George Frideric Handel ‘Ombra mai fù’ from ‘Serse’: The Largo of Love

The inspiration for this blog came in an unexpected way this afternoon as I was sitting in the music library scrolling through some videos that were named “The Most Romantic Music Ever Written” and within this lovely collection of music I came across ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Handel’s Serse. I thought it was one of the loveliest songs I have ever heard, and while I am not a massive fan of Handel’s music, I found this particular work very striking and incredibly beautiful. Serse is an opera seria by George Frideric Handel which was first performed in London in 1738, the opera wasn’t all that popular, however the opening number ‘Ombra mai fu’ has become one of Handel’s most recognisable melodies.

‘Ombra mai fu’ is the opening aria which is sung by Xerxes I of Persia who is the main character of this opera. The voice type for this character is a countertenor, which means that the range of the voice overlaps with that of a woman’s. Preceding the voice is a nine-bar instrumental from the chamber string ensemble, which sets the slow, melancholy atmosphere for this song. The title of the song translated is “Never was a shade” and within the context of the opera, Xerxes is singing about the admiration and love he has for the shade of the plane tree (see lyrics below).

Ombra mai fu                                                                  Never was a shade

di vegetabile                                                                    of any plant,

cara ed amabile,                                                              dearer and more lovely,

soave piú.                                                                          or more sweet.

 

Frondi renere e belle                                      Tender and beautiful fronds

dei mio plantano amato                                 of my beloved plane tree

per voi reisplenda il fato.                                let Fate smile upon you.

Tuoni, lampi, e procelle                                   May thunder, lightning, and storms

non v’oltraggiano mai la cara pace,              never disturb your dear peace,

né giunga a profanarvi austro rapace.         nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.

 

Ombra mai fu                                                                     Never was a shade

di vegetabile                                                                        of any plant,

cara ed amabile,                                                                 dearer and more lovely,

soave piú.                                                                             or more sweet.

The pure sound of a countertenor singing this song is such a delight to hear and you’ll get swept away in this lovely short aria. The melody that Handel uses has become one of his most famous, with it being recovered years after the opera was unsuccessful.  The range in this song is so heart-wrenching, with climatic moments arising on the words ‘sweet’ and ‘lovely.’ This piece is in F major and stays in a steady 3/4 time throughout, which adds to the consistent feel of the music. The accompaniment is very delicate and it sits comfortably under the vocalist, which adds to the beauty of this piece. I can’t recommend this piece enough, it’s absolutely stunning and such a joy to listen to, it’s only 3 minutes long!

This blog is for my mum, because I know she really likes Handel, and she may not have heard this wonderful piece yet, so I hope you enjoy this one! Thank you for being the best all the time!

Recommended recordings –

Andreas Scholl (My favourite) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7XH-58eB8c

Phillippe Jaroussky – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Inl7-Fl77lA

Cécilla Bartoli (Female version – nice dramatic video with this one!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdeOyrLHdSg

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