Handel composed the work over the period of 19 January to 4 February 1740, and the work was premiered on 27 February 1740 at the Royal Theatre of Lincoln's Inn Fields. At the urging of one of Handel's librettists, Charles Jennens, Milton's two poems, L'Allegro and il Penseroso, were arranged by James Harris, interleaving them to create dramatic tension between the personified characters of Milton's poems (L'Allegro or the "Joyful man" and il Penseroso or the "Contemplative man"). The first two movements consist of this dramatic dialog between Milton's poems. In an attempt to unite the two poems into a singular "moral design", at Handel's request, Jennens added a new poem, "il Moderato", to create a third movement. The popular concluding aria and chorus, "As Steals the Morn" is adapted from Shakespeare's Tempest, V.i.65–68.
Michael O'Connell and John Powell have published an analysis of Handel's setting of the text in his musical treatment.
- Soprano I
- Soprano II
- Alto (some versions only)
There are no characters, no specific 'L'Allegro" or "Penseroso". The "drama" comes from alternating episodes representing the humors. Some versions give arias to different soloists. For instance, the "da capo" version of the aria "Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures" is sung by a soprano (Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, 1980) but the truncated recitative version is sung by a bass (Nelson. Ensemble Orchestra de Paris, 2000). Also, all soloists sing in the "il Moderato" section.
- Alison Latham, "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato", in The Oxford Dictionary of Musical Works (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003), 5.
- Michael O'Connell, John Powell, "Music and Sense in Handel's Setting of Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso" (Autumn 1978). Eighteenth-Century Studies, 12 (1): pp. 16–46.
- Smith, Ruth. "Jennens, Charles: (1700/01–1773), patron of the arts and librettist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 6 October 2013.
- Ridden, G.M.; Rosemary Dunhill (Oct 1998). "Milton's Nightcap: The Correspondence of James Harris". Milton Quarterly. 32 (3): 95–97. doi:10.1353/mq.1998.0016. Retrieved 6 October 2013.
- Review/Dance; Mark Morris Interprets Handel By ANNA KISSELGOFF, New York Times, October 8, 1990
- Full-text libretto hosted at wikisource.
- Score of L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (ed. Friedrich Chrysander, Leipzig 1859)
- Full-text libretto hosted by Stanford University.
- Full-text of Milton's L'Allegro and il Penseroso at Project Gutenberg.
- Text and Commentary on L'Allegro at Dartmouth.edu
- Text and Commentary on il Penseroso at Dartmouth.edu
- Program notes by Boston Cecilia.
- Notes by Music with Ease.
- L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)