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Hyperion Records

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Joshua commanding the sun to stand still over Gideon by John Martin (1789-1854)
Reproduced by courtesy of The United Grand Lodge of England
Track(s) taken from CDA66461/2
Recording details: August 1990
St Joseph's College, Mill Hill, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: April 1991
Total duration: 124 minutes 12 seconds

Joshua
composer
19 August 1747
author of text

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Synopsis – Act I
The single-movement orchestral ‘Introduzione’ is one of Handel’s shortest openings to an oratorio, lasting for just four lines of the score and leading straight into the opening chorus. Handel was clearly anxious to get on with the action. ‘Ye sons of Israel’ dispels any thought that the work is on anything but a grand scale with the Israelites rejoicing at the conquest of Canaan and their miraculous passage over the river Jordan which ends forty years in the wilderness. ‘In Gilgal, and on Jordan’s banks proclaim’ is introduced by an unaccompanied vocal entry—the first of many that form a thread running throughout the oratorio. Joshua enters, self-assured to the point of conceit, his confidence bolstered by the flattering tongue of the warrior Caleb, whose aria ‘Oh first in wisdom’ continues the jaunty, confident vein. Achsah, Caleb’s daughter, brings a dramatically necessary change of mood, contrasting the suffering of captivity in Egypt with the joy of arrival in Canaan in her wistful aria ‘Oh, who can tell’ whose prominent parts for solo violin and cello are reminiscent of La Resurrezzione. The calm interlude does not last long, for Joshua returns, giving orders in his recitative ‘Caleb attend’ to set up a monument in Gilgal to ensure that future generations are aware of the Israelites’ miraculous escape. Joshua introduces, with an unaccompanied phrase, the chorus ‘To long posterity we here record’, full of vivid effects of the floods rolling back and forth which hark back to Israel in Egypt. The theme of flowing water continues in the aria ‘While Kedron’s brook’, with Joshua’s lyrical thread punctuated by orchestral dotted rhythms.

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.

Act II
In Act II Joshua has been laying seige to Jericho for six days. He orders the final trumpet blast. Handel’s ‘Solemn March during the circumvection of the Ark of the Covenant’ (adapted from Muffat’s Componimenti) is as awe-inspiring in its solemnity as it is in its sheer volume, and leads into the splendid three-section chorus ‘Glory to God’. Solo trumpet and horn echo the preceding March, Joshua praises God, the massed choral and orchestral forces reinforce him and, with insistent dotted rhythms in the orchestra, the walls begin to totter. But it is for the middle Adagio section ‘The nations tremble’ that Handel reserves his finest effects. In a musical score which is black with notes the awe-struck chorus cower, the brass blast chilling low fanfares, the strings vividly represent the tumbling walls in rapid scales and the timpani thunder. Jericho crashes down, and Caleb is triumphant in his command to lay waste to the remainder of the city and its populace, remembering though to command the sparing of Rahab, who had been sympathetic to the Israelites’ cause. ‘See, the raging flames arise’ reverts successfully to the type of operatic aria originally written for Montagnana: the rapid scales representing the flames which add to the destruction of Jericho are contrasted with the ‘dismal groans and cries’.

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.

Act III
Act III begins with Joshua’s position once again that of a hero now guaranteed a position in history. In ‘Hail mighty Joshua’ Handel gives the fugal entries at ‘And grateful marbles’ a notable rising theme. Achsah too is delighted in her cheerful aria ‘Happy, O thrice happy we’. Joshua proposes to divide the conquered territory amongst the tribes and is reminded by Caleb of his part in the conquest of Hebron: Joshua immediately gives this land to Caleb and his Judaean tribe. Caleb however is starting to feel his age, and Handel produces another jewel with the hymn-like ‘Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain’ whose theme of noble resignation is enhanced by the chorus’s entry ‘For all these mercies we will sing’. Othniel reminds Caleb that one city remains unconquered. Caleb announces that it is time to hand over military matters to a younger man and, as an inducement, the hand of Achsah will be the reward for whoever can subdue the remaining city of Debir. Othniel can hardly believe his good fortune, and in the splendidly rousing ‘Place danger around me’ (as lively an alto aria as Handel ever wrote) he goes off to war. The Israelites pray for him in battle in the moving slow chorus ‘Father of mercy’ and no sooner have they completed their prayers than Joshua enters to tell the good news that Othniel has been victorious.

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.

from notes by Robert King © 1991

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