Success and Failure in Handel’s L’Allegro Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato

Bennett Lewis


Despite his technically German birth, the English people often claim George Frideric Handel as their own, and George Bernard Shaw even claimed that "Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution.” King George III went so far as to label him “The Shakespeare of music" [i]. However, King George incorrectly compares Handel to the playwright. There is another writer in England to whom Handel should be more accurately compared: John Milton. Both men are known for their incredible mastery and influence, but also for their epic religious works—Paradise Lost and The Messiah respectively. And even though they were not contemporaries—Handel was born eleven years after Milton’s death—a type of collaboration does exist via Handel’s 1740 setting of Milton’s twin poems L’allegro and Il Penseroso. Yet while Handel has some musical triumph in his setting of Milton's texts, his overall vision ultimately fails the poems.

Handel composed the piece in early 1740. The winter that year was so brutal that it caused some theaters to close temporarily and pushed back some of Handel’s scheduled performances. The London Daily Post even acknowledged this, assuring readers that when the theaters opened they would be “secured against the cold, by having curtains plac’d before every door, and constant fires will be kept in the house ‘till the time of Performance" [ii]. This cold, while freezing Handel’s performance schedule, did not affect his creativity, and rather gave him free time to compose. He composed the score of L’Allegro in a matter of weeks from the 19th of January through the 4th of February. His librettist, Charles Jennens, brought him the libretto based on a text by James Harris—itself based on the original Milton. Jennens in part got the idea for this libretto by the already dominating influence Milton had on the English people. Of Milton, he wrote, “there are people in the world who fancy everything excellent which has Milton’s name to it" [iii]. Handel was likely amongst this crowd. During a recitation of Milton’s Samson Agonistes the Earl of Shaftesbury noted in a letter to James Harris that “Mr Handel…was highly pleas’d with the piece" [iv].  Given the time Handel had time to compose and the great subject matter with which to work, concertgoers could expect to witness an incredible meeting of two epic artistic minds when the theaters opened again in the early winter of 1740.  

The piece was met with mixed success. First performed on the 27th of February, early reviews were positive, such that of an an anonymous poet who stated, "Why do not British trees and forest throng/to hear the sweeter notes of Handel’s song…All the powers of music now are thine" [v. Literary critic Joseph Warton claimed that “L’Allegro and Il Penseroso are now universally known” and that they “lay in a sort of obscurity …till they were set to admirable music by Mr Handel," [vii] and documentary evidence from an early performance reinforces Warton’s claim. The Covenant-Garden journal from the 31st of March, 1752 records a story of two young gentleman “who had bought a book of the words, and thought to divert themselves by reading it before the Performance begun. Zounds (cried one of them)…'The words are Milton’s’" [viii]. Yet despite the critical reaction, this piece did not achieve overall commercial success. Music critic R.A. Streatfield records that at early performances of this piece that “not only did the British trees and forests refuse to throng to his concerts, but the British Lords and Ladies as well…empty benches were the rule rather than the exception" [ix]. If the Ode had brought its inspiring text to greater prominence and demonstrated Handel’s mastery of music, yet failed to make an impact, what was the cause? 

The answer lies in some key mistakes of how Milton set the poems. To fully understand how Handel both succeeds and fails, or to determine to what level he succeeds in adapting Milton’s work, the piece itself must be understood. While being a pastoral ode, the Miltonic weight it borrows lends it the stylistic feel of a powerful oratorio. Structurally, 46 sections make up the piece split up into three parts. Twenty-two sections make up the first part, sixteen parts the second, and eight parts the third. An air, recitative, accompagnato, arioso, chorus, or solo make up every movement or section of the piece. The first two parts feature different soloists as representing the different moods or humors L’Allegro and Il Penseroso (the lively person and the reflective person). In Handel’s first departure from Milton’s text, he mixes the two humors together, letting one tackle a section of text at a time rather than letting them go completely separate. For example, L’Allegro sings the first movement—an accompagnato—and Il Penseroso sings the second. However, in the third part Handel adds completely new text supplied by Jennens and sang by a new humor—Il Moderato. The final part ends with the only duet of the piece, followed conclusively by a chorus extolling the virtues of moderation.

