Playing in the flames you amuse yourself,
My heart, to find happiness,
And charm and beauty deceive you
Handel set off for Italy to seek fame and fortune and further education when he was barely twenty one. The original invitation to visit Italy came the son and heir of the Grand Duke of Tuscany pressing him to visit Florence. Italian music was famous throughout Northern Europe and Handel is unlikely to have needed much persuading, the principal attraction being Italian opera. Although he began his trip at Florence, his most important patrons were in and around Rome, Francesco Ruspoli and three Cardinals – Pietro Ottoboni, Carlo Colonna and Benedetto Pamphili. The latter is thought to have been the author of Tra le fiamme.
Rome was an unlikely place for a German composer seeking experience of Italian opera for the Pope had banned all performances of opera. However Italian composers evaded the ban by composing oratorios and cantatas in a purely operatic style and Handel followed suit. While in Italy Handel met all the leading composers of the age, both Scarlattis, Caldera, Corelli, Gasparini, Vivaldi and Albinoni. One commentator described Handel as arriving in Italy as a gifted but crude composer with an uncertain command of form and left it a polished and fully equipped artist. He is said to have composed 150 chamber cantatas in Italy along with two operas, two oratorios and many chamber works, altogether a formidable body of work for such a young man. Above all he won absolute mastery of the technique of writing for the voice as you can hear in Tra le fiamme.
This is the work of a young composer who suffuses some slight amateur verses with the warmth of Italian lyricism – a composer who is in command of a free melodic style, that is both long-breathed and rhythmically flexible. The verses declaim the danger of playing with the fire of love and drawing upon the myth of Dedalus and Icarus to prove his point. The music is flowing and sensuous persuading us more of love’s pleasures than its dangers.