The birth of oratorio in England was a particularly curious event. At the Crown and Anchor Tavern on 23 February 1732, Handel’s forty-seventh birthday, his friend Bernard Gates directed three performances which reworked Esther
, previously performed in 1718 as a Masque at Cannons. Gates conducted his choir from the Chapel Royal 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.
The need for Handel to find a new style of music with which to rekindle the interest of the public had been urgent. For twenty years he had been presenting operas in London, but the last seasons had been increasingly unsuccessful as audiences took against attending staged works in Italian. Many of Handel’s former friends and performers were deserting him and the result was both personal depression and a dwindling bank account. The success of Esther launched oratorio in London, and set Handel on a compositional path which was to prove his principal sphere of work for rest of his life.
These English oratorios contained a wealth of arias, duets, splendid overtures and dramatic choruses. In Handel’s operas, arias were usually brought about through the dramatic situation: the oratorio arias generally present a wider comment on the human condition. Though the range of emotions may not be quite as wide as in the operas, the variety of moods, the quality of the melodies and the composer’s unique use of the colours of the orchestra is marvellously attractive.
Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay
The ‘Musical Interlude’ The Choice of Hercules was first performed at Covent Garden on 1 March 1751, when it was offered as ‘an Additional New Act’ to the oratorio Alexander’s Feast. Nearly three-quarters of the score had been reworked from the music Handel (commissioned by John Rich, the manager of Covent Garden) had written for a production of Alceste. The play was never staged, perhaps because it had been conceived on too grand a scale, and the libretto disappeared: both Handel’s music and Servandoni’s scenery were recycled. The new Interlude was a simple allegory, with the young Hercules drawn in two different directions: on the one hand Pleasure offers him an easy life, with cool fountains, shady bowers, music, feasting and coyly phrased suggestions of possible amorous dalliance. Tempted by this, Hercules hears the admonitions of Virtue, by which he is eventually won over, and especially by the promise of immortality. Both Pleasure and Virtue present their cases at some length, but when Hercules does eventually have his say Handel presents him with an aria which is a jewel. The strings, playing in the rich key of E major, represent gentle breezes, over which the alto floats the most exquisite of melodies. The falling bass line under the final, single-note repetition of ‘Can I those wilds of joy survey’ is ravishing.
How can I stay, when love invites
Esther, as has been explained above, was a watershed in Handel’s compositional career. As a whole, the oratorio was not one of his most notable works, being hastily thrown together on an uneven libretto which makes following the story quite a challenge to anyone who has not read the full version in the Bible. Half the numbers were recycled from other works (not that this should ever be a reason for writing off one of Handel’s oratorios); on the other hand, now freed from the restrictions of the small orchestra at Cannons, Handel was able to expand his instrumental and vocal forces. Esther was constantly revived and altered: there were two pairs of performances in 1733, eight in 1735, two more in 1737, another in 1740, three in 1742 and single performances in 1751 and 1757. King Assueras (the spelling of whose name Handel later changed to Ahasuerus) has recently married Esther; the monarch has given a decree that anyone who enters his presence without permission shall be put to death. Esther nonetheless enters, is rebuked and forgiven and then, instead of giving her message (to beg for pardon for Mordecai), she invites the king and Haman to dinner. Quite how long Assueras stays at dinner is not certain, but his response is the lively aria ‘How can I stay, when love invites’, after which an Israelite notes that the king ‘to the queen’s apartment goes’. We can presume that the bedroom visit which immediately follows this aria is not one in which the newly-weds discuss matters of state.
O fairest of ten thousand fair
The first performance of Saul on 16 January 1739 at the King’s Theatre was ‘met with general Applause by a numerous and splendid Audience’ which included the Royal Family. The approbation was deserved, for the work was full of great music, both for the soloists and for the chorus, and contained some especially spectacular orchestral colours. The amorous interlude that Jennens inserts into his plot concerns Michal, Saul’s youngest daughter, who has fallen in love with David. In view of Saul’s disapproval their feelings initially have to be suppressed. Only in the second Act, after David has been reprieved from a death sentence, are they able to declare their mutual love for one another, and they do so in a charming duet. Handel is in gloriously pastoral mood, backing the voices with strings and a pair of oboes.
