Voyage to the Moon: Remembering Alan Curtis, the Master of Eighteenth-Century Pasticcio

Alan Curtis in 1994, when he retired from the Department of Music, University of California, Berkeley. Courtesy of

A phone call on 16 July 2015 delivered the heart-wrenching news that Alan Curtis had died just a few hours earlier in Florence. It was a tragedy: a great loss to his family, an extensive international network of friends and colleagues, and the global musical community. Tributes poured in as Alan was well loved by all who met him and admired his wit, energy, warmth, generosity, towering intellectual insight and musical skill. As a scholar and performer, he was a giant: a seminal figure who had helped to lead the revival of international interest in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music, opera in particular.

From 1960–1994, Alan had been on the staff of the Department of Music at the University of California at Berkeley. Over the years, he divided his time between California and Europe, where he played and conducted concerts and operas. After his retirement from university life, Alan relocated to Italy, living in Florence and Venice and devoting himself full-time to performance.

Referred to as ‘the avant-gardist of early music’, as a student in the 1950s, Alan became the first modern harpsichordist to tackle Louis Couperin’s unmeasured preludes for harpsichord. He was a pioneer in the return to original instruments and baroque performance practices in early operas. In collaboration with Shirley Wynne, he was the first to revive a Rameau opera with period instruments and authentic choreography.

His radically new ‘reconstruction’ of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, first heard in Berkeley in the 1960s, marked the first time in three centuries that a late dramatic work of Monteverdi was performed as intended by the composer, i.e. without the modern orchestration still often mistakenly thought to be ‘necessary’. He commissioned both the first authentic chitarrone (Warnock) and the first chromatic (split-key) harpsichord (Dowd) to be built in modern times, and taught his singers to follow the tuning systems of the period (with pure major thirds).

Novello published Alan’s edition of the opera in 2004.

His orchestra, Il Complesso Barocco, founded in 1977, was one of the best groups to play the rediscovered music of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Handel and many others. Alan was always on the move, with many new projects. One such landmark project from 1977 was Handel’s Admeto in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw (recorded by EMI and then, 30 years later, reissued on CD by Virgin Classics), which was hailed as the first successful attempt to revive Handel’s opera orchestra, including the now widely accepted but then unheard-of use of the archlute.

Alan was always at the forefront of the movement to enlarge and revivify the static operatic repertory. In the summer of 2000, he conducted a new production of Radamisto for the Halle Handel Festival and, for the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Handel’s superb but practically unknown opera Arminio, which has appeared to international acclaim on CD for Virgin. The Handel Society of London voted it best Handel recording of the year in 2001. In 2002 Alan also conducted Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Monte Carlo, Deidamia in Siena (recorded by Virgin and awarded both the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik as best opera CD of 2003 and the 2004 International Handel Recording Prize), and a program of Handel arias called ‘La Maga Abbandonata’ for the Resonanzen Festival in Vienna (Grosse Saal, Konzerthaus). This subsequently became a best-selling CD for BMG Classics, who also released the opera Lotario.

More recently, Alan and Il Complesso Barocco recorded Handel’s operatic duets (‘Amor e gelosia’) with Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce DiDonato, as well as his operas Radamisto and Fernando, and a masterpiece by the Viennese court composer Francesco Conti, the oratorio David (Virgin Classics). The list of highly acclaimed Handel opera performances and recordings continues with Rodelinda, Floridante, Tolomeo, Ezio, Berenice, Giove in Argo, Alcina and Ariodante, the last two with Joyce DiDonato in the title roles.

