Saturday 27 October 2012

Johann Adolph Hasse

Johann Adolph Hasse
There is a lovely entry in Charles Burney’s diaries from when he visited Vienna in the 1770s. There he visited the elderly composer Johann Adolph Hasse (1699 - 1783) and his wife, the soprano Faustina Bordoni (1697 - 1781). The diarist seemed charmed by the composer and his wife, and paints a picture of elderly retirement which is relatively rare for the period. Hasse seems to have had a long life, with a successful marriage, in an age when artists did not always live long and certainly did not manage a comfortable retirement. So who was Hasse? He’s a composer whose name crops up, and whose operas seemed to be mentioned but rarely performed nowadays. He was probably one of the most successful opera composers of his age and one half of one of baroque opera's power couples.

Strangely enough, his early career mimics Handel’s in that early experience in German opera houses was followed by a visit to Italy. Hasse was born in 1699 and joined Hamburg opera (as a tenor). Hasse’s family came from near Hamburg and were traditionally church musicians. He moved to the court opera at Brunswick, but then travelled to Italy where he spent six or seven years mainly in the Naples area.
His serenata,
Antonio e Cleopatra was premiered in 1725 with Farinelli as Cleopatra and Vittoria Tesi as Antonio. The success of this work opened doors for Hasse and besides commissions, he came into contact with Alessandro Scarlatti who became both teacher and friend. Scarlatti seems to have had some influence on Hasse’s style.

Though busy in Naples, 1730 saw him visiting the Venetian Carnival for the performance of his opera Artaserse with a libretto based on Metastasio. This year also saw him appointed kapellmeister to Augustus the Strong in Dresden. From now on Hasse’s working life would revolve around Dresden and Italy. He converted to Roman Catholicism and this, of course, is where his trajectory differs from Handel. Hasse’s continued employment in Italy and in Dresden (where the court was Catholic) would be facilitated by his religion.

It was in 1730 that Hasse married the soprano, Faustina Bordoni. Faustina is best known to British readers as one half of the pair of sopranos known as The Rival Queens, who worked for Handel in London. Faustina left London in 1728 and worked extensively in Italy, particularly in Venice where she was singing in the 1730 carnival season.

Her marriage to Hasse and her appointment as virtuosa da camera to the Elector of Saxony saw the creation of one of the 18th centuries musical power couples. Faustina sang in 15 on Hasse’s operas between 1734 and 1751 when she retired from singing. Though based in Dresden both she and Hasse were permitted to make long visits to Italy. When the Saxon court moved to Poland (as Augustus the Strong became King of Poland), the Hasse’s did not travel with them but moved to Italy. Whilst in Italy, Faustina was able to perform in operas by other contemporary composers apart from her husband.

The first opera that they performed in Dresden, in 1731, was Cleofide (based on the same libretto as Handel’s Alessandro which Faustina had performed in London). A performance was attended by J.S. Bach and his eldest son, then Bach gave an organ recital for the court the next day. So it is presumed that the two musicians met. C.P.E. Bach said that Hasse and his father were well acquainted, so Hasse may well have visited Bach in Leipzig.

1733 saw the death of Augustus the Strong, Hasse continued his appointment as kapellmeister under Friedrich August II.

Frederick the Great of Prussia visited the Dresden court in 1745, when it is thought Hasse wrote a number of his flute concertos (Frederick was, after all, a keen flute player). And in 1748 two of Hasse’s operas were performed in Bayreuth in the unfinished opera house being built by Frederick’s sister Wilhelmine, who was the wife of the Markgrave of Bayreuth. (It was this theatre, the largest in Germany, which originally attracted Wagner to Bayreuth).

In 1756 the Saxon court moved to Warsaw, because of the Seven Years War. Hasse based himself in Italy and Vienna, but did travel to Poland to supervise operas. The return to Dresden in 1763 was traumatic, as his home was destroyed and much of the musical structure at court was shattered. Augustus the Strong died shortly afterwards and his successor did not continue with Hasse’s employment.

Hasse moved to Vienna where he remained for the next 10 years, though his operas were also performed in Naples. Hasse seems to have been a favourite with Maria Teresa and it was her influence which prevented him from retiring. By 1773, Vienna was full of the reforms of Gluck and Calzabigi and Hasse finally retired to Venice where he taught. Faustina died in 1781 and he died in 1783.

Like most composers of the period, Hasse set libretti which were generally heavily adapted and this applied to the Metastasio libretti which he set initially.

During the 1740’s there was a circle of scholars, writers, painters and sculptors in Dresden surrounding the painter Mengs and the scholar, critic and poet Francesco Algarotti. The debates that went on probably involved Hasse and these may well have developed his interest in the poetics of drama in opera. In 1734-44, Hasse was commissioned to set two new libretto by Metastasio and hence, would have to set the poet’s work unaltered. It is from this period that he started setting Metastasio’s libretti with due thought for their original form. 

As a result his relations with the poet developed into a friendship, so that Hasse became the composer of choice for Metastasio’s new libretti; from the1750’s he seems to have set Metastasio’s libretti almost exclusively. He even went back to some of the librettos which he had set in altered format, re-setting them with more care for the poet’s intentions.

Hasse was highly popular with the singers of the time. He had a great lyrical gift and as a singer himself and married to a singer, his arias could be incredibly elaborate but gratefully written to the singer’s benefit when it came to display. His art became associated with Metastasio’s with its rational control of emotions in the theatre. He worked with some of the finest singers of the day, and so we must be careful of assuming that performances of his operas were under-characterised and bloodless drama. Hasse was Italian trained, but with a German background so almost certainly had an interest in coaxing drama as well as highly virtuoso performances.

However, anyone who is familiar with 18th century opera seria mainly through the work of Handel, does need to make a shift of attitude. Handel only set a couple of Metastasio libretti and these are not his best works. For much of his opera career, Handel was firmly outside the operatic mainstream, able to pick and choose librettos which appealed to his frankly quirky dramatic sense. The care and rational control of emotions which was of interest to Metastasio finds no parallel in Handel. So that when we address Hasse’s later operas, we must move our mindset, taking care to find the opera libretto’s careful and controlled rather than bloodless and contrived.

In a recent review of a revival of Vivaldi’s L’Olympiade more one reviewer commented on how it was difficult to take the plot serious. I have to confess that I still find this difficult as well. I find it rather problematic trying to care about characters in one of Metastasio’s dramas. They seem to move about less like dramatic creatures and more like puppets controlled by the puppet masters.  So Hasse’s day has not yet come, though his operas are starting to be performed. All you need to perform one is plenty of time (most are not short) and a group of great voices!

There is a reasonable amount of Hasse’s music on disc, including a lot of arias from his operas, but in fact very few of his operas have been recorded complete.

Some of his sacred music (written for Dresden) is available on disc (my review 

His opera Cleofide (which uses the same libretto as Handel’s Poro) is also available (my review of excerpts ) 

There are complete recordings of Cleofide ( and La Serva Scaltro ( also his serenata Antonio e Cleopatra has also been recorded (my review ).

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