About ten days ago, I sat down after beginning a performance of Messiah, and watched the audience. I had comforted the people and exalted the valleys, so I had a long stretch to enjoy the music and watch the faces in the crowd as they took in their yearly tradition of Hallelujahs. Some people obviously had experienced the piece numerous times, mouthing the words to their favorite choruses and swaying along with the music of their favorite arias, looks of happy expectation and excitement on their faces. There were also those clearly experiencing the piece for the first time – the most notable of which was an 8 or 9 year old, red-headed boy in the front row, looking at times interested in what was going on, and at other times, seeing exactly how far he could stick his tongue out or picking his nose.
Much like I assume it was for that little boy, my first experience with the music of Handel was his famously popular (and sometimes too taken for granted) work, Messiah. My parents took me to the yearly concert at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, which was packed to the brim with families taking in the beginnings of their yearly holiday season traditions. So began my love affair with Handel, who remains my stranded-on-a-desert-island composer to this day. My CD collection has had more works by Handel than any other composer since I began buying CDs, and my iPod's most frequently played playlist is a collection of my favorite Handel arias.
When I began to study singing, one of the very first pieces I was assigned by Rosie was "Where'er you walk" from Semele. It was with this aria that I learned the musical structure of most of the arias Handel wrote, and where I began to learn the improvisational freedom of embellishment. Rosie gave me some ideas with which to start, and I took those and ran – inventing slightly new variations each time I sang the piece. The piece actually won me my very first vocal competition, which named me the best high school age singer in the State of Michigan in 1996 and afforded me my very first chance to sing with an orchestra.
I first became acquainted with "Enjoy the Sweet Elysian Grove" when I was studying at Manhattan School of Music. A friend of mine who put on interesting concerts from time to time asked me to sing the one short tenor aria in Handel's The Choice of Hercules. While the complete aria had been written as part of the incidental music for a production of what was to be Tobias Smollett's Alceste at Covent Garden, the play was cancelled and never performed. Handel took the never-performed A section of "Enjoy the Sweet Elysian Grove" and used it again in The Choice of Hercules, where I encountered it for the first time.
The Alceste aria, which invites the listener to enjoy the utopian splendor of Elysium (the place where all souls went to dwell in the afterlife of the Greek and Roman Mythology), is almost a hedonist's anthem. There is nothing to do but enjoy and experience – all is pleasure, and all is blissful, innocent happiness. In the B section, the tenor refers to his listener as an "unpolluted shade" – where else can any journey or story begin but from an unpolluted, clean place? In life, we all start in this place – in a way, many times over – in which we are in a state of blissful ignorance, only to experience something and to learn more about ourselves and the world. This is the part before a layer of the onion is pulled away, inducing the tears that we experience as part of discovering ourselves and our lives.
Removed from its context, "Where'er you walk" seems like a simple prayer for protection from the hurts and growing pains of life and for constant happiness and delight. Even in its context, in which Jupiter seeks to distract Semele from her desire to see him in his true form, a lightning bolt (something that would kill her and which eventually does), these sentiments are layered in – removing it from its context just allows one to focus on the core of what is there. Jupiter seeks to protect her from experience and knowledge that will cause her hurt – a similar sentiment to one that parents feel for their children. As I enter that age in which my circle of friends are beginning to have children, I find myself thinking like thoughts to Jupiter's – may the world bend to your wishes, only show you it's beauty, may it protect you and may happiness always find you. May it not be too painful as you leave the paradise of innocence and gain experience. Thoughts I imagine that red-headed boy's grandparents wish for him on his own life's journey.