Other CDs issued since 2011 include Handel’s Ariodante with Joyce DiDonato, Gluck’s Ezio with Ann Hallenberg, Sonia Prina, Topi Lehtipuu and Max Cencic, which won an ‘Echo Preis’, ‘Streams of Pleasure’ (arias and duets from Handel’s oratorios) sung by Marie Nicole Lemieux and Karina Gauvin, Handel’s Giulio Cesare with the same pair as Cesare and Cleopatra, Handel’s Giove in Argo with Gauvin and Hallenberg, Domenico Scarlatti’s Tolomeo e Alessandro, Drama Queens with Joyce DiDonato, and a DVD of Vivaldi’s newly rediscovered Motezuma. In 2013, Alan reconstructed a version of Handel’s London pasticcio of Vinci’s Semiramide and conducted 10 staged performances of it at the Kammeroper Wien. For the Gluck anniversary in 2014, he reconstructed and performed, at Theater an der Wien, his Demofoonte (1743).

Alan sourced music from ‘lost’ operas by finding arias buried in eighteenth-century anthologies and arrangements. His scholarship was meticulous, putting arias in order, reconstructing orchestrations and, if needed, writing recitatives afresh. It was this astonishing track record that made Alan the obvious candidate as arranger/composer for Voyage to the Moon. He summarised his relevant expertise for Voyage to the Moon as follows:

‘Through my many years experience in finding eighteenth-century arias to suit contemporary singers, I have acquired the ability to ‘hear’ accurately in my mind, at first sight, eighteenth-century music, even when the manuscript source is not easily legible. This makes my searches much more rapid and effective. I also have acquired, over the years, a large collection of copies of little-known opera manuscripts (as well as a pretty large collection of arias in my head!).

I also have considerable experience composing recitatives, starting with fragments for the seventeenth-century operas I have edited, continuing with Handel (Rodrigo, for instance), but culminating these past two years in Gluck’s Demofoonte and Cherubini’s Médée both of which I finished recently (September, 2014)…

I enjoy the prospect of working with History of Emotions scholars and I think that not only my knowledge of the relevant bibliography, but also my personal acquaintance with the authors of much of that body of literature would be of use to them, as would my long teaching experience, working with younger scholars, at the University of California at Berkeley.’ (Personal Communication, Alan Curtis, 2015).

Reinhard Strohm’s pioneering cultural historical investigations of Handel’s pasticci were of great interest to Alan. [1] He engaged with how the pasticcio functioned as an aspect of eighteenth-century theatre culture. Alan was also keen to explore the present and future role of pasticcio in musical culture.

Our work with Alan began early in 2015, as he started to sift through repertoire likely to assist Michael Gow in realising Voyage to the Moon. Communications were by email and Skype, and, as with any expert of this repertoire, Alan was keen to honour the genre with a good mix of different types of arias, in relevant sequences.

Insight to the baroque opera seria formulation can be found in playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni’s (1707–1793) autobiography. He notes:

The three principal personages of the drama ought to sing five arias each; two in the first act, two in the second, and one in the third. The second actress and the second soprano can only have three, and the inferior characters must be satisfied with a single aria each, or two at the most. The author of the words must […] take care that two pathetic [i.e. melancholy] arias do not succeed one another. He must distribute with the same precaution the bravura arias, the arias of action, the inferior arias, and the minuets and rondeaus. He must, above all things, avoid giving impassioned arias, bravura arias, or rondeaus, to inferior characters.[2]

Besides respecting structural elements of opera seria, Alan was especially particular about the singers’ enunciation of the text, and in the first week of workshops when the creative team worked through arias and initial drafts of recitatives, Alan (via Skype) offered his expertise on not only how best to deliver text, but which vowels worked best at different pitches in different voice types.

Alan was enthusiastic and highly supportive, as a few reflections from his correspondence reveal:

From: alan curtis

Date: 13 May 2015 4:44:55 AM AEST

Subject: Re: Voyage to the Moon

The outline arrived just in time for me to read it on the plane to Geneva. The plan is VERY stimulating! Hundreds of ideas are running through my mind. It is so helpful that you describe your concepts in musical terms! The words are often already quite beautiful (final trio!) and “musical”, though of course when we get down to work on details I may ask you to think about providing stressed words on good English vowels: for instance in the phrase “I must rage savagely” I can imagine all sorts of coloratura on “rage”, but not much (not even much repetition) for “savagely”.

