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Comparative Study of a Baroque Aria: Handel's Semele, "Where'er You Walk"

Updated on December 11, 2011

Georg Frederick Händel

Foreword

The theme of this hub pertains to a short aria from Handel's Semele. This elegant opera of the baroque period dramatizes the Greek myth of Semele and her unhappy affair with the god, Zeus. Hereinbelow, you will find the following:

  • A. Short note on Baroque Opera

  • B. The Myth of Semele

  • C. Excerpt from Alexander Pope's Second Pastoral

  • D. Lyrics and embedded music from youtube

 

Georg Frederick Händel - Where'er You Walk - MS3

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A. Short Note on Baroque Opera

Baroque opera consists almost entirely of musically accompanied dialogue or monologue with the occasional, periodic interjection of a chorus. This format was inspired by ancient Greek tragedy. The various modes of musical expression consist of what are called Recitatives, Airs, Duets, Quartets and Accompagnati.

  • Recitatives flow like normal speech and are spoken with a musical pitch. Usually the harpsichord and/or cello highlight recitatives, chiming in here and there. Recitatives describe action or events that are taking or have taken place.

  • An Air or aria consists of one character in dialogue or monoloque singing a set of lyrics repeatedly in order to show that character's reaction to events described in the recitatives. From a musical perspective a composer writes airs to show off the virtuosity of his singers and of his own composing ability. The lyrics of an air are repeated, not only for stylistic reasons, but also for the practical purpose of ensuring the audience understands what the singers are actually saying. This convention, popular during the Baroque period, is called "da capo" aria.

  • Duet and Quartets are similar to Airs, except they, of course, have two or four singers respectively.

  • An Accompagnato or an accompanied recitative is similar to a recitative except that the entire orchestra accompanies the singer, and the lyrics are usually sung at a slower more deliberate tempo for the sake of emphasis. Accompagnati are usually reserved for extremely important plot developments and create a sense of drama.

I have embedded several versions of this, my favorite aria from Handel's Semele. The lyrics come from Alexander Pope's Second Pastoral. I should also point out that this opera was written in English for an English speaking audience. Handel was a court composer in Hannover, whose rulers enjoyed association by family ties with the British throne; his patron, the Elector of Hannover, became King George I of England. This is the reason why so many of Handel's choral works, including his famous Messiah were originally written in English.

 

B. The Myth of Semele

Semele was a Theban princess and priestess of the cult of Zeus. She was exceedingly beautiful, and while she was sacrificing a massive ox in honor of the deity, as chance would have it, he feel madly in love with her. Zeus flew from Olympus in the form of a sleek golden eagle and alighted by the temple. He proceeded to seduce Semele and became her secret lover. Being a potent god, Zeus always made love to Semele in the form of a human being and never in the full majesty of his godhood since that would be too much for any mortal woman to bear. Soon Semele became pregnant and was thrilled to become the mother of the most recent of Zeus' many illegitimate sons--this particular son was destined to become the good Dionysos. Hera, Zeus' wife, was not quite as enthusiastic, and so decided to play a little trick on both Semele and Zeus.

Hera flies down from Olympus and disguises herself an old women. She talks to Semele who boasts of her impregnation. Hera, in her disguise, pretends to be incredulous and tells Semele she is being manipulated by some clever womanizer--'after all how do you know if he's really a god if you never made love to him as a god!' She tells Semele that the next time this gentleman attempts to make love with her, she should insist that he does so as a god and not in human form. Semele realizes the old lady has a point and follows her advice. When Zeus next visits, she insists that he make love to her not in human, but in divine form. Zeus is very reluctant to grant her this wish, but Semele insists and throws a temper tantrum. Zeus indulges her and makes love to her in divine form. Since Zeus is the god of, among other things, lightning and thunder, Semele is instantly vaporized in one orgasmic zap of lightning. Hera watches from above in amusement.

The aria embedded in this article comes from the part of the story where Zeus is trying to convince Semele not to make love to him while in god-form. He tries to woe her and quell her complaints, but alas, he doesn't not succeed.

C. Excerpt from Alexander Pope's Second Pastoral

1 See what delights in sylvan scenes appear!

2 Descending gods have found Elysium here.

3 In woods bright Venus with Adonis stray'd,

4 And chaste Diana haunts the forest shade.

5 Come, lovely nymph, and bless the silent hours,

6 When swains from shearing seek their nightly bow'rs;

7 When weary reapers quit the sultry field,

8 And crown'd with corn their thanks to Ceres yield,

9 This harmless grove no lurking viper hides,

10 But in my breast the serpent Love abides.

11 Here bees from blossoms sip the rosy dew,

12 But your Alexis knows no sweets but you.

13 Oh deign to visit our forsaken seats,

14 The mossy fountains, and the green retreats!

15 Where'er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade,

16 Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade;

17 Where'er you tread, the blushing flow'rs shall rise,

18 And all things flourish where you turn your eyes.

19 Oh! how I long with you to pass my days,

20 Invoke the Muses, and resound your praise!

21 Your praise the birds shall chant in ev'ry grove,

22 And winds shall waft it to the pow'rs above,

23 But would you sing, and rival Orpheus' strain,

24 The wond'ring forests soon should dance again;

25 The moving mountains hear the pow'rful call,

25 And headlong streams hang list'ning in their fall!

Händel: Semele, HWV 58 "Where'er you walk" John Aler

D. Lyrics and Music

  • 1 Where'er you walk Cool gales shall fan the glade

  • 2 Trees where you sit shall crowd into a shade

  • 3 Trees where you sit shall crowd into a shade

  • 4 Where'er you tread the blushing flowers shall rise

  • 5 And all things flourish and all things flourish where'er you turn your eyes

  • 6 Where'er you walk Cool gales shall fan the glade

  • 7 Trees where you sit shall crowd into a shade

  • 8 Trees where you sit shall crowd into a shade

"Jupiter and Thetis" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Handel: Semele, HWV 58 "Where'er you walk" John Mark Ainsley

Handel: Semele, HWV 58 "Where'er you walk" Jan Peerce

Händel: Semele, "Where'er you walk" Sumi Jo

Handel: Semele
Handel: Semele

The sensuous "Semele" was censured in its day as a "bawdy opera"--possibly because it was written in English, and the English audience could actually understand what was happening on stage. If your only exposure to Handel up until now has been the yearly 'Messiah' concert, this 1993 Deutsche Grammophon recording is a great way to get started on his operas. Semele, the beautiful, ambitious mistress of Jupiter, has got to be Kathleen Battle's perfect role. American tenor John Aler sings a lyrical, well-enunciated Jupiter. His aria, "Where'er you walk" is one of the highlights of this three-CD recording.

 

Comments

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    • Nickny79 profile imageAUTHOR

      Nickny79 

      9 years ago from New York, New York

      My favorite female vocalist is Kathleen Battle, though I hear she is quite a prima donna. There is a crazy clip of her storming out of an interview on Youtube somewhere. Kathleen, incidentally, played an excellent Semele in a recent Deutsche-Grammaphon recording of Handel's work referred to hereinabove.

    • The Old Firm profile image

      The Old Firm 

      9 years ago from Waikato/Bay Of Plenty, New Zealand

      My mother was a great fan of Jan Peerce, and I found him the strongest and least pretentious of the male singers. I confess to having never heard of Sumi Jo, so checked her out on Google, and am playing her as I write this (Strauss, Voices of Spring)

      Thanks,

      TOF

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