G.F. Handel’s Israel in Egypt

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Date(s) - August 7, 2013
7:30 pm - 9:30 pm

Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at UBC

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The Bible has been a source of inspiration for composers throughout history, with the Psalms especially revered because of their spiritual greatness and poetic beauty. The oratorio, which emerged as a musical form in the sixteenth century, provided composers with a framework for placing a religious text within the form of a dramatic narrative. When George Frederick Handel settled in London in October 1712 he established himself first as a composer and producer of opera – a lucrative profession when things went well. Then, as now, opera production had its ups and downs, and Handel often found himself in financial difficulty. Turning to oratorio provided a cheaper alternative to opera, requiring no scenery or costumes, and permitting the use of English-speaking singers. As the ecclesiastical authorities would not permit stage productions of Biblical works, or stage productions of any kind during Lent, the concert-style oratorio provided a practical solution.

Dramatic effect and musical characterization were central to Handel’s artistic conception. Deborah, Esther, Saul, Samson, and Judas Maccabaeus are just some of the figures from ancient Hebrew history that he used as his subjects. They proved popular with London audiences, a predominantly Protestant public, well versed in the Bible. Sung in English, the oratorios contained many choruses that drew on the tradition of English anthems and Biblical texts. Another reason for Handel’s choice of subjects may have been the considerable interest shown in his concerts by the Jewish community in England.

The oratorio Israel in Egypt is a work of tremendous scale, symbolizing the struggle and victory over oppression. There are three parts: The Ways of Zion do Mourn – The Lamentation of the Israelites for the  death of Joseph (originally the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline), Exodus and Moses’ Song. Handel composed the work with incredible speed. Moses’ Song, written first, was completed in just eleven days. Exodus followed, written in two weeks. Concerned that the work lacked historical background, Handel then compiled a text, The Lamentations of the Israelites for the death of Joseph, and adapted it to the substantial anthem he had written for the funeral of Queen Caroline, who died in 1737. 

Israel in Egypt, recognized in our time as one of the greatest works in the choral literature, had a troubled early life. The first performance was poorly received: too many choruses and too few arias for public taste. Handel advertised a second performance that was ‘shortned and Intermix’d with Songs’, the songs taken from his oratorios Athalia and Esther. There were, however, a group of ardent, loyal supporters in the audience that first night. One listener, dismayed at the prospect of only one more performance, wrote to the Daily Post on April 13th: “Sir…. I have never yet met with any Musical performance, in which Words and Sentiments were so thoroughly studied, and so clearly understood…. I was concern’d that so excellent a Work of so great a Genius was neglected, for tho’ it was a Polite and attentive Audience, it was not large enough I doubt to encourage him in any future Attempt….I should be extreamely sorry to be depriv’d of hearing this again.’ Public response for the most part remained cool, and aside from one more performance the following year, Israel in Egypt would not be heard again for 17 years. Even then acceptance proved difficult. Mrs. Patrick Delany, an ardent Handelian, remarked that“ it did not take, it is too solemn for common ears.” Eventually, of course, the tide turned, and the work is now recognized as one of the greatest choral epics ever written.

The text is based on verses from Exodus and Psalms 78, 105 and 106. The adaptation is attributed to the literary scholar Charles Jennens, who worked with Handel on Messiah.
The oratorio contains relatively little solo material: four short recitatives, four arias, and three duets. The story of the deliverance of the Israelites is narrated mainly by the chorus. Shifting the focus away from individual personalities Handel uses the chorus as a dramatic device to emphasize the destiny of a people. Israel in Egypt contains some of Handel’s most colossal choruses. He designed these – 28 in all – as epic, musical pictures of natural happenings. In choruses and double choruses, themes are alternatively echoed and reinforced. We hear the vivid imagination of Handel the opera composer, not only in the great choruses, but also in the orchestral writing that provides the underlying texture. 

Both Exodus and Moses’ Song are filled with many instances of extraordinary tone painting. In Exodus, there is the lively manner in which the woodwinds and strings mimic the pestilence of all manner of flies and lice; the harmonically remarkable choral recitative He sent a thick darkness over the land, in which the arrival of darkness is created with chilling effect; and the drama of menace and terror in He smote all the first-born, clearly heard in the ‘striking’ of the orchestral accompaniment, and the breathless, incredulous chorus. The astonishing word painting continues in Moses’ Song. Particularly noteworthy is the sea imagery, which Handel biographer Winton Dean termed ‘a marine tour de force’: the choral exclamations and telling pauses in The people shall hear; the amazing illustration of the words they sank into the bottom as a stone, as the basses reach down more than an octave; and the faintness of the strings at the very end of this chorus, echoing the silent, dying gasps of Pharaoh’s captains.

Soloists play an important role in framing the oratorio and establishing tone and mood. Exodus opens quietly, with a moving recitative introducing the choral lament And the children of Israel sighed. In Moses’ Song, a jubilant soprano transports us to the final, thrilling chorus He hath triumphed gloriously.

In 1739, Handel had an average of 25 – 35 singers in his chorus, and the same number in his orchestra. Singers and instrumentalists were in even balance. Over the years, styles of performance changed. In 1833, at a music festival in Düsseldorf, Felix Mendelssohn presented excerpts of the oratorio with tableaux vivants. In a letter to his sister, Mendelssohn described the final section: “Miriam, with a silver timbrel, sounding praises to the Lord, and maidens with harps and zithers, and in the background four men with trombones…When the chorus came in forte, real trombones and trumpets, and kettledrums, were brought on the stage and burst in like a thunder-clap.” Handel Festivals in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries took presentations to the other extreme: performances at London’s Crystal Palace sometimes used choruses of 3,500 voices, and an orchestra of some 500 players.

Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a devoted Handelian, well described Handel’s genius as a composer of choral music: “mankind has heard no music written for voices which can even feebly rival his for grandeur of build and tone, nobility and tenderness of melody, scholastic skill and ingenuity, and inexhaustible variety of effect.


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