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Classical history and Handel's 'Alessandro.'

The study of eighteenth-century reception of Handel's operas has produced at least four viable theses. The first of these may be termed the 'great singers' approach: Handel's audience attended the operas primarily to hear star singers and their feats of 'athletic' prowess.(1) The second thesis concerns itself with 'affect': the operas were conceived and received as a series of situations in each of which a single mood, or 'affect', was explored.(2) Third, it has been suggested that Handel's operas would have been understood as political or social commentary - as metaphors for contemporary events.(3) Finally (and this is so obvious that it is rarely stated), the operas are thought to have been viewed as human drama.(4)

The themes of athleticism, affect, allegory and drama can be traced through much of the scholarship on Handel's operas, and indeed on opera seria in general. In both Handel scholarship and the wider field of Baroque opera studies, we also find a commonly accepted contention that opera seria has little to do with 'real' history. For example, Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp tell us that 'Tamerlano was the most recent in date of Handel's "historical" operas, which of course have little connection with history'.(5) This article tests that assumption by exploring a number of contexts for Handel's Alessandro (1726). I suggest that Alessandro is steeped in history, as that word was understood in the eighteenth century, and, furthermore, that this concept of history can be seen to have shaped Handel's and his librettist Paolo Rolli's conception of the work. I then explore some of the implications of this premiss for our understanding of Baroque opera and its reception. The place to begin is with the libretto and its background.


We must first recall the classical orientation of the age. The classical basis of Renaissance and Baroque art and literature has been thoroughly explored, and it is clear that behind much of the artistic expression of the age lies an antique precedent.(6) Classical allusions, so prevalent in the arts, '... were understood and cherished by the ruling class to which artists and writers addressed their creations'.(7) This understanding was possible because artists and audiences shared a common language: to understand this language, we must know how they were educated.

In grammar schools, in homes where studies were directed by tutors, and in the universities, the basic curriculum was remarkably consistent. The manner of education changed little from the beginning of the sixteenth century until well into the eighteenth: classical languages, ancient history and the pursuit of eloquence remained the foundations of the curriculum.(8)

History was thought particularly suitable for the education of those who would play a role in public life; even if they acquired little other training, the king's daughter or gentleman's son would know a good deal of history, both ancient and modern, sacred and secular. The typical education and outlook of royalty and the nobility is illustrated by the case of Queen Christina of Sweden, whose lessons are documented in notes made by her teacher. As Georgina Masson has written,

Classical history formed the basis of her education. It was during these impressionable [childhood] years that Christina developed an admiration for figures cast in an heroic mould, who acted according to authoritarian and stoic principles - Alexander, Cyrus, Caesar and Scipio were to remain her heroes throughout her life and there is little doubt that Christina identified herself with them.(9)

In December 1639, at the age of thirteen, Christina was declaiming speeches from Curtius Rufus's biography of Alexander the Great, and in later life she '... identified herself with her hero in an essay on Alexander'.(10) This essay is examined below.

As Christina's story suggests, interest in ancient history did not end with the completion of the student's required term of education: for many, it became a lifelong fascination. A revealing statement of this is the following, written by Jonathan Swift: 'I came home early, and have read two hundred pages of Arrian. Alexander the Great is just dead; I do not think he was poisoned; betwixt you and me, all those are but idle stories: it is certain that neither Ptolemy nor Aristobulus thought so, and they were with him when [he] died. It is a pity we have not their histories.'(11) In the eighteenth history, history was, as Voltaire noted, the most popular branch of literature.(12)

It is worth noting that the education of librettists, who were often accomplished men of letters, and at least some composers was similar to that of the nobility. For example, the curriculum Handel followed as a youth at the grammar school at Halle, with subjects such as Latin, Greek, Bible study, history and disputation, did not differ in any substantial way from that of a typical English grammar school.(13) Handel also attended the University of Halle for one year beginning in 1702,(14) and with his early years in Italy he experienced something akin to the Grand Tour of his noble English contemporaries.

In addition to knowing what students learnt, we must also consider how they studied. The schoolboy had to memorize much of what he read. For example, passages construed each day (i.e., analysed for the arrangement and connection of words) had to be recited from memory the next morning, and it has been suggested that he might learn the whole of Horace and Homer by heart while at school.(15)

A second aspect of this 'how' is provided by consideration of another important component of the curriculum: oratory. A significant part of the study of oratory involved gathering materials that could help one make an argument. These materials, often consisting largely of brief and pointed incidents drawn from ancient history, were gathered in what is known as a 'commonplace book'.

From the end of the fourteenth century, students were taught to collect materials from history, fable and other sources in their own commonplace books (essentially notebooks) for use as examples in disputation and, eventually, everyday conversation. Educated men kept and added to these books throughout their lives.(16) The extracts were often memorized, and this memorization shaped the thought of students, who came to think of history in terms of exempla, for example certain particularly illuminating episodes from the lives of historical characters. The commonplace books that survive can be most informative as to the way in which history was studied, understood and used. For instance, the books of Handel's friend and pupil Princess Anne, who was educated in England, and of her husband Willem IV, educated in the Netherlands,(17) illustrate this process of gathering notable materials and the sources from which they were drawn. One of the volumes contains historical extracts in Anne's hand from works by Herodotus, Thucydides and Plutarch, among others. Her notes from Plutarch's Lives consist of 28 closely written pages in which she notes, for each hero, 'his most glorious action' ('la plus belle action'), and then important elements from Plutarch's comparison.(18)

Many other commonplace books survive.(19) Careful study of these suggests that the eighteenth-century mind was filled to the brim with detailed knowledge of famous historical characters and events, and this leads me to suggest that the operas that often seem to us fanciful or historically inaccurate may have been more easily deciphered by members of eighteenth-century audiences, who would have had a store of knowledge that we no longer possess.


The story of Alexander the Great - the brilliant general, fearless warrior, the man who conquered the known (and parts of the unknown) world before his untimely death in 323 BC at the age of 32 - is one of the best known of all the world's tales; in both West and East his exploits, real and imagined, have been recounted in innumerable sources beginning in his own lifetime and continuing in an unbroken line to the present day. No single figure in antiquity has stimulated more historical writing.(20)

It is often noted that Alexander is interpreted according to the beliefs and ideals of those telling his tale.(21) To the Romans of Augustus's time, he was the prototypical world conqueror; slightly later, Juvenal saw him as 'a supreme example of the vanity of human wishes'.(22) In the Middle Ages this second view was common. Lydgate's famous line 'And where is Alisaundir that conquered all?' sums up a conventional perception of Alexander's life: as with all mortals, his ambitions were as nothing in the face of death. As George Cary has shown, the Middle Ages knew several other Alexanders - not surprisingly, the view one adopted depended on the sources one used and the purposes for which one wrote: works following Stoic traditions, for example, presented Alexander as fundamentally weak and attributed his success to fortune, while the Roman d'Alexandre portrayed him as a model courtly knight.

The Middle Ages was also a time when men believed in miracles: 'Hence it is that mediaeval writers fasten with especial delight on whatever is marvellous in the classical literature known to them. It is not the history of Alexander the Great that interests them, it is the hotch-potch of oriental fables that we find in the Pseudo-Callisthenes.'(23) The reference here is to the Alexander Romance, that marvellous work in which Alexander's travels under water in a submarine, his discovery of the fountain of youth and his flight to heaven in a griffin-powered basket, among other adventures, are recounted. Known in the Middle Ages from Iceland to China, the Romance is one of the world's truly cosmopolitan tales.(24)

With the discovery and publication of many of the most important historical sources of Alexander's story, the Renaissance brought a return to the Augustan picture,(25) and this view of Alexander as the conqueror without equal survived largely unchallenged until perhaps the second half of the eighteenth century, when the cult of the hero was dying out. With the rise of new ideals that led to revolution, history was combed for examples of noble men who fought for freedom and equality instead of heroic conquerors like Alexander and Caesar, the new models were men such as Cato and Demosthenes.(26)

In the nineteenth century, the most influential view was that put forward by Johann Gustav Droysen,(27) who, as Ernst Badian has noted, saw in Alexander a 'divinely preordained creator' of Greek and Persian unity and 'propagator of Hellenic Kultur among the lesser races'.(28) That is, Droysen developed an idea quietly expressed in the ancient sources - that Alexander consciously attempted to unify East and West with a grand goal of uniting all men under one supreme culture. It is not surprising to learn that Droysen hoped to see an ideal future in which Germany would be similarly united under a Prussian monarchy.(29)

In the twentieth century, the most persuasive image has been that of William Woodthrope Tarn,(30) which essentially transplants a tidied-up, almost Victorian Alexander into the world of Droysen.(31) More recent assessments - Peter Green's for example - paint Alexander as a brilliant but unromantically pragmatic general, and this view surely reflects our own modern, positivistic sensibility.


