By Peter Rutenberg
Israel in Egypt is the first chapter in a long story of freedom won by 600,000 Israelites during the Passover and flight from Pharaoh’s oppression, about 3300 years ago. The book is still being written, for its object — in every age and with so many peoples — is still under contention.
George Friederich Handel arrived in England — a bright star of Italian Opera — in advance of the Hanover King George I who appointed him and was about to take the throne. There, a long-standing choral tradition held sway. Moreover, his adopted land’s fortunes were in mild distress and a certain bishop was making trouble for the theater, so Handel obliged his producers by discarding the costumes, scenery and other costly indulgences to write “operas for the mind.” The grand oratorio was born. He was just the one to do it, too, for nowhere else could one find music of such sweep, grace, depth and elegance but in his uniquely theatrical and creative sensibilities. Others may have needed the trappings of the stage, but Handel was able to dress his actors and scenery with the provocations of melody, rhythm, color, and form, not to mention a good deal of pomp and circumstance, accomplishing more with less. Such was his genius that the rest of it was hardly missed.
Hebrew Scripture provided just what the librettist ordered — narrative of the monumental kind. Handel’s nearly 30 oratorios call on the heroes of the Old Testament, including warriors and kings such as Saul, Belshazzar and Solomon, and not so infrequently, strong, brave and intelligent women such as Deborah, Rebecca, and Esther — that remarkable teenager who was to save the entire Jewish race during the later Persian captivity. Victor and villain alike enjoy exquisite arias, the occasional dramatic duet, the plot advancing recitatives, and usually a chorus or two to sum things up and offer praise and thanksgiving to God. As the eminent musicologist Manfred Bukofzer asserted some 55 years ago, it was this form of choral drama rather than opera in which “The baroque ideal, the revival of the Greek tragedy, has been more nearly realized.”
The story of the Exodus is told from one perspective only — the Israelites, as represented by the chorus and spelled occasionally by unidentified narrators whom we may assume are random individuals from the populace. Indeed, what sets this oratorio apart from the others is the simple but dynamic fact that the only well-defined character in the story is the Jewish people. Moses’ identity is mentioned only in passing while the emphasis is rightfully placed on the invisible but mighty author of the story’s many miracles — God himself. Thus there are but seven arias and four brief recitatives assigned to soloists, while there are 20 full choruses! The sheer size of the population materializes in several numbers for double chorus, symbolizing the dialogue of various factions, and the thoughts and ideas uttered simultaneously by many people undergoing a life-change of epic proportions. All are accounted for in Handel’s dense and assertive textures.
Structurally, Israel in Egypt is divided into two parts, the first subtitled “Exodus” and the second, “Moses’ Song.” Handel himself selected the texts, mainly from Exodus XV and various psalms. The action picks up with the slaves’ supplication to God for relief from their heavy burdens and Moses’ storied request to Pharaoh. Pharaoh has already said yes, but his obsessive-compulsive tendency to “second thoughts” brings God’s ire in a string of ten plagues — one more horrific and reviling than the last. Handel’s richly descriptive music portrays each affliction in full character: the blotches and boils erupt with searing pain; there is no swatter big enough to contain the swarms of flies, as played by menacing strings; and the final coup — the slaying of the first-born Egyptian children including Pharaoh’s own son — resounds with the drill-team precision of the angels’ army of death. So terrifying is the imagery that we don’t doubt the sincerity of the Egyptians’ relief as the Israelites flee eastward. Part One concludes with the parting of the Red Sea and the people’s recognition of the great miracles that have befallen them.
The celebration begins in earnest in Part Two: a brief, double-dotted rhythm in the orchestra stirs the sustained notes of the full chorus, followed by an uproar of glorious rejoicing. The famous gallop-theme (Handel’s answer to the William Tell Overture) surges to the fore in its first appearance, and recurs occasionally as a joyous refrain. In contrast to the horror of the plagues, Handel paints equally stunning pictures of the triumph, as the stories of the escape are etched into legend one by one. The final sequence of numbers ebbs and flows with growing heroism until the final utterance of the text that follows us out the door: “the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.”
Like so many other of Handel’s oratorios, Israel in Egypt was written in an astonishingly brief stitch of time — a single month — between the first of October and first of November, in 1738. It debuted in April the following year in the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London. The initial reception was lukewarm, owing in part to the public being unaccustomed to sacred words in a secular place, and in part to the unfamiliar balance of solo numbers with chorus. Subsequent performances and modern revivals — especially given this subject matter in the context of our own times — support this masterwork’s place in the repertoire. Rendering an opinion to Gluck on the latter’s new opera The Fall of the Giants Handel snapped, “You have taken too much trouble... What the English like is something they can beat time to, something that hits them straight on the drum of the ear.” In Israel in Egypt as in all pursuits, Handel was true both to his subject and to himself and we are the richer for it.