Infinite Days: A Lesson on Handel’s “Se Pietá” Aria

Posted September 13, 2010 by Sara | Novel Novice 1 Comment


There are lots of history lessons that can be drawn from our September Book of the Month, Infinite Days by Rebecca Maizel — and one of my favorites is also a music lesson.

In a key scene in the book, vampire-turned-human Lenah has an emotional reaction upon hearing “Se Pietá” from Handel’s opera, Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) in the library at her school. It is the first time she has ever heard recorded music.

I couldn’t help it — I slowly knelt down on the floor and closed my eyes. It was a kind of beauty I could not have fathomed before that moment — music that I could finally feel with my body and my soul.

Infinite Days, pg. 65

Later, during a flashback to 1740, Lenah describes seeing the opera performed in Paris with Rhode when they are both vampires together. In the scene, Lenah is struggling with her continued existence as a vampire and the constant killing. “The game has lost its sport,” she says. But in closing her eyes and letting the music surround her, Lenah finds a momentary escape:

It would be safe there in the darkness of my mind. The only place I knew I could go to forget even just for a moment what I had become.”

Infinite Days, pg. 74

Handel wrote the opera in 1724 for the Royal Academy of Music in London. It was well-received, and was later performed throughout Europe — including in Paris, which is where Lenah recalls seeing it performed in the 1740s. It tells the story of Caesar coming to Egypt, where Cleopatra plans to seduce him for political gain but ends up falling in love with him. Though a fictional retelling, the story is part of the larger history of Caesar’s rule (and his eventual downfall, though that part is not included in the opera).

The aria “Se Pietá” is sung by Cleopatra at the end of the opera’s second act. Cleopatra has just learned that there is a plot to kill Caeser, and she asks him to flee Egypt. Instead, he vows to remain and fight. In the aria, she laments that her plan is crumbling around her.

You can listen to the “Se Pietá” aria for yourself. Then tell us in the comments how you felt hearing the music:

Sara | Novel Novice
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