Act 1 No 1: Introduction [1'31]
Amongst Handel’s later Oratorios, Joshua was one of the most successful. Of those composed after Samson, only Judas Maccabaeus received more performances during the composer’s lifetime, and much of this popularity was due to the insertion after the first season’s performances of ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’, first written for Joshua.
Handel began the score of Joshua on 19 July 1747, just two weeks after completing Alexander Balus, and Act I was completed eleven days later. Act II took an even shorter time, finished on 8 August, and the whole work was completed by 19 August. The premiere took place at Covent Garden on 9 March 1748 and was followed by another three performances. Mrs Delany, who had proved such a good diarist of Handel’s financial state in previous years, had moved to Ireland with her husband, but turning to Handel’s bank statements we see that after the first concert he deposited £300, after the second £200 and after the third another £100. We do not know how much he paid his orchestra, although he withdrew £990 on 19 March, but by the start of May he was in a position to deal in annuities to the tune of £4500, suggesting that this particular Lenten season had been a great success at the box office.
Joshua certainly rated highly with Eliza Heywood who, writing in Epistles for the Ladies, (1749) was:
transported into the most divine Exstacy. I closed my Eyes, and imagined myself amidst the angelic Choir in the bright Regions of everlasting Day, chanting the Praises of my great Creator, and his ineffable ‘Messiah’. I seemed, methought, to have nothing of this gross Earth about me, but was all Soul!—all Spirit.
In Dublin after a rehearsal for the first of three annual performances in 1751, conducted by Bartholomew Manwaring for the charity of the Hospital for Incurables, Mrs Delany wrote to Mrs Dewes that she was ‘charmed with it—never heard it before’. An open letter from ‘A Virtuoso’ was printed in The General Advertiser of 13 March 1749 appealing for a revival of Joshua to satisfy ‘a Number of your Friends’, but Handel did not, in the event, oblige until 1752, when he made a number of alterations, including expanding the overture by adding the fugue and courante from the Solomon overture. In 1754 he gave a further single performance, inserting five movements, four of which were based on the Occasional Oratorio. Further performances took place in Salisbury in 1754 and in Oxford in 1756, and there were performances in London, though probably not under Handel’s direction, in 1755 and 1759. Later generations did not ignore the work, for Joshua was heard at the Three Choirs Festival in 1759, 1769, 1773 and 1781, at the Oxford Music Room in 1766, 1768 and 1773, in Salisbury in 1771 and at least four times in Winchester between 1770 and 1783. In the nineteenth century it was heard in Berlin in 1827 and 1832, and the Sacred Harmonic Society performed the work in London in 1839, setting the fashion for performances in Holland, Germany and England. Only the later twentieth century seems largely to have ignored the work.
Joshua was one of a quartet of oratorios written consecutively between 1746 and 1748 which have heavily militaristic overtones. The first of these was the Occasional Oratorio, performed three times at Covent Garden in 1746 and three more times in 1747. Judas Maccabaeus followed in 1747, extraordinarily popular in receiving at least 33 performances during the composer’s lifetime, and Joshua and Alexander Balus were premiered at Covent Garden on March 9 and March 23 in Handel’s 1748 oratorio season. It seems clear that, following Judas Maccabaeus, Handel and his librettist Thomas Morell were intent on repeating the formula of a Jewish hero and triumphing choruses that had been so successful, adding this time the romantic sub-plot that Judas had lacked. Scarcely recovered from his efforts on Alexander Balus, Morell took his libretto from a bloodthirsty account in the Old Testament ‘Book of Joshua’, condensing the campaigns against Jericho, Ai and the five Kings into one dramatic block, and enlarging the parts taken by Othniel and Achsah to provide the romantic foil necessary to break up and contrast with an otherwise almost continuously warlike story.
Handel’s extraordinary speed of composition must have tested Morell to the limit, and the result is perhaps more a series of incidents than a developed plot. But the characters are strong, with Joshua a commanding (if at times insufferably conceited) hero, Caleb a suitably patriarchal leader nearing retirement from the battlefield, his daughter Achsah a concerned, sometimes reproving character, betrothed to Othniel who is finding it hard to strike a balance between playing the young warrior and the devoted lover. There is an additional part, small but vital, for an Angel, named in a later score as having been sung by a tenor, but widely assumed to have been played in the earlier performances by the more expected soprano or boy treble.
