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Judas Maccabaeus
completed 11 August 1746
author of text

'Handel: Judas Maccabaeus' (CDA66641/2)
Handel: Judas Maccabaeus
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Act 1 No 01. Overture: [Grave] – Allegro – Lentement – Allegro
Act 1 No 02. Chorus: Mourn, ye afflicted children, the remains
Act 1 No 03. Recitative: Well, may your sorrows, brethren, flow (Israelitish man/Israelitish woman)
Act 1 No 04. Duet: From this dread scene, these adverse pow'rs (Israelitish man/Israelitish woman)
Act 1 No 05. Chorus: For Sion lamentation make
Act 1 No 06. Recitative: Not vain is all this storm of grief (Israelitish man)
Act 1 No 07. Air: Pious orgies, pious airs (Israelitish man)
Act 1 No 08. Chorus: O Father, whose almighty pow'r
Act 1 No 09. Recitative: I feel, I feel the Deity within (Simon)
Act 1 No 10. Air – Chorus: Arm, arm, ye brave! A noble cause (Simon)
Act 1 No 11. Recitative: 'Tis well, my friends; with transport I behold (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 1 No 12. Air: Call forth thy pow'rs, my soul, and dare (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 1 No 13. Recitative: To heav'n's almighty king we kneel (Israelitish woman)
Act 1 No 14. Air: O liberty, thou choicest treasure (Israelitish woman)
Act 1 No 15. Air: Come, ever-smiling liberty (Israelitish woman)
Act 1 No 16. Recitative: O Judas, may these noble views inspire (Israelitish man)
Act 1 No 17. Air: 'Tis liberty, dear liberty alone (Israelitish man)
Act 1 No 18. Duet: Come, ever-smiling liberty (Israelitish man/Israelitish woman)
Act 1 No 19. Chorus: Lead on, lead on! Judah disdains
Act 1 No 20. Recitative: So will'd my father, now at rest (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 1 No 21. Semi-chorus: Disdainful of danger, we'll rush on the foe
Act 1 No 22. Recitative: Ambition! If e'er honour was thine aim (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 1 No 23. Air: No unhallow'd desire (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 1 No 24. Recitative: Haste we, my brethren, haste we to the field (Israelitish man)
Act 1 No 25. Chorus: Hear us, O Lord, on thee we call
Act 2 No 01. Chorus: Fall'n is the foe; so fall thy foes, O Lord!
Act 2 No 02. Recitative: Victorious hero! Fame shall tell (Israelitish man)
Act 2 No 03. Air: So rapid thy course is
Act 2 No 04. Recitative: Well may we hope our freedom to receive (Israelitish man)
Act 2 No 05. Duet – Chorus: Sion now her head shall raise (Israelitish man/Israelitish woman)
Act 2 No 06. Recitative: Oh, let eternal honours crown his name (Israelitish woman)
Act 2 No 07. Air: From mighty kings he took the spoil (Israelitish woman)
Act 2 No 08. Duet – Chorus: Hail, hail, Judea. Happy land! (Israelitish man/Israelitish woman)
Act 2 No 09. Recitative: Thanks to my brethren; but look up to heav'n (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 2 No 10. Air: How vain is man, who boasts in fight (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 2 No 11. Recitative: O Judas, O my brethren! (Messenger)
Act 2 No 12. Air – Chorus: Ah! wretched, wretched Israel! Fall'n, how low (Israelitish woman)
Act 2 No 13. Recitative: Be comforted, nor think these plagues are sent (Simon)
Act 2 No 14. Air: The Lord worketh wonders (Simon)
Act 2 No 15. Recitative: My arms! Against this Gorgias will I go (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 2 No 16. Air – Chorus: Sound an alarm! Your silver trumpets sound (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 2 No 17. Recitative: Enough! To heav'n we leave the rest (Simon)
Act 2 No 18. Air: With pious hearts, and brave as pious (Simon)
Act 2 No 19. Recitative: Ye worshippers of God (Israelitish man/Israelitish woman)
Act 2 No 20. Air: Wise men, flatt'ring, may deceive us (Israelitish woman)
Act 2 No 21. Duet – Chorus: Oh! Never, never bow we down (Israelitish woman/Israelitish man)
Act 3 No 01. Air: Father of heav'n! From thy eternal throne (Priest)
Act 3 No 02. Recitative: See, see yon flames, that from the altar broke (Israelitish man/Israelitish woman)
Act 3 No 03. Air: So shall the lute and harp awake (Israelitish woman)
Act 3 No 04. Recitative: From Capharsalama on eagle wings I fly (Messengers)
Act 3 No 05. Chorus: See, the conqu'ring hero comes! (Chorus of youths/Chorus of virgins)
Act 3 No 06: March
Act 3 No 07. Chorus: Sing unto God, and high affections raise
Act 3 No 08. Recitative: Sweet flow the strains, that strike my feasted ear (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 3 No 09. Air: With honour let desert be crown'd (Judas Maccabaeus)
Act 3 No 10. Recitative: Peace to my countrymen; peace and liberty (Eupolemus)
Act 3 No 11. Chorus: To our great God be all the honour giv'n
Act 3 No 12. Recitative: Again to earth let gratitude descend (Israelitish woman)
Act 3 No 13. Air: O lovely peace, with plenty crown'd (Israelitish woman)
Act 3 No 14. Air – Chorus: Rejoice, O Judah! and, in songs divine (Simon)

