Handel's Bestiary: In Search of Animals in Handel's Operas

Handel's Bestiary: In Search of Animals in Handel's Operas

by Donna Leon

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A “real tour de force” exploring the mythic history of animals in Handel’s operas complete with illustrations and audio recordings of the composer’s arias (News—Austria).

When New York Times-bestselling novelist Donna Leon isn’t writing her Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, she often listens to her favorite composer, George Frideric Handel. Leon noticed that Handel frequently references animals in his music. In his arias, Handel explores the perceived virtues and vices of the lion, bee, nightingale, snake, elephant, and tiger, among others. With this in mind, Leon combined her knowledge of medieval bestiaries—illustrated collections of animal stories—with her love of Handel.

In Handel’s Bestiary, Leon traces twelve animals through history, mythology, and Handel’s arias. Each chapter is joined by original illustrations by German painter Michael Sowa. And in this enhanced edition, music is included from conductor Alan Curtis and his orchestra, Il Complesso Barocco.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802194909
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/05/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 370,030
File size: 96 MB
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About the Author

Donna Leon (1942) is an American crime author known for her Commissario Guido Brunetti series. Leon has lived in Venice since the 1980s and has set all her Brunetti books in Venice. She began writing the series in 1992 with Death at La Fenice and since then has written over two dozen Guido Brunetti books. Her book Friends in High Places won the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger award in 2000. Commissario Guido Brunetti has been adapted for German television.


Venice, Italy

Date of Birth:

February 28, 1942

Place of Birth:

Montclair, New Jersey


B.A., 1964; M.A. 1969; postgraduate work in English literature

Read an Excerpt




Qual leon che fere irato


Act 2, scene 6

Qual leon che fere irato,
se sua prole altri involò:
tale anch'io di sdegno armato nella pugna ferirò.

Ma se avvien che l'idol mio renda pago il mio desio,
pace e calma sol avrò.

Like an enraged lion Whose young have been stolen,
So will I, armed with anger,
Strike in battle.

But should my love Give me my desires,
Then I will have only peace and tranquility.

The lion is the animal which appears most frequently in the Bestiaries, where his picture and story take pride of place by appearing first. This imitates his position in the world of animals, where he is king of the beasts, the first among non-equals. Genesis is often interpreted to contain the prophecy that the lion of Judah will produce the ruler for whom the world waits: thus, if Christ is to become the King of Heaven, his animal representative must surely serve that position among the animals of the earth. One has but to take a careful look at other lions that serve as visual symbols, from the three lions passant guardant on the flag of the Plantagenets (put there by Richard the – yes – Lionhearted) and now the official arms of England, to the lion rampant used to sell a French automobile, to realize how universally the lion is associated with majesty and power.

This reputation has a long history, though had the Greek historian Herodotus had the facts right, the race of lions would have been of short duration. Herodotus believed that the female lion gives birth only once in her life because her unborn cub, as soon as he begins to stir inside her womb, also begins to scratch at it with his claws, rather in the fashion of a house cat with a sofa. Thus, when he is finally born, he has effectively destroyed her womb, which is expelled with him. Herodotus obviously never troubled himself with the mathematical consequences, which would surely lead to the extinction of the lion.

Pliny the Elder was also concerned with the birth habits of the lion and postulated that she gives birth, the first time, to five cubs. Each subsequent year she bears one less, until she becomes barren after the fifth year, though not before producing fifteen cubs. These cubs are born dead but are brought into life, after three days, either by the licking or the roaring of their father, an event in which Christian apologists saw the parallel with the three-day death of Christ which preceded the Resurrection.

Social historians might well be moved to seek the origin of bulimia in the lion for, according to Pliny the Elder, when he ate too much, he reached down into his throat and clawed the meat out of his stomach. Should the lion be put off his food in response to this, he has but to taste the blood of a monkey for his appetite to be restored.

