The Choice of Hercules
A musical interlude by GF Handel (1685-1759)
Libretto by Thomas Morrell
Marsh Court, Hampshire, September 2011
Holywell Music Room, Oxford, October 2011
Music at Wotton, January 2012
Lincoln College, Oxford, June 2012
Studley Priory, June 2012
An Attendant on Pleasure
|Hercules, a youth||Christopher Lowrey (June)|
Conductor and harpsichord
|The Bampton Classical Players|
The Choice of Hercules is a gem of a piece. Handel’s English oratorios were not confined to sacred subjects – indeed there are several on the themes of classical mythology, notably Semele (which is an opera in all but name), Acis and Galatea and The Choice of Hercules. The latter, at about 45 minutes long, is the shortest of Handel’s dramatic works and the music is largely recycled from incidental music to a play based on Euripides’ Alceste.
The story is a simple allegory. Hercules, a youth, is approached by Pleasure and Virtue with their respective claims. Pleasure, in two successive arias, offers him a characteristic 18th-century bower of bliss, with ‘numerous sparkling rills’, rich odours, cool fountains, shady groves, a bed of flowers, ‘embathed in bliss and wrapt in ease’. Hercules is urged by Pleasure and the chorus to ‘seize these blessings… be hail’d the rose-crown’d king of joy, and reign on Pleasure’s downy throne’. Virtue rebukes Pleasure in somewhat peremptory tones: ‘Away, mistaken wretch! This manly youth’s exalted mind, Above thy grov’ling taste refined, Shall listen to my awful voice’ and bids him assert his heavenly race, ‘level pride’s high-plumed crest, And bravely succour the distrest’. The chorus first urges Hercules to follow the path of Virtue, but Pleasure counters with her ‘Turn thee, youth, to joy and love, why, ah why this fond delay?’ Hercules is at first unsure whether he is capable of obeying the call to the virtuous life (‘Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay’) and the Attendant on Pleasure responds with a persuasive vision of the Elysian Fields. This leads to a masterly trio in which Hercules’ cries of ‘Where shall I go?’ are answered by the two competing goddesses each with their conflicting instructions. In the end Hercules is won over by the promise of immortality - ‘among the Gods a God’ - and sets himself with Virtue to ‘mount the steep ascent’. The final chorus, in the unexpected key of G minor, leaves the listener in what the Handel scholar Winton Dean describes as the ‘emphatic if paradoxical conviction that the hero’s loss far outweighs his gain’.
As might be expected Pleasure, being Pleasure, gets the better of the music, and it has been suggested that Virtue’s rather more perfunctory offering is perhaps representative of Handel’s distaste for the primness of the subject matter.
The story originated from Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates, where it is presented as a summary of a lost poem by Prodicus of Ceos. As the philosopher A.C. Grayling elegantly puts it, the story is too good ever to have been neglected in subsequent moral and even political symbolisations: it was applied to different heroes and was incorporated into Christian teaching - one reworking of it has Christ in the wilderness for forty days, but with only one would-be seducer. Poussin, Veronese, Paolo de Matteis and Rubens painted it; Handel, his English contemporaries Greene and Stanley as well as J.S. Bach put it to music; the revolutionary fathers of the United States wanted to represent it on their coinage; and the French revolutionaries proposed to build a giant statue of virtue-choosing Hercules in central Paris as an emblem of their new order.
I have translated this Allegory for the Benefit of the Youth of Great Britain (…); and particularly of those who are still in the deplorable State of Non-Existence, and whom I most earnestly entreat to come into the World. Let my Embrios show the least Inclination to any single Virtue, and I shall allow it to be a Struggling towards Birth. I don't expect of them, that, like the Hero in the foregoing Story, they should go about as soon as they are born, with a Club in their Hands, and Lion's Skin on their Shoulders, to root out Monsters, and destroy Tyrants; but as the finest Author of all Antiquity has said upon this very Occasion, Tho' a Man has not the Abilities to distinguish himself in the most shining Parts of a great Character, he has certainly the Capacity of being just, faithful, modest, and temperate.
Joseph Addison 'The Choice of Hercules' first published in Tatler no. 97 (1709)
Joseph Addison's translation of the classical tale of the Choice of Hercules, accompanied by an essay, was popular in eighteenth-century England and it can be supposed that Handel's librettist Thomas Morrell knew it well. Addison points out in the essay that Pleasure 'appears in all the Charms of Beauty', and that therefore Hercules's choice is a genuine and difficult one. Some versions make clear that she was a manifestation of Vice, but Addison recognizes, and Handel surely agrees in his music for her, that Pleasure is truly seductive and plausible. Similarly, Virtue's way is not all glory; she draws attention to the dangers Hercules must face if he is to be worthy of his 'heavenly race'. Handel presents us with a young Hercules, wistfully aware that, even as he turns to Virtue, he can hear the 'dulcet lay' of Pleasure's voice and still torn in the sharply characterized trio as to which way to take.
Addison's concern for 'the Youth of Great Britain' translates easily to today. In the classical tale, Hercules has retreated to the desert to think through his future when he meets Pleasure and Virtue at a crossroads; today's adolescent is more likely to be challenged by such abstractions as he wanders along London's South Bank where pavement artists provide a portal between our age and those of the Enlightenment and of classical literature. Whatever the setting, Handel presents us with a totally human story and some of his most sensuous music.
Glossary Awful = full of awe; fond = foolish; dulcet lay = a sweet tune; fane = temple