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8.554361-63 - HANDEL: Saul
George Frideric Handel (c. 1685-1759)
George Frideric Handel, later more generally known under the English forms of name that he assumed in London, George Frideric Handel, was born in Halle in 1685, the son of a successful barber-surgeon and his much younger second wife. His father opposed his son's early musical ambitions and after his father's death Handel duly entered the University in Halle in 1702 as a student of law, as his lather had insisted. He was able to seize the chance of employment as organist at the Calvinist Cathedral the following month, holding the position for a year, until his departure for Hamburg, to work there at the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, contributing in the latter capacity to the Italian operatic repertoire of the house. At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, he travelled, in 1706, to Italy, where he won considerable success during the next four years. Connections he had made in Venice, brought appointment in 1710 as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. From here he was granted immediate leave to fulfill a commission in London.
Handel's first opera for London was Rinaldo, with which he won general acclaim, and after little over a year in Hanover, he returned to England. It was here that he now established himself as a composer of Italian opera and of other forms of vocal and instrumental music, for which there was an eager audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musical life of the English capital. His involvement with Italian opera as a composer and organizer continued, eventually under the royal patronage of George I, Elector of Hanover, who had succeeded to the English throne in 1715, on the death of Queen Anne, but by 1733, with the establishment of a rival opera company under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, there were obvious commercial difficulties.
While Handel's work in Italian opera continued, with a final opera to be staged in 1741, he increasingly turned his attention to a new English form, that of the oratorio. This had certain very practical advantages, in language, lack of the need for expensive spectacle and the increasing employment of native singers. The content of oratorios appealed to English Protestant susceptibilities, providing a winning synthesis of religion and entertainment, and offering no offence to those who had found operatic conventions ridiculous in a city with strong pre-existent dramatic traditions. Handel's first English oratorio, in 1732, was Esther, with a libretto based on Racine, followed, in 1733, by the biblical Deborah in March and in July Athalia, with a libretto by Samuel Humphreys, his earlier collaborator, derived from Racine and biblical sources. The next English oratorio relying on biblical sources was Saul, first performed at the King’s Theatre in London on 16th January 1739 and revived on a number of subsequent occasions.
During the following years Handel continued to develop the form of the oratorio, chiefly on biblical subjects but with an occasional excursion into the mythological. These works, with their Italianate melodies, strong choral writing and demonstrable dramatic sense, ensured their composer's continued popularity and dominance, particularly with the wider development of choral singing in the nineteenth century. Handel's most famous oratorio, Messiah, was first performed in 1742, his last, Jephtha, ten years later. While Messiah may be exceptional in its ambitious subject, most treat narratives derived from the Old Testament, well characterized by the composer's own descriptive title of them as sacred dramas.
Handel died in London in April 1759 and was buried, as he had requested, in Westminster Abbey, to be commemorated there three years later by an imaginative and slightly improbable monument by Louis François Roubiliac, who had provided, thirty years before, a statue of the composer in his night-cap and slippers as Apollo for the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall, an indication of his popular reputation. His funeral drew a crowd of some three thousand mourners, while posthumous Handel celebrations could muster a similar audience in the Abbey, with a proportionate number of performers.
In July 1738 the cancellation of the intended opera season was announced by the manager of the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, Johann Jakob Heidegger, after the failure of the Opera of the Nobility in 1737 and now a lack of sufficient subscribers for a new season. Handel, who had been engaged by his former partner as music director for the following season of opera for a fee of £1000, was able, in consequence, to hire the theatre from Heidegger for his ventures in English oratorio. To this end he busied himself with the oratorio Saul, while still working intermittently on the Italian opera Imeneo, for which there seemed no immediate prospect of performance.
Saul brought the first collaboration between Handel and Charles Jennens, a country landowner of substantial wealth from Gopsall in Leicestershire, known for his eccentricities of behaviour and display of wealth. Dr Johnson may have seen fit to describe Jennens as an English 'Solyman the Magnificent', but he was, nevertheless, a man of taste and discernment. He had been enthusiastic in collecting works by Handel and in 1735 had supplied him with a libretto, presumably for the oratorio Saul. He was to continue his active collaboration with Handel with his adaptation of Milton's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Messiah and Belshazzar. Handel was his frequent guest at Gopsall and the relationship between the two men was more amicable than might ever have been expected, given their temperaments. At any rate, Handel was here willing, as in his later collaborations with Jennens, to pay some attention to the latter's advice and suggestions and it was through Jennens that he wrote new music for the elegy on Saul and Jonathan, rather than re-using music he had written for the funeral of Queen Caroline the previous December.
