'A profusion of colourful delights … persuasive evidence indeed that what may seem mediocre on the page can spring to life, given the artistry and conviction of performers of this calibre' (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide)
'Excellent—don't miss it.' (BBC Music Magazine)
'… finally received a recording worthy of its grandeur' (Los Angeles Times)
'Una interpretación absolutamente arrolladora' (CD Compact, Spain)
'An outstanding achievement' (CDReview)
Act 3 No 6: March [1'23]
1745 proved to be a troublesome year for both Handel and England. In Handel’s case there was increasing opposition from fans of opera to his oratorios, a growing lack of interest amongst his regular followers and even an organized boycott by the ladies of high society, led by Lady Margaret Cecil Brown. Audiences for his regular London season thus proved thin. An ambitious run of twenty-four planned oratorio concerts (including first performances of Hercules and Belshazzar) attracted such small crowds that the composer called a halt after sixteen concerts. If he had not done so he might have risked bankruptcy. Handel must have been depressed, for when his operas had finally lost their audiences he had been able to develop a new public appeal by putting on oratorios. Now this form too seemed doomed. By the summer his health was suffering and he retired to the country to recuperate.
Nationally, a greater drama—and a considerably greater opposition—was developing, for on 2 August Prince Charles Edward, son of the Stuart Pretender to the Scottish and English thrones, landed his army in the Hebrides whilst George II was in Hanover, and started to move south: victory in September at Prestonpans caused consternation in London. The English army hastily returned from Flanders and, under the Duke of Cumberland, marched north. By 15 November Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army were already over the border, having taken Carlisle. England, and Handel, held their breath, and the Jacobites got as far south as Derby before lack of local support ensured that they were forced to start their retreat. Even then, final victory was not assured for some time. Handel, recovered from the mental disorder caused by the stress of his season’s failure, had apparently already started work on Judas Maccabaeus during autumn 1745, but shelved it at the start of 1746 in order to compose the. This he did fast, re-using much pre-existing material so that the work could be performed on 14 February 1746 as a piece of propaganda encouraging the loyalists (the Jacobites were not yet defeated and all encouragement was needed). Only after the violent battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746 was Handel sure that a victory oratorio would be necessary. He returned to the score of Judas Maccabaeus. According to the autograph he started work writing out his fair copy of Act I on ‘9 July 1746 or the 8th’ (Handel gives the alternatives), completing this on 22 July. Act II took a further week, and by 11 August the score was complete.
Handel held no oratorio season during 1746, simply performing the Occasional Oratorio three times. His next season opened at Covent Garden Theatre on 6 March 1747. For the first time, he abandoned the subscription scheme and opened the doors to all-comers, and Judas Maccabaeus opened on 1 April. According to Lord Shaftesbury it ‘went off with very great Applause’. Handel’s pocket benefited considerably: we know that after the third performance he banked £250 (this being clear profit after paying all the performers) and in the following year he made at least £800 from six performances of the work. Handel’s wider triumph was also a political and sociological one: for once the middle classes were able to attend performances alongside the higher echelons of society. With the topical draw of a victorious warlike hero, the parallels with the Duke of Cumberland proved a winner with people of all political persuasions—except, one assumes, with the now silent Jacobites!
… And now as to Oratorio’s: ‘There was a time (says Mr Addison) when it was laid down as a maxim, that nothing was capable of being well set to muisck, that was not nonsense.’
Some critics, notably Winton Dean, have given Morell’s efforts a poor billing, accusing him of ‘haphazard methods of construction, weak characterization and facility in platitude’. In comparison to the works of previous years, Judas Maccabaeus certainly has a less subtle, more energetic appeal, but Handel’s decision to abandon the subscription concert series and throw open the theatre doors to all comers required him to draw in a new type of audience. London too was still in ferment after the national crisis, with a desire for novelty and sensation: Morell responded with a libretto which could as easily apply to ‘Butcher’ Cumberland as to the warlike Judas Maccabaeus. Handel had come unstuck in Hercules and Belshazzar by using strong characterization and intense personal drama: the national situation currently required high energy and pageantry, and this was provided in style in Judas. But whatever thoughts people may have about the standard of the libretto, there can little argument that the music is anything but superb!