Lions were believed to sleep with their eyes open and were known to obliterate their tracks by brushing them away with their tails. They are afraid of the sound of wheels and terrified of fire. Though thought to be fierce and merciless, the lion is actually an example of kindness, for he will never harm anyone who prostrates himself on the ground before him. Given political changes taking place during the Middle Ages, this shift in the behavior which the Bestiaries attributed to the lion might well reflect a growing belief that the just monarch is also the merciful monarch.

Certainly this is evident in the airbrushing done to the reputation of Richard the Lionhearted, said to have earned the nickname either by the savagery of his treatment of Sicilians or by having eaten the heart of a lion he killed with his bare hands. By the thirteenth century, however, a historian was hastening to add that Richard, like the lion, "put on reason and kindness." About the same time, an ecclesiastical historian remarks that "The noble lion's wrath can spare the vanquished/ Do likewise all who govern on this earth."

Handel's aria, "Qual leon," was written for Margherita Durastanti, Handel's longest-serving singer, and gives her the chance to sing full force of revenge and punishment. She had created Agrippina for him in Venice a quarter of a century earlier and, with the passing of time, had become famous for trouser roles. In this aria, the horns are included for their power and for the sheer volume of sound they provide to accompany great bravura singing, to make no mention of their association with hunting. They are present in the opening section of the aria, disappear in the middle section, which speaks of peace and calm, only to return in full force in the da capo, along with pairs of oboes and bassoons. Durastanti was no longer a spring chicken (an animal about which Handel wrote no aria) but amazing leaps of an octave or more show that her voice had lost none of its legendary agility.




L'angue o eso mai riposa


Act 2, scene 6

Figlio non è, chi vendicar non cura del genitor lo scempio.
Su, dunque, alla vendetta ti prepara, alma forte,
e, prima di morir, altrui da' morte!

L'angue o eso mai riposa,
se il veleno pria non spande dentro il sangue all'o ensor.
Così l'alma mia non osa di mostrarsi altera e grande,
se non svelle l'empio cor.

He is no son who does not Seek to revenge his father's murder.
Come then, my strong spirit,
Prepare for vengeance And before death, kill the enemy.

The angry snake never rests,
Until he has sunk his poison Into the blood of his enemy.
Thus my angered spirit can never Call itself mighty or grand Until it has destroyed that evil heart.

We don't need much more than Genesis 3 to give us an idea of the way Western culture is going to regard the snake, do we? Disguised as a serpent, Satan deceives Eve into believing that to eat the apple will make her and Adam godlike, and then he effectively disappears from the story. But he leaves behind him that faint whiff of sulfur commonly believed to remain after visits by all things demonic. The snake corrupts man and his life, leads to the Fall from Grace, and thus makes necessary the Redemption.

Those of us who have grow up with this automatic association between snake and sin, heirs as well to the atavistic fear of snakes - the one that allowed Emily Dickinson to say that the sudden sight of a snake leaves us feeling "zero at the bone" - will perhaps be surprised to learn that previous cultures revered and venerated them. The Romans, who were to co-opt Christianity, certainly had a positive view of snakes. They were associated with fertility and healing (look at the caduceus, with its twining snakes) and often represented the spirits of the dead, though in a benign fashion.

But once he gave that apple to Eve, it was history for the serpent. The writers of the medieval bestiaries did not bother much to distinguish between the snake and the dragon and, for that matter, between the snake and many other creepy-crawlies. There was an enormous sub-set of reptiles, varying in size and deadliness, some no longer than the breadth of two fingers, while others, like the dragon, were big enough to strangle an elephant. This, as it turns out, was not a wise thing for a dragon to do, for as soon as he winds himself about the elephant and crushes him, "his victory He joyes not long; for his huge Enemy Falling down dead, doth with his weighty Fall Crush him to death, that caus'd his death withall."