In a well known letter to Lord Guernsey on 19th September Jennens describes a visit to Handel, whose head, he found, was 'more full of maggots than ever'. The first of these was a new instrument, a carillon or Tubalcain, as Handel told him some called it, a set of bells to be played from a keyboard, an instrument 'with which he designs to make poor Saul stark mad'. Other 'maggots' included a new organ Handel had ordered, at a cost of £500 (enabling him to direct the oratorio from the keyboard, facing the performers), the introduction of an inappropriate Hallelujah to make a grand ending, and many more, the description of which Jennens defers to a later time.
At the time of Jennens's visit to Handel in September 1738, the composer was at work on the third act of Saul, the composition of which he had started on 23rd July. By 8th August he had finished the second act and the whole work would presumably have been virtually complete by the end of September. In early 1739 the London Daily Post advertised the first performance of the new oratorio, to take place on 16th January at six o'clock in the evening. Various rumours arose as to the coming performance. Lord Wentworth, in writing of a rehearsal of the oratorio, reports that 'one Russell, an Englishman that sings extremely well' is taking the principal part, with Francescina, but believes that 'all the rest are but indifferent'. A few days later he writes to the same correspondent with the news that Handel 'has borrowed of the Duke of Argyll a pair of the largest kettle-drums in the Tower, so to be sure it will be most excessive noisy with a bad sett off singers', taking a pessimistic view of Handel's chances of recouping his losses on the opera. The performance, in the event, was warmly greeted by an audience that included the Royal Family, and was repeated for five nights. The architect William Kent in a letter to Lord Burlington comments on the use of the carillon: 'There is a pretty concerto in the oratorio with some stops in the harpsichord that are little bells, I thought it had been some squirrels in a cage'.
The singers employed by Handel included the tenor John Beard, who, as a boy, had sung the part of the Israelite Priest in the first performance of Esther in 1732. Beard sang in Handel's Italian operas and in most if not all his oratorios. His marriage, on the day of the public rehearsal, to Lady Henrietta Herbert, daughter of the Earl of Waldegrave, occasioned considerable contemporary scandal. In Saul Beard sang the part of Jonathan. The rôle of Saul was taken by the German-born English bass Gustavus Waltz, who had sung Abner in the Oxford first performance of Athalia, and was later to be described by Dr Burney as 'a German, with a coarse figure, and a still coarser voice'. The first name of the countertenor Russell, who sang David, remains unknown. He was later induced to set up a puppet-show mocking Italian opera and, it seems, Handel's oratorios, going out of his mind and dying in the Fleet Prison in about 1745. The part of Merab was taken by Cecilia Young, since 1737 the wife of the composer Thomas Arne, and that of Michal by the French soprano Elisabeth Duparc, known as La Francesina, closely associated in this period with performance of Handel's operas and oratorios. Other soloists were James (or John) Butler as Doeg, the Irish tenor Michael Stoppelaer as an Amalekite and a certain Kelly as the High Priest. It seems that at some point the part of David was given to the mezzo-soprano Maria Antonia Marchesini, known as La Lucchesina, or possibly she sang the part of the Witch of Endor in the first performance, but surviving autograph additions to the score and the book of the text are by no means clear. Handel played organ concertos in performances of the oratorio and one later performance reports a violin concerto, played by Signor Plantanida.
The text of Saul was published in 1738, described on the title-page as 'an oratorio or sacred drama'. On the same page appear two quotations that might be thought to add weight to the work, one, in Greek, from Marcus Aurelius on the nature of virtue, and the other, in Latin, from Cicero on the relation of friendship to virtue.
