The year 1733 did not start well for Handel. The popularity of his operas in London had been dwindling for the last few seasons and, despite attempts to reawaken public interest, his takings at the box office were increasingly poor. Even revivals of previously successful operas failed to excite the general public. Handel had ignored the growing body of opinion which favoured the writing of operas in English, rather than in Italian, and his stubbornness was now generating reaction against him. Rival enterprises sprang up, and The English Opera, led by Thomas Arne, father of the composer, proved to be a particular threat: their success was depressingly felt in Handel’s bank account. Ironically, the opposition’s most successful production was a pirate version in May 1732 of Handel’s Acis and Galatea: the composer reacted swiftly to the challenge with a bilingual re-working combining the same Masque with his 1708 setting of Aci, Galatea e Polifemo and turned his attention towards his new Italian opera season, steadfastly refusing to receive the message that the public wanted opera with English words. In November 1732 he revived Alessandro with a cast headed by Senesino, but, despite a full theatre and the attendance of the King on the first night, the run attracted ‘a thin house’ for its remaining five performances. The score of Orlando, in many ways his greatest dramatic work, was already finished when he received a letter from his former partner and supporter Aaron Hill (who had decided that speculative ventures in foreign trade were a safer bet than running an opera house), begging that Handel:
… deliver us from our Italian bondage; and demonstrate, that English is soft enough for Opera, when compos’d by poets, who know how to distinguish the sweetness of our tongue from the strength of it, where the last is less necessary … Such an improvement must, at once, be lasting and profitable, to a very great degree; and would, infallibly, attract an universal regard, and encouragement. (December 5, 1732).
Orlando opened on 27 January 1733 and was well received by the cognoscenti, running for ten performances, but dissent amongst Handel’s former supporters was bubbling. The Earl of Delaware wrote to the Duke of Richmond that:
… There is a Spirit got up against the dominion of Mr Handel, a subscription carry’d on, and Directors chosen, who have contracted with Senesino, and have sent for Cuzzoni, and Farinelli … it is Thought Handel must fling up, which the Poor Count [Heidegger] will not be sorry for, There being no one but what declares as much for him, as against the Other, so that we have a Chance of seeing Operas once more on a good foot … there seems great Unanimity, and Resolution to carry on the Undertaking comme il faut.
The list of Directors shows that many of Handel’s colleagues and friends had now deserted him for the newly formed ‘Opera of the Nobility’, and so had most of his singers. The rivalry lasted five years before both sides retired: there were no winners in this battle. But Handel had one more card up his sleeve, and one that had been found almost accidentally.
At the Crown and Anchor tavern on 23 February 1732, Handel’s forty-seventh birthday, his friend Bernard Gates had directed three performances which reworked Esther, previously performed in 1718 as a Masque at Cannons. Gates used his choir from the Chapel Royal, adding choristers from Westminster Abbey and, according to Viscount Perceval, ‘This oratoria or religious opera is exceeding fine, and the company were highly pleased’. Indeed, London’s first oratorio performances were such a success that Handel’s royal harpsichord pupil, Princess Anne, demanded that he stage the work at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. The Daily Journal announced a performance on 2 May of ‘The Sacred Story of Esther: an Oratorio in English. Formerly composed by Mr. Handel, and now revised by him, with several Additions, and to be performed by a great Number of the best Voices and Instruments. N.B. There will be no Action on the Stage, but the House will be fitted up in a decent Manner, for the Audience.’ In the event, Esther was performed six times and Handel was able to invest £700 in South Sea Annuities after only the third performance.
So, with a fairly unsuccessful opera season coming to an end, a widespread campaign against opera in Italian, the desertion of many of his former friends and performers and a dwindling bank account, Handel decided to capitalise on the success of Esther and launched his second oratorio, Deborah. Time was short, for the work was needed quickly. Handel rapidly assembled the oratorio, basing many movements on a variety of former compositions. He and his librettist Samuel Humphreys chose a rather curious episode from the Book of Judges for their subject matter, but the music was splendid.
