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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

Meanwhile, if Handel was to continue to have a public career in England, it would have to be on a new footing. It would take another kind of lofty entertainment to recapture his old audience. Here is where Handel’s unique genius—as much a genius for the main chance as for music—asserted itself. Whenever opera had encountered obstacles on its Italian home turf—for example, those pesky ecclesiastical strictures against operating theaters during Lent—its creative energies had found an outlet in oratorio, especially in Rome, where Handel had served his apprenticeship. Handel had even composed a Roman oratorio himself (La resurrezione, 1708) and on a trip back to Germany in George I’s retinue he composed a German oratorio on the same Easter subject: Der für die Sünde der Welt gemartete und sterbende Jesus (“Jesus, who suffered and died for the sins of the world”), usually called the Brockes Passion after the name of the librettist.

Lofty Entertainments

fig. 7-4 Handel directing a rehearsal of an oratorio, possibly at the residence of the Prince of Wales.

In fact, Handel had already composed some minor dramatic works on English texts, including Acis and Galatea (1718), a mythological masque, and another masque, Haman and Mordecai on an Old Testament subject, both commissioned by an English patron, the Duke of Chandos, for performance at his estate, called Cannons. Handel had also enjoyed great success with some English psalm settings he had written on commission from the same patron (now called the Chan-dos Anthems), in which he had drawn on indigenous choral genres for which Purcell had set the most important precedents: anthems and allegorical “odes” to celebrate the feast day of St. Cecilia (music’s patron saint), royal birthdays, and the like.

A pastiche revival of Haman and Mordecai, expanded and refurbished (though not by Handel) and retitled Esther, was performed in 1732 in the explicit guise of “an oratorio or sacred drama” and attracted so much interest that Handel himself conducted a lucrative performance on the stage of the King’s Theatre, where business that year was otherwise slow. The next year Handel wrote a couple of English oratorios himself (Deborah, Athalia). As operatic bankruptcy loomed, these experiences gave Handel an idea that the English public might welcome a new style of vernacular oratorio tailored to its tastes and prejudices. The result was Saul (1739), a musical theater piece of a wholly novel kind that differed in significant ways from all previous oratorio styles. As a genre born directly out of the vicissitudes of the British entertainment market, the Handelian oratorio was a unique product of its time and place.

How was it new? The traditional Italian oratorio was simply an opera seria on a biblical subject, by the early eighteenth century often performed with action, although this was not always allowed. In England, the acting out of a sacred drama was prohibited by episcopal decree, but Saul was still more or less an opera in the sense that its unstaged action proceeded through the same musical structures, its dramatic confrontations being carried out through the customary recitatives and arias, making it easy for the audience to supply in their imagination the implied stage movement (sometimes vivid and violent, as when Saul, enraged, twice throws his spear, although the actual singer of the role makes no move).

The listener’s mind’s eye was helped in other ways as well. The imaginary action was “opened out” into outdoor mass scenes unthinkable in opera, with opulent masque-like choruses representing the “people of Israel.” Among the main advertised attractions, moreover, was an especially lavish orchestra replete with a trombone choir, with evocative carillons, and with virtuoso instrumental solos, as if to compensate for the diminished visual component. All the same, Saul—like Esther and Deborah before it, and Samson, Belshazzar, Judas Maccabeus, Solomon, and Joshua after it—remained centered in its plot on dramatized human relations, the traditional stuff of opera. It was in a sense the most traditionally operatic of all of Handel’s oratorios, since the title character—the melancholy and choleric ruler of Israel, racked by jealousy and superstition—is complex, and the action implies a judgment of his deeds.

The other Old Testament oratorios listed above (excepting only Belshazzar) are all tales of civic heroism and national triumph. Esther, Deborah, Samson, Judah Maccabee, and Joshua were all saviors of their people, the Chosen People. All were heroes through whom the nation, over and over again, proved invincible. (And even Belshazzar, while not directly about Israel’s heroism, depicts the destruction of Israel’s adversary.) Here is where Handel truly showed his mettle in catering to his public, for the English audience—an insular people, an industrious and prosperous people, since the revolutions of the seventeenth century a self-determining people ruled by law, and (as we have seen) a latently chauvinistic people—identified strongly with the Old Testament Israelites and regarded the tales Handel set before them as gratifying allegories of themselves. “What a glorious Spectacle!” wrote one enraptured observer

to see a crowded Audience of the first Quality of a Nation, headed by the Heir apparent of their Sovereign’s Crown [the future George III], sitting enchanted at Sounds, that at the same time express’d in so sublime a manner the Praises of the Deity itself, and did such Honour to the Faculties of human Nature, in first creating those Sounds, if I may so speak; and in the next Place, being able to be so highly delighted with them. Did such a Taste prevail universally in a People, that People might expect on a like Occasion, if such Occasion should ever happen to them, the same Deliverance as those Praises celebrate; and Protestant, free, virtuous, united, Christian England, need little fear, at any time hereafter, the whole Force of slavish, bigotted, united, unchristian Popery, risen up against her, should such a Conjuncture ever hereafter happen.5