The Biblical Narrative
Jennens derived his text from the Books of Samuel and from Abraham Cowley's lengthy epic Davideis, the latter acknowledged in the 1738 libretto as the source of Merab's scornful behaviour. The oratorio starts with the aftermath of the boy David's victory over Goliath (Samuel I, xvii). Goliath, a Philistine warrior, had challenged Saul and his subjects, continuing to do so for forty days, while none dared go out to meet him. David, sent by his father to take food to his older brothers, who were in Saul's army, accepts the challenge and kills Goliath with a pebble from his shepherd's sling. He cuts off Goliath's head, and with it in his hand is ushered before Saul by Abner, captain of Saul's army. David tells Saul that he is the son of Jesse, from Bethlehem, and is to be rewarded with the hand of Saul's daughter. Jonathan, Saul's son, at once becomes close friends with David, loving him as his own soul, and David remains in Saul's household. Saul offers his daughter Merab as a reward to David, but she, in the incident drawn from Cowley's poem, scorns David's humble birth. Another daughter of the King, Michal, however, loves David. In a re-ordering of the biblical events, David is now greeted by the women of Israel, who claim that Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands. Saul is jealous and fears David's possible ambition, but, at Michal's urging, David is persuaded to calm Saul's disturbed spirits with his harp. Saul, in madness, hurls a javelin at him, but David escapes. He now seeks to kill David, trying to enlist Jonathan in his purpose, but Jonathan puts the duty of friendship before that of filial obedience. Saul now gives Merab in marriage to another but is persuaded to receive David again, to whom he offers the hand of Michal, hoping, however, that he may fall victim to the Philistines. David is victorious and once again, as he plays before Saul, the latter hurls a javelin at him, forcing him to make his escape by subterfuge.
Samuel, the prophet who had anointed Saul as King, has died, and now Saul, still fearing the growing power of David, who has won wide support in his exile, seeks out the woman of Endor with a familiar spirit (Samuel I xxviii), defying his own law that had banned necromancy from the land. The spirit of Samuel threatens defeat on the morrow. In the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, the former are defeated, and Saul and Jonathan are killed. News of their death and the defeat is taken to David by an Amalekite, who had listened to Saul's wish as he lay wounded and killed him. David has the Amalekite killed and now mourns the death of Jonathan.
The libretto, as constructed by Jennens, telescopes events that seem repetitive in the biblical account. Here they are made to accord, in a measure at least, with classical canons. In history, the eleventh-century Saul was the first King of Israel and conquered the Philistines, Ammonites and Amalekites. His jealousy of his son-in-law David led the latter to take refuge and even to serve the Philistine King of Gath, as Saul mounted expeditions against him. He was secretly anointed king by Samuel and on the death of Saul at Mount Gilboa he reigned as King of Judaea in Hebron for seven and a half years, succeeding Saul's surviving son Ishbosheth as King of all Israel for a further 32 years, during which he made Jerusalem his capital. In iconography he is often pictured with a harp or lyre, a reference to the musical skill with which he attempted to calm Saul's madness. The tragedy in the oratorio is of Saul, and deals chiefly with his envy and his final defeat and death after earlier greatness.
The oratorio Saul calls for a dozen soloists and chorus, with an orchestra of pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons and trumpets, three trombones, timpani, carillon, harp, organ, harpsichord and strings.  The opening Symphony is in the established form of an Italian overture, with an Allegro in characteristically imitative style, followed by a slow movement and a further Allegro, here in the form of an organ concerto movement. The instrumental introduction to the work ends with a triple-metre Andante larghetto.
 The first act starts with a choral song of triumph for David's victory over Goliath and the Philistines, now using trumpets, drums and trombones, in addition to the oboes, bassoon, strings and keyboard instruments of the initial Symphony, and in the same key of C major. The chorus has an orchestral introduction that answers Lord Wentworth's contemporary expectations, with the voices of the chorus at first in homophonic texture, before the introduction of a brief passage of counterpoint.  David's achievement is praised in a C minor soprano Air, marked Larghetto,  leading immediately to a chorus for alto, tenor and bass, marked, unusually, Ardito,  and a G major Larghetto chorus with a more extended fugal section.  The C major chorus that began the scene returns, followed by a formal Hallelujah.
