George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) is best known to the general public today as a composer of oratorios. But the German composer originally established his reputation as a composer of Italian opera, first in Rome and later in London.
During the 1730s Handel realized that his operatic style was losing popularity among London audiences. He therefore turned to a new type of composition—the oratorio in English—which could be produced at less expense (no sets or costumes were required), and which could be enjoyed by those who had never felt comfortable with the aristocratic entertainment of Italian opera.
Following the examples of earlier oratorios, Handel’s works are essentially operatic in style, and based on stories from the “Old Testament.” Handel broke from his predecessors, however, in his preference for the English language and his dramatic use of the chorus, setting it on an equal footing with the solo roles. Handel’s oratorios thus succeeded in portraying the drama of great biblical stories to Londoners in a language they could understand. Furthermore, in their glowing portrayal of the heroes and populace of ancient Israel, Handel’s oratorios were among the rare works of art that portrayed Jews in a favorable light. And London’s Jews (only 6,000 strong) responded with enthusiasm.
Composed in just one month between 1 October and 1 November 1738, Israel in Egypt premiered at London’s King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on April 4, 1739. The first performance was not received well by its audience, so Handel immediately revised the work, and it has subsequently become a favorite among choral societies the world over.
While most of Handel’s oratorios are loosely based on “Old Testament” stories, Israel in Egypt and Messiah are the only two that are drawn directly and exclusively from the biblical text, with no paraphrases, interpolations or interpretations. It is not known whether Handel chose the biblical passages himself, or whether he consulted his collaborator Charles Jennens. In any event, the libretto is taken from the book of Exodus and a few passages from Psalms 105 and 106, telling the story of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, the advent of Moses the liberator, the plagues upon the Egyptians, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and the subsequent exultant song of praise. The plagues seem to have inspired Handel to create some of his most colorful “word painting.” The listener can easily hear the hopping of the frogs, the buzzing of the flies, the pounding of the fiery hail, the eerie darkness and so much more.
Israel in Egypt is also unique in its abundance of choruses and double choruses, and its paucity of solo arias. The usual format of Handel’s oratorios is the sequence: recitative+aria+chorus. But in this oratorio there are twenty-six choruses (eighteen of which are for double chorus), and only four recitatives, five arias, and three duets. Most of the arias are found in Part Two, which was actually composed before the first part.
Furthermore, this oratorio holds the record for the greatest amount of musical plagiarism. But perhaps plagiarism is too harsh a word. Composers in that era freely borrowed material and modified it for their own needs; copyright protection was virtually unknown. For Israel in Egypt Handel adapted music from his own pen, as well as from those of his colleagues, Alessandro Stradella, Johann Caspar Kerl and Don Dionigi Erba. But in each case Handel revised and greatly improved the source material. It’s hard to believe that the chorus “He Gave Them Hailstones” could have been composed to any other text, yet the source material is a sinfonia and bass aria from Stradella’s Serenata.
During Handel’s lifetime, his oratorios were performed by relatively small ensembles—a chorus of a few dozen professional singers (men, boys and perhaps a few women) and an equal number of instrumentalists. But with the increasing popularity of these oratorios came a growing desire on the part of amateur musicians to perform them. Shortly after the composer’s death performances featured hundreds (and later, thousands) of singers and players. In fact, the first community choruses arose in England at that time, specifically for the purpose of performing Handel’s oratorios. Fortunately, these works are great enough to stand up to various modes of interpretation. Our performance involves a chorus of more than one hundred amateur adult male and female singers and an orchestra of thirty three players using modern instruments. For practical reasons we have dropped five of the choral movements. Bostonian audiences generally want to hear “early music” performed as authentically as possible. But our approach mirrors the performance practice of the early nineteenth century rather than that of 1739. To quote conductor Leonard Van Camp, “Even the most learned scholar-performers of our day cannot duplicate the conditions of Handel’s day and recapture the exact way in which he performed. The audience was different, their knowledge of the Bible was different, the instruments were different, the feeling of the time was different, and so on.” We hope that our performance conveys the drama of Handel’s music in a manner of which the great composer would have approved.
– Joshua Jacobson