Diplomatically the performance was less successful for, trying to cover the cost of a performance on a scale never before seen in London, Handel doubled the regular price of tickets in the stalls and boxes to one guinea. The result was an audience who numbered only 120, though they were swelled by furious subscribers who gatecrashed the auditorium demanding admission on their season tickets. Lord Shaftesbury wrote that ‘This Indiscreet Step disgusted the Town, and he had a very thin House; however the great Merit of the Piece prevail’d, so far, that it had a considerable run, and was received with great applause.’ Others who attended were equally impressed by the music, especially by its sheer scale: ‘It was very magnificent, near a hundred performers’, wrote the Earl of Egmont, and Lady Irwin went a little further: ‘Tis excessive noisy, a vast number of instruments and voices, who all perform at a time.’ Though born the year before almost by accident, oratorio was now officially launched in London. Handel had introduced a new musical form whose impact was to be felt for two centuries afterwards.
The libretto for Deborah
Humphreys, working at speed to satisfy Handel’s urgent need for the libretto, did not attempt to expand many human details in the plot and could have made more of the action sequences. Handel instead was presented with a series of tableaux which he set to marvellous music. For the dramatic purist the work may be flawed. For the scholar, Deborah is at the very least a fascinating link in the development of the eighteenth-century oratorio. For the musical detective there are hours of fun to be had tracing former works. And for lovers of Handel’s music there are excellent arias and a host of splendid choruses in a fine oratorio all too infrequently heard.
The music, casting and scale of forces
Reports from the first performance on 17 March 1733 state that among the hundred performers were ‘about twenty-five singers’. The three chorus singers that this figure allocated to each line would have made for a heavy evening’s singing (even with the soloists joining in the choruses), especially as no other oratorio except Samson gives the choir so much music to sing: such an imbalance in numbers between choir and orchestra would sound strange to our twentieth-century ears. In later performances Handel was able (as we are) to increase the scale and size of his choir. With this double choir, a large string section and six brass players the climaxes, scored in as many as twenty-four parts, are thrilling: to an eighteenth-century audience they must have been revelatory. Lady Irwin’s genteel ears, attuned to the single-voice arias of the opera, found it all a bit too much and wrote to her friend Lord Carlisle that she thought the choruses in Deborah to be ‘in music what I fancy a French ordinary in conversation’!
For the first run of Deborah Handel had an all-star cast. The title role was taken by Anna Strada (the only member of Handel’s former opera company who didn’t desert him later in the year to join the rival Opera of the Nobility), Barak was sung by the quarrelsome alto castrato Senesino, Abinoam by the famous bass Antonio Montagnana, Sisera by the contralto Francesca Bertolli (renowned both for her performances of male roles and for being courted later that year by the Prince of Wales), and Celeste Gismondi sang the roles of both Jael and the Israelite Woman. In July 1733 Handel repeated the work in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford (where he also presented the first performance of Athalia): the subsequent popularity of Deborah ensured that it was presented in another five oratorio series between 1734 and 1756.
Synopsis Handel’s initial performances in 1733 appear not to have included an overture. For the performances in 1754 the two Smiths strung together four movements into a rather haphazard overture, and it is this which has most frequently opened Deborah in twentieth-century performances. Such a compilation is a poor piece of work, ill-matched, badly scored and probably not even approved by Handel. For this recording we turn instead (with the help of the Handel scholar Anthony Hicks) to the Hamburg conducting score which has the bass line of a D major overture inserted at the beginning. This turns out to match the first two movements of the overture to the Occasional Oratorio but concludes with a Minuet which exactly copies that in the Music for the Royal Fireworks, though without the multiple repeats. It seems that Handel composed the overture in its three-movement form for the revival of Deborah in 1744, two years later re-used the first two movements to begin his Occasional Oratorio, and then in 1749 recycled the Minuet into the Music for the Royal Fireworks. This makes a splendid overture!