Alexander occupied a special place in the historical consciousness of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When the subject of great men arose, the first name spoken was Alexander, usually followed closely by Caesar. Saint-Evremond, for example, began his comparison of the two thus: "Tis a consent almost universal, that Alexander and Caesar have been the greatest men of the world...'(32) John Banks, in the dedication to his play The Rival Kings (1677), wrote: 'I bring in my behalf too the conqueror of the world [Alexander] to lay before your feet, the greatest man that ever was...'(33) An interesting reflection of Alexander's significance in England in the early eighteenth century is seen in Richard Steele's so-called 'Table of Fame'. First announced in The Tatler on 13 September 1709, it was a proposal to have readers nominate the most famous men in all history, who were to be seated in an order corresponding to their importance. The table was brought up and discussed in a number of subsequent issues and then finally, on 15 October, set out in the form of a delightful dream. Characteristically, Alexander was first to enter, and he sat at the head of the table.(34)

The fact that Alexander was, at this time, widely considered the greatest of men has important implications for the reception of Handel's Alessandro. To begin to see Handel's opera in a way that his audience may have seen it, we must know the story of Alexander as they knew it. We should begin, as they did, with the historical sources.

The most important sources of Alexander's story in the early eighteenth century were Plutarch, Curtius and Arrian.(35) Of these, the most significant was undoubtedly Plutarch. Perhaps no author has been as widely read as was Plutarch from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.(36) His Lives was studied not only by literati but by people of all ages and ranks, and in many different forms: editions in Latin, translations (which were of particular importance), abridged versions and so forth. As one scholar of literature has noted, '[Plutarch] is simply one of the most influential writers who ever lived. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that at least up to the nineteenth century the picture of ancient Greece and Rome in the modern mind was the picture painted by him.'(37) Of all the lives in Plutarch's collection none was more frequently examined and cited than that of Alexander.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the 'Life of Alexander' is surely the character of Alexander himself, which Plutarch portrays with such insight. Alexander's positive attributes - courage, ambition, magnanimity and so forth - are balanced with his negative ones - cruelty, his outrageous belief that he is the son of a god, and his uncontrollable rage, to name but a few. Alexander emerges as a complex character, at one and the same time the greatest and most depraved of men, and this is an important reason for the fascination he has always held. It is also this basic contradiction in Alexander's character that accounts for the variety of forms his portrait takes. Nathaniel Lee's portrayal of the conqueror, for example, in his play The Rival Queens (1677), is exceptionally negative: he presents Alexander alternately as raving lunatic and whining lover.(38) But Queen Christina of Sweden, in her Diverse Reflections on the Life and Actions of Alexander the Great (n.d.) can hardly bring herself to criticize the hero, justifying at some length even his most despicable acts.(39)

A second, essential aspect of the 'Life' is the series of events portrayed. Certain of these events became very well known in the centuries after Alexander's death, for example the cutting of the Gordian knot, Alexander's kindness to the family of Darius, and his generous treatment of the conquered Indian king Porus.

The Alexander story provided artists, writers and composers in the Baroque era with a reservoir of themes upon which they regularly drew. Because Alexander inspired so much creative output, which themes they chose, why they chose them, and how they chose to express them, are important questions for intellectual history.

The sources for the study of Alexander's place in Baroque thought are diverse and abundant. In visual art, a source of particular significance is the series of five paintings by Charles Lebrun called The Battles or Triumphs of Alexander (1661-c. 1668),(40) which was well known in eighteenth-century England. Andre Felibien's essay (1663) on Lebrun's Tent of Darius, the first of the series, was published in London in an English - French version in 1703,(41) and this image was particularly influential, serving as a source for paintings by Hogarth, Hayman and Reynolds, among others.(42) The Battle of Porus, another canvas in the series, was held up as a model of the power of art in The Tatler (28 April 1709). Lebrun's pictures even played a role in theatrical life: on 30 March and 12 October 1717 stage sets modelled on his Alexander paintings were advertised for the opera Clearte and the play The Maid's Tragedy.(43)

Each of the images in Lebrun's Alexander series portrayed the best aspects of the conqueror, and this was typical. It is a curious fact that in the realm of visual art we rarely find portrayals of negative aspects of Alexander's character or history. There are, for example, very few illustrations of the murder of Cleitus, and I know of no representation of the prostration.(44) In literature, where, as in art, certain Alexander themes were regularly explored, it seems that a much wider range of topics was considered suitable: both Alexander's good and bad sides were portrayed, and both served as subjects for philosophical speculation. There are a number of printed sources that bear titles such as 'Reflections' or 'Observations' in which the authors discuss certain events or aspects of Alexander's character and then pronounce judgement or draw lessons from them for the benefit of the reader. It is remarkable with what consistency the writers consider the same topics.(45)

In addition to visual art and the 'Reflections' type of source, there are many other sources that may be profitably explored to learn how Alexander was viewed in Handel's time. These include the Alexander plays of Jean Racine (Alexandre le grand, 1665) and Nathaniel Lee (The Rival Queens, 1677), both of which were influential in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.(46) Of equal, or perhaps even greater, importance are the published criticisms of these and other plays, which tell much about how dramatic works on the subject were received. We may also draw upon English journals of the early eighteenth century, such as the Tatler, Spectator and Guardian, and operas in which Alexander the Great appears.

Alexander's adventures were recounted in numerous operas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; indeed, the lists in the opera lexicons of Riemann, Stieger and Sartori suggest that Alexander was very likely the most popular subject in opera seria.(47) Perhaps the best-known text is Metastasio's Alessandro nell'Indie, set more than 70 times in the years between 1730 and 1800.(48) Metastasio's libretto, like Racine's play, dramatizes Alexander's magnanimous treatment of the conquered Indian king Porus, who, when brought before Alexander and asked how he expected to be treated, answered: 'As a King'. It is well known that Alexander responded in turn by giving back the territories he had won from Porus.

Alexander's life provided materials for many other Baroque operas, and the conqueror was portrayed in such exotic operatic locales as Armenia, Armozia, Babylon, Ephesus, Persia, Petra, Sidon and Susa. One other stop along the way was Oxidraca, where the historians report that Alexander distinguished himself by attacking the city singlehandedly. This famous battle is the first action in two important operas, Ortensio Mauro and Agostino Steffani's La superbia d'Alessandro and Paolo Rolli and Handel's Alessandro.

La superbia d'Alessandro, first produced in the newly built Hanover theatre in 1690 and revived there in 1691 under the title Il zelo di Leonato, provided the model on which Rolli and Handel based their Alessandro, performed for the first time at the King's Theatre, London, on 5 May 1726. This was the opera in which the famous mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni made her much-anticipated London debut, and the first of five Royal Academy operas in which Handel had the opportunity to write for three of the finest singers of the age, Francesco Bernardi (Senesino), Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina. The opera was intended as Handel's first contribution to the Royal Academy's 1725-6 season, but Faustina reached London later than expected; as a result, Handel hastily produced the opera Scipione to fill the gap without her in March and April 1726. When Alessandro was finally performed, in May and June, it enjoyed tremendous success, and it was revived on no fewer than five occasions in the following decades.

With its intrigues, paired lovers, and resolution of the plot through virtuous behaviour of the characters on-stage leading to a double wedding at the end, Alessandro is in many ways typical of its time. Also characteristic is the topos of two women competing for the affections of Alexander the Great. This dramatic framework, usually involving one of Alexander's wives Roxana or Statira and another historical character (most often the courtesan Campaspe or Thalestris, Queen of the Amazons) is used in many Italian operas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.(49)

Finally, Alessandro is typical in the way it mines historical source materials and presents the results on-stage. Armed with a knowledge of the story of Alexander's life, and with a seventeenth/eighteenth-century view of this life as reflected in the sources listed above, we see that Handel's opera deals with some of the most important and oft-cited Alexander themes. After exploring selected topics as they are presented in primary (ancient) and secondary (Baroque) sources, I will turn to Handel's opera to see how the topics are treated there.(50)

The first of these themes, Alexander's courage, is illustrated by numerous anecdotes in the primary sources. One of the most remarkable is the story of his single-handed assault on the city of Oxidraca.(51) In an attempt to inspire, or perhaps shame, his weary soldiers into action, Alexander scales the walls of Oxidraca and leaps in, attacking the city on his own. Once inside, he defends himself valiantly; terribly wounded, he is near perishing before his men come to the rescue.

This story was discussed in many of the sources cited above and was widely considered the supreme illustration of Alexander's valour.(52) Alexander's 'thundering leape' (Botero, Observations, Chap. 1) gave cause for reproach by a number of authors, and this too forms an important theme in both primary and secondary sources. Curtius said the deed was one '... which added much more to [Alexander's] reputation for rashness than to his glory'. When Christina considered this criticism, however, she could only laud Alexander's 'divine fire'.(53)

A second theme is the conqueror's supposed divinity. Alexander's claim that he was the son of Jupiter has always been a major issue in the literature, and the subject was explored in many of the sources examined here. Generally, the assertion was seen as evidence of Alexander's eventual corruption,(54) although some authors suggested that he adopted Persian dress and manners only as a means of rendering his rule over conquered peoples more agreeable to them.(55)

Associated with Alexander's claim to divine status was his attempt to introduce among his soldiers the Persian practice of proskynesis, or prostration, by which those who came into the presence of the king prostrated themselves before him. The basic problem was that, for the Macedonians, prostration implied worship of a god.(56) The prostration became a sore point between Alexander and his men, and it was a factor in revolts against his leadership. Several anecdotes concern incidents between Alexander and soldiers who refuse to worship him - in all of these, the king loses his temper and forces or throws the soldier to the ground.(57)

This action was frequently evoked in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources. The author of A School for Princes recounts the throwing of Polypercon to the ground (p. 94), and later shows Cassander suffering the same fate (p. 136). In Lee's The Rival Queens, Polypercon reports the event in characteristically violent language:

I saw Craterus with Hephestion enter In Persian robes. . . Straight to the King they sacred reverence gave With solemn words, 'O son of thund'ring Jove, Young Ammon, live forever!' then kissed the ground. I laughed aloud, and, scoffing, asked 'em why They kissed no harder. But the King leapt up And spurned me to the earth with this reply, 'Do thou!' whilst with his foot he pressed my neck Till from my ears, my nose, and mouth the blood Gushed forth, and I lay foaming on the earth, For which I wish this dagger in his heart.

