Changes Big and Small: A Close Lookat Orchestration in Giulio Cesare

Texts and translations for the following tracks can be found here.

Handel scored most of Giulio Cesare for a typical Baroque ensemble of strings and woodwinds. But in moments of special interest he rearranges the musical forces—and even brings a surprising new instrument on board.

Two of these moments involve Cleopatra’s flirtation with Cesare in Act II, Scene 2. She has prepared a pageant in a peaceful garden for his entertainment. As Cesare looks on, the Goddess Virtue appears (or rather Cleopatra, in the guise of “Lidia,” in the guise of Virtue). Cesare emits what seems to be his standard expression ofsurprise, “Giulio, che miri?”—“Julius, what are you looking at?” (Track 32, but see also Track 22 in the Musical Highlight Sending the Wrong Message).

Baroque audiences would have been surprised by more than Cleopatra’s disguise. They would have noticed that for her seductive aria “V’adoro, pupille” (“I adore you, eyes” Track 33) Handel augmented his orchestra, bringing a complement of strings, oboes, and bassoons right onto the stage as part of the pageant.

The pageant ended, Virtue and her nine muses disappear. The great Cesare finds himself lovestruck over “Lidia.” When Nireno assures him that the feeling is mutual, Cesare launches into the aria “Se in fiorito ameno prato”—“If, in a delightful, flowering meadow.” But he doesn’t sing alone. Handel scores a solo violin to partner with him, playing the part of the songbird referenced in the text (Track 34).

A complete recording of “Se in fiorito ameno prato” can be heard on Track 35.

The most unusual sound for Handel’s audience would have been heard in Act I,Scene 9: Cesare, in the palace of the treacherous Tolomeo, likens himself to a hunter stalking his prey in the aria “Va tacito e nascosto.” The piece seems to begin traditionally enough, but then the sound of a solo horn emerges, playing an independent line of music, as if the hunter had joined the strings and woodwinds (Track 36).

The horn echoes Cesare each time he mentions the word “cacciator”—hunter (Track 37).

A complete recording of “Va tacito e nascosto” can be heard on Track 38.

Twenty-first-century students may not see anything special in putting instrumental musicians in the middle of the stage action or adding an extra horn. But in the 18th century, these effects were equivalent of converting a movie to 3D. They heightened the audience’s experience. In our day, they demonstrate that Handel intended his work to be much more than a string of beautiful arias. He wanted to truly entertain his audience. In this context, students may enjoy imagining what artists might invent once 3D and high-definition presentations have become commonplace. How would they spice up the entertainment of the future?