Also listed in the family of the snake were a host of other creatures of greater or lesser unpleasantness. There was the Basilisk, whose glance could kill a man; the viper, vicious even before birth, which they achieved by gnawing through the sides of their mother, to "burst out to her destruction." There is also the Hydra, who covers himself in mud and jumps into the mouths of sleeping crocodiles, slides down into their bellies and comes out the other end; and the Boa, which clings to the udders of buffaloes and milks them dry. For poison it is hard to beat the Salamander: it has but to twine about the trunk of a fruit tree to render its crop deadly, to fall into a well to kill all who drink the water. The salamander cannot burn, even if hurled into a fire. Interestingly enough, when asbestos was discovered, it was believed to be the wool of this creature (a woolly reptile?).

As if these facts were not enough, there remained three unusual things that it was necessary to know about snakes.

1. When they are old and going blind (assuming that they had not availed themselves of the well-known remedy for snake-blindness and eaten some fennel), they crawl away somewhere and fast for at least forty days, which shrinks them and loosens their skins. Then they crawl through a narrow crack in the rocks, which scrapes off the old skin and rejuvenates them.

2. Before drinking water from a river, a snake will spit all of its poison in a hole.

3. A snake will never attack a naked man, only one wearing clothing. Though this was certainly an advantage for Adam, it is perhaps not good news for hikers.

To avoid risk, hikers might be advised to employ the tactic of the tortoise, which protects itself by eating fresh marjoram (some manuscripts advise oregano) when it sees a venomous creature sneaking up on it. Or, if the hiker has been fasting for some time, he might persuade the serpent to drink his spittle, which will cause its death.

The snake insinuates itself into Handel's Giulio Cesare when Sesto, son of the murdered Pompey, vows to take vengeance against Tolomeo, his father's killer. He pumps up his spirit with a short recitative and then proclaims that, like an angered snake that never rests until it has "spilled its poison in his enemy's blood," he too will have vengeance. The aria twines and retwines around itself as Sesto – a Roman and thus an admirer of snakes – gives himself up fully to his desire for revenge. Not only is the music serpentine: sibilants seep from every line of the text as the young Sesto vows to sink his poison into the blood of his enemy.




Nasconde l'usignol' in alti rami il nido


Act 1, scene 5

Da questi scaltri ospiti greci è d'uopo lunge tener, quanto possibil fia,
il travestito Achille,
l'amata anima mia.

In dolce corrisposto a etto ascoso chi è di me più felice?
Soccorri i tuoi seguaci, Amor pietoso!

Nasconde l'usignol'
in alti rami il nido al serpe e al cacciator,
ma il volo spesso e fido dove lo porta amor che il può tradir non sa.

Lontana sì, ma in pene,
quest'alma dal suo bene più l'arte ingannerà.

From these quick-sighted, crafty Grecian guests,
Disguised Achilles, my soul's beloved,
Must strive to keep at distance all he can.
O who can ever be so blessed as I,
In a concealed, most sweet, and mutual love?
Look down, o deity of pleasing pains!
Assist thy votaries, thou gentle god!

From serpent and fowler's snare,
On branches trembling high in air.
The nightingale her nest conceals;
But yet she has not learned to know That love, which brings her to and fro,
With ease the hiding place reveals.

What though in pain I pass the day,
From my beloved far away,
If by that means I cheat the eyes Of dangerous and artful spies.

The bestiaries teem with fluttering birds, all manner of them, so many that "it is not possible to learn every one." Some sing beautifully, some try to imitate the voices of men, while some can do no more than make raucous noises. Their names are sometimes onomatopoeic - just think of the gru (crane) or the cuckoo - and their appearance varies wildly – think of the difference between the sparrow and the ostrich. In general, they are called aves (a-ves) because they often fly in wild, inventive patterns and are not constrained to follow the paths (vias) built by man.

This freedom from constraint has long fascinated humans, whom the birds left behind to tread the earth: their freedom to travel a wider world was perhaps instrumental in helping to transform them into easily recognizable symbols of liberty and freedom. Because they have direct contact with the heavens, and thus greater proximity to the gods, birds were perceived by both the Greeks and Romans as emissaries from the Divine: did not Mercury, the messenger of the gods, have wings on his heels? The patterns of their flight served to reveal the will of the gods, and the future was often read in a close examination of their entrails.

