many other sounds. The writer Donna Leon has devoted a whole book to Handel’s bestiary. The orchestra plays an important role in Handel’s musical onomatopoeia. Charles Burney noticed as much back in the late eighteenth century, when he wrote of the accompaniment to an accompagnato recitative in the opera Teseo that “the wild and savage fury of the enraged sorceress Medea and her incantations are admirably painted by the instruments”.

Clemens Birnbaum