The Oratorios Of Handel
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
For details of the life and general works of George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), as well as for those relating to several other great oratorio composers to be spoken of here, the reader is referred to the biographical section of this series.
Handel wrote two Italian oratorios and one German oratorio before writing any of his seventeen English works in that form. He first went from Germany, his native land, to England in 1710, and there he remained practically for the rest of his life.
Among Handel's English oratorios are his greatest works, and of some of the more important of them we will now speak.
After writing numerous works for the stage, and producing the oratorios "Esther" (1720), "Deborah" (1733), and "Athalia" (1733j), as well as a variety of other compositions, Handel, worn out with labor and business troubles, withdrew from England to the Continent to recruit his exhausted energies. On his return from the Continent, restored in constitution and spirits, he brought out his "Israel in Egypt," written in the marvelously short space of twenty-seven days. But it met with a very indifferent reception from the public; and, when repeated, the composer found it necessary to introduce Italian solos between the massive choruses in order to induce an audience to sit out a second performance! The grandeur of the double choruses in this noble work is unquestionably unsurpassed in oratorio music.
Our readers, if they are not already familiar with them, are recommended to examine such wonderful numbers as the "Hailstone" chorus, the magnificent fugal chorus "He led them through the deep," and the great bursts of jubilation "I will sing unto the Lord" and "Thy right hand, 0 Lord." The majesty of these choral numbers perhaps appeals to us in its full force only when rendered by singers numbering thousands, and where there is ample space for unlimited volume of sound. In "Israel in Egypt" also occurs the noted duet "The Lord is a man of war," now usually and most appropriately rendered as a two-part chorus for male voices.
Following upon "Israel" came the fine oratorio "Saul," the many beautiful numbers of which the space at our command does not permit us to specify. We cordially agree with Frederick Crowest that Jonathan's aria. "Sin not, O King," is an especially impressive number, and that the treatment of the "infernal music" is very striking and wonderful. But "Saul," the Dead March in which is almost all of the work wherewith the public is now widely familiar, met with little better fate than that of "Israel."
Then arrived a crisis in the life of Handel, and with it an event which will ever stand out like a beacon-light in the history of the world's music. We refer to the fact that Ireland, the land of the harp, whose folk-song heritage is one of the richest and most venerable in the world, was destined to be the scene of the production of that first of all oratorios, "The Messiah."
The special circumstances inducing Handel to visit Ireland were: the invitation of the Lord Lieutenant; the advantage of having his friend Matthew Dubourg resident in Dublin; the opening of the Great Music Hall, as Neale's Music Hall was called; and the negotiations into which he had entered with the friends of three charitable institutions. The Great Music Hall in Dublin had been opened for concerts and musical performances about four weeks before the "Great Saxon" started for Ireland. The three charitable institutions referred to were beneficiaries of the first production of "The Messiah."
There has been a great deal of debate as to the length of time which Handel took to compose "The Messiah." According to the record in Handel's own handwriting, in the original score of the oratorio (now in Bucking-ham Palace), the work was commenced on August 22, 1741, and completed on September 14. Such marvelous speed of output in such a musical masterpiece seems almost incredible ; but with genius there is nothing impossible. Handel may have conceived the whole work mentally before he committed it to paper. Any-way, we may gather that the undertaking inspired him to an extraordinary extent.
Handel, after writing "The Messiah," left London for Ireland in November, 1841. On the way he was weather-bound at Chester. Here, it is said, desirous of trying some of the hastily transcribed choruses of his new work, he placed the parts before some of the best cathedral singers of the town. An amusing anecdote (which, though often quoted, will bear repetition here) is narrated in connection with this "trying through" of "The Messiah" parts by the Chester choir. Among the vocalists was one Janson, who had a very good voice. When it came to reading "And with his stripes," the good man failed several times to interpret his part correctly. Handel. who was particularly sensitive to a wrong note, and who was irascible often to an acute degree—his wig, in particular, being perturbed to an alarming extent—when his ear was offended, lost his temper and exclaimed in broken English: "You schountrel! Tit you not dell me chat you could sing at soite?" "Yes, sir," was the reply of the mortified singer, "and so I can ; but not at first sight."
Handel was more than four months a resident of Dublin before "The Messiah" was produced, April 13, 1742. During that period he gave series of concerts, consisting mainly of his own works, and all these were most heartily and enthusiastically patronized and enjoyed by the warm-hearted Irish people, for whom Handel always expressed the highest esteem. At length the rehearsal of "The Messiah," to which ticket purchasers were admitted, took place. This was on Thursday, April 8, 1742. The Music Hall was crowded with the elite of the city, and the intensest enthusiasm prevailed. The work was "allowed by the greatest judges to be the finest composition of music that ever was heard." The first public performance called forth universal expressions of wonder and delight. In this first performance of the "king of oratorios," the choir was composed of boys and men from the cathedrals of Christ's and St. Patrick's.
The sacred words of The Messiah" text had been arranged for Handel by Charles Jennens, a highly connected and gifted gentleman between whom and the composer much interesting correspondence took place.
It was only natural that the Irish public should desire a repetition performance of this noble work. This was accorded to them on June 3, in the memorable year named. This was Handel's last performance in Ire-land. In course of time he returned to London, where he passed the latter part of his days in honor and affluence.
