Epicurean-esque Music? A Quick Look at Act 1 of George Friedrich Handel's "Acis & Galatea"

  • The topic of Epicureanism & Music always seems to pop up periodically, and every source seems to always evoke some sense of spirit, but is never explicitly "Epicurean", then again it's hard to come across music devoted to a philosophy, but we can make do.

    Upon listening to Acis & Galatea by Handel, a Pastoral Opera with an English libretto, I noticed that some of the lyrics of the arias & choral pieces sounded very familiar to our philosophy.

    The story of the opera is a musical adaptation of the eponymous characters from Greek Mythology; Acis, a shepherd and Galatea, a sea-nymph who falls in love with the former, though their love is interrupted by the cyclops Polyphemus who kills Acis to have Galatea to himself. By the concept of deus ex machina, she uses her divine power to resurrect Acis' mangled corpse into a fountain, as a symbol of the natural pleasures they once enjoyed. However, it is not the second act that I'll be focusing on.

    We will be focusing on three characters:
    Acis (Mortal, Shepherd of the plains, and love interest of Galatea)
    Galatea (Sea-Nymph, or Nereid. She is among the nymphs that live in tranquility with the Shephards of the Plains, and falls in love with Acis)
    Damon (Mortal, Shepherd of the plains, close friend of Acis and provides counsel to both Acis & Galatea, like Benvolio to Romeo)

    The first choral piece starts off with the Shepherds & Nereids living harmoniously in the plains, enjoying the pleasures of nature & the plains, free from worry or pain. Below is the libretto and it is simply titled "2. Chorus" it can be found at the 3:20 minute mark in the video below.

    "Oh, the pleasure of the plains! (Pleasure found through nature)

    Happy nymphs and happy swains,

    Harmless, merry, free and gay, (Harmless, no pain upon them, free and happy, with no vain desires)

    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, (Even the harsh winters do not bother them)

    For us the summers shine,

    Spring swells for us the grain,

    And autumn bleeds the wine. (They wait for the right time of the year to drink wine together, rather than over-consumption of this indulgence)

    Oh, the pleasure. . . da capo." (Again, pleasure found through friendship, nature, and indulging in natural desires)

    It is after here that Galatea falls in love with Acis, she proclaims that the pleasures of nature & indulgent tranquility are all vain compared to her passion for Acis. She sings the following "3. Accompagnato" found at the 9:20 minute mark in the video below.

    "Ye verdant plains and woody mountains,

    Purling streams and bubbling fountains,

    Ye painted glories of the field,

    Vain are the pleasures which ye yield; (She acknowledges that these are indeed pleasures, but they no longer suffice)

    Too thin the shadow of the grove,

    Too faint the gales, to cool my love."

    This is immediately followed by the warblers and songbirds singing to her, implying that she should not continue to pursue Acis, which brings her to sing "4. Air" which can be found at the 10:51 minute mark of the video found below.

    "Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!

    Your thrilling strains

    Awake my pains, (Her pain was null prior to this moment)

    And kindle fierce desire. (These desires would ultimately cause her more pain)

    Cease your song, and take your flight,

    Bring back my Acis to my sight!

    Hush. . . da capo"

    Now we catch up to Damon, close friend of Acis who notices and laments that the sheep have left, the air is melancholy, and they no longer hear the peaceful music of nature. He sings "6. Recitative" which can be found at the 19:25 minute mark of the video found below.

    Stay, shepherd, stay!

    See, how thy flocks in yonder valley stray!

    What means this melancholy air?

    No more thy tuneful pipe we hear. (The tranquility is gone, the animals have grown hungry and have gone astray)

    Note: This can also be interpreted as Damon noticing the change in Acis' demeanor.

    Directly after this, Damon counsels him & tells him not to pursue what would be his ruin, and sings "7. Air" which can be found at the 19:58 minute mark of the video found below.

    "Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?

    Heedless running to thy ruin; (He warns Acis of the dangers of falling headfirst into love)

    Share our joy, our pleasure share, (Instead, he should return to the joys and pleasures of nature ((see 2. chorus)) as they are at stake & Damon risks losing his friend)

    Leave thy passion till tomorrow,

    Let the day be free from sorrow, (Damon insists that this will only lead to sorrow, that they should instead focus on today)

    Free from love, and free from care! (Controversial lyrics, but its a summary of this air.

    Shepherd. . . da capo"

    Now I know I said I wouldn't talk about Act 2 (perhaps for another time), but the 21st movement is also from Damon and explains the entire thought process behind his concerns for Acis & Galatea falling in love. This Air can be found at the 1:06:30 mark.

    "Consider, fond shepherd,

    How fleeting's the pleasure,

    That flatters our hopes

    In pursuit of the fair!

    The joys that attend it,

    By moments we measure,

    But life is too little

    To measure our care.

    Consider. . . da capo"

    I'd love to hear what others think of this, as Baroque music is one of my favorite things in the world, and the lyrics found in many of the airs, arias, and chorus songs are also very similar to what we believe in.

    Here's the video of part 1 with each of the timestamps attached.

    2. Chorus (Pleasures of the Plains)
    3. Accompagnato (Vain are the pleasures which ye yield)
    4. Air (Awake my pains, and kindle fierce desire)
    6. Recitative (Stay Shepherd, Stay!)
    7. Air (Share our joy, our pleasure share)
    21. (Consider, Fond Shepherd)

    Here's the full opera.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • Now I see the context! Yes this could very well be a reflection of a couple of sections of Lucretius, in which he talks about the pleasures of life alongside the river with friends, and also warns against the problems that follow from being intoxicated in love. I will watch some of the video but I definitely see your analogy, Charles.

    I see this is going to take some time. Even though they are singing in English I wish they had English subtitles too ;-)

  • Charles, I wonder what I might have done with such a roving intellect at your age ;)

    This does look promising, and thank you for bringing it up! One thing that I've been mulling over, and I'll leave here for consideration; if the core of art is ἀγών (agon) or conflict, as is widely believed, does that explain a lack of Epicurean themes in art? It would be impossible to write a classical tragedy with an Epicurean in the main role. It took genius to write the De Rerum Natura, but could Lucretius have written an Aeneid?

  • It would be impossible to write a classical tragedy with an Epicurean in the main role. It took genius to write the De Rerum Natura, but could Lucretius have written an Aeneid?

    Maybe not Lucretius, but certainly his late-contemporary Epicurean fellow by the name of Virgil.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • Thanks.

    I've been taking a look at Act 2 of Acis & Galatea and it seems that the trend of Epicurean-friendly lyrics continues, aside from the act of Galatea reviving Acis through her divine power, deus ex machina much?

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • In Act 2 there is an aria sung by Acis about him arming himself to fight Polyphemus, here's are two excerpts from the libretto that are especially striking.

    "When beauty's the prize,
    What mortal fears dying?

    Which instantly reminded me of what Elli said on Sunday about aesthetics.

    "Without her no pleasure,
    For life is a pain

    Which is just another nail in the coffin, so to speak, about the constant themes of pain/pleasure & tranquility/destructiveness.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”