Casting and scale of forces
Purists with a programmable CD player will be able to take out all our other non-1747 additions. The original score did not contain ‘Oh liberty’ (though Morell had written it into his libretto, from which it was hastily transferred into the Occasional Oratorio, being restored to Judas at the third 1747 performance), but we have included it here: it proved to be one of the biggest hits of the oratorio for years afterwards. Our other additions were all put into various performances after 1747. The short recitative ‘Haste we my brethren’ at the end of Act I was inserted in 1750 along with a number of different arias (‘May balmy peace’ from the Occasional Oratorio in 1750 and 1751, ‘Endless fame’ from Esther from 1752–1757, and ‘Far brighter than the morning’ in 1758 and 1759). To split up Judas’s aria and the closing chorus we have kept the recitative, but have not included any of the selection of arias. In Act II the recitative ‘Well may we hope’, the duet ‘Sion now her head shall raise’ and the marvellous chorus ‘Tune your harps’ appeared in Judas in 1758, being taken from the revival of Esther the previous year: at the same time the soprano aria ‘Wise men flatt’ring’ (adapted from Agrippina) was transferred from Belshazzar. In both cases the thicker orchestral scoring makes an interesting comparison with Handel’s writing of the 1740s. It has been suggested that, with the onset of Handel’s blindness, John Smith the younger, amanuensis to Handel, may have re-scored these movements himself. Whatever the reason, the music is too good to miss out! Handel inserted different arias at various performances into the two long recitatives in Act III, including two from Joshua, ‘Oh had I jubal’s lyre’ and ‘Happy, O thrice happy we’ (recorded by Emma Kirkby and The King’s Consort on). Again, with such a variety of choices, two of which have already been recorded by our forces, we have not included any numbers from this selection. A more famous addition from Joshua arrived in 1750 when the chorus ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ was inserted, along with the March that follows (moved from after ‘Sound an alarm’ in Act II). A huge hit in Joshua, ‘See the conqu’ring hero’ remained in all subsequent performances of Judas Maccabaeus—in the twentieth century it would probably cause an outcry if omitted!
The funeral atmosphere returns with the stunning chorus ‘For Sion lamentation make’. Over minor chords from the upper strings and a falling, undulating bass line the bassoons are at their most plaintive, sighing in their upper register. The choir enter in a mournful barcarolle, the harmony is full of the richest suspensions and the alliteration of the words poignantly set: Handel is on superb form. Simon, one of Mattathias’s sons, enters, reasoning that such grief does not become God’s chosen race. Morell’s rather bizarre text for the Israelitish Man, ‘Pious orgies’, draws elegantly tuneful writing from the composer, and the Israelites’ confidence that their prayers will be answered is strengthened in the hymn-like opening to the chorus ‘Oh Father, whose almighty pow’r’, turning at the midpoint into a confident fugue ‘And grant a leader bold and brave’. Simon returns with a brisk accompagnato ‘I feel the Deity within’ in which he points out his brother Judas as the next leader of Israel. In the air ‘Arm, arm ye brave’ he stirs his fellows into action (with some delightful doubling of the voice by the bassoon), driving the Israelites into a lively chorus ‘We come in bright array’. The words are pointed by the orchestra’s driving fanfares: the insistent block chord repetitions of ‘Judah’ are especially powerful. Judas responds with the dramatic air ‘Call forth thy powr’s’, full of runs for both orchestra and soloist, and containing a contrasting middle section ‘Great is the glory’.