Judas Maccabaeus
Act I
The Overture to Judas Maccabaeus is one of Handel’s greatest. The stately dotted rhythms, minor key and angular melodic leaps of the opening create a suitably solemn mood, leading into a superb fugue. The theme is based on one of Handel’s Italian duets, ‘Sono liete’, with the repeated semi-quaver rhythm apparently based on a theme in Telemann’s Musique de Table (from which Handel borrowed quite liberally). Winton Dean also makes a link with the warlike semi-chorus ‘Disdainful of danger’: certainly the mood is actively aggressive, the lines angular and extrovert. Handel’s scoring is masterly, for the fugue begins only with strings and harpsichord: the entry of the oboes, bassoons and organ in block chords at the mid-point is thrilling. A dramatic French-style dotted Lentement intervenes, the fugue is repeated again, but this time with a rapid ending which suggests that the composer is impatient to get on with the action. The opening chorus (of ‘Israelites, Men and Women, lamenting the death of Mattathias, father of Judas Maccabaeus’) is a fine one, graphically expressive in its picture of Mattathias’s solemn funeral procession, with the word ‘mourn’ set particularly poignantly, and ‘your hero is no more’ pointed by a repeated falling arpeggio. The Israelite Man and Woman continue the mournful mood in their recitative, for the Israelites’ fortunes are at a low ebb with the death of their leader. The duet ‘From this dread scene’ is more dramatic, the strings’ dotted rhythms and the wide-ranging vocal tessitura (taking the soprano to her lowest reaches and the mezzo-soprano to her highest) portraying the ‘boasted tow’rs’ of Solyma lying in ‘smoky ruins’.

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.

Act II
At the start of Act II the Israelites are celebrating victory over invaders from Samaria (under Apollonius) and Syria (under Seron). ‘Fall’n is the foe’ is a splendid chorus, with a hugely energetic opening for the strings. The first choral phrase is fired amongst the voices like an arrow, occasionally interrupted by sudden hushes for the word ‘fall’n’. Towards the end of the movement, when fugue gives way to choral block chords, the choir are given a particularly thundrous unison orchestral accompaniment for ‘where warlike Judas wields his mighty sword’. The Israelite Man is provided with a virtuoso air ‘So rapid thy course is’, exploiting the agility of the voice and the extremes of its range and giving ample evidence of Caterina Galli’s vocal pyrotechnics. The duet ‘Sion now her head shall raise’ and the extensive chorus ‘Tune your harps’ into which it links were the last of Handel’s additions to the oratorio, with sumptous vocal and instrumental scoring, especially in the overlapping entries for the divided boys and the full wind scoring, full of passages of doubled thirds. In her recitative ‘Oh let eternal honours’ the Israelitish Woman praises Judas’s courage in battle but in the following air ‘From mighty kings’, another gem, Handel chooses to stress the more gentle, smiling, side of the text in gloriously lilting writing for his soprano. The brief middle section ‘Judah rejoiceth in his way’ is a contrast in almost every way, brisk and busy in its runs. With the duet and chorus ‘Hail, Judea, happy land’, in the bright key of D major, the Israelites are now confident and happy. Judas reminds them that the victory came because heaven willed it so, and that it is to that quarter that they should ‘give your applause’. In setting Judas’s air ‘How vain is man’ some writers have suggested that Handel misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘vain’, interpreting ‘conceited’ rather than Morell’s intended ‘empty’: but Judas is a fiery, warlike character (and so was his English parallel Cumberland), and Handel makes play with the word ‘gigantic’ in another virtuoso test of his soloist. The middle section ‘And dreams not that a hand unseen’ is one of the few pieces of lyrical writing for Judas in the oratorio.

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.

For the gentle celebration of the Feast of Lights which opens the third Act, Handel produced a masterpiece. ‘Father of Heaven’ is every bit as great a melody as ‘Ombra mai fu’. From the first notes of the string introduction the music flows gracefully, beautifully scored and gloriously serene: leaving the singer’s first phrase unaccompanied was a masterstroke. Handel’s principal cellist must have relished his ravishing continuo line! The middle section, for a change, does not go to the minor. Instead, with ‘And thus our grateful hearts employ’ the voice is encouraged into its upper reaches. The quiet return to the opening section is spellbinding—even with the most unsophisticated Handelian audience there surely cannot have been a dry eye in the house! The Israelite Man takes the rising incense from the altar to be a sign that God has heard the prayers, and the Israelite Woman prays that peace will descend on Israel. Her air ‘So shall the lute and harp awake’ is a delight, the references to the musical instruments of heaven inspiring Handel in much the same way as they did the next year in ‘Oh had I Jubal’s lyre’. The extended middle section provides lyrical contrast to the light jollity of the outer sections, full of neat runs and the glorious harmonic sequences which made Handel’s writing so immediately attractive and accessible to his audiences.

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?

from notes by Robert King © 1992

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Details for CDA66641/2 disc 1 track 28
Act 2 No 3, Air: So rapid thy course is
Recording date
22 March 1992
Recording venue
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Ben Turner
Recording engineer
Philip Hobbs
Hyperion usage
  1. Handel: Judas Maccabaeus (CDA66641/2)
    Disc 1 Track 28
    Release date: November 1992
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