(Act I scene 1, ll. 248-61)

This treatment of Polypercon also illustrates Alexander's nasty temper, an aspect of his character that was almost invariably discussed in both primary and secondary literature. The unforgettable illustration of the conqueror's rage was the murder of his faithful friend Cleitus, which William Tarn has characterized as 'the supreme instance of loss of self-control'.(58) Plutarch tells the story as follows. At a celebration, both Alexander and Cleitus drink excessively. They argue, and eventually the king loses his temper, snatches a spear from one of his soldiers, and runs Cleitus through.(59) It seems a shocking and inexcusable act, and Alexander is usually criticized for it.(60)

The extent to which stories like the enforced prostration and the murder of Cleitus could colour contemporary perception of a historical character may be seen in the libretto of Handel's opera Poro (1731). A comparison of the contemporary English translation with the original Italian reveals the addition in two places of references to Alexander's legendary temper. In Act II scene 6, the Italian reads simply 'Ma come ad Alessandro scolperai?' This is rendered in English as 'But how canst thou excuse an act like this to Alexander's rage?' And in Act III scene 1, Porus sings: 'Fola ingegnosa, che d'Alessandro ad evitar lo sdegno Timagene invente'. The English reads: 'Timagenes the artful falsehood form'd, To shun the storm of Alexander's rage'.(61) In both cases, the translator has heightened the sense of the original text. This can be attributed to the translator's own understanding of the Alexander story: knowing it, he might naturally see in the text, or wish to convey in his translation, a suggestion of the power of Alexander's wrath.

The question of Alexander's anger may be seen as part of a larger issue, that of self-control. Alexander himself placed a premium on this quality, and a number of instances of it are found in his story. Perhaps the most significant of these for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conceptions of Alexander was his behaviour towards the captive Persian women. After defeating the Persian king, Alexander treated the mother, wife and daughters of Darius with the utmost civility, freeing them from the slavery they expected, and refraining, in spite of their beauty, from taking them to his bed. The fascination with this action stems from the aspects of Alexander's character revealed by the story - magnanimity and self-control - and then the use to which this knowledge was put, as a lesson in the proper behaviour of men.

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, this story was frequently cited and represented as an example of one of the most important royal virtues. Charles Lebrun's The Tent of Darius (1661-71662; see Pl. I) portrayed the event, and a number of commentaries on both the painting and the story itself followed. In each, the message was that a prince must control his passions. Thus Gerard Edelinck's magnificent engraving after Lebrun's painting is inscribed 'Il est d'un Roi de se vaincre soy-mesme'.(62) Felibien's essay interprets the image similarly.(63)

The story was just as well known and often cited in England as in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Lee's The Rival Queens Darius's mother speaks the following lines to Alexander:

Permit me kneel, and give those adorations Which from the Persian family are due. Have you not raised us from our ruins high, And when no hand could help, nor any eye Behold us with a tear, yours pitied me. You, like a god, snatched us from sorrow's gulf, Fixed us in thrones above our former state.

(Act II, ll. 281-7)

Alexander's magnanimity towards the Persian women is evoked again in Lee's Act III (11.85-89). One of Jonathan Swift's manuscripts, entitled 'Of Mean and Great Figures', includes a list 'Of those who have made great Figures in some Particular Action or Circumstance of their Lives'. The very first entry details Alexander's treatment of the Persian women.(64) And Richard Steele, in his criticism (1710) of Lee's play, would have preferred to see Alexander portrayed less as 'a monster of lust, or of cruelty' and more as that 'glorious character of generosity and chastity, in his treatment of the beautious family of Darius'.(65)


One of the most revealing approaches to the interpretation of Handel's operas is the idea, perhaps first advanced by Hugo Leichtentritt, and then codified by Winton Dean, that a character may be understood as the portrait that emerges as the sum of his or her arias. As Dean puts it, 'Each character is presented one facet at a time, aria by aria, until he stands complete'.(66) I would modify this to read 'scene by scene', for we cannot ignore recitative; but however we define it, this is an instructive way to read opera seria.

As the following analysis based on this principle will show, the portrait of Alexander that emerges as the 'sum' of his text and music in Alessandro bears a remarkable resemblance to the story of his life as transmitted and understood in the eighteenth century.(67)

(1) The opera begins with Alessandro berating his men for their reluctance to attack Oxidraca and the decision that he will do it himself (HG 5). He mounts the city's wall, proclaims his divine heritage with a blood-curdling shout, and throws himself within (HG 6). An extended military symphony depicts the ensuing battle (Ex. 1). Inspired by this act of courage, Alessandro's men break down the wall, and the hero is seen alone, defending himself valiantly against a host of enemies (HG 7-10). Leonato, one of Alessandro's soldiers, leads the men in a rescue of their leader, and then reproaches the conqueror for his recklessness. Alessandro's response shows his ambition, which is nothing less than immortal glory.(68) In his first aria, 'Tra le stragi', Alessandro again proclaims his heritage - 'Giove assiste i figli suoi' ('Jove himself assists his sons')(69) - and his love of battle in the martial key of D major (HG 11).

In a short time, we have had a rich evocation of a number of fundamental issues in the Alexander story: his incredible, perhaps reckless courage, his pretence or belief that he is the son of Jove, his ambition, and his love of battle. The entire opening scene of the opera, to the end of 'Tra le stragi', is a celebration of Alexander's heroism, with one of his most famous exploits as the setting. More than setting, the historical sources provide detail: a careful reading of the stage directions and music suggests that Alessandro should stand on top of the wall as he sounds his battle-cry.(70) And, as in the histories, it is Leonato among others who rescues the hero and who then reproaches him for his rashness.(71) This is not a battle, but the battle of Oxidraca.

Handel's musical reaction to this material is noteworthy: from his numbering in the autograph, it is clear that he saw it all as one scene,(72) and his setting constitutes a remarkably unified musical whole. The entire complex of sinfonias, recitatives and aria is unified by key (D major); the symphonies and aria are all in triple metre; and the initial, triadic themes of the 'B' section of the second sinfonia (HG 8) and the 'B' section of 'Tra le stragi' (HG 14) are similar. The dramatic shape of the scene is also enhanced by orchestration. The first sinfonia presents its materials simply with strings; these materials are then taken up by the full orchestra (strings, winds and brass), depicting the ensuing battle.

The importance of the scene for Handel is, I think, also reflected in a significant insertion in the autograph. At some point, probably shortly before the opera was first performed, Handel expanded the second battle symphony, more than tripling its length.(73) He may have seen, perhaps in rehearsal, that the staging was going to be impressive or that it required more time to execute, and thus decided to extend the music to give this staging a chance to work. Regardless of the motivation, the effect of the extension is to place even more weight on the opening of the opera. Alexander's heroic nature, introduced immediately, is stressed by the sheer length of the scene (the first ten minutes(74) of the opera deal almost exclusively with Alexander's heroism) and by martial instrumentation (trumpets) and key (D major). It is precisely in its length, orchestration, and use of the unifying power of key that Handel's opening differs from that of the source opera by Steffani: Handel's scene magnifies the earlier version.

(2) Later in the first act, accompanied by a fine prelude in the French overture style, we find ourselves in the temple of Jupiter Ammon (HG 49). Alessandro receives the adulation of Cleone, who, in the historical sources, is portrayed as a sycophant.(75) As in the histories, it is Cleone who leads the others, and at one point he praises Alessandro excessively before prostrating himself before him (HG 51). Clito, outraged at this action, refuses to do the same: 'Io, sol m'inchino a Giove' ('I bow alone to Jove').(76) Accompanied by an eruption in the strings (we are in the midst of recitative here), Alessandro explodes in uncontrolled rage, throwing Clito to the ground and making him perform the prostration (Ex. 2). Once again, a famous historical event evokes a remarkable musical response: the enforced prostration is framed by an extended, tonally unified scena consisting of a French overture, accompanied recitative, simple recitative and a duet (HG 49-54).

(3) The first act closes with Alessandro's aria 'Da un breve riposo', which sounds one of the major themes of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century literature and opera, the reconciliation of the conflicting demands of love and glory. The aria can be viewed as a partial summary of the concerns presented thus far. But more than love and glory, the first act has explored a number of typical Alexander themes, including his heroism, ambition, generosity and anger, and his belief that he is divine, which he claims repeatedly throughout the opera. Finally, two famous events in Alexander's life have been re-created on stage: the battle of Oxidraca and the enforced prostration of one of his men.