Whether we re-write, for the arias, the Italian (if that is the original language) or substitute English is a question I would like to keep open for the time being. But what we might do soon is take a sample, say an aria in Italian that we agree fits one of the required places, and see how it works putting it into English. It ain’t easy! But if it works, ultimately, that might be the way to go.

My rule for numbering editions of operas is to number everything with orchestra but make “secco” recitatives take the number of the piece they precede. Accompanied recits also, unless they are isolated (as can happen), in which case they get their own number. If I am reading correctly, there are 18 numbers, there may of course be more if I decide to set some of the recitatives as (isolated) accompagnati:

1.Overture   SCENE I:  2. Aria (mezzo) 3. Mad scene (soprano) 4. Duet (mezzo and sopr.) 5. Aria (mezzo) 6. Sinfonia 7. Aria (bass baritone) 8. Sinfonia    SCENE II: 9. Sinfonia 10. Aria (sopr.) 11. TRIO 12. Aria (bar.) 13. Duet (bar. sopr.) 14. Sinfonia    SCENE III: 15. Aria (sopr.) 16. Aria (mezzo) 17. Sinfonia 18. TRIO

From: alan curtis

Date: Jul 6, 2015 at 9:06 PM

Subject: Re: Voyage to the Moon, revised libretto

Came through fine this time! The text is wonderful! I’ve already started working on it. But first I tried underlaying the aria text. It’s not easy but here is my solution which I hope you can copy into your score and tell me if there’s anything you want to change. If not, then we can already send it to Emma to start learning. Instead of “Tormenting rage assails…” could you accept “Torment and rage assail…”? If not, we need to change the rhythm, which would be a pity. Also the ‘s’ of the singular form of the verb (with its final S) is not as nice to sing as the plural form “assail me”. Here is the text as I have put it under the music (I give occasionally bar numbers to make sure you know where I’m talking about.)

b.14 Tor-ment and rage as-sail me, tor-ment and rage as-sail me. Jea-lous-sy! Jea-lou-sy! A sor-row bit-ter, a sor-row bit-ter my (24) spi-rit, ah, will shat-ter, my spi-rit  will shat-ter  and pierce me to the core,  will pierce me to the core.

…I hope this solution works for you. I’m VERY pleased with how the text connects to the music! All best, Alan.

From: alan curtis

Date: Tue, Jul 14, 2015 at 4:11 PM

Subject: Re: Voyage to the Moon, Mad scene

Coraggio! The repertory is full of duets where the man ends the phrase singing “cara” and woman “caro”, and though one might think they would cancel each other out and be neutral, they don’t — it works! Though of course for a delicate soft ending having the same vowel is preferable. “Go, leave this place forever” works perfectly! Keep it up! … So while I look [for the final arias], I’m thinking about recitatives as well. There are several I can now write, since we have settled on these arias and their keys. Will be sending them soon. All best, Alan.

Alan died the following day, on 15 July.

Voyage to the Moon has been enhanced by the knowledge and inspiration that Alan Curtis offered the project. He was a gentle giant, who, to quote his own words, made ‘an audible difference’ to the world.

This piece comprises elements taken from Alan’s own version of his biography, and his correspondence with the Voyage to the Moon Researchers.

The Voyage to the Moon researchers are Jane Davidson, Joe Browning and Frederic Kiernan, based at the University of Melbourne. Jane Davidson is Professor of Creative and Performing Arts (Music) at the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne, and Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE). Joseph Browning is a ethnomusicologist and postdoctoral research fellow at CHE specialising in the shakuhachi, central Javanese gamelan, and ethnographic approaches to Western art music. Frederic Kiernan is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and research assistant at CHE.

1. Reinhard Strohm, Essays on Handel and Italian Opera (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
2. Carlo Goldoni, Memoirs, trans. John Black, 2 vols (London, 1814), i, 185–6.

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