Great God! who, yet but darkly known
Handel was extremely excited on receipt of Jennens’s libretto for the first Act of Belshazzar. The story was a fine one, telling of the downfall of the Babylonian king, and was full of potential for graphically theatrical music. Handel obliged with a large score which was completed in only two months. Like a number of his best works, the oratorio was not the contemporary success that its music deserved, receiving just three performances in 1745 and brief revivals in 1751 and 1758. Cyrus is the commander of the Persian army who, despite his warlike nature, is a good man; a dream provides him with the basis of his plan to capture Babylon by diverting the course of the Euphrates whilst Belshazzar and his court are celebrating a feast. During Act I Cyrus prays to the God of Israel for assistance in the coming struggle, singing a simple two-verse hymn which shows Handel’s genius for writing a simple, memorable melody.
The raptur’d soul
Handel’s last two oratorios, Theodora and Jephtha, written when he was well into his sixties and increasingly suffering health problems, show his growing preoccupation with man’s destiny. Theodora was unusual in that it was one of only two Christian English oratorios, telling the story of the martyr who perished at Antioch in the fourth century. Didymus is a young Roman officer who falls in love with Theodora and, despite the knowledge that to do so will result in a death sentence, converts to Christianity. Didymus is challenged by the Roman General Valens: in ‘The raptur’d soul’ the young soldier affirms his faith and his willingness, if necessary, to be martyred. The middle section, ‘No engines can a tyrant find’ is often cut in performance, losing a fine piece of contrasting scoring, whose stormy violence counters the gentle lilt of the outside sections.
Father of heav’n
Judas Maccabaeus was a huge success at its first performance, and proved to be one of Handel’s most popular oratorios, netting at least fifty-four performances during the composer’s lifetime. Its appeal to contemporary audiences came, at least in part, from its warlike theme and high-energy arias and choruses, but the score did also contain moments of respite. For the celebration of the Feast of Lights which opens Act III, Handel produced one of his greatest masterpieces. ‘Father of heav’n’ flows serenely over an exquisite string accompaniment, with its middle section, ‘And thus our grateful hearts employ’, allowing the voice to soar into its upper reaches. The return of the opening phrase, the voice left unaccompanied, is spellbinding.
Overture to Esther
The 1732 version of Esther conducted by Bernard Gates took the original 1718 Cannons overture and expanded its scoring to include violas and a second oboe, although they only doubled existing lines: the oboe largely followed the second violin part, and the violas doubled the bass line up an octave. The original overture had been indebted to the B flat major Trio Sonata (Op 2 No 3) for its second and third movements, reversing the Trio Sonata movement order. The first movement of the oratorio overture was newly composed, setting gentle dotted rhythms over a walking bass. The second movement, in later oratorios usually a lively Allegro, was also gentle, but the final Allegro (rescoring the second movement of the Trio Sonata) was a lively, slightly academic fugue with an especially demanding part for the first oboe, whose nine-bar ‘break’ of unceasing semiquavers suggests that Handel’s principal oboe must have possessed a mighty pair of lungs.
O Lord, whose mercies numberless
‘Mr Handel’s head is more full of maggots than ever. I found yesterday in his room a very queer instrument which he calls carillon … with this Cyclopean instrument he designs to make poor Saul stark mad.’ During Act I, Handel’s new toy has its desired effect, and Saul, extremely jealous that David is said in battle to have slain ‘ten thousands’ against his own tally of mere ‘thousands’, imagines that his life is being threatened by the young warrior. David is innocent of the charge and is persuaded to sing a soothing aria to calm Saul’s madness while playing his harp. Although Handel waits until later in the score to introduce the instrument, the gently stroked string chords strongly evoke harp accompaniment, over which Handel floats another of his glorious vocal melodies.