(4) The second act opens with a rich accompagnato for Rossane (Rossane and Lisaura are the two women vying for Alessandro's affections). Alessandro enters, still preoccupied with love, and in a delightful comic scene he is ridiculed by the ladies (HG 63-65). His first aria in Act II portrays his indignation at their mocking. Handel's autograph at this point reveals a significant revision. The text he originally set, 'Vani amori', had been used in the same situation by Steffani in his La superbia d'Alessandro. Steffani provided a gentle and somewhat unambitious aria (Ex. 3a). Handel began his setting in a similar manner (Ex. 3b), but soon changed text and music, apparently deciding that a more forceful expression of Alessandro's irritation was in order.(77) It is noteworthy that the new aria, 'Vano amore' (HG 65), is in G minor (as Ex. 3b shows, the original, 'Vani amori', was in E flat major). In Alessandro, the key of G minor plays a significant role, and it is usually associated with affects of indignation and anger (cf. Lisaura's aria 'No piu soffrir', Cleone's 'Saro qual vento' and perhaps Lisaura's 'Tempesta e calma').(78) G minor is also the key that represents Alessandro's wrath, and not only in the aria 'Vano amore'. In Act I scene 9 (HG 5152; see (2) above), when he loses control and throws Clito to the earth, he does so in the area of G minor.(79)

Throughout, this lengthy new aria 'Vano amore' is characterized by tremendous energy (see, for example, the rising figures in the strings in bars 6, 10 and so forth), difficult divisions and dense, turbulent counterpoint. The form of the aria also reflects the conqueror's legendary temper: Alessandro's fury boils over in the extraordinary presto 'B' section (Ex. 4). Surely the historical Alexander would most plausibly react to the mocking of women with anger, not the impotent whining of Steffani's version and Handel's original conception.

(5) Later in the second act, we find Alexander's magnanimity displayed. In the recitative 'Qui aspetto l'incostante' (HG 77), Alessandro frees Rossane from slavery. Lisaura then underlines the importance and indeed the message of this action (HG 81): 'Vincitor generoso, la liberta data a Rossane e un vero di magnanimo cot segno piu espresso che vince altrui, ma vince piu se stesso' ('Brave Chief, Roxana's freedom is a sign of godlike greatness, and a mind divine, that others much, but more itself commands').(80) The scene is, of course, an evocation of the famous story concerning Alexander's treatment of the Persian women: Alessandro frees a captive female and in so doing exhibits magnanimity and self-control. This historical action is not present in the source libretto by Mauro; with this addition, Rolli evoked what we have noted was perhaps the most significant of the Alexander stories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

(6) Still later, we return to the themes of Alexander's generosity and his temper: he gives away all the conquered kingdoms to his men,(81) clarifies his true ambition (glory), and reminds all, yet again, of his divine heritage (HG 87). As in the historical accounts, Clito rejects this heritage and expresses outrage that Alessandro so poorly treats the memory of his father and mother. Alessandro's generosity is quickly followed by his fury: he seizes a spear and is about to kill Clito, but Clito's life is spared when the canopy of the throne falls. Apart from the falling of the canopy, and the resulting elimination of Clito's murder, the scene to this point is a precise reading of the historical descriptions of Cleitus's death.(82)

Handel, Rolli and Smith (Handel's copyist) went to some trouble with this second confrontation between Alessandro and Clito and Clito's subsequent imprisonment, as both the autograph and conducting score show. There are a number of lines of unset recitative in the autograph (ff. 78-79), and Clito's noble 'Oh Giove chiamoti in testimon del fatto indegno' (HG 89) was added later. It is found on a single slip, or half sheet, inserted in the autograph (f. 77) with signs indicating its place at folio 78. The conducting score also shows evidence of the artists' efforts: two separate layers of revision are evident. The lines 'Filippo imperi . . .' (autograph, f. [75.sup.v]), which were later added by Rolli (and possibly suggested by Handel),(83) appear to have made it necessary for Smith to recopy this entire passage (conducting score, ff. 102, 105-6). And the addition of Clito's 'Oh Giove chiamoti . . .' necessitated the insertion of a single folio in the conducting score on yet another occasion (f. 107). Clausen was unable to identify the watermark of this sheet, which suggests that it was added at a time removed from the first insertion.(84)

The care taken with this scene furnishes evidence of its importance for the librettist and composer. It is certainly one of the most important scenes in the opera, for it explores the 'murder' of Clito and Alessandro's tyrannical behaviour, as well as the plot on the king's life. Significantly, Handel originally prefaced this confrontation between Alessandro and Clito as he had the first such scene in Act I, providing an extended sinfonia that I believe served not only to accompany a change of stage scenery but also to emphasize or 'frame', in a painterly sense, the events to follow.(85) (7) The second act fills in more of the portrait. Alexander's anger is depicted on two occasions, and the themes of magnanimity, generosity and self-control are explored. Again, two famous historical events are evoked: Alexander's treatment of the Persian women, and the murder of his friend Cleitus.

(8) In the third act, Alexander's courage and personal charisma are portrayed. A fundamental difference between the librettos of Mauro and Rolli is seen when Alessandro confronts the conspirators. In Mauro's version the conqueror is persuaded to hide from the traitors until Tassile can subdue them (Act III scene 9).(86) Rolli's libretto has none of this - Alessandro will face the conspirators, alone if necessary (HG 114): 'Vengano i felloni! qui ad affrontarli solo Alessandro rimane' ('Well, let the rebels come. Here, to confront them, stands Alexander by his single self').(87) It is of course far more appropriate that Alexander, a man who attacked fortresses single-handedly, and who, in fact, had subdued on more than one occasion a mutinous Macedonian army,(88) deal with the rebellion himself.

(9) Rolli then seizes the opportunity to evoke the effect of Alexander's famous charisma.(89) The confrontation between Alessandro and the rebels immediately follows the chorus 'D'un fiero tiranno' (HG 119),(90) where the conspirators are fired by righteous indignation. A brief moment later, they are reduced to cowering by the mere presence of Alessandro. The conqueror pardons Clito, a double wedding is arranged (Alessandro-Rossane; Tassile-Lisaura), and the opera ends happily with an extended finale comprising duets, a trio and a final chorus of general celebration.

Handel's audience would certainly have recognized and appreciated the themes outlined above. But can we speak with confidence about Handel's and Rolli's attitudes towards these themes, about their reaction to the figure of Alexander the Great? As I have begun to show above, one way to learn about their conception is through careful comparison of the libretto and score of Alessandro with the ones on which they were based, that is, with Mauro and Steffani's La superbia d'Alessandro. The differences between the two works clarify Handel and Rolli's conception.

A detailed comparison of the two operas would require a separate article, but some conclusions can be stated here.(91) Rolli's arrangement of Mauro's libretto is successful in many ways. He eliminates extraneous love intrigues, adds dramatic tension by withholding Alessandro's choice between the two women until the third act (in Mauro's text this choice is already made in Act I), and adds a new and touching element with his treatment of the character Clito. Perhaps most significant is the fact that Rolli adds historical elements that formed part of the Alexander story as it was understood in the eighteenth century. His portrayal of Cleone is more consistent with the historical sources (Cleone is simply adulator, whereas in Mauro's libretto Cleone's sycophancy is motivated by his love of Rossane); and with his addition of the scene in which Alessandro frees Rossane, Rolli evokes one of the most typical and significant Alexander themes. Finally, his treatment of the conqueror himself is noteworthy, for the hero is presented in a manner more consonant with history than in Mauro. This is especially clear in the third act, where in Mauro's libretto Alessandro is persuaded to hide from the conspirators until Tassile can subdue them. In Rolli's libretto, Alessandro's courage and charisma are displayed as he confronts the mutiny himself.

A comparison of the two scores shows that Handel knew and made use of Steffani's music. This provides an opportunity to study Handel's compositional choices by comparing his musical reactions to certain situations with those of another accomplished composer. In scenes common to both librettos, Handel sometimes followed the model provided by the older composer. In other places, we find significant differences between the two settings. The most remarkable examples of this are the opening scenes of the two operas (Handel's setting magnifies the earlier version); Alessandro's angry response to the mocking of Rossane and Lisaura (for which the composer provided the magnificent aria 'Vano amore'); and the confrontations between Alessandro and Clito (each of which elicited a substantial musical response from Handel).


When we examine the historical content in Handel's Alessandro, we find a parade of remarkable characters from the past: Cleone adulator, the beautiful Roxana, noble Cleitus and, above all, Alexander the Great. It turns out that, with the exception of Lisaura, all the characters in the opera are drawn from history, and their relationships to Alessandro are the historical ones. Thus Cleone is Alessandro's flatterer, Tassile his friend, Leonato his rescuer, Rossane his love, and Clito his critic. With a knowledge of the story of Alexander's life, we can see the opera as a series of fabulous tableaux (Oxidraca, the enforced prostration, family of Darius, murder of Cleitus, Alexander confronting his soldiers and so forth), rather in the manner of Baroque historical painting. A parallel between Handel's opera and Lebrun's Alexander paintings suggests itself: both illustrate select, symbolic moments in the hero's life.(92)

The degree of historical accuracy seen in Alessandro suggests that historical representation may play a more substantial role in Baroque opera than has been acknowledged. Significant in this regard are the following well-known remarks from the librettist Giacomo Badoaro concerning his L'Ulisse errante (1644), based on Homer's Odyssey: 'If some wit should assert . . . that it is a subject fit for an epic, rather than for a tragedy, I will say, that whoever wishes to read it in an epic will go to Homer's Odyssey, and whoever wishes to hear it in a tragedy, will come to the theatre . . . where in a short time, and with less labour, he may behold it in greater pomp upon the stage'.(93) This statement is revealing: Badoaro evokes the power of the stage to represent history 'in greater pomp'. That many other librettists saw the opera stage as a vehicle for historical re-creation is suggested by their argomenti, for they frequently go to great lengths to show precisely how their stories correspond with history.(94) The librettos of Handel's operas show the same reference (or deference) to authority. With few exceptions, the 'arguments' of these librettos summarize the elements of the story as found in the original sources (historical or otherwise), and then proceed with a statement such as 'the rest is fiction' ('il resto si tinge').

