Alexander Balus brings to completion The King's Consort's series of Handel's four 'military' oratorios (the other three being, , and ).
The story is a somewhat embellished retelling of chapters 10 and 11 from the first book of the Apocryphal Maccabees and involves complicated intrigues between the Jews, Syrians and Egyptians in the second century BC. To cut a long story short, Alexander Balus, King of Syria, is eventually defeated in battle by Ptolomee of Egypt and then killed by an Arab; but Ptolomee himself dies just three days later allowing Jonathan, the Chief of the Jews, to remind us of the fate of those who do not believe in the One God.
Musically, Handel is at his very best in this piece. Much of the composition occurred simultaneously with that for Joshua and there is, typically, a small amount of material recycled from earlier works. The Third Act, where Cleopatra is not only told (maliciously) by her father that her beloved Alexander has been faithless, but is also then informed of his death, sees some extraordinary aria-writing, at times reminiscent of 'Dido's Lament'.
The late 1740s produced from Handel a quartet of oratorios with distinctly militaristic overtones. Handel had started writing Judas Maccabaeus during the autumn of 1745, but temporarily shelved the work to compose The Occasional Oratorio. First performed in London in February 1746, The Occasional Oratorio was written to stir English hearts at a time when there was a very real possibility that Bonnie Prince Charlie might seize the English throne. Handel completed Judas in the summer of 1746 but its first performance was not held until April 1747; it was a great success. Buoyed by his return to popularity, and with his bank account once again replenished, Handel started looking towards the next season. He commissioned two more libretti from the author of Judas, the Reverend Thomas Morell: both took as their subject matter warlike and splendidly bloodthirsty episodes in Old Testament history. Although Alexander Balus was completed first by Handel (composition was commenced on 1 June 1747 and completed on 4 July), Joshua (written from 19 July to 19 August) was in the event heard first by the Covent Garden audience, being premiered on 9 March 1748. Alexander Balus was first performed on 23 March, and repeated twice more in the season. Its planned revival in 1751 was cancelled due to the death of the Prince of Wales, and its only other outing during Handel’s lifetime was a single performance in 1754, when it was much altered to take into account a new cast.
There is a much-repeated account of Morell’s dealings with Handel which is nonetheless worth recounting:
The next year he desired another and I gave him Alexander Balus, which follows the history of the foregoing in the Maccabees … The 3d [Act] begins with an incomparable Air, in the affettuoso style, intermixed with the chorus Recitative that follows it. And as to the last Air, I cannot help telling you, that, when Mr Handell first read it, he cried out D—n your Iambics. ‘Dont put yourself in a passion, they are easily Trochees.’ Trochees, what are Trochees? ‘Why, the very reverse of Iambics, by leaving out a syllable in every line, as instead of
There is another frequently-told story, this time recounted by John Taylor and in all probability apocryphal. Delightful enough even just as a fable to make it worth the telling, if true it might relate to the composition of the same aria:
One fine summer morning he [Morell] was roused out of bed at five o’clock by Handel, who came in his carriage a short distance from London. The doctor went to the window and spoke to Handel, who would not leave his carriage. Handel was at the time composing an oratorio. When the doctor asked him what he wanted, he said, ‘What de devil means de vord billow?’ which was in the oratorio the doctor had written for him. The doctor, after laughing at so ludicrous a reason for disturbing him, told him that billow meant wave, a wave of the sea. ‘Oh, de wave’, said Handel, and bade his coachman return, without addressing another word to the doctor.
Setting aside the likelihood that Handel would probably have possessed a decent dictionary (Bailey’s, if not Johnson’s), had already set the word in the 1732 Acis and Galatea, more likely would have sent his servant with a note or have stopped any passer-by in the street and asked them what the word meant (or, for that matter, asked his servant!), the romantic view might be that the composer, having puzzled all night, went straight back to his desk to write Cleopatra’s desolate final aria ‘Convey me to some peaceful shore Where no tumultuous billows roar’. Whatever its genesis, that whole scene, capped by Cleopatra’s meltingly beautiful aria, is one of the most moving in all Handel’s oratorios.
The Biblical story
Handel’s score—a synopsis
The militaristic colour of the horns returns with the Asiates, who further praise Alexander in a fine chorus ‘Ye happy nations round’, complete with a terrific orchestral bass line and a rousing unison restatement of the theme. But Alexander’s mind has moved towards matters of the heart, giving Handel an opportunity to introduce the romantic element of the plot. In ‘Oh, what resistless charms’ Alexander shows he has fallen for Cleopatra. She too, accompanied in the aria ‘Subtle love, with fancy viewing’ by shimmering violins, has found that both her eye and her heart have been diverted. The melody and accompaniment of the aria are based on ‘L’aure fresche’, a section of the fragmentary setting of La solitudine (1722/3). Cleopatra asks the opinion of her confidante, Aspasia, who answers Cleopatra’s aria ‘How happy should we mortals prove’ with her own, ‘So shall the sweet attractive smile’, before they join in the cheerful duet ‘O what pleasures, past expressing’.
Jonathan asks Alexander why he is preoccupied and, guessing the reason correctly, tells his brother to ask Ptolomee’s permission to marry Cleopatra. Alexander worries that, had he the whole world to give, this would not be enough ‘for such a gem’, echoing the sentiment in the ternary-form aria ‘Heroes may boast their mighty deeds’; in the middle section the ‘tardy-footed minutes’ fly especially swiftly in the violins. The sons of Judah rejoice: peace has descended on Israel, and Act I closes with Jonathan and the Israelites praising God for his blessings, first in a solemn hymn and then in the cheerful fugue ‘To thee let grateful Judah sing’.