The Romans judged most important the eagle, the pugnacious bird which best symbolized the power and glory of their empire, and whose image was borne on the standards of their legions. Subsequent real and wannabe empires adopted the image of the eagle, often giving it two heads, the better to keep an eye (er, eyes) on things. Eagles perch all over the standards of empire: Byzantium, Napoleon's France, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, Russia, and try to give a touch of majesty to some modern computer games that have to do with conquest.

Pliny the Elder tells us that the eagle was responsible for the death of Aeschylus, the Greek dramatist, who was killed by a turtle that was dropped on his head by a passing eagle. Often, the ancients came up with fantastical explanation for observed phenomena. The process of moulting, for example, was believed to occur when the aged eagle, to renew his vigor and extend his life, flew close enough to the sun to singe away his feathers, after which he plunged into a fountain three times, to emerge "renewed with a great vigor of plumage."

More helpful, perhaps, but no less pugnacious are the geese of Rome, whose cackles woke the ex-consul Manlius in 390 B. C. just in time to lead his troops to defend the Capitoline from the invading Gauls.

Less aggressive, but no less military, are the cranes, who often have to fly their light bodies into the face of strong winds. To do so safely, they tank up on sand and small stones before takeoff, thus giving themselves the ballast necessary to stabilize their flight. A strong-voiced navigator always flies at the tip of their formation; should any of the birds in the squadron grow tired, others will approach them and provide support until they are rested enough to resume flight on their own. When the birds alight in the evening, guards are posted to patrol the area around their sleeping flock-mates. Each guard carries a stone in one claw so that, should he fall asleep during the watch, the sound of the falling stone will wake him.

Some birds have the gift of speech. The teachers of parrots – in these effete, politically correct times in which we live – might well serve as clandestine models for all teachers. Should some parrots prove recalcitrant at learning to speak, the Bestiaries advise that they be encouraged with a few solid whacks with an iron rod. Might this explain the origin of the conductor's baton?

Sirens were, for many of the Bestiaries, another kind of bird, a half-human bird, though at times this proportion shrank to a third, for the Siren was sometimes part fish as well as part bird. What was never in question, however, was their relentless desire to lure sailors – unable to resist the beauty of their song -to their doom. Paracelsus opines that sirens have no souls, but if they marry a man, "now they have the soul." Useful to know.

Moral lessons were never far to seek in the pages of the Bestiaries. The peacock, for all the glory of his tail, was forever kept from vanity by the sight of his feet, which were so ugly, Bartolomeus Anglicus tells us, as to cause him to lower his tail to hide them. Storks, which will moult all of their feathers to create the nests for their chicks, are then in turn nursed through their featherless times by those same chicks. Similarly, the hoopoe restore their elderly parents by preening their feathers for them to keep them warm and licking their eyes so that they can see, thus setting another example of proper parental-filial comportment.

The nightingale, another dedicated parent, sits all night upon her eggs, keeping them safe from enemies, and filling the dark with her glorious song. There is great rivalry between nightingales to see who can sing most beautifully, so great that the bird judged to be the loser will often die of shame.

One has but to think of the famous story told of the battle that erupted on stage between Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni (later Hasse), Handel's greatest prima donnas, to see how very competitive songbirds could be. Appearing together in Bononcini's Astianatte, neither of these nightingales gave a thought to dying of shame: instead, they came to blows. In itself, this sort of violent rivalry was not unique: what turned it into a scandal was the presence of the Princess of Wales among the public. It is also reported that a male member of the audience, hearing Cuzzoni sing on some other occasion, cried out, "Damn her. She has a nest of nightingales in her belly."


Excerpted from "Handel's Bestiary"
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Table of Contents

Silver Dove,
Turtle Dove,
›Il Complesso Barocco‹ List of Musicians and CD,

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