The question arises, why did librettists continue to cite their sources, frequently in great detail, in opera centres all over Europe, and from the seventeenth century well into the eighteenth? Was it only a learned conceit, or were audiences themselves (or at least the more intellectually aware members) also interested in the sources and in the artful ways they were arranged? As Herbert Lindenberger has noted, previous knowledge of a subject on the part of an audience is of real significance. When we already know the course of action, 'Our interest tends to shift from the what to the how: how, for instance, will authors and actors approach the killing of Caesar . . .?'(95)

Scholars of Baroque opera frequently note the emphasis on historical subject matter that accompanied the reforms of Zeno and Metastasio. But they often reject the possibility that opera seria has any real correspondence with that history (or at least that opera seria accurately portrays it). Was this the view of artists and audiences of the time? Carlo Goldoni's evaluation of Zeno's librettos suggests otherwise: 'One sees, in his operas, heroes as they really were, or at least as the historians depict them for us'.(96) We have here an example of eighteenth-century operatic criticism that suggests the importance of historical accuracy in the libretto. At least, Goldoni views accuracy as one of the virtues of Zeno's texts. Benedetto Marcello also implied the necessity of fidelity: 'A writer of operatic librettos, if he wants to be modern, must never have read the Greek and Latin classic authors . . . The libretto's subject matter need not be historically true' (of course Marcello means exactly the opposite).(97) And the opera critic Pier Jacopo Martello even went so far as to discourage librettists from using historical subjects at all, noting that '. . . it would be (and in fact is) excessively cruel blatantly to distort the truth of events described by Livy, Justin, Sallust, and other ancient and revered authors'.(98) Later on, however, Martello encourages authors to use true history for their plots: '. . . you shall take care to choose a fabulous story composed of a mixture of gods and heroes or a true history of heroes as the foundation of your plot'.(99)

Contemporary reception of art and literature dealing with historical subjects shows a real impatience with inaccuracy. For example, critics and audiences were thoroughly familiar with Alexander's story and were often disturbed when he was falsely represented. An anonymous critic of Nathaniel Lee's The Rival Queens put it plainly: 'Unlike Varanes [in Lee's play Theodosius], whom we can pity and love because we have formed no preconceptions about his historical character, Alexander is so well known to us as a great hero that we feel Lee has made him unnaturally vicious and extravagant'.(100) The relationship of the playwright's Alexander to the historical picture was commonly criticized in eighteenth-century English writings on Lee's play,(101) as it had been in seventeenth-century French criticisms of Racine's Alexandre le grand.(102) The ideal, when history was the premiss, was an accurate portrayal of that history.

Now, we have seen that in many respects Handel's Alessandro accurately reflects Alexander's story as transmitted in the primary sources. But this opera realizes eighteenth-century ideas of history in more fundamental ways. In the eighteenth century (indeed, in the second century), history was essentially synonymous with biography, and it had an overtly didactic function: the actions of great men were studied in order to learn how to conduct oneself appropriately.(103) The same didactic purpose was envisaged for opera by Zeno and Metastasio,(104) and it seems that Handel's operas were viewed similarly, at least by some members of his audience. Concerning Italian (i.e., Handelian) opera in London, the anonymous Touch-Stone (1728) made the connection explicit:

Poetry has the advantage of delivering to its readers or hearers the finest precepts of morality . . . by pleasing, it instructs . . . certainly of all the other arts a complete opera comes nearest that perfect state of poetry; because you may there enjoy a finished regular fable, accompanied with the most exquisite harmony . . . a complete opera is a regular musical dramma, and approaching very near to the excellency of poetry (because virtue may be there inculcated by a fable) . . .(105)

To my knowledge, there is no testimony that Alessandro in particular was received in this didactic manner, but such testimony is not needed for us to conclude that the opera was so perceived, at least part of the time by some members of the audience. Moral education was precisely the point of stories like the family of Darius or the murder of Cleitus, and since most members of the audience would have first encountered them in a didactic context, there is no reason to doubt that they would have viewed the re-enactment of these tales in Handel's opera in the manner described in The Touch-Stone.

More than content or purpose, however, and at the most fundamental level, Handel's Alessandro reflects the way history was read in the eighteenth century. In his Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715), Jonathan Richardson outlined the method: 'In reading the Iliad or the Aeneid we treasure up a collection of fine imaginative pictures'.(106) The process of collecting these edifying 'pictures' was an ingrained one: it formed a fundamental part of an eighteenth-century education, as the commonplace books of Princess Anne and Swift's list of 'Mean and Great Figures' illustrate. Moreover, the whole of serious - as opposed to comic - art, literary, pictorial and operatic, was at least partly shaped by this approach. When John Dryden answered the question 'What should the subject of a picture or poem be?', he wrote: 'It must in general be great and noble . . . The subject of a poet either in tragedy, or in an epic poem, is a great action of some illustrious hero. 'Tis the same in painting . . . [the painter] is to imitate the tragic poet, who employs his utmost force in those places, wherein consists the height and beauty of the action.'(107) That is, a focus of audience and artist alike was the special moment that, as a result of their common education and interests, many knew.

Handel's Alessandro is, in one sense, a collection of these moments or 'imaginative pictures' from the story of Alexander's life, painted with a fine sense of historical detail, and thus an expression of eighteenth-century historical thought.


If opera seria was conceived at least partly as historical representation, we might expect to see similarities in approach between Handel's presentation of Alexander the Great and portrayals of the conqueror by other composers. An interesting 'case study' is provided by the first appearance of Alexander on stage. In Handel's opera, as I have noted, the heroic nature of the subject (Alexander), introduced immediately, is emphasized by the length of the scene, by martial instrumentation (trumpets) and by key (D major).

A comparison of Handel's setting of Alexander's first appearance on-stage with those of Alessandro Scarlatti and Leonardo Vinci reveals some suggestive similarities. In Scarlatti's opera La Statira (Rome, 1690),(108) Alexander's entrance in Act I scene 2 is the first real action on-stage. We see all the hills covered with the Macedonian army; Alessandro at the head of the troops marches slowly towards the Persians. His first words, 'Invitti guerrieri, al suon della tromba volate a pugnar' ('Invincible warriors, at the sound of the trumpet fly to punish [the enemy]') are set as a heroic D major aria with trumpet obbligato (Ex. 5). The aria forms the first part of an extended and extravagant scene in which a battle is represented, the Persians defeated, and Alessandro set upon Darius's chariot to review the bodies of the conquered. After a second aria, in which Alessandro imperiously commands the stars to cede to the sun the honour of clarifying such achievements, the scene concludes with a 'Sinfonia di trombe nel trionfo d'Alessandro', as he departs in Darius's chariot drawn by an assortment of Moors.(109)

In Vinci's setting, the first of Metastasio's Alessandro nell'Indie (Rome, 1730),(110) Alessandro's first aria is 'Vil trofeo d'un alma imbelle' ('Vile trophy of a cowardly soul'; Ex. 6).(111) Although the text and situation are not at all warlike (the theme here is Alexander's magnanimity), Vinci provides music coloured in the military-heroic style. Once again, the aria is in D major, with trumpets, and in triple metre, like much of the music in Handel's opening scene. Even the figuration is suggestive of Handel's: compare the broken-chord figures in bars 4-5 of Ex. 6 with bars 12-14 of Handel's second sinfonia (Ex. 1).

How are we to explain the similarity in approach of the three composers? To some extent, the treatment of Alexander in these operas is typical of all heroes in opera seria; there is a certain musical style associated with the hero, and key and instrumentation play a large part in this. These three opening scenes illustrate the codification of the language of opera seria in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. But there is, I think, more to it than that. Part of the answer lies in an understanding of the nature of contemporary thought on Alexander the Great himself. In the historical imagination of the era, Alexander represented the greatest of all warriors, and with him was associated a concept of ultimate pomp.