As with many of Handel’s oratorios, later performances saw many revisions to the original score for all sorts of reasons, not always musical. The version recorded here follows that of the 1748 performances, one concession being the inclusion of Handel’s undated (1752?) alteration to the second half of ‘Hark! ’tis the linnet’: this is the only change he later made which does not affect the original sequence of movements. The choral and orchestral forces recorded here are similar in scale to those that Handel used in his performances, although we have included a few more trebles. Handel had surprisingly few boys to sing the top line of his choruses, though with voices breaking so much later in those days we can assume that some of them would have been powerful singers, but his solo singers usually joined in the tuttis (which must have made for an exhausting evening’s work). Our twentieth century choir needed no such assistance, but our Angel soloist follows historical precedent and sings in the choruses too! At three points in the score Handel indicates that brass fanfares are to be inserted, giving a short rhythmic cue over which the players (led by the principal trumpeter) would have improvised the necessary music. Our principal trumpeter’s fanfares recorded here follow eighteenth century examples.
Handel’s lavish scoring of the oratorio suggests that he was financially secure in his performances, for the large orchestra contains pairs of flutes, trumpets and horns, and timpani besides the expected strings, oboes and bassoons, and following eighteenth century accounts we have included harpsichord, organ and archlute as continuo instruments. Handel’s most powerful writing in Joshua utilises the brass and timpani to the full, with music of great effectiveness. With dramatic incidents such as the tumbling walls of Jericho, the razing by fire of the city, Joshua stopping the sun and moon in their tracks and his rousing an army of depressed troops, not to mention the triumphal return of the warrior after battle, here was heroic material to stimulate any composer. Perhaps not surprisingly, the destruction of Jericho in the second Act leads Handel into one of his greatest thunder choruses, and one which impressed Haydn at a large-scale performance in Westminster Abbey in 1791. He is reported as having:
long been acquainted with [the] music, but never knew half its powers before he heard it, and he was perfectly certain that only one inspired Author ever did, or ever would pen so sublime a composition.
Similarly the ‘Solemn March during the circumvection of the Ark of the Covenant’ which precipitates the destruction is one of Handel’s finest, startling in its huge solemnity, and Caleb’s following aria ‘See the raging flames arise’ a marvellous piece of drama. Othniel’s ‘Place danger around me’ too is a splendid Handelian aria. Joshua was also the original source for the chorus ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’, which was only added to Judas Maccabaeus once its potential was realised after the first performances of Joshua. But the quieter, more contemplative moments too deserve mentions, with Caleb’s resigned aria ‘Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain’, the hymn-like chorus which follows from it, the chorus of defeated Israelites ‘How soon our tow’ring hopes are cross’d’, and Othniel’s ‘Nations who in future story’ all examples of Handel’s lyrical style at its best. In between the triumphs and disasters of battle, the scenes with Achsah lend further contrast, providing arias ranging from the wistful ‘Oh, who can tell’, through the birdcalls of ‘Hark! ’tis the linnet’ to the joyful, ever-popular ‘Oh had I jubal’s lyre’.
Synopsis – Act I
Othniel, a young warrior (betrothed to Achsah) appears on the scene at the same moment as an angel. His aria ‘Awful, pleasing being, say’ is not Handel’s most memorable (but he compensates later in the work with some marvellous writing for his alto soloist) but the pace of the drama is quickly restored as the Angel presents his credentials. Joshua is (for a change) suitably reverent and, in a dramatic accompagnato, the Angel delivers his bloodthirsty message that Jericho must be destroyed, giving the comforting assurance that victory will be easy. No time is wasted, and in the splendid aria ‘Haste, Israel, haste’ Joshua commands his followers to carry out their destructive task. The results are immediately heard in the chorus ‘The Lord commands, and Joshua leads’. After such warlike thoughts it is again time for a pastoral interlude: Handel obliges with a gem, the accompagnato ‘In these blest scenes’ where Othniel, wandering through quiet countryside, is on his way to meet Achsah, Caleb’s daughter, to whom he is betrothed. Her entry ‘Oh Othniel’ is quite exquisite. Morell’s excuse for Achsah’s solo ‘Hark, ’tis the linnet’ is somewhat manufactured, but Handel’s response to the text, full of bird calls from solo soprano, flute and violin, is delightful. The two lovers dally a little longer in the duet ‘Our limpid streams’, but the scene is shattered by a warlike trumpet flourish, made all the more dramatic as this is the first time we have heard the brass. Othniel makes clear his desire to seek Achsah’s hand as soon as Jericho has been destroyed, and the chorus close Act I wishing their hero luck in the coming conflict.
