David Hill, conductor
presented in conjunction with the “Enlightened Princesses” exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art
By 1745, the aging George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) had firmly established himself as London’s preeminent composer in the genres of opera and oratorio. Although German by birth, Handel had at this point spent decades in England. The composer was made a naturalized British subject in 1727 by the Hanoverian King George I and had maintained close ties with his successor, George II. Thus, when ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ (Prince Charles Edward Stuart, heir to the deposed Stuart dynasty) marched on Scotland in August of 1745 and threatened to lead his Jacobite army toward London in an effort to reclaim the throne, Handel’s allegiances lay squarely with the King and his son Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. Before William defeated Charles and the Jacobites at Culloden in April of 1746, the city of London was on high alert and began to mobilize for military action. Alongside other displays of patriotism taking place in the city, Handel wrote A Chorus Song made for the Gentlemen Volunteers of the City of London in late 1745. Evidently determining that his contribution in support of the King’s cause had not been sufficient, Handel then devised the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus as a means of honoring Prince William. However, the story of Maccabaeus would suggest a prior military victory when, in the first weeks of 1746, the Jacobite uprising was still a threat, and so Handel turned first to another project with indelible ties to the political climate, the Occasional Oratorio.
Owing to the uncertainty of the time, Handel set a performance date of February 14, 1746 for his new work, which gave him just a few weeks to focus on composing. Accordingly, Handel cobbled together much of the Occasional Oratorio from his earlier pieces, resetting some of his most popular choruses with new texts that would contribute to an atmosphere of patriotic optimism. Certainly, the process of coopting previous material for a “new” composition was not unique to this piece or even to Handel, but the resulting work in this case is distinct from the composer’s other efforts in the oratorio genre.
Unlike most Handelian oratorios, which relate a Biblical story in an expository, dramatic fashion, the Occasional Oratorio features a collage of texts compiled by Newburgh Hamilton, a friend and collaborator of the composer. Part I of the work sets Psalm paraphrases by John Milton and sacred poetry of Edmund Spenser. Part II includes texts by Hamilton and Rev. Thomas Morell, the librettist of the upcoming Maccabaeus, alongside other words of Milton and Spenser; it begins with Morell’s “O Liberty,” which Handel eventually reused in his subsequent oratorio project. Part III lifts large portions of 1739’s Israel in Egypt and ends with one of Handel’s favorite (and most successful) choruses, the anthem Zadok the Priest. This triumphant choral anthem had been written for the coronation of King George II in 1727 and subsequently adapted with other text for later projects as well. The mishmash of texts in the Occasional Oratorio predictably results in a work without a defined, prescriptive plot. Rather, the piece can be seen as a rallying cry of support for the Duke of Cumberland and his efforts to defeat Prince Charles and the Jacobites. It carries messages of hope for military victory and assurances that the King and his Protestant followers bear divine favor. Despite a lack of plot in a traditional sense, though, the work is nevertheless dramatic, as it changes quickly between emotional states and atmospheres.
Performed only six times in Handel’s lifetime, the Occasional Oratorio was quickly and almost entirely forgotten. After the end of the Jacobite uprising, the work may have seemed outdated, and Handel rushed to move on to other projects. Nonetheless, the piece was an important marker of the composer’s fealty to his adopted homeland and King and a telling response to a trying political moment in British history. At the same time, though, the work also reveals Handel’s famed savviness as a businessman and occupies a crucial place in his late catalogue of compositions.
The 1744-45 concert season just prior to the composition of the Occasional Oratorio had been an unsuccessful one for Handel. The composer’s overzealous prescription concert series advertising 24 performances was left incomplete as Handel became involved in public disputes with other London presenters. Perhaps another reason for the Occasional Oratorio as Handel conceived it (that is, as a work relying heavily on pastiche of existing music and designed to be put together in a short period of time) is that it could offer to the subscribers of the failed 1744-45 concert season a chance to make up for a few concerts that had been lost in the previous year. Handel mounted just three performances of the new work at Covent Garden, in spite of the fact that his subscribers were owed eight concerts that he had failed to deliver in the season prior. Nonetheless, the Occasional Oratorio marked the end of Handel’s longstanding subscription series concept as a means of marketing his work. After the April victory at Culloden and a second brief song in tribute to Cumberland’s efforts, Handel turned to the long-anticipated Judas Maccabaeus. When the latter work was presented at Covent Garden in 1747, Handel no longer offered tickets on a subscription basis. Perhaps coincidentally, the period following the Occasional Oratorio marked Handel’s last great apex of popularity as a composer. His fame and recognition in London and farther afield soared to new heights in the last decade of his life, though the Occasional Oratorio itself would generally be forgotten until its revival in the 20th century.
(Note by Nathan Reiff)
Preconcert talk at 6:30 PM
Ellen T. Harris: Handel’s Occasional Oratorio: Witnessing the Great Rebellion of 1745 with Milton’s Psalms
Ellen T. Harris is Professor Emeritus at MIT in Music and Theater Arts. Her research has focused largely on the music of Handel. Her books include the award-winning George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends (Norton, 2014) and Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas (Harvard, 2001). She was elected a Fellow of the American Philosophical Society (2016), American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1998) and made an Honorary Member of the American Musicological Society (2011). For the 2013-14 academic year she was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, and in 2016, a Visiting Professor at The Juilliard School. She has performed twice with John Williams and the Boston Pops and sung the National Anthem at Fenway Park.