This association is seen in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. During his visit to the island of Glubbdubdrib, Gulliver stays with the governor of the island, a sorcerer. The governor has the ability to summon from the dead whomever he wishes, and he commands Gulliver to try it:

For his Highness the Governor ordered me to call up whatever numbers among all the dead from the beginning of the world to the present time, and command them to answer any questions I should think fit to ask . . . And because my first inclination was to be entertained with scenes of pomp and magnificence, I desired to see Alexander the Great, at the head of his army just after the battle of Arbela; which upon a motion of the Governor's finger immediately appeared in a large field under the window where we stood. Alexander was called up into the room: it was with great difficulty that I understood his Greek, and had but little of my own. He assured me upon his honour that he was not poisoned, but died of a fever by excessive drinking.(112)

The first thing Gulliver wishes to see is Alexander, because he feels a desire for 'pomp'. Whence came this association of Alexander with military magnificence? In addition to the battle accounts in Plutarch and other sources, it probably entered the imagination of the era at least partly through historical paintings: some images that come to mind upon reading this excerpt are Albrecht Altdorfer's Battle of Alexander, which represents the Battle of Issus with overwhelming grandeur (see Pl. II), and Lebrun's Alexander's Entry into Babylon (one of The Triumphs of Alexander; see Pl. III). When audiences of the time saw Alexander the Great, they expected to see the warrior, and it is significant that Handel, Scarlatti and Vinci all brought the conqueror on-stage first in that attitude.

A half century later, the same aesthetic can be seen to govern Mozart's treatment of the character. When Alexander the Great steps on to the stage in II re pastore (1775), the musical atmosphere is completely transformed. Although the text here is pure metaphor, Alexander's presence demands the heroic mode, and Mozart responds with a magnificent D major aria, 'Si spande al solo in faccia' (Ex. 7), in triple metre(113) and complete with trumpets, heroic coloratura, grand flourishes, and broken-chord figuration reminiscent of that noted in the music of Handel and Vinci (see bars 10-11). Moreover, Mozart carefully characterizes his hero through instrumental colour; except for the overture, the trumpets play only in Alessandro's arias 'Si spande' and 'Voi che fausti ognor donate'.

So powerful, then, was the image of Alexander as conqueror that composers, at least, felt obliged to show him in that attitude first, even when the texts their librettists supplied them with did not suggest such treatment.


When we know the story of Alexander the Great we are equipped to see the remarkable ways, textual and musical, in which Handel's opera corresponds with that story as it was transmitted and received in Handel's time. This correspondence prompts a re-examination of the nature of history in the eighteenth century and its expression in opera seria. It turns out that at least some librettists, critics and audiences viewed opera as a vehicle for historical representation and that they expected historical events to be accurately portrayed. This conclusion in turn has implications for our own reception of Handel's opera. Understanding something about the 'horizon of expectations' of Handel's audience, we may choose to view Alessandro in a manner more consonant with eighteenth-century thought, for example as a series of historical tableaux. By viewing the work itself as a document in the history of the reception of Alexander the Great, we see it in a different light. The opera is not only about the revolt against Alessandro, and/or the amorous intrigues involving him with Rossane and Lisaura, and/or the rival claims of the singers Senesino, Faustina and Cuzzoni. It is also about Alexander the Great, as he was known in 1726.

At the beginning of this essay I noted four theories concerning the contemporary reception of opera seria: athleticism, affect, allegory and drama. To these four, I suggest the addition of a fifth: history. Certainly, each of these modes of reception also played a role in the creation of eighteenth-century opera. For as Terry Eagleton has noted, 'every [text] is built out of a sense of its potential audience, includes an image of who it is written for'.(114) This is no less true of Handel's art than that of any other artist, and it certainly applies to his operas and to many others of his time. It is no accident that the majority of these works are heroic, the subject matter drawn from well-known sources of that favourite subject, ancient history. The arrangement of these sources, too, is no accident, for a parallel can be drawn between the manner in which ancient history was studied and understood and the way it was represented: the exempla of the commonplace book took visible form on the stage. And here it is important to note that the Alexander themes represented in visual art and on the stage were the same as those noted countless times in commonplace books and historical tracts.

As a result of their education and interests, many members of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera audiences already knew the stories being represented on-stage before they entered the theatre. Works on subjects such as Alexander would have been at least partly experienced as a sort of dialogue between the audience's understanding of the actions and characters on-stage, and its prior knowledge of them; and it is certain that librettists and composers, like playwrights and visual artists, exploited this tension. Study of the ways in which they did so has the potential to yield new critical insights into Baroque opera.

1 Certainly much of the press and correspondence surrounding Handel's London operas concerns itself with the singers - their arrivals and departures, salaries and abilities, quarrels, health and so forth. For the documents, see Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel: a Documentary Biography, London, 1955; rev. as Handel-Handbuch, iv (Kassel, 1985).

2 For a concise discussion of the opera of affects, see Donald Jay Grout, A Short History of Opera, 3rd edn., rev. with Hermine Weigel Williams, New York, 1988, pp. 208 ff.

3 Curtis Price, for example, notes that 'Handel's librettists certainly adapted their sources in order to draw parallels with current affairs': see 'English Traditions in Handel's Rinaldo', Handel Tercentenary Collection, ed. Stanley Sadie & Anthony Hicks, London, 1987, p. 130. For political readings of Handel's operas, see also Duncan Chisholm, 'Handel's Lucio Cornelio Silla: its Problems and Contexts', Early Music, xiv (1986), 64-70; Curtis A. Price, 'Political Allegory in Late-Seventeenth-Century English Opera', Music and Theatre: Essays in Honour of Winton Dean, ed. Nigel Fortune, Cambridge, 1987, p. 28; Konrad Sasse, 'Die Texte der Londoner Opern Handels in ihren gesellschaft-lichen Beziehungen', Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Martin-Luther-Universitat Halle-Wittenberg, iv (1955), 627-46; and Reinhard Strohm, 'Handel and his Italian Opera Texts', Essays on Handel & Italian Opera, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 34-79.

4 See, for example, Winton Dean & John Merrill Knapp, Handel's Operas 1704-1726, Oxford, 1987, p. 6.

5 Ibid., p. 531 n. 6.

6 Two fine studies of the classical tradition in the visual arts are Benjamin Rowland Jr., The Classical Tradition in Western Art, Cambridge, Mass., 1963, and Cornelius Vermeule, European Art and the Classical Past, Cambridge, Mass., 1964. For literature, see Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, Oxford, 1949, and J. A. K. Thomson, The Classical Background of English Literature, London, 1948.

7 Rowland, The Classical Tradition, p. 249.

8 John R. Mulder, The Temple of the Mind: Education and Literary Taste in Seventeenth-Century England, New York, 1969, p. 21. The following discussion of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century education draws also on James Bowen, A History of Western Education, ii-iii (London, 1975-81); George C. Brauer Jr., The Education of a Gentleman, New York, 1959; M. L. Clarke, Classical Education in Britain 1500-1900, Cambridge, 1959; and The History of the University of Oxford, v: The Eighteenth Century, ed. L. S. Sutherland & L. G. Mitchell, Oxford, 1986, esp. pp. 469-533.

9 Georgina Masson, Queen Christina, London, 1968, p. 55.

10 Ibid., pp. 56, 58.

11 The Journal to Stella ('The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift', ed. Temple Scott et al., London, 1897-1908 (repr. New York, 1971)), ii. 345-6.

12 'L'histoire est la partie des belles-lettres qui ale plus de partisans dans tousles pays': Voltaire, letter to Cideville dated 9 July 1754, cited in J. B. Black, The Art of History, New York, 1965, p. 14 n. 1.

13 See Georg Friedrich Handel: Abstammung und Jugendwelt. Festschrift zur 250. Wiederkehr des Geburtstages Georg Friedrich Handel, Halle, 1935, pp. 53-55.

14 Handel-Handbuch, iv. 18; on Handel's education, see also Gunter Fleischhauer, 'Beruhrungspunkte mit der Antike und antikem Gedankengut im Lebensweg G. F. Handels', Thematik und Ideenwelt der Antike bei Georg Friedrich Handel, ed. Walther Siegmund-Schultze, Halle, 1983, pp. 26-36. Handel was certainly a man of his age with regard to both education and travels. Moreover, the company he kept (the Arcadians in Rome, or at dinner with the Earl of Burlington, which Handel shared with Pope, Gay, Arbuthnot and others) would have introduced him to current thinking on history and culture.

15 Clarke, Classical Education in Britain, pp. 54-55.

16 R. R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries, Cambridge, 1954, pp. 269-70, 384; The History of the University of Oxford, v, ed. Sutherland & Mitchell, p. 477. See also the prescription for creating these books in the statutes of Hertford College by Richard Newton: ibid., p. 522.

17 Anne (1709-59), eldest daughter of George II, studied with Handel for more than ten years (c. 1723-34), supported him financially and was a passionate admirer of his music. In 1734 she married Willem IV, Prince of Orange, and moved to the Netherlands. For information on her relationship with Handel, see Richard G. King, 'Handel's Travels in the Netherlands in 1750', Music & Letters, lxxii (1991), 372-86.

18 The Hague, Koninklijk Huisarchief, Archief A17, No. 470/iii. The commonplace books of Anne's husband Willem (ibid., No. 301A) reveal similarly careful study of Plutarch's Lives.

19 The British Library holds a number of fascinating ones, including one belonging to Handel's librettist Thomas Morell (Add. MS 28846).

20 M. M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: a Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation, Cambridge, 1981, p. 2.

21 Sources used for this survey of thought on Alexander are George Cary, The Medieval Alexander, Cambridge, 1956 (repr. 1967); Robin Lane Fox, The Search for Alexander, London, 1980, pp. 38-46; Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon: a Historical Biography, Harmondsworth, 1974 (repr. Berkeley, 1991), 478-88; and, for the modern viewpoint, Eugene N. Borza, 'An Introduction to Alexander Studies', in Ulrich Wilcken, Alexander the Great, New York, 1967, pp. ix-xviii.