Next, more for musical contrast than dramatic necessity, comes a series of four liberty airs, the first of which, ‘Oh liberty’, is scored for solo cello and continuo, with the tutti strings joining in for the affectionate playout. ‘Come ever smiling liberty’ proved to be a huge hit with audiences in 1748, being encored in mid-performance: it has all the charm and good melody that makes Handel’s simple arias so appealing. The Israelite Man’s response ‘’Tis liberty’ proved to be equally popular, being sung at Covent Garden four times in a month, and later even being arranged for barrel organ! The sequence ends with a reprise of ‘Come, ever smiling liberty’, now neatly turned into a duet, shortened and given a fuller orchestral texture. With the chorus ‘Lead on’ the warlike mood returns, and Judas fires up his troops with a dramatic accompagnato in which he resolves ‘on liberty or death’. The semi-chorus ‘Disdainful of danger’ is splendid: Handel scores it for men’s voices only, the rushing scales and repeated notes vividly representing the impetuous Israelite men in their ‘rush on the foe’: the phrase ‘that thy pow’r, oh Jehova’ rollicks along. Judas sets out his aims for victory and eventual peace in the air ‘No unhallow’d desire’, and the Act ends with the Israelite’s prayer ‘Hear us O Lord’, in which the smooth opening theme and the pleading repetitions of ‘hear us’ are contrasted with the more lively scalic movement as they, ‘resolv’d on conquest or a glorious fall’, go off to battle.
The triumphant mood is rapidly broken by the messenger’s news of renewed war. Antiochus, King of Samaria, has sent a large force under Gorgias: once again there is a threat of war and the Israelites are thrown into depression. The air and chorus ‘Ah, wretched Israel’ is of the finest quality. The texture at the start is simple: a solo cello sets the despondent mood, and is then joined by a lamenting solo soprano. At the tutti strings’ entry, Handel (following the example of Purcell at moments of great tragedy) utilizes a ground bass. The entry of the chorus increases the pathos, with the word ‘wretched’ set with especial feeling: towards the end, the phrase ‘fall’n, how low’ is spread amongst the voices to devastating effect and the strings end the movement softly. Simon is left to reason that such events are sent not to destroy Israel, but to punish it for its misdemeanours against God. His splendid air ‘The Lord worketh wonders’ contains all the word-painting that one would expect, with rising phrases for ‘his glory to raise’, and especially graphic writing for the voice and the continuo section for ‘thunders’.
The warlike Judas is immediately roused into making war against the Idumean governer, and Handel obliges with a marvellous solo and chorus, ‘Sound an alarm’. The temptation to bring in the full orchestra at the start is resisted: Judas’s first call to arms is answered by the continuo section (in our recording, every available bass instrument in the orchestra!). At the mid-point, Judas sounds his alarm again, and this time is rewarded by the entry of the whole orchestra: the trumpets and timpani play their first notes in the oratorio—what an exciting entry this is! Finally the chorus enter with ‘We hear the pleasing, dreadful call’, pulled along by the trumpets and timpani’s insistently driving fanfares. Faint respite is given by the sudden silence and drop in dynamics at ‘if to fall’ but the build-up through ‘for laws, religion, liberty, we fall’ is inexorable and the movement ends in a blaze of orchestral sound. Once again Simon is the calm voice of reason, calling a halt to the bellicose mood: whilst his brother is at war, he has to clean up the temple, which has been desecrated. In the beautiful air ‘With pious hearts’, his simple melody and the violins’ sighing cross-phrasing creates a mood of noble resignation. The Israelite Man and Woman too lend their support, hurling ‘polluted altars’ and other profane elements out of the temple.
