Carl Linnaeus, Philip Miller and the Librettist of Handel's Solomon

By Chapman, Brian | Musical Times, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Carl Linnaeus, Philip Miller and the Librettist of Handel's Solomon


Chapman, Brian, Musical Times


The purpose of this article is to draw attention to a singular curiosity in the libretto of Handel's oratorio Solomon, and to suggest that it might provide what is perhaps the only previously unexplored clue as to the identity of this oratorio's unknown librettist. My stimulus, indeed encouragement, toward this suggestion stems from the work of Dr Ruth Smith, whose magisterial Handel's oratorios and eighteenth century thought (Cambridge University Press, 1995) sets a standard of breadth and depth of scholarly investigation that few could match in any field. A generous sample of the fruits of this scholarship may be found in Smith's article 'Ideal and reality: the libretto of Solomon', included in the liner notes to Deutsche Grammophon's audio CD recording of Solomon (Archiv Produktion 459 688-2 (1999), pp.9-12).

Although no contemporaneous discussions of the oratorio's meaning seem to have survived from Handel's time, Smith notes that most subsequent commentators have assumed that the character of Solomon is intended to be identified favourably with King George II, and the people of Israel are to be compared - in this oratorio, as in other oratorios and other socio-political contexts of the time - with the aspirational British nation. As a general backdrop to the present discussion, we accept Smith's view that Handel and his librettists were deliberately presenting material that their audiences would have recognised as embracing issues of direct social and political interest to them - as Smith states, 'to warn, reproach, instruct, congratulate, or celebrate '. Specifically, Smith notes that Solomon touches upon issues of maritime trade, domestic manufacture and agriculture, and the righteous use of surplus wealth to support - not materialism, greed and decadence - but religion and the arts, particularly music.

Nonetheless, while the overall libretto of Solomon generally conforms to Smith's analysis, the abovementioned curiosity leaps out unexpectedly in the second half of Solomon's aria which follows the confirmation - by the descent of fire from Heaven - that Jehovah has blessed the newly completed Temple in act 1. The words given to Solomon at this point, complete with recitative, read as follows:

Recitative

Bless'd be the Lord, who look'd with gracious eyes

Upon His vassals' humble sacrifice,

And has with an approving smile

My work o'erpaid, and grac'd the pile.

Aria

What though I trace each herb and flow'r,

That drink the morning dew,

Did I not own Jehovah's pow'r,

How vain were all I knew.

Say what's the rest but empty boast,

The pedant's idle claim,

Who having all the substance lost

Attempts to grasp a name.

The recitative confirms Solomon's humble acknowledgment of Divine blessing, while the first half of the aria expresses the pious humility of a king who, being keenly aware of his own earthly wealth, power and wisdom, righteously acknowledges the infinitely superior power and wisdom of his Creator. The librettist then puts into Solomon's mouth a strange set of lines that seem at first glance to form an incoherent non sequitur.

If we suppose for a moment that one of Solomon's intellectual pursuits had indeed fallen within the general ambit of botanical classification, then the first four lines of the aria express Solomon's righteous judgment that his accumulated knowledge of the subject would signify no more than his having codified one part of Jehovah's work as Creator, the immense power of Whom he should never cease to acknowledge as the source of all things, including Solomon's own intelligence. In this sense, these lines reexpress the sentiments from the Biblical passage in Proverbs 3:5-6, usually attributed to Solomon, which states: 'Trust in the lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.' The sentiments expressed in both Proverbs and the first half of Solomon's aria are utterly concordant, and they mesh exactly with the function of the libretto, as indicated by Smith, in finding resonance with the moral and spiritual code of a nation now assured in its Protestantism and its Anglican ritual centred on the King James Bible for more than 135 years. …

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