22 Green, Alexander of Macedon, pp. 480-81.

23 Thomson, The Classical Background of English Literature, p. 159.

24 Lane Fox, The Search for Alexander, p. 40.

25 Green, Alexander of Macedon, p. 481.

26 Of course this shift in emphasis did not happen all at once. Alexander has always had critics, including such luminaries as Petrarch and Pope. For an exploration of a negative English tradition, see George C. Brauer Jr., 'Alexander in England: the Conqueror's Reputation in the Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries', The Classical Journal, lxxvi (1980), 34-47.

27 Geschichte Alexanders des Grossen, Hamburg, 1833.

28 'Some Recent Interpretations of Alexander', in Alexandre le grand: image et realite, Geneva, 1976, p. 280.

29 Borza, 'An Introduction to Alexander Studies', pp. xii-xiii.

30 William Woodthrope Tarn, Alexander the Great, Cambridge, 1948.

31 Badian suggests that Tarn's view is merely that of Droysen 'translated into the King's English': 'Some Recent Interpretations of Alexander', p. 287.

32 Judgement on Alexander and Caesar, trans. John Dancer, London, 1672, p. 5.

33 Cited in William Van Lennep, The Life and Works of Nathaniel Lee, Dramatist: a Study of the Sources (unpublished dissertation), Harvard University, 1933, p. 174.

34 See The Tatler, ed. George F. Aitken, London, 1898, Nos. 67 (13 September 1709), 68 (15 September), 72 (24 September), 74 (29 September), 78 (8 October) and 81 (15 October).

35 All three, still of primary importance today, have been published in English translation in the 'Loeb Classical Library': Plutarch, Plutarch's Lives, trans. Bernadette Perrin, Cambridge, Mass., & London, 1919; Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander, trans. John C. Rolfe, Cambridge, Mass., & London, 1946; Flavius Arrianus, Anabasis of Alexander, trans. E. Iliff Robson, rev. P. A. Brunt, Cambridge, Mass., & London, 1976-83.

36 See in particular Rudolf Hirzel's remarkable study, Plutarch (Leipzig, 1912), which illustrates the astonishing degree of the Greek writer's influence. For further information on Plutarch's posthumous reputation, see the article 'Plutarch' in Paulys Realencyclopadie der classischen Altertumwissenschaft, xxi (Stuttgart, 1952), cols. 947 ff.: 'Nachleben und Textgeschichte Plutarchs'.

37 Thomson, The Classical Background of English Literature, p. 107. Hirzel also notes that in the eighteenth century antiquity was seen through Plutarch's eyes: Plutarch, p. 161.

38 The Rival Queens; or The Death of Alexander the Great, ed. P. F. Vernon, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1970.

39 Diverse Reflections on the Life and Actions of Alexander the Great (in 'The Works of Queen Christina of Sweden'), London, 1753.

40 See Donald Posner, 'Charles Lebrun's Triumphs of Alexander', The Art Bulletin, xli (1959), 237-48.

41 Les Reines de Perse aux pieds d'Alexandre, Paris, 1663; trans. Colonel Parsons as The Tent of Darius Explain'd; or The Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander, London, 1703.

42 Posner, 'Charles Lebrun's Triumphs of Alexander', p. 237 n. 3. The prestige of this image was such that it can be found in folk art as well. See G. R. Kruissink, 'Van Franse hofschilderkunst tot Hollandse volkskunst', Antiek, viii (1974), 862-7.

43 See The London Stage 1660-1800, Part 2: 1701-1728, ed. Emmett L. Avery, Carbondale, Illinois, 1960, pp. 443, 464.

44 For an explanation of the significance of these two actions, see pp. 42-43, below.

45 Sources of this type to which I will refer include Giovanni Botero, Observations upon the Lives of Alexander, Caesar, Scipio, Newly Englished, London, 1602; [Saint-Evremond], Judgement on Alexander and Caesar, trans. John Dancer, London, 1672; A School for Princes, 'translated from the French by A. O.', London, 1680; Queen Christina of Sweden, Diverse Reflections (see n. 39, above); and Frederick-Augustus of Brunswick - Wolfenbuttel - Oels, Reflexions critiques sur le caractere et les actions d'Alexandre le grand, Berlin, 1765 (original Italian edn., Milan, 1764; Eng. trans., London, 1767).

46 Lee's play in particular is of extraordinary significance in the history of Alexander reception in eighteenth-century England.

47 Hugo Riemann, Opern-Handbuch, Leipzig, 1887; Franz Stieger, Opernlexikon, Tutzing, 1975; Claudio Sartori, I libretti italiani a stampa dalle origini al 1800, Cuneo, 1990-94). The question of Alexander the Great in opera has been partly explored in articles by Osthoff, Gwacharija and Strohm. See Wolfgang Osthoff, 'Antonio Cestis Alessandro vincitor di se stesso', Studien zur Musikwissenschaft, xxiv (1960), 13-43; Washa Gwacharija, 'Antike und ostliche Quellen zum Feldzug des Alexander yon Makedonien gegen den indischen Herrscher Poros', Probleme der Handelschen Oper (insbesondere am Beispiel 'Poro'), ed. Walther Siegmund-Schultze, Halle, 1982, pp. 33-39; and Reinhard Strohm, 'Metastasio's Alessandro nell'Indie and its Earliest Settings', Essays on Handel and Italian Opera, pp. 232-48. Strohm's essay suggests a number of fruitful avenues for research, some of which are explored in the present study.

48 The total of 70 settings was arrived at using Stieger, Opernlexikon, 1/i. 34-35.

49 Examples include Pietro Ottoboni & Alessandro Scarlatti, La Statira (Rome, 1690); G. Frigimelica Roberti & Luigi Manza, Alessandro in Susa (Venice, 1708); and Grazio Braccioli & Fortunato Chelleri, Alessandro fra le Amazoni (Venice, 1715).

50 For a fuller treatment of these and other motifs (including Alexander's ambition, generosity, loves, vanity and charisma), see Richard G. King, The Composition and Reception of Handel's 'Alessandro' (1726) (unpublished dissertation), Stanford University, 1991, pp. 141-85.

51 Arrian (VI.xi.3) and, following him, Plutarch (Chap. 63) note that the incident occurred during Alexander's campaign against the Mallians, and that he did not actually attack Oxidraca. However, Curtius (IX.iv.26 ff.) set the scene at Oxidraca, which suggests that he was the source used by Mauro, and thus Rolli.

52 See Botero, Observations, Chap. 1; Saint-Evremond, Judgement, p. 26; Christina, Diverse Reflections, p. 168; Frederick-Augustus, Reflexions critiques, pp. 31, 122. In Lee's The Rival Queens, Alexander recounts the story himself (Act IV scene 2, ll. 154 ff.).

53 Curtius, IX.v.1; Christina, Diverse Reflections, p. 169.

54 See, for example, Curtius, VIII.v.5 ff.; Botero, Observations, 'In what parts Alexander may be blamed'; A School for Princes, pp. 91-92; Frederick-Augustus, Reflexions critiques, p. 59.

55 Plutarch, Chap. 45; Christina, Diverse Reflections, pp. 158-61.

56 J. R. Hamilton, Alexander the Great, London, 1973, p. 105.

57 A typical example is found in Curtius, VIII.v.22-24.

58 Tarn, Alexander the Great, ii. 367.

59 Plutarch, Chaps. 50-51.

60 See Botero, Observations, 'In what parts Alexander may be blamed'; Saint-Evremond, Judgement, pp. 26-27; A School for Princes, pp. 93-94; and Frederick-Augustus, Reflexions critiques, pp. 95-97. Christina, exceptionally, absolved Alexander, blaming Cleitus for his own death: Diverse Reflections, p. 153.

61 See The Librettos of Handel's Operas, ed. Ellen T. Harris, New York & London, 1989, vi. 208-9, 216-17.

62 British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, 'Lebrun Portfolio' C.293* 1875 7 10 2668.

63 The Tent of Darius Explain'd (see n. 41, above); for these and other references, see Posner, 'Charles Lebrun's Triumphs of Alexander', p. 241 etc. For examples of the story in French literature, see La Ferie, Alexandre et Darius (1723), and Francois-Louis de Salignac Fenelon, Alexandre (1754, rev. 1761).

64 Prose Works, xi. 173.

65 The Tatler, 29 June 1710. A further measure of the importance of this theme is seen in the lists of works of art on subjects related to Alexander in A. Pigler, Barockthemen: eine Auswahl yon Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, 2nd, enlarged edn., Budapest, 1974, ii. 354-73. Of the paintings listed, the family of Darius theme accounts for 64 images; the next closest are Alexander's marriage to Roxana (27 images), and Alexander's encounter with his doctor Philip (26).

66 Winton Dean, Handel and the Opera Seria, Berkeley, 1969, p. 43; see also Hugo Leichtentritt, Handel, Stuttgart, 1924, p. 597. For examples of this kind of analysis, see Dean on Alcina (op. cit., pp. 45-49); Bernd Baselt on Admeto ('Zur Gestaltung des Alceste-Stoffes in Handels Oper Admeto', Thematik und Ideenwelt, ed. Siegmund-Schultze, pp. 84-86); and Dean & Knapp, Handel's Operas, where it forms a basis for musical discussion of the operas throughout.