As the historian Ruth Smith has observed, the author of this letter “deploys the analogy of Britain with Israel to present the idea of a unified nation as natural, desirable, and, in the face of foreign aggression, essential,” and praises Handel’s music as an impetus that “can not only allude to, but actually create, national harmony and strength.”6 Handel’s oratorios, in short, were the first great monuments in the history of European music to nationalism. That was the true source of their novelty, for nationalism was then a novel force in the world.

The letter just quoted, printed in the London Daily Post in April 1739, referred to the première performance of Israel in Egypt, the next oratorio Handel composed after Saul, which transformed the genre yet further away from opera and made it yet more novel and more specific to its time and place. For Israel in Egypt almost completely abandons the dramatic format—that is, the representation of human conflicts and confrontations through recitatives and arias—in favor of impersonal biblical narration, much of it carried out by the chorus (i.e., the Nation) directly, often split into two antiphonal choirs as in the Venetian choral concerti of old. It is thus the most monumental work of its kind, and in the specific sense implied by the writer of the letter, which relates to vastness and impressiveness, the most sublime.

This specifically Handelian conception of the oratorio as an essentially choral genre—an invisible pageant, it would be fair to say, rather than an invisible drama—completely transformed the very idea of such a piece. So thoroughly did Handel Handelize the oratorio for posterity that it comes now as a surprise to read contemporary descriptions of his work that emphasize its novelty, indeed its failure to conform to prior expectations. One contemporary listener wrote in some perplexity about Handel’s next biblical oratorio after Israel in Egypt—namely Messiah, now the most famous oratorio in the world and the one to which all others are compared—that “although called an Oratorio, yet it is not dramatic but properly a Collection of Hymns or Anthems drawn from the sacred Scriptures.”7 That is precisely what the word “oratorio” has connoted since Handel’s day. Now it is the dramatic oratorio that can seem unusual.

Israel in Egypt, the prototype of the “anthem oratorio,” recounts the story of the Exodus, with a text compiled from scripture by Charles Jennens, a wealthy dilettante who paid Handel for the privilege of collaborating with him, and who had already written the libretto for Saul. This new “libretto” was no original creation but a sort of scriptural anthology that mixed narrative from the Book of Exodus with verses from the Book of Psalms. Its first ten vocal numbers (seven of them choruses) collectively narrate the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt. In musico-dramatic technique they collectively embody a virtual textbook on the state of the “madrigalistic” art—the art of musical depiction—in the early eighteenth century, an art of which Handel, perhaps even outstripping Vivaldi, was past master.

Even the little recitative that introduces the first chorus contains a telling bit of word painting—the dissonant harmony and vocal leap of a tritone illustrating the “rigor” with which the Israelites were made to serve their Egyptian masters (Ex. 7-2a). The fact that these effects of melody and harmony do not exactly coincide with the word they illustrate does not lessen the pointedness of the illustration: the sudden asperities, incongruous with the rest of the music in the recitative, send the listener’s imagination off in search of their justification, which can only be supplied by the appropriate word.

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ex. 7-2a George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt, no. 2, recitative, “Now there arose a new king”

The first of the plagues—the bloody river—is a choral fugue (Ex. 7-2b), in which we again encounter some time-honored devices: melodic dissonance in the subject (a diminished seventh) to portray loathing, and a passus duriusculus to combine that loathing with the river’s flow as the fugue subject recedes from the foreground to prepare for the answer. The next plague (no. 5, “Their land broughtforth frogs”) is set not as a chorus but as an “air”—a truncated aria (very common in Handel’s oratorios) in which the “da capo” is represented by its ritornello alone (Ex. 7-2c). Handel chose to make this number a solo item not only to provide some variety for the listener (and some respite for the choristers) but also because he evidently thought the illustrative idea—leapfrog!—would work better as an instrumental ritornello for two violins than in the voice.

