Music Book Review: Handel's Bestiary by Donna Leon, With CD of 12 Arias, as Baroque Era Title #1

by DerdriuMarriner

Handel's Bestiary by mystery writer Donna Leon brings together a CD of one animal-related aria each from 12 beloved operas by eighteenth-century composer George Frideric Handel.

Bestiaries appear in illustrated, musical, and written formats

Handel's Bestiary accesses the position in 2010 of title #1 in the book and CD series by Donna Leon, world-famous ideator of the Guido Brunetti mystery novels, on creations and inventions contemporaneous with the Baroque era's music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The series brings into play two successors, in 2011 and 2013, with the respective releases of:
• Venetian Curiosities as title #2; and
• Gondola as title #3.

The second and third titles respectively concentrate upon:
• classical musical compositions by Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678–July 28, 1741); and
• eighteenth-century, gondola-inspired, provincial folk music known as barcarole (relating to [a] ship).

The first title contrastingly describes a musical bestiary gleaned from George Frideric Handel’s (February 23, 1685-April 14, 1759) operas.




Bestiaries present known and fanciful animals ~ Horse and Rider: ca. 1506-1508 beeswax sculpture by Leonardo da Vinci ~

Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452–May 2, 1519) left captivating studies of horses along with his only surviving equine sculpture.
sculpture authenticated in 1985 by da Vinci expert Carlo Pedretti (born 1928)
sculpture authenticated in 1985 by da Vinci expert Carlo Pedretti (born 1928)

Bestiaries become best-sellers regardless of place or time


Bestiaries expose audiences to known and imagined animal life cycles, literary symbolism, moral implications, and natural histories. They find their birth in ancient and medieval times. Specialists give as epitomes:

  • the ancient Physiologus (Naturalist) from Alexandria, Egypt (possibly) by Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens,  150?–215?); and
  • the medieval Etymologiae (Etymologies) from Spain by Saint Isidore of Seville (Sant’Isidoro di Siviglia, 560?–April 4, 636).

Bestiaries have more recent manifestations with:

  • cycles within the fourteenth-century Isabella, Ormesby, Queen Mary, and Tickhill Psalters;
  • Fantasia (Imagination) by Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452–May 2, 1519); and
  • Manual de zoología fantástica (Book of Imaginary Beings) by Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986). 


The Chandos Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel: ca. 1720 oil on canvas ~

Portrait, formerly attributed to Sir James Thornhill (July 25, 1675 or 1676–May 4, 1734), is known as Chandos portrait for the musician's great patron, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (January 6, 1673 - August 9, 1744)
The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, South East England
The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, South East England

Bestiaries contribute characters for musical settings, plot complications


The twenty-first century is host to a bestiary compiled from George Friederic Handel’s (February 23, 1685–April 14, 1759) operas and oratorios. The above-mentioned Baroque composer’s music juxtaposes animals with interpretative contexts of vice and virtue. Handel’s Bestiary therefore knits into seamless illustrative, performance, and textual wholes the following Handelian animals:

  • bee, cleverness in Berenice, Regina d’Egitto;
  • elephant, challenges in Judas Maccabaeus;
  • frogs, crises in Israel in Egypt;
  • lion, bravery in Arianna in Creta;
  • moth, temptation in Partenope;
  • nightingale, elusiveness in Deidamia;
  • phoenix, rebirth in Admeto, Re di Tessaglia;
  • silver dove, ascents in Theodora;
  • snake, poison in Giulio Cesare in Egitto;
  • stag, nobility in Ottone, Re di Germania;
  • tiger, altruism in Alcina; and
  • turtledove, safety in Floridante


Turtledoves (Streptopelia spp) symbolize safety in Georg Friedrich Händel opera, Floridante:

Floridante premiered at King's Theatre in London on December 9, 1721.
The Turtle Dove: oil on canvas by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823 - March 10, 1903)
The Turtle Dove: oil on canvas by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823 - March 10, 1903)

Bestiaries direct audiences to cultural enrichment, educational entertainment


So Handel’s Bestiary provides culturally enriching, educationally entertaining illustrations, information, and interpretations -- in 12 chapters and through an enclosed 64-minute compact disc -- of each of 12 animals which appear in 12 different eighteenth-century operas, thanks to:

  • Atlantic Monthly Press, publishers;
  • Alan Curtis, conductor;
  • Giulio D’Alessio, producer;
  • George Frideric Handel, composer;
  • Laurence Heym, recording producer;
  • Il Complesso Barocco (Paul Agnew, Alfia Bakieva, Dileno Baldin, Boris Begelman, Isabella Bison, Andrea Bressan, Pier Luigi Ciapparelli, Laura Corolla, Michele Fattori, Karina Gauvin, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, Ann Hallenberg, Elisa Imbalzano, Catherine Jones, Taka Kitazato, Yaoi Masuda, Francesco Meucci, Ludovico Minasi, Yann Miriel, Daniela Nuzzoli, Andrea Perugi, Riccardo Coelati Rama, Hannes Rux, Dmitry Sinkovsky);
  • Donna Leon, author; and
  • Michael Sowa, illustrator.  


Handel's Bestiary: In Search of Animals in Handel's Operas by Donna Leon ~ illustrations by Michael Sowa

As patron of conductor Alan Curtis and his celebrated orchestra Il Complesso Barocco, Donna noticed that her favorite composer George Handel filled his operas with arias that make reference to animals.
Donna Leon writings



My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.


Donna Leon's debut installment of her series on Baroque music's contemporaneous creations and inventions honors her favorite composer, Georg Friedrich Händel.

Donna Leon: November 1, 2010
Donna Leon: November 1, 2010

Sources Consulted


Leon, Donna. 2010. Handel's Bestiary: In Search of Animals in Handel's Operas. Illustrated by Michael Sowa. Music by George Frideric Handel with Alan Curtis Conducting Il Complesso Barocco. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.


Georg Friedrich Händel preceded his insertion of a nightingale in his 1741 opera Deidamia with compositions ca. 1739 duetting a nightingale with a cuckoo (Concerti Grossi Op. 6 No. 9; Organ Concerto No. 13) ~

singing contest between cuckoo (cuculus) and nightingale (luscinia) judged by donkey (assus) in woodcut by Tobias Stimmer (April 7, 1539 – January 4, 1584), whose woodcuts were described by Peter Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640) as "a special jewel of our art."
Matthias Holtzwart's Emblematum Tyrocinia (Strasbourg: Bernhard Jobin, 1581)
Matthias Holtzwart's Emblematum Tyrocinia (Strasbourg: Bernhard Jobin, 1581)
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

When They Were Young: Handel the Musician ~ poster available via AllPosters

portrait by Peter Charles Geoffrey Jackson (March 4, 1922 - May 2, 2003)
When They Were Young: Handel the Musician

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 01/03/2022, DerdriuMarriner
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Mira on 05/28/2015

I have been to Italy only once, a long time ago. It's unbelievable how time flies. I do hope to make it to Rome and Florence in this lifetime :)

DerdriuMarriner on 05/28/2015

Yes, me too, I like the idea of looking for animals (and plants) mentioned in music, of which probably one of the best known examples of fauna set to music notes is "The Magic Flute."
Since I know Italian and Italy, I tend to make efforts to keep up-to-date on the culture.

Mira on 05/26/2015

This is a nice idea, to scour Handel's works in search of animals :) How do you find these intriguing books? Were you familiar with the author?

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