67 In the interest of brevity, I present here a selective analysis of Rolli and Handel's portrait of Alexander. For a more complete examination, see King, The Composition and Reception of Handel's 'Alessandro', pp. 152-63, 167-9, 17985 etc. In the following analysis, 'HG 5' (etc.) refers to page numbers in Friedrich Chrysander's Handel-Gesellschaft edition of Alessandro (lxxii; Leipzig, 1877). I also refer to Handel's autograph (British Library, R.M. 20.a.5); to the most important copy of the opera, the conducting score (Hamburg, Staats- und Universitatsbibliothek, MA/999); and to the 1726 libretto (repr. in The Librettos of Handel's Operas, ed. Harris, v. 1-67; page numbers in this article refer to the original pagination of the libretto).

68 Alexander's preoccupation with glory was often noted in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources. See King, The Composition and Reception of Handel's 'Alessandro', pp. 144-5.

69 Libretto, pp. 4, 5. Translations are from the 1726 libretto.

70 He should stand at the foot of the wall among his men as he delivers his first lines, proceed up the ladder during the first sinfonia, and then stand on top of the wall for his 'Ossidraca superba' (HG 6). For an account of Alexander on the wall, see Arrian, VI.ix.4-5.

71 See Curtius, IX.v.15, 17, and Arrian, VI.ix.10. The stage direction at HG 8 omits Leonato's name. The complete direction is 'Il muro cade: e vedesti Alessandro con alcuni nemici morti attorno, difendersi dagli altri, che vengono fugati da Leonato e da' suoi Macedoni': libretto, p. 4; autograph, ff. 6-9.

72 Handel's Scene 2 begins with the entry of the two ladies (HG 15). Rolli, however, numbers Leonato's entrance as Scene 2 (HG 6).

73 The hastily written insertion consists of folios 7-8 in the autograph, a single bifolium the rastra of which differ from the surrounding folios of the gathering. The music, which forms the 'B' section of the sinfonia, provides the direction 'da capo' at the end; the effect is to extend the sinfonia from an original length of 31 bars to its present length of 99 bars (see HG 8-10).

74 This is the length of time taken in the 1985 recording of the opera by Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 1C157 16 9537-40).

75 Curtius, VIII.v.8 ff.

76 Libretto, pp. 20, 21.

77 The music of 'Vani amori' was used instead for Tassile's 'Sempre fido' (HG 71).

78 Hugo Leichtentritt noted Handel's predilection for G minor for 'passionate outbursts of jealous fury': 'Handel's Harmonic Art', The Musical Quarterly, xxi (1935), 212.

79 In a broad sense, the entire opera can be seen as a vast unfolding of a G minor triad. Alessandro begins with an overture in G, Acts I and II end in B flat, and the opera closes in D.

80 Libretto, pp. 38, 39.

81 In the primary sources we frequently encounter anecdotes in which Alexander gives away his possessions and the kingdoms he has conquered with contemptuous generosity, a habit noted and discussed by Christina (Diverse Reflections, p. 174) and Frederick-Augustus (Reflexions critiques, p. 49) among others.

82 Compare Plutarch, Chaps. 50-51, and Curtius, VIII.i.22 ff.

83 See King, The Composition and Reception of Handel's 'Alessandro', pp. 161-3.

84 Hans Dieter Clausen, Handels Direktionspartituren ('Handexemplare'), Hamburg, 1972, p. 96.

85 Time constraints brought about by the hasty production of Scipione in March 1726 apparently forced Handel to remove the sinfonia from Alessandro and use it for the opening of Act II in Scipione: see Chrysander's Handel-Gesellschaft edition, lxxi (Leipzig, 1877), 35-36. Its place in Alessandro was taken by the four-bar Grave found at HG 87.

86 While Alessandro hides, Tassile entices the rebellious soldiers on to a bridge spanning the Ganges, at which point Tassile's men cut the bridge and the soldiers, excepting Leonato, fall into the river and die.

87 Libretto, pp. 56, 57.

88 Curtius, IX.iv.16 ff., and X.ii.12 ff.

89 For references to Alexander's charisma, see King, The Composition arid Reception of Handel's 'Alessandro', p. 151.

90 The text in HG, 'D'uom fiero nel soglio', was used in the 1743 production of Alessandro under the title Rossane.

91 For a more detailed comparison of the two works, see King, The Composition and Reception of Handel's 'Alessandro', pp. 21-45, 158-79.

92 Gary Schmidgall has also suggested a correspondence between opera and painting, noting that nothing in Baroque painting so closely parallels Handelian opera as Rubens's series depicting the life of Maria de' Medici: Literature as Opera, New York, 1977, p. 42.

93 Cited in Piero Weiss, 'Opera and Neoclassical Dramatic Criticism in the Seventeenth Century', Studies in the History of Music, ii: Music and Drama, New York, 1988, p. 12.

94 A convenient place to explore the 'arguments' of Italian librettists is the series of facsimiles Italian Opera Librettos: 1640-1770, ed. Howard Mayer Brown, New York, 1978-84.

95 Historical Drama: the Relation of Literature and Reality, Chicago, 1975, p. 24.

96 Weiss, 'Opera and Neoclassical Dramatic Criticism', p. 26.

97 Il teatro alla moda, trans. Reinhard Pauly, The Musical Quarterly, xxxiv (1948), 372, 375.

98 Della tragedia antica e moderna, trans. Piero Weiss: 'Pier Jacopo Martello on Opera (1715): an Annotated Translation', The Musical Quarterly, lxvi (1980), 387.

99 Ibid., p. 390.

100 An Essay upon the Present State of the Theatre in France, England and Italy, London, 1760, pp. 50, 58; paraphrased in J. M. Armistead, Four Restoration Playwrights: a Reference Guide to Thomas Shadwell, Aphra Behn, Nathaniel Lee, and Thomas Otway, Boston, 1984, p. 188.

101 See King, The Composition and Reception of Handel's 'Alessandro', Appendix 3.

102 The basic criticism, voiced by Robinet, Saint-Evremond, Pradon and others was that Racine portrayed Alexander too much as the lover and not enough as the conqueror (i.e., in a manner contrary to historical fact), and that he thus made Porus greater than the Macedonian. For a precis of the issues, see the introduction to Jean Racine, Alexandre le grand, ed. Michael Hawcroft & Valerie Worth, Exeter, 1990, esp. pp. viii, x-xiv, xxiii.

103 On the nature of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century biography, see Donald A. Stauffer, The Art of Biography in Eighteenth-Century England, Princeton, 1941; Alan Shelston, Biography, London, 1977; and James L. Clifford's collection of source readings Biography as an Art: Selected Criticism 1560-1960, London, 1962. In the eighteenth century, knowledge of the stories was also an essential prerequisite for intelligent discourse. One has only to read through the pages of journals such as the Tatler, Spectator or Guardian to see this.

104 As Donald Grout notes, the poets of the early eighteenth century 'envisioned the drama as a school of virtue': A Short History of Opera, p. 209. See also Michael F. Robinson, Naples and Neapolitan Opera, Oxford, 1972, pp. 40, 45-47; and especially Piero Weiss, 'Metastasio, Aristotle and the Opera seria', Journal of Musicology, i (1982), 390-91.

105 The Touch-Stone, London, 1728; reissued as The Taste of the Town, or a Guide to all Publick Diversions, London, 1731, pp. 1-2, 3. The Touch-Stone has long been attributed to James Ralph, but Lowell Lindgren has recently suggested that Robert Samber was the author: see 'Another Critic Named Samber whose "particular historical significance has gone almost entirely unnoticed"', Festa musicologica: Essays in Honor of George J. Buelow, ed. Thomas J. Mathiesen & Benito V. Rivera, New York, 1995, pp. 407-34.

106 Cited in Schmidgall, Literature as Opera, p. 43.

107 'Parallel of Poetry and Painting': preface to his trans. of Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy's Art of Painting, 2nd edn., London, 1716, pp. xxiv, xl. See also Richard Steele's instructive interpretation of the famous encounter between Alexander and his doctor Philip, which says much about how and why history should be represented: The Tatler, No. 209 (10 August 1710).

108 Pietro Ottoboni & Alessandro Scarlatti, La Statira, ed. William C. Holmes ('The Operas of Alessandro Scarlatti', ix), Cambridge, Mass., 1985. See also William C. Holmes, La Statira by Pietro Ottoboni and Alessandro Scarlatti: the Textual Sources, with a Documentary Postscript, New York, 1983.

109 La Statira, ed. Holmes, p. 38; the entire scene occupies pp. 30-39.

110 Facsimile reprint in the series Italian Opera 1640-1770, ed. Howard M. Brown, New York, 1984.

111 Ibid., Appendix, p. 246.

112 Prose Works, viii. 204-5. Swift draws here on a tradition that was probably already very old when Marlowe wrote a similar scene in his Doctor Faustus.

113 The use of triple metre in three of the four examples of heroic music provided here is curious, and I am at a loss to explain it.

114 Literary Theory: an Introduction, Oxford, 1983, p. 84.
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