Act I begins with a ‘Grand Chorus’ introducing Deborah, Barak and the Israelite forces. Handel’s scoring is massive, and begins with a reworking of the Chandos Anthem O praise the Lord with one consent, now grandly scored in twenty-four parts. At ‘whose anger when it awful glows’ the music turns an unexpected harmonic corner, and ‘to swift perdition dooms thy foes’ is graphically illustrated with descending scales. ‘O grant a leader to our host’ (recalling music from the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne and the Brockes Passion) is treated first with fugal entries, then choral antiphony and finally block chords before the chorus closes. In the lilting duet ‘Where do thy ardours raise me’ the confident prophetess Deborah stirs the unwilling Barak, son of Abinoam, into action, telling him that he will lead the Israelites to victory over their Canaanite enemies. Barak’s monosyllabic questions ‘Where?’, ‘How?’ and Deborah’s instructions ‘Act!’, ‘Trust!’ are neatly scored. The Israelites are in no doubt of their next actions and in the short assertive chorus ‘Forbear thy doubts’ (based on music from the Brockes Passion and the Chandos Anthem In the Lord put I my trust) tell Barak that he must follow the Lord’s instructions and arm his troops immediately. Barak asks Deborah to pray for God’s help in the cause and the Israelites call for divine help in a most touching chorus ‘For ever to the voice of prayer’, introduced by four soloists and full of imploring harmonies. Deborah’s mysterious, invocatory accompanied recitative ‘By that adorable decree’ leads into a ravishing chorus, ‘O hear thy lowly servant’s pray’r’, where Handel’s sumptuous, eight-part choral texture—especially its quiet opening—is marvellously effective in its restrained supplication.
Deborah prophesies that Sisera, the chief of the Canaanites, will perish ‘ignobly, by a woman’s hand’, and in ‘O blast with thy tremendous brow’ (borrowing the movement in the Brockes Passion in which the disciples flee) the chorus take up the bellicose vein whilst the orchestra weave angry scales around their warlike cries. Barak sings that whichever woman carries out this act ‘may claim equal prerogative with Man in fame’, and develops the idea in the gentle aria ‘How lovely is the blooming fair’.
Jael, the beautiful, god-fearing heroine and wife of Heber the Kenite (who had declared peace with the Canaanites) enters, complaining that wherever she looks, ‘grim scenes of war’ greet her eyes, and wishing that she could live in peace. Deborah predicts that before the close of the day Jael will be ‘thy sexes pride, divinely bless’d’: in the fine aria ‘Choirs of angels, all around thee’ (recycled from the Brockes Passion) Deborah tells Jael that heavenly protection has been given to her. In the aria ‘To joy he brightens my despair’, marked ardito, Jael sings of her delight.
Abinoam appears, hoping that his son Barak will make him proud in battle, and sings the splendidly blustering aria ‘Awake the ardour of thy breast’ (originally heard in the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne). Barak accepts the responsibility ‘to conquer or to fall’. His aria ‘All danger disdaining’ is a particularly colourful one, full of rushing scales and trumpet calls as he prepares for war. The chorus too raise their spirits in ‘Let thy deeds be glorious’ (a direct lift from the Coronation Anthem Let thy hand be strengthened) with Handel’s neat mixture of homophony and imitation especially suited to the warlike theme.
Sisera’s messenger arrives bearing the message that the enemy commander desires ‘an interview’ to see if bloodshed can be avoided—the catch is that the Israelites must remain as his slaves. Barak and Deborah confidently send the messenger packing, stating that their troops fear no-one. The Israelites predict the wrath of Jehova on their enemies in the reworked second movement of the same coronation anthem, its text here changed from ‘Let justice and judgement’ to ‘Despair all around them shall swiftly confound them’: the mournful triple-metre melody is more suited to the new verse than was Handel’s original psalm text. The fine Alleluia that closes the coronation anthem makes an equally effective ending to Act I.