The musical setting of this poem has retained respect through even later periods. Stratfield describes it as “some of the most romantic and picturesque music that he ever composed….a work which stands by itself…it is one of the best proofs we have of Handel’s extraordinary breadth of sympathy” [x]. Handel expert Donald Burrows describes it as “the climax of Handel’s artistic association with the works of England’s major poets.”[xi] In an analysis of the keys Handel choose to use, scholars Michael O'Connell and John Powell assert that for half of the L’Allegro sections Handel uses the keys of G and D major. They further argue that “these keys were thought of as bright and vibrant by the theorists, and they form a tonal center for L’Allegro” [xii]. Conversely they argue that for Il Penseroso the music “leans toward more complexity in tonality and key progressions” in order to frustrate “any attempt to associate” Il Penseroso “with a characteristic tonality”[xiii].  Much like how Milton chooses words to paint the energetic and reflective man, Handel uses harmonies.

A harmonic analysis of the last L’Allegro and Penseroso movements reveal how Handel musically differentiates them. The last movement that features L’Allegro reflects the upbeat characteristics of the poetry. Handel sets it as an aria later accompanied by a chorus in D major, which as already mentioned has a bright and vibrant sound.  He also gives it a merry and lively feeling by featuring a trumpet and a tenor prominently. The movement contains some imitation, but feels hardly overwhelming or complex. Overall it contains 90 measures of music and Handel scores the aria for trumpet, 3 violins, 2 oboes, a viola, a tenor soloist, and a bass. He scores the chorus section for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 violins, a viola, a chorus, a tenor soloist, and figured bass. It contains only a few thematic ideas. First, it has an introduction featuring trumpets. The first melodic idea is just an arpeggiated D major chord followed by sixteenth note runs, which will appear later as a motive sung by the tenor. He treats this idea with some strict imitation. See example 1:

After this brief introduction lead by the trumpet, he sets the first half of the words “these delights if thou canst give” to music. The melody of the first line sung by the tenor is musically similar to the trumpet introduction and reflects the L’Allegro’s general simplistic upbeat nature. Rhythmically, it is a dotted quarter note followed by a series of eighth notes spelling out the chord of the tonic, followed by sixteenth note runs just like the trumpet in the introduction. See example 2:

He then introduces the third idea of this movement—the setting of the second half of text: “mirth with thee I mean to live." The melody of the second part of the text accents this as well. It is rhythmically similar and simple and modulates to the key of A major, the dominant, forming a fitting response to the earlier stated clause—the “If” clause uses the tonic, and the “Then” clause makes use of the dominant. See example 3:

The raised fourth—a G sharp—forms the only accidental in this. The final melodic idea is the combination of both of these lines of text. See example 4:

The “If” clause is made up of the earlier idea based on the D major triad, and the “Then” clause reflects the earlier mirth theme in A major. After this he introduces a chorus in which the order and orchestration of ideas is changed, but not the basic thematic content. He prominently features the timpani and trumpets towards the end of the piece. See example 5:

The top two clefs are for trumpets 1 and 2 and the bass clef is for the timpani. By using timpani and trumpets throughout the ending of the piece, Handel reinforces the bright feel associated with mirth. Timpani evokes a celebratory or triumphant feel and the brightness of the trumpets evokes a similar feeling of a sort of celebration or even revelry. The piece ends in a fitting manner for the simple, strait forward, and upbeat feeling established throughout. Handel ends L’Allegro’s final word on the tonic with a perfect authentic cadence. The bass going from five to one—A to a low D—and the melody ending on the tonic give this piece a strong sense of ending and fits perfectly with the bright and easily harmonically digestible feel of L’Allegro.

The final movement Handel writes for Il Penseroso is a drastic change, containing 65 measures and scored for a chorus, 2 violins, a viola and figured bass. The lack of woodwinds or brass differentiates the timber of this piece from the final L’Allegro movement and gives it a solemn color. Handel also fundamentally distinguishes the humors by setting this piece in the key of D minor. More than simply a minor key, Handel chooses the parallel minor of the last L’Allegro piece for the last Il Penseroso piece subtly informing the listener that they are perhaps two complementary sides of being, just as Milton saw them. However, more importantly and noticeably, Handel differentiates this movement by extensive use of polyphony. Much like in the last L’Allegro movement he splits up the single line of text—“These pleasures Melancholy give, and we with them will choose to live” throughout the piece. The alto first establishes the main melody that will subsequently be subjected to extreme polyphony from one of the all time masters of counterpoint. See example 6:                                                                

On its own, this choice seems simple enough, but Handel of course diverges from simplicity. He cleverly draws out the word “choose” with melisma leaving an air of uncertainty, if only for two measures. Briefly for eight beats, it is uncertain as to whether the speaker will choose to live with melancholy or choose to abandon it. The simple way he adds another layer to the most fundamental part of this movement reflects the complexity of the melancholic life. He throughout the piece breaks up the “If” and “Then” clauses, much like in the final L’Allegro. However, instead of staggering them and giving them their own sections, he places them over each other as contrapuntal accompaniment. See example 7:                                                                

