"Ombra mai fu
" is the opening aria
An aria in music was originally any expressive melody, usually, but not always, performed by a singer. The term is now used almost exclusively to describe a self-contained piece for one voice usually with orchestral accompaniment...
from the 1738 opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...
Serse is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. It was first performed in London on 15 April 1738. The Italian libretto was adapted by an unknown hand from that by Silvio Stampiglia for an earlier opera of the same name by Giovanni Bononcini in 1694...
by George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel was a German-British Baroque composer, famous for his operas, oratorios, anthems and organ concertos. Handel was born in 1685, in a family indifferent to music...
The opera was a commercial failure, lasting only five performances in London after its premiere. In the 19th century, however, the aria was rediscovered and became one of Handel's best-known pieces. Handel adapted the aria from the setting by Bononcini
Giovanni Battista Bononcini was an Italian Baroque composer and cellist, one of a family of string players and composers. His father, Giovanni Maria Bononcini , was a violinist and a composer.-Biography:...
who, in turn, adapted it from the setting by Francesco Cavalli
Francesco Cavalli was an Italian composer of the early Baroque period. His real name was Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni, but he is better known by that of Cavalli, the name of his patron Federico Cavalli, a Venetian nobleman.-Life:Cavalli was born at Crema, Lombardy...
. All three composers had produced settings of the same opera libretto
A libretto is the text used in an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata, or musical. The term "libretto" is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as mass, requiem, and sacred cantata, or even the story line of a...
by Nicolò Minato
Count Nicolò Minato was an Italian poet, librettist and impresario. His career can be divided into two parts: the years he spent at Venice, from 1650 to 1669, and the years at Vienna, from 1669 until his death....
Originally composed to be sung by a soprano castrato
A castrato is a man with a singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto voice produced either by castration of the singer before puberty or one who, because of an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity.Castration before puberty prevents a boy's...
(and sung in modern performances of Serse
by a countertenor
A countertenor is a male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of a contralto, mezzo-soprano, or a soprano, usually through use of falsetto, or far more rarely than normal, modal voice. A pre-pubescent male who has this ability is called a treble...
Contralto is the deepest female classical singing voice, with the lowest tessitura, falling between tenor and mezzo-soprano. It typically ranges between the F below middle C to the second G above middle C , although at the extremes some voices can reach the E below middle C or the second B above...
or a mezzo-soprano
A mezzo-soprano is a type of classical female singing voice whose range lies between the soprano and the contralto singing voices, usually extending from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above...
), it has often been arranged for other voice type
A voice type is a particular kind of human singing voice perceived as having certain identifying qualities or characteristics. Voice classification is the process by which human voices are evaluated and are thereby designated into voice types...
s and instruments, including solo organ, solo piano, violin and piano, and string ensembles, often under the title "Largo from Xerxes
", although the original tempo was larghetto.
In the opera, the aria is preceded by a short recitativo accompagnato
of nine bars
In musical notation, a bar is a segment of time defined by a given number of beats of a given duration. Typically, a piece consists of several bars of the same length, and in modern musical notation the number of beats in each bar is specified at the beginning of the score by the top number of a...
, setting the scene ("Frondi tenere e belle"). The aria itself is also short; it consists of 52 bars and typically lasts about four minutes.
In music, instrumentation refers to the particular combination of musical instruments employed in a composition, and to the properties of those instruments individually...
is for a string section
The string section is the largest body of the standard orchestra and consists of bowed string instruments of the violin family.It normally comprises five sections: the first violins, the second violins, the violas, the cellos, and the double basses...
: first and second violin
The violin is a string instrument, usually with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. It is the smallest, highest-pitched member of the violin family of string instruments, which includes the viola and cello....
The viola is a bowed string instrument. It is the middle voice of the violin family, between the violin and the cello.- Form :The viola is similar in material and construction to the violin. A full-size viola's body is between and longer than the body of a full-size violin , with an average...
, and basses. The key signature
In musical notation, a key signature is a series of sharp or flat symbols placed on the staff, designating notes that are to be consistently played one semitone higher or lower than the equivalent natural notes unless otherwise altered with an accidental...
is F major
F major is a musical major scale based on F, consisting of the pitches F, G, A, B, C, D, and E. Its key signature has one flat . It is by far the oldest key signature with an accidental, predating the others by hundreds of years...
, the time signature
The time signature is a notational convention used in Western musical notation to specify how many beats are in each measure and which note value constitutes one beat....
is 3/4 time
Triple metre is a musical metre characterized by a primary division of 3 beats to the bar, usually indicated by 3 or 9 in the upper figure of the time signature, with 3/4, 3/2, and 3/8 being the most common examples...
. The vocal range
Vocal range is the measure of the breadth of pitches that a human voice can phonate. Although the study of vocal range has little practical application in terms of speech, it is a topic of study within linguistics, phonetics, and speech and language pathology, particularly in relation to the study...
covers C4 to F5
Scientific pitch notation is one of several methods that name the notes of the standard Western chromatic scale by combining a letter-name, accidentals, and a number identifying the pitch's octave...
with a tessitura
In music, the term tessitura generally describes the most musically acceptable and comfortable range for a given singer or, less frequently, musical instrument; the range in which a given type of voice presents its best-sounding texture or timbre...
The title translates from the Italian
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...
as "Never was a shade". It is sung by the main character, Xerxes I of Persia
Xerxes I of Persia , Ḫšayāršā, ), also known as Xerxes the Great, was the fifth king of kings of the Achaemenid Empire.-Youth and rise to power:...
, admiring the shade of a plane tree
Platanus orientalis, or the Oriental plane, is a large, deciduous tree of the Platanaceae family, known for its longevity and spreading crown. The species name derives from its historical distribution eastward from the Balkans, where it was recognized in ancient Greek history and literature....
|Frondi tenere e belle
del mio platano amato
per voi risplenda il fato.
Tuoni, lampi, e procelle
non v'oltraggino mai la cara pace,
nè giunga a profanarvi austro rapace.
Ombra mai fu
cara ed amabile,
|Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never bother your dear peace,
nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.
A shade there never was,
of any plant,
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.
Performances of this aria are included in several movies. A fully staged version appears in the film Farinelli
Farinelli is a 1994 biographical film about the life and career of the Italian opera singer Farinelli, considered one of the greatest castrato singers of all time...
(1994), a fictionalized biography which recounts the tumultuous relationship between Handel and the famed castrato Farinelli
Farinelli , was the stage name of Carlo Maria Broschi, celebrated Italian castrato singer of the 18th century and one of the greatest singers in the history of opera.- Early years :...
. The piece is also featured in Dangerous Liaisons
Dangerous Liaisons is a 1988 drama film based upon Christopher Hampton's play, Les liaisons dangereuses, which in turn was a theatrical adaptation of the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos....
(1988), in the original Italian, and Pride and Prejudice
(TV version, 1995), which used English language lyrics. Given the setting of these two movies/novels (1780s France and England in the early 19th century), when "Ombra mai fu" was still in obscurity, inclusion of these performances, while not technically anachronistic, would probably not have been recognized by contemporary audiences.
On 24 December 1906, "Ombra mai fu" may have been the first music to have been broadcast by radio.