The Cheerful, the Thoughtful, and the Moderate Man

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants

Bringing the baroque spirit back to life and making it rediscovered by as many people as possible, thanks to the emotion of music and the arts: this is the project that drives the Les Arts Florissants and William Christie for over 40 years now. During our Baroque Festival, they have chosen a special work for this: Georg Friedrich Handel's L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.

The idea that people are cheerful or thoughtful, sociable or shy, was already established by the ancient theory of the humours and the Baroque doctrine of affects. Modern psychology also recognizes such character traits. But what is preferable? To be cheerful, thoughtful or to be more balanced? Georg Friedrich Handel asks this question in L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (The Cheerful, the Thoughtful, and the Moderate Man).

The oratorio was first performed in London in 1740. Charles Jennens, the librettist of Messiah, created the text, inspired by poems by John Milton, and wrote the third part about the “Moderate Man” himself. There is no plot in the true sense of the word; instead, Handel juxtaposes cheerfulness and melancholy in numerous contrasting images of city and country, conviviality and loneliness, day and night.

For Handel, this was an opportunity to pull out all the compositional stops: you would just as soon join in the enchanting chorus of laughter in “Haste thee, nymphs” as listen forever to the sad and beautiful call of the nightingale in “Sweet bird”. Although the cheerful person prefers the day, and the thoughtful the night, both enjoy nature. But here, neither unadulterated cheerfulness nor too much thoughtfulness embody the ideal.

The third affect vehicle, Il Moderato, admonishes us to avoid extremes and to seek happiness in moderation. This culminates in “As steals the morn upon the night”, a duet of luminous beauty and transcendent grace: it directs the lavish imagery of the score inwards, invoking the enlightenment symbol of light to dispel the shadows in the human mind – the seeking of pleasure no less than melancholy.

Read on