In this section he has all four vocal ranges at completely different points in the text polyphonically interacting. The contrapuntal mastery showed in this final movement of the second part shows how Handel treats the melancholic state as perhaps not better, but certainly more complex than the lively outgoing personality. His conclusion to the ending of the last Penseroso section breaks the polyphonic trend, but reinforces the somber mood. See example 8: 

All the voices become rhythmically united in the final measures. Also, Handel does not employ the earlier extension of the word “choose”. This combined with the use of a perfect cadence gives a sense of finality. Handel leaves the listener with a strong sense of the minor tonality that reflects the overall melancholic attitude of the reflective man. He also demonstrates the resoluteness of the decision to live with melancholy.

However, the addition of Il Moderato disrupts the composition. The third and final part of the ode introduces the character of moderation as an answer to the competing dispositions. It consists of eight passages extolling the virtues of moderation. In the penultimate movement a soprano—who generally represented Penseroso—and a tenor—who generally represented L’Allegro—sing a duet that shows how Handel has solved the debate and brought the two moods together in moderation. While Jennens supplied the words, he records in a letter that the addition of a third part was Handel’s idea. He describes it as Handel’s attempt to unify “the two independent Poems in one moral Design" [xiv]. Handel, through the addition of Il Moderato, sought to solve the debate himself. Dr. Ruth Smith believes that the original audience would have not objected to this addition to Milton because “setting moral philosophy to music would not have seemed odd to eighteenth-century connoisseurs, who were accustomed to hearing preachers justify the use of music to convey great truths because of its ability” [xv]. Milton scholar Genelle Gertz views this piece as “clearly representative of Enlightenment values of moderation."  However Handel’s desire to moralize and unify completely misses the point of the poems because as Gertz also puts it, “the poetry is not as good" [xvi].

The famous literary critic Samuel Johnson wrote highly of the twin poems, “Of the two pieces, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, I believe opinion is uniform; every man that reads them, reads them with pleasure." He also describes the imagery as “properly selected and nicely distinguished." However, he makes an important point that “the colours of the diction seem not sufficiently discriminated. I know not whether the characters are kept sufficiently apart" [xvii]. He raises a question that it seems Handel struggles with and tries to rectify through his moderate movement. 

However, the two men fail to realize that Milton purposely does not keep the characters apart. The reader should not choose one as better, but rather should come to the realization that both moods offer their own individual “pleasures." Professor Gary Stringer even argues that both poems represent a man at different stages in his life—the young active, the old pensive—and believes that the attempt to “reconcile the two poems” forces “the invention of highly sophisticated arguments” and that “an understanding of the poems as expressions of opposing approaches to experience by characters in two different stages of life makes such subtleties unnecessary" [xviii]. Lines like, “who safely steer two rocks between/ and prudent keep the golden mean” and “thy pleasures, moderation give/in them alone we truly live” ought to cause any self-respecting English critic to blush, if not cringe. 

Handel, though he did assure Jennens the words were well respected, might have come to second-guess his decision to add to Milton. Often Handel chose to exclude the Moderato from performance, perhaps realizing his error. Burrows records that “for the final performance of L’Allegro in his 1740-1741 season Handel…dropped ‘Il Moderato’…he never again restored ‘Il Moderato’ in his London Performances" [xix].


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[i] "Why Did Beethoven See Handel as The Worlds Greatest Composer?", accessed March 10 2015, 

[ii] Donald Burrows, Handel, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012), 277

[iii] Donald Burrows et al. The Cambridge Companion to Handel, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1997), 105

[iv] Burrows, Handel, 276

[v] Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel a Documentary Biography (New York, De Capo Press, 1974), 500-501

[vi] Deutsch, Handel a Documentary Biography, 530

[vii] Burrows et al. The Cambridge Companion to Handel, 108

[viii] Deutsch, Handel a Documentary Biography, 722-723

[ix] Richard Stratfield, Handel, (New York, De Capo Press, 1964), 157-158

[x]Stratfield, Handel, 283

[xi] Burrows, Handel, 315

[xii] John Powell and Michael O’Connell, Music and Sense in Handel's Setting of Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso,

[xiii] John Powell and Michael O’Connell, Music and Sense in Handel's Setting of Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso

[xiv] Burrows, Handel, 316

[xv] Ruth Smith, Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-century thought, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995), 61

[xvi] Genelle Gertz.  Personal Interview.  March 4 2015.

[xvii] Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets,

[xviii] Gary Stringer, The Unity of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso

[xix] Burrows, Handel, 317