Handel’s 1758 addition to the score of ‘Wise men flatt’ring’ (based on a movement from nearly fifty years before in Agrippina) brings in a jewel. The scoring includes two horns, two flutes, two oboes and two bassoons, as well as strings, and with this variety of instruments at his disposal, Handel produces a wealth of glorious textures. The simple melody, lilting in its gentle triple time and accompanied by a rising triad which moves through all the orchestra, is a winner. The cleaning of the temple now completed, the Israelite Man and Woman state the resolve of the Israelites not to worship anyone but God in ‘We never will bow down’ (with some of Morell’s most trite words), and their melody is taken up by the chorus before Handel resorts, as he often does in moments of a weak libretto, to a fugue to close the Act. The key changes from minor to major, and the composer gives added impact by utilizing a double fugue. Striking block chords characterize the first subject (almost an inversion of Bach’s famous ‘St Anne’ theme) which continues throughout the movement in long notes in at least one of the voice parts: against this is heard the second fugal subject, more rhythmically lively. The Act ends with the Israelites’ defiant affirmation of their strong belief in God.
A breathless alto messenger brings the good news from Capharsalama that Judas has routed the enemy in their thousands (elephants and all!) and, introduced by a second messenger, the hero enters Jerusalem in triumph. In 1748 ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ had not yet been written, and the music moved straight into ‘Sing unto God’, but the huge success of the chorus when premiered in Joshua the next year ensured its immediate inclusion for ever after. Handel’s procession is headed by a ‘Chorus of Youths’ (accompanied by organ and two obbligato horns), followed by a ‘Chorus of Virgins’ (flutes and organ). For the third verse the whole orchestra and choir combine, with the military drummer instructed to play ‘ad libitum, the second time warbling’ [ie tremelo]. The lively March that follows (originally placed in Act II) was borrowed from a keyboard piece in Georg Muffat’s Componimenti of 1735.
The chorus ‘Sing unto God’ is an example of Handel’s ceremonial writing at its best: this is a chorus which could just as easily be from one of the Coronation Anthems. In the bright key of D two soloists joyfully start the movement before the choral and orchestral forces combine, the block chords of ‘Sing unto God’ alternating with Handel’s inimitable runs, all punctuated by triumphant trumpet fanfares. Judas, magnanimous in victory, orders a halt to the celebrations whilst warriors are decently buried. Morell gets near the ridiculous in his special mention of Eleazar: apparently going one better than Acis (whom we remember was crushed beneath Polyphemus’s stone), this warrior hero ‘triumphed in a glorious death’, squashed in battle under a fallen elephant! Judas’s air ‘With honour let desert be crown’d’ is remarkable for its use of a trumpet obbligato in A minor—one of very few pieces in the eighteenth century for the instrument written in a minor key, and certainly Handel’s only example. If ever proof was needed of the skill of eighteenth century trumpeters (for the aria stayed in each performance for ten years), here would be a good example.
Eupolomeus, the Jewish Ambassador to Rome, returns from a diplomatic mission to the Senate with the news that the Romans have agreed to protect Israel from further attacks. The chorus celebrate with a gentle hymn ‘To our great God be all the honour giv’n’, its sentiments enhanced by the use of a minor key. The Israelite Woman’s air, ‘O lovely peace’ brings in a pastoral mood: two flutes add their distinctive colours to the string texture, and Handel’s use of a drone bass and a gently rocking rhythm creates a delightfully tranquil scene. The scoring of the middle section, with ‘nature’s songsters’ twittering away in the violins, is glorious: Israel is now firmly at peace.
It is left to Simon to introduce the final chorus, with a marvellous air, joyful yet noble, ‘Rejoice, oh Judah’. The choir enter fugally with their ‘Halleluia’ and then, in inspired writing, so do the trumpets, now stretching the first syllable of their Halleluia over nearly two bars. The full forces are at work, but Handel saves one more thrilling moment for the massive choral and orchestral chords that underlie ‘And in songs divine, harmonious join’. Little wonder when William Shenstone’s steward spoke for the masses in enthusing ‘with such ecstacy of the music’. Handel’s pocket was once again full, English pride restored—but did anyone spare a thought for the poor Scots?
Robert King © 1992