 A short recitative starts the second scene, as Michal announces the approach of David,  praising him in the following B flat major Air, accompanied by strings and continuo, the first section duly repeated with appropriate ornamentation.  In a recitative Abner introduces David to the King's presence, to be rewarded by Saul with the promise of his daughter to wife.  David answers Saul in an F major da capo aria, its opening figure expressing respect for the King.  Now Jonathan expresses his delight in such modesty and piety, in a recitative.  Saul's daughter Merab, however, gives vent to her reservations about the proposed marriage in a contemptuous and angry G major Air, marked Andante but lively enough in character.  Her following recitative serves to introduce  Jonathan's Air, an A major da capo aria, with an A minor central section, marked Larghetto.  The High Priest now proposes David and Jonathan as a model for the young men of Israel,  with three verses in strophic form in praise of virtue, a B minor Largo which now adds a flute to the strings and continuo in accompaniment.  Saul's suggestion that Merab should marry David  she rejects with indignation in a G major Allegro.  In a gentler A minor Air Michal comments on her sister's scornful reaction  and continues with a short Air in F major, praising David.  The C major Symphony that follows is scored for violins, carillons and organ,  of which Michal's subsequent recitative explains the reason; this is the dance of the daughters of Israel, in celebration of David's victory.
 This Symphony and recitative herald the third scene, with its chorus of the daughters of Israel in the same key, praising David and thereby exciting Saul's jealousy. - His reaction is given in an accompanied recitative, interrupting the chorus and then leading from its triumphant C major to  an E minor Air of jealous rage, an aria that marks his angry exit.
 In the fourth scene Jonathan rebukes the women for their lack of discretion and Michal urges David to soothe Saul with his harp,  explaining its proposed effect in an A major Air. - The High Priest discourses on the power of music to restore primitive and universal harmony in an accompanied recitative.
 The fifth scene opens with Abner telling of Saul's madness.  David prays in an F major Air, an introduction to his harp-playing,  a Symphony in the same key.  The present performance now restores David's agitated Air, in which flight seems the only possibility.  Jonathan finds all to no avail  and Saul now appears, to vent his anger in a lively B flat major Allegro, at the end of which he hurls his javelin at David, who makes his escape.  In his following recitative Saul commands Jonathan to destroy David,  while Merab, in an F major Air, with an ornamented repetition of the first part, comments on the capricious humour of her father.
 In the sixth scene Jonathan, with an accompanied recitative, describes his own dilemma, divided between filial piety and love for his friend.  His B minor Larghetto leads to a G major Allegro, a determination to be true to his friend.  The High Priest comments on the situation in a D minor Larghetto.  A G minor fugal chorus, accompanied by woodwind, strings and continuo, ends the act with a plea to God for David's safety.
 The second act opens with a relatively cheerful E flat major chorus on the evils of envy, with dotted rhythms over the progress of the bass-line.
 The second scene of the act is between David and Jonathan. Jonathan, in a recitative, warns his friend of his danger  and in a C minor Air swears loyalty.  David comments on the mutability of fortune and Jonathan tells him that Saul has now decided to give his daughter Merab to another in marriage. David, however, would, in any case, prefer Michal.  He inveighs against haughty beauties and praises gentle virtue in an E major Air, the first section repeated dal segno.  Jonathan tells David to make his escape, since Saul is approaching.
 In recitative Saul asks Jonathan if he has obeyed his command to kill David, but Jonathan pleads for his friend.  In a strophic Largo in F major he urges his case  and Saul relents, bidding Jonathan recall David to the court in an Air in the same key.  Jonathan resumes his Air, now musing on the value of reason in controlling the madness of his father's anger, in a continuing Andante that now moves into D minor.
 The fourth scene allows Jonathan to welcome David back to Saul's presence, while the latter pretends to welcome him, now bestowing the hand of his daughter Michal on him.  In a G major Air David finds inspiration in Saul's words and promises loyalty. David and Jonathan leave together.  Now Saul, in a recitative, reveals his plan to expose David to danger on the battlefield against the Philistines.
 Michal, in a recitative, declares her love for David  and she and David join in a G major love duet.  This is capped by the chorus, praising the power of virtue they perceive in David.  The following C major Symphony opens with a formal slow introductory movement, dignified by the use of trombones, with the strings and continuo. An Allegro provides the opportunity for an organ concerto movement. The Symphony ends with a C minor organ Gavotte .
