David Hill, conductor
Presented with members of Yale Baroque Ensemble with support from Yale School of Music, and in conjunction with the Mid-Manhattan Performing Arts Foundation
Free; no tickets required.
More info here.
by Esther Morgan-Ellis
English oratorio—the cornerstone of British musical identity in the eighteenth century—was in fact developed and popularized by a German composer who had built his reputation on Italian opera. George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) emigrated to England in 1713, following several successful visits in which he introduced Italian opera to the British public. In 1719 he founded his own opera company, the Royal Academy of Music, for which he acted as impresario, organizing and controlling every aspect of the productions. Handel’s company relied upon imported Italian singers, who sang in their native language and enjoyed great celebrity and power. Italian opera seria, however, presented the composer with a string of difficulties. To begin with, it was very expensive to produce. Once Handel successfully mounted a production, he had to compete with other opera impresarios for patrons. And even a full house was not the end of the composer’s worries, for Puritans objected to Italian opera on aesthetic, ethical, and political grounds. When Handel suffered a severe bout of ill health in 1737, he found that he was no longer able to withstand the pressures of the opera world. English oratorio, a genre to which Handel had first contributed in 1718, quickly became his sole artistic focus.
Handel’s oratorio style reflected his varied experience as a composer of Italian opera seria, German Passions, and English masques. Oratorio, established as an Italian genre in the previous century, was described by Newburgh Hamilton—one of Handel’s librettists—as “a musical Drama, whose Subject must be Scriptural, and in which the Solemnity of Church-Musick is agreeably united with the most pleasing Airs of the Stage.” Oratorios were never incorporated into worship. Instead, they provided suitable entertainment for the faithful, who were encouraged to avoid the profanities of the stage. Handel wrote largely on Old Testament subjects, but he also experimented more than once with mythical and poetic themes. As in opera, the leading roles are sung by a handful of soloists. In contrast to opera, the chorus in one of Handel’s oratorios is equal in importance to the soloists and always plays a central dramatic role, both as a character and as a commentator.
Handel’s oratorios were sung in English, and few Italian singers could perform in that language. This had several implications for the composer, who had to write for and engage English singers instead. To begin with, English singers were usually not as accomplished as the Italian castrati and prima donnas. Handel assembled a cast of suitable soloists who appeared in many of his oratorios, but these men and women were generally known for their accomplishments on the legitimate stage, not for their musical prowess. Because of his singers’ vocal limitations, Handel’s oratorio arias were often less ornate and virtuosic than his opera arias, although he never sacrificed musical expressivity. The quality of English singers had one more important effect on oratorio staging: they were much less expensive than their Italian counterparts. The production of oratorios was a business venture, and Handel benefitted from every opportunity to cut costs. Handel’s use of English singers also had an important impact on the public reception of his oratorios. Musical stage entertainment with an English text and English singers appealed to the spirit of nationalistic sentiments of Handel’s audience. The plots appealed to these sentiments as well: British theatergoers were quick to read the oratorios as allegorical works, and they appreciated them both as expressions of Christian spirituality and as incisive political commentary.
The fact that oratorio was unstaged accounted for much of its success in England. The absence of scenery and costumes cut down on the cost of oratorio production—and even in the face of Handel’s genius, we cannot ignore the financial considerations that molded his artistic output. However, the Church of England had a much greater influence on Handel’s success with oratorio. The Lord Chamberlain had limited theatrical entertainment during Lent, which meant that opera could hardly turn a profit. Oratorio, on the other hand, was approved for performance because of its subject matter and unstaged presentation style. Handel was able to secure theaters at a reduced rate (they would otherwise remain dark), and he simultaneously enjoyed a monopoly on Lenten audiences. Oratorio attracted audiences even when alternative entertainment was available. It appealed to the British public, which became increasingly conservative during the 18th century. Some felt that religious texts had no place in the theater, but most were satisfied with Handel’s treatment of sacred subject matter. Handel’s audiences were enthralled with the cult of the sublime, an 18th century aesthetic movement which sought to reform the arts and place them on a sound foundation of religion and reason. Reformers sought not to eliminate entertainment, but to transform diversion into devotion. Handel’s oratorios suited this agenda perfectly.
Judas Maccabeus (HV 63) premiered at Covent Garden in 1747 and met with immediate success—perhaps because the allegorical content of this particular oratorio was even more overtly patriotic than usual. Handel composed Judas Maccabeus in 1746 to celebrate the military victory of Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, at the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746. The conflict ended a Jacobite uprising that had sought to restore Charles Edward Stuart to the throne. Cumberland became a popular hero as a result of the victory (the only real success of his military career), and Handel was quick to capitalize on his popularity by celebrating the event with a topical oratorio.
Judas Maccabeus relates the events of 170–160 BC, when the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV sought to exterminate the Jewish religion. The Seleucids were a dynasty of Hellenistic kings that ruled throughout Asia Minor, Syria, and Persia for several centuries. In an effort to consolidate his empire and strengthen his hold over the region, Antiochus IV prohibited observance of the Sabbath, abolished Jewish law, outlawed circumcision, and ordered the people of Judea to offer animal sacrifices and worship Zeus in the temple. Judas Maccabeus, one of five sons of the revered priest Mattathias, led the resistance against Seleucid oppression and encouraged his people to turn away from paganism and put their trust in Jehovah. This episode in the Jewish saga is recorded in 1 Maccabees, verses 2-8, but librettist Thomas Morell enriched the Old Testament account with narrative elements from Antiquitates Judaicae, a Jewish history compiled by Flavius Josephus around AD 93.
The only named characters in Judas Maccabeus are the title character, his brother Simon, and Eupolemus, the Jewish Ambassador to Rome, who delivers the crucial third-act news that Rome has allied with Judea against the Seleucid Empire, thus ensuring peace and the preservation of the Jewish people. Other roles include an Israelite woman, an Israelite man, a priest, and two messengers. The paucity of characters, however, serves to highlight the significant of the Jewish nation, portrayed by the chorus, as the drama’s most powerful force. It is only through the combined efforts and persevering faith of the Judean people that liberty is finally won.
Like most of Handel’s oratorios, Judas Maccabeus opens with a dramatic overture in the French style. Much of Handel’s success derived from formulas and the recycling of musical material, and his overtures are no exception. The French overture was popularized in the court of Louis XIV and, by Handel’s time, had become emblematic of royal pomp. He used this characteristic two-part form to lend gravity and refinement to his theatrical offerings. The first part of a French overture is slow and stately, and it is defined by pervasive dotted rhythms (usually performed in an exaggerated, “double-dotted” style). The second part is faster and features imitative entrances reminiscent of a fugue, although the composer is not obliged to treat these entrances in strict fugal fashion.
The final victory of the Jewish people is marked by one of Handel’s most famous choruses, “See, the conqu’ring hero comes.” This chorus was not a part of the oratorio at its premier, however, nor was it composed with Judas Maccabeus in mind. Instead, “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” was created in 1747 for Handel’s next oratorio, Joshua, which also set a Morell libretto. It was such a success that the composer himself incorporated it retroactively into the score of Judas Maccabeus, and it has featured in every performance since.