By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
During the course of the 1730's, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) confronted, however reluctantly, the necessity to produce some form of profitable theatre music other than Italian opera. His vigorous rivalry during that decade with the Nobility, a competing opera company, had impelled him to compose a series of operas and pasticcios which in the main proved to be both artistic and financial failures, bringing him to the brink of bankruptcy. London audiences, having wearied of opera seria and brilliant castrati virtuoso sopranos, indicated by their absence from various opera houses a desire for something new and more specifically English.
February, 1732, saw three private performances at Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre of the first of Handel's dramatic oratorios, Esther. This event marked the beginnings of a significant transformation both for Handel and English music. Another ten years, however, would pass before he finally realized that Italian opera in London was dead and that oratorio pointed to the successful future.
The new oratorio form offered considerable cost advantages. It eliminated the need for elaborate staging and costuming and for expensive Italian singers. Handel was astute enough to hire English singers. The role and importance of the chorus in his oratorios, an influence exerted on him by Racine's French plays derived from classical Greek drama, find full development in Esther, but even more especially in Athalia produced in 1733.
This choral development was to determine that future character of the Handelian oratorio which set it completely apart from its Continental counterparts.
Handel, like Racine, was further hampered in his efforts to make the new oratorio palatable to the public by ecclesiastical prejudice, voiced through the Bishop of London's prohibiting the use of Scriptural words in a theatre: the Bishop was not alone, however, in his strictures since numerous Londoners similarly found their sensibilities offended. In spite of extensive and intense debate on this religiously inspired prejudice, not even Messiah later on could change their attitude toward such an "unwelcome novelty."
After suffering a mild stroke on April 13, 1737, and subsequently restoring his health through visits to European spas, Handel's brain began to teem, in his librettist Jennens' words, with creative "maggots." He now worked to produce the new oratorio Saul on January 16, 1739 in such a grandiose fashion that its reception was assured.
At this same time also, after composing it within a month's time, he was preparing to introduce on April 4, 1739 at King's Theatre, Haymarket, that (in the words of Julian Herbage) "most superbly magnificent failure;” Israel in Egypt.
Israel, in Paul Henry Lang's words "is almost as remarkable for its defects as it is for its excellences." So far does its artistic structure differ from dramatic oratorio that much speculation has surrounded its genesis and purpose. Handel, as much as any other 18th-century composer, was a professional who worked for specific occasions with specific commissions. About Israel in Egypt we know nothing of either.
Israel seems more like several sets of anthems. Its most striking characteristic, of course, is its paucity of recitatives and arias, and its overwhelming number of great choruses. London audiences at its first performance found it too much of a good thing. For a later performance Handel, with that business man's eye on the box office, tampered with his music, shortening it and adding some lighter Italianate songs. But Israel in Egypt proved to be an enduring failure, being performed in only four other revivals during his lifetime.
Not a man to let his music gather dust after an initial performance, Handel intended to reword/rework his superbly beautiful music from the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline (1737) to serve as Israel's first act. As it is sung today, the Funeral Anthem, never really attached definitively to Israel, is omitted, leaving it with two acts. This structure accounts for the oratorio's rather abrupt opening with a brief recitative and no overture, since in fact it opens as Act II of a projected three. It is thus a torso.
This evening's performance will be prefaced with Handel’s Organ Concerto in G minor (Op. 4, No. 1) premiered at the first production on February 19, 1736.of his great ode, Alexander’s Feast. The inclusion on the program of such concertos harkens back to Handel's common practice. Throughout the performance of various of his odes and oratorios Handel took opportunity in these concertos to display his superb improvisational skills. More importantly, however, and particularly with respect to Israel in Egypt, these instrumental interludes served to moderate the continuously overwhelming impact of the great choruses.
In accord, therefore, with this time-honored Handelian tradition, the organ concerto will serve as the overture to Israel, leading directly without break into the oratorio's opening recitative. Moreover, in keeping with the same tradition, a cadenza by James Hopkins will be inserted into the second movement between the last concerto solo and tutti.
Since modern copyright law did not exist in Handel's day, he pilfered the works of various contemporary composers for themes and melodies for Israel. He likewise, as was his enduring practice, pilfered his own repertoire for the same purpose.
Composers, who like Diabelli in the hands of a Beethoven failed through lack of genius to discern the broad potential of their melodic inventions, found their music mightily transformed by Handel's sovereign genius. He used in Israel themes from vocal and instrumental works of Stradella, Kerll, Erba, and Urio. He similarly transformed materials from his youthful masterpiece Dixit Dominus and from the Chandos anthem The Lord is my Light.
Much has been written about Handel's astounding programmatic devices depicting the ten plagues descending on the recalcitrant Egyptians. One stands, indeed, in the presence not only of superb and absolute musical composition but also of amazingly picturesque music describing flying hail, the buzz and flutter of flies and lice, the eerie representation of darkness, reluctance to drink contaminated Nile water, and the smiting of the first-born.
While many Londoners apparently stayed away from the few performances Israel was accorded in 1739 and 1740, one who attended wrote to the London Daily Post for Wednesday morning, April 18, 1739. ''R.W." as he signed himself (perhaps a patron, Richard Wesley) in the verbose and gradiloquent style of the time congratulated those who had attended for their perception of the oratorio's greatness. He recommended, however, that future audiences would do well to bring their Bibles. ''For though the Harmony be so unspeakably great of itself, it is in an unmeasurable Proportion more so, when seen to what Words it is adapted: especially if everyone who could take with them the Book, would do their best to carry a Heart for the Sense, as well as an Ear for the Sound."
''R. W." affords us too with a contemporary estimate of Handel and Israel: "I have been told the Words were selected out of the Sacred Writings by the Great Composer himself. If so, the Judiciousness of his Choice in this Respect, and his suiting so happily the Magnificence of the Sounds in so exalted a Manner to the Grandeur of the Subject, shows which Way his natural Genius, had he but Encouragement, would incline him: and expressed, in a very lively Manner, the Harmony of his Heart to be as superlatively excellent, as the inimitable Sounds do the Beauty and Force of his Imagination and Skill in the noble Science itself."
At a distance of 245 years, Lang's modern estimate of Israel aptly and succinctly summarizes its true greatness. "For, whatever the objections (to Israel) the choruses are great music, and they offer a wide variety of mood and technique, ranging from grim intensity to tender humility, from simple narrative to grandiose jubilation. Every device in the choral arsenal is used, choral recitative and arioso, fugue and double fugue, through-composed dramatic setting and so on. And we should bear in mind that some of these choral pieces are exceptional not only in Handel's copious output, but in the entire choral literature. Another noteworthy feature of Israel in Egypt is the role assigned to the orchestra, which remains independent and colorful even in the polyphonic choral numbers. ... with all its shortcomings, there is an impressiveness about Israel in Egypt that deeply satisfies.”