 By the sixth scene time has passed. David tells Michal of Saul's treachery, his renewed anger and his attempt to kill him.  In a G minor duet David protests his courage, while Michal urges him to make his escape.
 In the seventh scene Doeg, sent by Saul, demands David's presence at court, to Michal's dismay. He is shown to have made his escape, by leaving an effigy in his bed. Threatening the consequences, Doeg leaves,  while Michal is left to declare her trust in Jehovah in an E flat major Air.
 The eighth scene finds Merab now prepared to support David and what she now sees as the cause of justice, against the cruelty of her father.  In a G minor Air she suggests that divine intervention can serve to assuage Saul's anger.
 Saul, in the ninth scene, is present at the Feast of the New Moon, its celebration indicated in a C major Symphony, with trumpets, trombones, drums, oboes, bassoons, strings and continuo.  In an accompanied recitative Saul declares his intention of taking full revenge on David, blaster of his fame, bane of his peace and author of his shame.
 The final scene of the act finds Saul demanding of Jonathan that David come to him, and now, to his son's opposition, throwing a javelin at him.  A D major chorus, leading to a chromatic fugal section, comments on the effects of unreasoning anger that must end in its own destruction.
 The third act opens with Saul, disguised, at Endor. In an accompanied recitative he laments his own fate, cast off by God and now turning to Hell for aid.  In unaccompanied recitative he approaches the house of the woman of Endor, whose magic practices he has himself forbidden in his kingdom.
 The second scene brings Saul face to face with the woman, who suspects his intentions. He asks her to conjure up Samuel.  In a sinister F minor Air the woman calls on the infernal spirits to bring to her the ghost of the Prophet Samuel.
 In the third scene Saul confronts the apparition of Samuel, who tells him that he will lose his kingdom, which will pass to David, after Saul and his sons have fallen, on the morrow, to the Philistines.  A war-like C major Symphony follows.
 The fourth scene finds David questioning an Amalekite about the battle. He learns of the death of Saul, killed by the Amalekite at his own request.  David is appalled and in a lively D major Air tells one of his attendants to kill the man who has raised his sword against the Lord's anointed.  The famous Dead March is heard, in C major and scored for flutes, trombones and drums, strings and continuo. There is a brief transition,  leading to the C minor choral elegy on Saul and Jonathan.  In E flat major, David's own lament is in the present performance given to the High Priest,  to be followed by a G minor Air now given to Merab.  David's own sorrow is simply expressed in a G major Air accompanied only by continuo.  The chorus continues with its own lament,  the further expression of which is here given not to David but to Michal in an E major Air.  David and the chorus go on, the former now paying tribute to his friend Jonathan.  In a recitative the High Priest suggests that this is a time also to rejoice in the return of David, God's friend.  This allows the chorus, in a brave C major, to urge their hero to prosper in battle against the enemies of Israel.
The Concept of the Present Recording
It is assumed that the essential conflict that determines the order of events in Handel's oratorio is that between God and Saul. This has led to the restoration of some recitatives and arias for the High Priest, removed by Chrysander as dispensable in his edition of 1862. The present version finds the High Priest a symbol of God in his interventions. Other modifications include the restoration of David's air, Fly, malicious Spirit, fly, to emphasize the power of music described by Michal and the High Priest. The lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan, biblically and more usually in the oratorio given to David, has here been divided between those with reason to lament, the High Priest, Merab and Michal, as well as David himself.
It has been found preferable to refer to the so-called witch of Endor as the woman of Endor, on the ground that the concept of witchcraft is an anachronism. [Nevertheless the text of the oratorio follows tradition in writing of the Witch of Endor. The Vulgate, Luther's translation of the Bible and the English Authorised Version all simply refer to her as a woman of Endor, her activity that of a medium]. Saul's action in consulting the woman, in spite of his own ban on necromancy, violates a divine command and thus shakes the very basis of his political power. The woman, however, shows compassion at Saul's distress when he hears the words of the apparition of Samuel. Her action has been compared by Lisa Jung with that of the angel that gives the bread of life to the prophet Elijah. The rôle has here been given to a woman and not, as has been traditional, to a tenor. There is reason to believe that this accords with Handel’s intentions, as far as can be ascertained from surviving cast-lists of performances that he directed.
Based on information supplied by Joachim Carlos Martini
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