ACT II—Act II begins with a love-sick Alexander singing the plaintive aria ‘Kind hope, thou universal friend’. His prayers are answered, for Jonathan brings the news not only that has Ptolomee has agreed to the marriage, but also that Cleopatra is waiting at Ptolomais. Alexander rejoices in the aria ‘O Mithra, with thy brightest beams’, where Handel employs a novel violinistic representation of the text: the unison octave jumps, easy on a harpsichord but technically much more demanding on a string instrument, must have tested his violinists. Alexander’s joy is cut short by a ‘Sycophant Courtier’, who tells him that there is a plot against his life and that the would-be assassin is none other than Jonathan. Alexander refuses to believe the news and prepares to honour Jonathan with a dukedom, singing the heroic aria ‘Mighty love now calls to arm’, which recycles a fine movement from La Resurrezione. Jonathan is furious at the imputation levelled at him and sings the vigorous aria ‘Hateful man!’, full of coloratura which must have tested Handel’s tenor Thomas Lowe (a singer rumoured to have been so stupid that ‘he never could be safely trusted with any thing better than a ballad, which he constantly learned by ear’). Stupid or not, he must have enjoyed a remarkably agile vocal technique.
The chorus responds to Jonathan’s aria with a powerful movement, ‘O calumny, on virtue waiting’, and Cleopatra too begins to show signs of ‘apprehension of I know not what’. She sums up her feelings in the extensive aria ‘Tossed from thought to thought’, whose middle-section harmonies (‘Love, thou pleasing, irksome guest’) are particularly expressive. Aspasia attempts to persuade her friend that Alexander is not only a good match, but also a good monarch.
The scene switches to the devious thoughts of Ptolomee, who reveals the wiles that he has concocted against Alexander—to ‘hurl this happy monarch from his fancied throne’ and replace him with the young Demetrius. His aria ‘Virtue, thou ideal name’ is a splendidly blustrous one. The Act ends with a sequence of three movements in which the Asiates celebrate the marriage of Cleopatra and Alexander: first comes a wedding chorus, ‘Triumph Hymen in the pair’ (added by Handel to his 1754 revival of the oratorio), then a charming duet between the newly-weds and finally a triumphant chorus ‘Hymen, fair Urania’s son’.
ACT III—The tone changes for the third Act: uncertainty fills the air, both in the brooding orchestral Sinfonia which introduces the proceedings, and in Cleopatra’s mood. Nature rarely ‘points at some approaching ill in vain’, yet she is very happy in her love of Alexander. Her aria ‘Here amid the shady woods’ is deliciously scored, with muted upper strings and pizzicato cellos. But the traditional ‘B’ section of the aria is rudely interrupted, in thoroughly operatic fashion, by a chorus of ‘ruffians’: they kidnap Cleopatra who, as she is carried off into the distance, cries for help.
Alexander hears Cleopatra’s calls, and calls on the ‘Pow’rful guardians of all nature’ to preserve his queen. Jonathan breaks the bad news that a series of Syrian towns have welcomed Ptolomee as a friend, but that the Egyptian King has then taken control of each city in turn. Alexander is more worried about the disappearance of Cleopatra, and it is Aspasia who reveals the story of the break-in and kidnap. Alexander is livid and sings the vigorous aria ‘Fury, with red sparkling eyes’, based on another movement from La Resurrezione. Amidst the bellicose statements comes a dramatic and vividly-contrasted premonition of what is to come later in the Act—of the ‘kind release’ that ‘cold death’ may bring. Here again, and wonderfully expressively, Handel is back in the opera house.
Aspasia is moved by the sight of ‘such majestic greatness in distress’ and comments on this ‘Strange reverse of human fate’. Jonathan wishes that Alexander would believe in the true God, rather than in the ‘creature gods’ in which he mistakenly trusts. The aria ‘To God who made the radiant sun’ is one of Handel’s finest: it leads into the chorus ‘Sun, moon, and stars’ which builds from its awe-struck opening to a neatly-crafted choral fugue at ‘On his creating, his all-saving pow’r’.
Ptolomee now tries to persuade his daughter that Alexander has been false to her. She will have none of it, and in her melancholy we are given another preview of the impending tragedy to come. Ptolomee shows his villainous colours in a malicious accompagnato and the aria ‘O sword, and thou, all daring hand’. Cleopatra is desolate in her mournful accompagnato ‘Shall Cleopatra ever smile again?’, but worse is to come. A messenger enters to tell her not only that has Alexander been defeated in battle, but also that after fleeing to Arabia he has been executed. Cleopatra’s aria ‘O take me from this hateful light’ is very moving, its opening six bars of unaccompanied vocal soliloquy broken by the entry of a gently dotted string accompaniment and sighing flutes. Handel’s emotional control is total. Another messenger enters: Ptolomee too is dead, slaughtered in battle. Cleopatra is now resigned, and sings the wonderful accompagnato ‘Calm thou my soul’. But capping all this is the jewel of the oratorio (Handel’s answer, perhaps, to ‘Dido’s Lament’), the deliciously wistful ‘Convey me to some peaceful shore’. Over understated, separated string chords, Cleopatra weaves a magically simple line: the vocal melody, the descending bass line and the plangent harmony of the final twelve bars would not go amiss in Elgar.
After such an extraordinary scene Jonathan is left to wind up the story, reminding the living that those who trust in other than the true God will always meet their fate. Handel’s finale is, perhaps not so surprisingly in view of the calamities that have befallen Cleopatra, unusually muted in its minor treatment of the traditionally lively Amens and Halleluias.
The original cast
Robert King © 1997