As so often in Handel’s oratorios, with the start of Act II the pace of the drama increases. The Israelites, assembled on Mount Tabor, see the Baalite army and their commander Sisera approaching. Both sides are prepared for battle. Handel re-uses the splendidly energetic opening chorus of Dixit Dominus to marvellous effect, the first choral chords punching their way through the busy orchestral texture; the cantus firmus, moved around the voices, heavily points ‘with sullen march and gloomy brow’, against which Handel contrasts his busy countersubject. The final entries, first over an insistent, dominant pedal and then over a tonic pedal are incredibly powerful. Sisera, making his first appearance, offers Deborah one last chance to avoid battle, but the price will be complete submission as he explains in the fine aria ‘At my feet extended low’; he warns that ‘slighted mercy’ can quickly turn to rage.
Deborah furiously rejects Sisera’s offer, telling him that he will soon know what it is like to have God as a foe. The aria ‘In Jehova’s awful sight’ is a masterpiece, with slow repeated chords from the strings and two high bassoons set against the solo lines of Deborah and a lone oboe. The harmonies in the middle section are some of the most intense in the whole of Handel’s output. Taken directly from the scene in the Brockes Passion where the Daughter of Zion comments on Judas’ suicide, here Deborah warns that tyrants who ‘place in vanity their trust’ are but dust in the sight of God. Sisera scornfully counters that God’s wonders are well demonstrated by Deborah’s ‘low captivity’, the leaping violin intervals in ‘Whilst you boast the wondrous story’ intensifying his contempt. Handel maintains the drama by moving straight into Barak’s retort, the beautiful aria ‘Impious mortal, cease to brave us’. In the Brockes Passion it is used for Peter’s prayer after the denial; here it gives noble strength to Barak’s unshakeable faith in God. There is some particularly fine writing for the violas in the middle of a rich string texture.
The Chief Priest of Baal states that there is no god like Baal, and in a splendid chorus his followers call to their god, their repeated, wailing, almost primeval cries anchored and enhanced by a circular bass line, inexorably repeated by the entire string section. Such blasphemy is too much for the Chief Priest of the Israelites. He damns the ‘dull brute idol’, and the massed Israelites counter with their prayer to their God. ‘Lord of eternity’ is hair-raising—a superb example of Handel’s genius. Its massive, sixteen-part block chords spread over four octaves are the most powerful call imaginable to the Deity. ‘Plead thy just cause’ is a wonderful chorus too (its music based on the latter part of the opening of Dixit Dominus) in which the Israelites call that God should scatter their foes: the combination of a strong cantus firmus (especially the boys’ first entry) with a busy counter-melody builds the tension as the Israelites prepare for war. The final phrases are quite devastating in their power.
All possibilities of peace are now finished and Deborah sends Sisera away. Sisera promises that ‘ye shall quickly mourn, in tears of blood, our dire return’. The chorus ‘All your boast will end in woe’ is splendidly complex, involving Deborah, Sisera, Barak and the Israelite Priest, as well as both armies, in a polychoral movement of operatic drama. At the start the four soloists hurl insults at each other whilst the orchestra make comments from the sidelines, but quickly both the Baalites and the Israelite Priests join in, the former animated in their heathen conceit, the confident Israelites more assured, especially in their imperative ‘Go!’
Barak is fired with enthusiasm to join the fray and sings the virtuoso aria ‘In the battle, fame pursuing’. At first glance the libretto seems to suggest the inclusion of warlike instruments, but Handel instead chose the delicate and unusual texture of two flutes doubling a solo organ. The effect is captivating, and perhaps also suggests that when God is on your side there is no need to strike aggressive poses. Abinoam is in turn encouraged by his son’s commitment and exhorts him, in an aria written for the virtuoso bass Montagnana, ‘Swift inundation of desolation’ (based on a movement in Aci, Galatea e Polifemo), to rout the enemy and ‘end our woes’.