"The Messiah" was heard for the first time in Lon-don on March 23, 1743. The success and appreciation accorded to the great work was instantaneous. The King (George II), who was present at this first Lon-don performance, is said to have risen to his feet during the singing of the "Hallelujah Chorus"; a custom since usually followed, not only on account of the ex-ample thus set, but also from the innate feeling of a large assemblage that such homage is fitting to the majesty of Handel's work.
A few passages in "The Messiah" may be remarked upon. Perhaps nothing was ever conceived in all music more beautiful than the reiterated major chords which succeed the wailing minor of the overture in the introductory symphony to "Comfort ye my people." They speak the "comfort" long before the word is sung. Nearly the whole of the first part is solemnly prophetic, though not without descriptive touches—as in "Thus saith the Lord" and "The people that walked in darkness"—working gradually up to the tremendous climax at the words "Wonderful ! Counselor !" After this, we have a picture such as no one short of Raphael could have displayed upon canvas, introduced by the "Pastoral Symphony," and terminating with "Glory to God in the highest." In this chorus the trumpets are heard for the first time—and without their natural bass, the drums, which Handel considered out of place in an anthem sung by the "heavenly host." Then follows a burst of irrepressible joy, in the brilliant aria "Rejoice greatly"; and then the prophetic comfort again, in "He shall feed his flock" and "His yoke is easy.
The second part differs entirely from this. It be-gins by calling upon us to "Behold the Lamb of God," and then paints the agony of the Passion, not in itsseparate details, but as one great and indivisible sorrow, which is treated with a tenderness of feeling such as is nowhere else to be found; beginning with the unapproachable pathos of "He was despised," and bringing the sad recital to a conclusion with the no less touching strains of "Behold and see." The composer has been accused of having taken too low a view of one particular passage in this part of the oratorio. It has been said that in "All we like sheep" he has de-scribed the wanderings of actual sheep, and not the backslidings of human sinners. The truth is, he has gone far more deeply into the matter than the critics who have ventured to find fault with him. Rebellion against God is an act of egregious folly, as well as of wickedness. More men sin from mere thoughtlessness than deliberate and intentional disobedience. Handel has looked at the case in both lights. In the first part of the chorus he has shown us what thoughtless sinners do ; in the last fourteen bars he describes the fatal con-sequence of their rebellion, and the price which must be paid, not only for deliberate wickedness, but for thoughtlessness also. After the last recitative of this division of the work, "He was cut off," comes a gleam of hope, in "But thou didst not leave," followed by the triumphant "Lift up your heads"; and again through a series of airs and choruses of transcendant beauty, we are led on, step by step, to that inimitable climax in which, disguising his contrapuntal skill under the deceptive appearance of extreme simplicity, Handel himself seems to have fixed the limits beyond which even his genius could not soar for not even the learned and supremely gorgeous Amen with which the oratorio concludes can be said to exceed the "Hallelujah Chorus" in sublimity.
The difficulty of keeping up the hearer's interest throughout the third part, after having already wrought him up to so great a pitch of excitement, was one under which any ordinary composer must of necessity have succumbed; but in truth this third part is another miracle of art. Not without careful consideration, we may be sure, did Handel begin it with an aria of surpassing beauty, though only accompanied by a thorough-bass, with violins in unison. Any more elaborate combination would have served as a foil to the preceding chorus. But this takes such new ground that it immediately attracts attention ; and from it the composer works up, through a series of masterpieces, to the only chorus in the world that will bear mentioning in the same breath with the "Hallelujah"—"Worthy is the Lamb," with its fitting conclusion, the Amen.
Of the oratorios that followed "The Messiah" in marvelously rapid succession—"Samson," "Joseph," "Belshazzar," "Hercules," "Occasional Oratorio," "Judas Maccabeus," "Joshua," "Solomon," "Susanna," "Theodora" (Handel's favorite), and "Jephtha"—it is not possible, in the space at our disposal, to speak in detail. These are noble works, massive, impressive, and worthy of more frequent hearings than they obtain. We have dwelt upon "The Messiah" in particular, as its unchallenged position as the chief of oratorios deserves that attention. It is too well known to need further comment as to its contents, the many glorious numbers that compose it being as familiar as the sacred text itself to nearly every section of the community.
Next to "The Messiah," perhaps "Judas Macca-Neus" is the most frequently heard of all Handel's other oratorios to-day. The chorus work of "Judas" is particularly popular with choral societies, large and small, the tuneful "See the conquering hero comes," and such dramatic numbers as "We hear the pleasing, dreadful call," which follows the Jewish leader's stir-ring solo "Sound an alarm," affording admirable effects at a minimum of difficulty in the rendition. Some of the arias in "Judas" are also remarkably fine, and written in the true Handelian spirit; for instance, "From mighty kings," giving full scope for the displayof a cultured florid soprano. All Handel's oratorios might indeed have obtained wider familiarity than they have done had it not been that they were so over-shadowed and eclipsed by the surpassing magnificence and universality of "The Messiah" that they might aptly be compared to marigolds surrounding a sun-flower, beautiful in themselves, but insignificant when matched with the giant growth. Truly the great tone-cathedral of Handel's "Messiah" is an erection of which all nations of the world may be proud, and for which humanity must be ever grateful.