What though I trace each herb
Handel’s Solomon, first heard at Covent Garden in March 1749, was a sumptuous score requiring double chorus and a large orchestra. Following four bellicose oratorios, Handel turned now to subject matter which presented a picture of a civilization in its golden age. There was probably a parallel to be drawn with England under George II, but Handel was also moving into his final phase of oratorio composition, choosing subject matter which matched his own personal beliefs. In Act I of the oratorio, after presenting the grand inauguration of Solomon’s newly completed temple, Handel moves the listener away to an idyllic countryside, where Solomon is in humble mood. In E major (the same key as ‘Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay’) Handel once again produces a gem, with a wonderful melody set over a gently flowing string accompaniment. The melody was later adapted as the hymn tune ‘Solomon’.
Martial Symphony and Destructive war
During Act III of Belshazzar a messenger bursts in to give the news that the Persians have broken into Belshazzar’s palace. The Babylonian king, led astray by some of his more wayward courtiers, has returned to his former debauched habits, and prepares for close-quarters battle by fortifying himself with wine. During a marvellously violent ‘Martial Symphony’, complete with trumpets and timpani, Belshazzar is slain, and shortly afterwards the Persian General Cyrus sings an aria in which he triumphs in his victory over the tyrant. Handel retains the same orchestration as in the battle music, punctuating the General’s phrases with intermittent off-beat trumpet and oboe chords which suggest, if not actually random gunshots, the chaotic noise of battle. The movement, full of virtuoso runs for the singer, makes a splendid paean of victory.
Welcome as the dawn of day
After the opening celebrations of Act I, Solomon welcomes his wife, Pharaoh’s daughter (not to be confused with the Queen of Sheba, who does not appear until Act III), and promises her a new palace. We are left in no doubt as to the attraction Solomon feels for his queen and, to reinforce this feeling, Handel provides a hymn to their undying love. Set over a walking bass, ‘Welcome as the dawn of day’ is one of the composer’s most radiant duets, full of delicious interplay between the two soloists. The orchestral backing is beautifully judged, echoing the singers’ cooing ‘my queen’, ‘my king’ in the violins in octave jumps, whilst enhancing the solo lines with glorious countermelodies.
Kind heaven, if virtue be thy care
Hearing of the abduction and imprisonment of his fellow Christian Theodora, the Roman officer Didymus resolves to rescue her. His plan is to change clothes with Theodora and for her to escape, disguised as him. In ‘Kind heaven’, Didymus asks for strength from on high to aid his plan to spring Theodora from prison. His Christian convictions are steadfast: if he does not succeed in his plan he knows that both he and she will be put to death. Handel’s orchestra for the first performances must have been a fine one, for his writing requires virtuosity and precision of the highest calibre from the violins.
The rich scoring of Solomon is nowhere more apparent than in the ecstatic instrumental writing heard at Solomon’s dedication of his new temple. In a majestic accompanied recitative, which gives as much importance to the opulent orchestral interludes as it does to the fine solo vocal line, divided violas and two solo bassoons create a sumptuously dark interior to the orchestral sound which is quite unique in all Handel’s oratorios and turns an accompanied recitative into one of the composer’s most memorable descriptive movements.
Tune your harps
With ‘Haman and Mordecai’ we also return to the music of Esther, for it seems that the 1720 performing version of the Masque may well have been given this new title. At the start of the work the Jews, persecuted by Haman, rejoice because Esther has been made queen. Before the general songs of praise begin, a single Israelite is provided with one of Handel’s most wonderful arias. Over an accompaniment of pizzicato strings an oboe floats the most exquisite solo line, joined after the first phrase in duet by the vocal soloist. Here is Handel’s writing at its most radiant, creating a magically transparent texture for one of his most ravishing melodies, and sharing that melody (as he does, for instance, in the Ode Eternal source of light divine) between the solo voice and an equally important obbligato instrumental line.
Robert King © 1995