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ex. 7-2b George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt, no. 4, chorus, “They loathed to drink of the river,” mm. 1–13

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ex. 7-2c George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt, no. 5, aria, “Their land brought forth frogs,” mm. 1–11

The idea of purely instrumental “imitation of nature” was a Vivaldian idea, as we know from the Four Seasons, but no other composer had ever taken instrumental imitations to such lengths as Handel resorted to in Israel in Egypt—epoch-making lengths, in fact, since the art of “orchestration” as “tone-color composition,” serving expressive or poetic purposes and requiring an extended instrumental “palette,” achieved a new level in Handel’s oratorios, and nowhere more spectacularly than in no. 6, “He spake the word” (Ex. 7-2d). The word here, of course, is the word of God, and so the burnished sound of the trombone choir, associated with regal and spectacular church music since the Gabrielis in Venice at the end of the sixteenth century, was the inevitable choice to echo the choral announcement that God had spoken. Later, the two insects mentioned in the text (flies and locusts) are imitated by string instruments in two sizes. The massed violins are treated especially virtuosically. Demanding of ripienists all a soloist’s skills is another mark of “gourmet” orchestration, marking not only the player but the composer as a virtuoso.

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ex. 7-2d George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt, no. 6, chorus, “He spake the word,” mm. 1–3

The gathering storm leading to the representation of the “hailstones for rain” in no. 7 (Ex. 7-2e) calls a large assortment of new (woodwind and timpani) colors into play. Here Handel had a precedent in the French court opera, where orchestrally magnificent storm scenes had been a stock-in-trade since Marin Marais’s Alcyone (1706), which spawned a legion of imitators (culminating with a volcanic eruption in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes of 1735) and which, like many court operas, had been published in full score. No. 8, “He sent a thick darkness” (Ex. 7-2f), introduces a new, unheard-of color—high bassoons doubling low violins, but later descending to their normal range and trilling—as well as softly sustained but very dissonant chromatic harmonies to represent the covering gloom. The huge tutti chords slashing on the strong beats in no. 9 (“He smote all the first-born of Egypt”) make almost palpable the grisliest calamity of all (Ex. 7-2g).

Yet no matter how lofty or how grisly the theme, Handel’s representation of the plagues remains an entertainment—an entertainment that an exhaustive description like the one offered here threatens to impair. It has indeed been a tiresome exercise, and apologies are offered to those rightly exasperated by it, for tediously cataloguing the means by which such vivid effects are achieved has the same dampening effect as does the explanation of a joke.

But although the dampening may dull the joke, it may also serve a good purpose if it forces us to realize and confront, through our annoyance, what might be otherwise overlooked or forgotten—that these marvelous and musically epochal illustrations are indeed, for the most part, no more (and no less) than jokes. Like all “madrigalisms,” they depend on mechanisms of humor: puns (plays on similarities of sound), wit (apt conjunctions of incongruous things), caricature (deliberate exaggerations that underscore a similarity). And, as Handel knew very well, audiences react to such effects, despite the awfulness of the theme, as they do to comedy. We giggle in appreciation when we “get” the representation of the leaping frogs and the buzzing flies, and we guffaw when the latter give way to the thundering locusts.

But what of the smiting of all those Egyptian boys? Do we laugh at that, too? We do—or, at least, so the music directs us—just as we have laughed at crop failures, bloody rivers, “blotches and blains.” The withholding of empathy for the Egyptians is an essential part of the biblical account of the Exodus, and the scorn of the biblical Israelites and their religious descendants for the ancient oppressor is what enables the success of Handel’s strategy. This separation of self and other plays also into the ideology of nationalism; a great deal of English national pride (or any nation’s national pride) depends on a perception of separateness from other nations, and superiority to them. Of all of Handel’s oratorios, it is perhaps easiest to see in Israel in Egypt how the manifest religious content coexists with, enables, and is ultimately subordinate to the nationalistic subtext. Hence the essential secularism of its impulse and its enduring appeal.


(5) “R. W.,” letter to the London Daily Post, 18 April 1739; Otto Eric Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Biography (London: A. & C. Black, 1955), pp. 544–45.

(6) Ruth Smith, Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 288–89.

(7) John Brown, A Dissertation on the Rise, Union, and Power, the Progressions, Separations, and Corruptions, of Poetry and Music (London: L. Davis and C. Reymers, 1763), p. 218; quoted in Howard E. Smither, A History of the Oratorio, Vol. II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), p. 255.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07002.xml