After this sequence of warlike arias, and in the absence of any romantic sub-plot, Handel turns to an ‘Israelite Woman’ for a gentler episode. In the original performances this role was doubled by the soprano singing Jael, Celeste Gismondi, who was in ‘No more disconsolate I’ll mourn’ provided with a passionate prayer that the Israelites be freed from captivity. Deborah tells Jael to go to her tent where her ‘solitude will thee supply with glory that shall never die’. Jael is ecstatic at the prospect of immortality and sings the delightful aria ‘Oh the pleasure my soul is possessing’, based on one of Handel’s earliest works, Il trionfo del Tempo: the discords of the violins against their continuo line give an elegantly bittersweet quality. Barak and Deborah sing a charming duet in praise of liberty, ‘Smiling freedom, lovely guest’.
The Israelites confidently prepare for battle with a straight reworking of the Coronation Anthem The King shall rejoice, now altered to ‘The great King of Kings’. Trumpets and timpani return to the orchestra and combine with Handel’s six-part chorus to close Act II in magisterial fashion.
Act III: The Israelites have trounced the Canaanites: the Bible states that ‘there was not a man left’. Handel opens the stately chorus ‘Now the proud insulting foe’ with a ‘Grand Military Symphony’ prominently featuring oboes and horns to represent the victors’ triumphant return from their pursuit of the enemy. ‘Broken chariots’ and ‘hills of slain’ are imaginatively illustrated by Handel, as is the enemy who ‘in the dust lies low’. The Israelite Woman rejoices that ‘the haughty foe’ is fallen, and in the gentle aria ‘Now sweetly smiling’ welcomes the return of peace and her ‘downy wings’.
Abinoam is pleased that his son has performed nobly in battle and, accepting his own oncoming death, contemplates the immortality that victory has assured for Barak. The aria ‘Tears such as tender fathers shed’ is in E flat major, the key that Handel frequently turned to when writing quietly noble music, and adds the distinctive colour of two solo flutes to soft strings and a pair of organs. Jael brings the news that Sisera is dead, and the Priests of Baal sing a mournful dirge, their lugubrious lines accompanied by the slow dotted string rhythm which Handel often uses for moments of desolate drama. At the end the orchestra drops out, and first unaccompanied choir and then two solo organs close a most effective movement.
The Israelite Woman sings of the delight that the additional good news has brought in ‘Our fears are now for ever fled’: Deborah’s prophecy has come true, for ‘swift vengeance has laid low the head of our imperious foe’. The dual meaning of this sentence is discovered in the ensuing recitative where Barak, who has seen Sisera ‘breathless in her [Jael’s] tent’ makes Jael recount the full details of the assassination. Fleeing from the battle, Sisera came to Jael’s tent, hoping to be concealed there. Jael, instead of providing ‘water from the limpid brook’ went one further and gave the warrior ‘milk … in a copious bowl’—perhaps a biblical allegory for rather more sensuous services? Sisera, exhausted certainly by the battle, if not also by his beautiful hostess, fell asleep, and Jael seized the opportunity to nail his head to the floor with a tent peg. ‘Tyrant, now no more we dread thee’ is a triumphant aria which showed Gismondi’s impressive vocal abilities, including one phrase which covers two full octaves in as many bars.
In the lively aria ‘The glorious sun shall cease to shed’ Deborah sings that Jael’s actions have ensured her immortality, and Barak too adds his rather more forthright views on the subject in ‘Low at her feet’: Handel graphically illustrates, with a three-octave descent, Sisera’s fall. Deborah is left to pronounce the moral of the story, in an exultant accompanied recitative, that those who oppose God will perish, but those who uphold his cause shall ‘shine like the sun’.
The finale begins with a triumphant triple-time movement scored for twelve-part orchestra and double choir, complete with carefully-notated diminuendos for the word ‘ascend’ and moves into spacious block chords at ‘For Judah’s God is Judah’s friend’. Next Handel returns to the coronation anthems for a reworking of ‘Thou hast prevented him’, here re-texted ‘O celebrate his sacred name’: the build-up is brilliantly managed, graded from the initial imitative choral entries through to triumphant brass fanfares over block choral chords. The final Alleluia too comes from the same coronation anthem: it is little wonder that Mrs Delany, that most ardent of Handel’s supporters, was always so excited by the work, for no conclusion could offer a grander way of expressing a nation’s rejoicing.
Robert King © 1993