Once again it is Achsah who tries to bring the Israelites down to earth, attempting to convince them that their triumph will not last. ‘To vanity and earthly pride’ is a contrast to what has gone before, its simple melody added to by delicious harmony at ‘The firmest rock’. In the solemn ‘Almighty ruler of the skies’ Handel is again inspired, as the entire company of Israelites, including ‘High Priest, Priests, Chiefs, Elders and a full assembly’ celebrate the passover and praise God for their deliverence. Over a ground bass the voices of the chorus enter one by one, led by Joshua, joining together with the whole orchestra in great magnificence at ‘His glory did on Sinai shine’. Achsah’s reproving advice however is not heeded, for Caleb announces that disaster has struck: overconfident soldiers sent to test the defences of Ai have been repulsed, and Israel mourns. Handel’s appetite for a tragic chorus appears to have been inexhaustible for, in the type of movement which appears in half a dozen oratorios, but is no less effective here for that frequency, flutes and strings introduce a ‘Chorus of defeated Israelites’—‘How soon our tow’ring hopes are cross’d’.
Joshua, seeing such dejection, rouses the miserable troops, reminding them of their success at Jericho. ‘With redoubled rage return’ is a marvellous aria, made all the more effective as it swings into the chorus ‘We with redoubled rage return’. Seeing confidence restored to the masses, Othniel’s mind returns to other matters, and, seeking ‘breath’ he goes off to find Achsah, for soldiers need things other than war to balance their diet. The catchy tune of the gavotte ‘Heroes when with glory burning’ was used by Handel no less than seven times before it appeared in this context. Achsah too is pining for Othniel: her aria ‘As cheers the sun’ is a marvellous piece of craftsmanship, with the strings’ ‘falling show’r’ gradually reviving the ‘tender flow’r’ until the downward scales have taken over the whole movement. Caleb is furious seeing Othniel wasting his time with Achsah and, sending his daughter away, stirs Othniel back into warrior-like action with the news that the Gibeonite allies are endangered by a Canaanite league under Adoni-zedeck, King of Jerusalem. ‘Nations, who in future story’ has a quietly noble melody. Joshua is delighted by the united scene he now sees, and once again, two ‘Flourishes of warlike instruments’ introduce military action.
‘Oh thou bright orb’ is one of Handel’s most original movements. Over a soft accompaniment of violin semiquavers Joshua, seeing that bad light may stop the battle, commands the sun to stop in its course: as it does so, all orchestral movement ceases, with the violins holding their high A for nine bars. Then, addressing the slower-moving moon, represented by the violas, he commands that too to halt. Now the whole string section is motionless, and the chorus exclaim in wonder ‘Behold! the list’ning sun his voice obeys’. Over increasing choral movement the sustained high A still continues, first in the oboes, and then, for nine long bars, in a solo trumpet: disbelieving nineteenth-century orchestral editors re-scored Handel and spread this thirty-second ‘tour-de-force-de-poumon’ between two players! At ‘They yield, they fall, they die’, the solo trumpeter, too, gratefully expires (Handel evidently had a sense of humour), and then the tutti brass enter for ‘Before our arms the scattered nations fly’. Once again the enemy are routed and flee and, as section by section the voices and instruments expire, Act II ends quietly.
The public reaction to ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ when it was first heard in Joshua was one of ecstasy: Handel too knew that he had scored another bullseye. Its great success ensured that he inserted it into revivals of Judas Maccabaeus. Its formula was simple, with a three-part procession: in the first verse a ‘Chorus of Youths’, accompanied by organ ‘tasto solo’ alternate and combine with two horns: in the second verse a semi-chorus (or possibly originally two soloists, mistakenly attributed by Chrysander as being a ‘Chorus of Virgins’) are accompanied by two flutes and organ, and in the third, formal verse the entire company, minus the horns, join together. Handel’s instruction to the ‘Tamburo’ (military side drum) was quite specific: ‘ad libitum; the second time warbling’.
Achsah now is delighted too, for Caleb gives his blessing to Othniel and her marriage, and she exults in the famous aria ‘Oh had I Jubal’s lyre’. The melody dates from nearly forty years earlier, first used in the settings of Laudate pueri dating from 1706 and 1707, and then used again the year after Joshua in Solomon. (Morell’s libretto read ‘Oh had I Jubal’s sacred lyre’ which manuscripts show Handel set for a couple of phrases before he realised there was a better scansion available by missing out the ‘sacred’). Before the final exulting chorus we are allowed one more gentle love duet, ‘Oh peerless maid’, before Caleb, now as an elder statesman, announces the final chorus. ‘The great Jehova is our awful theme’ begins in block chords as a solemn hymn but quickly switches to a fugal texture. The block chords return for the end, with the final massive ‘Halleluia’ dominated, significantly when we remember their important role in the work, by ringing brass fanfares.
Robert King © 1991