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8.555276-77 - HANDEL: Nabal
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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Nabal (compiled from the works of Handel by John Christopher Smith (1712-1795))

Georg Friedrich Händel, 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 father 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 fulfil 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, after his death, 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 of his oratorios 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.

Nabal and John Christopher Smith

The oratorio Nabal was performed at Covent Garden in London on 16th and 21st March 1764, the second performance seemingly the last. After this the work disappeared from view to re-appear in 1856 in the catalogue of the Bristol bookseller Thomas Kerslake and to be bought, among other items that had belonged to John Christopher Smith the younger, by Victor Schoelcher. The collection included Handel’s conducting scores, which Schoelcher sold, together with some of Smith’s own work, to the city of Hamburg, keeping some of Smith’s compositions for himself. These last were included in Schoelcher’s gift to the Paris Conservatoire, and came into the possession of the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1964. Included were manuscripts of four oratorios by Smith, Redemption, Tobit, Gideon and Nabal, subsequently rediscovered and brought to wider attention by the scholar Richard G. King (qv. Music and Letters, Vol.79, No.2, 1998).

Johann Christoph Schmidt was born in Kitzingen in 1683, the son of a respected tradesman and town councillor, and may, perhaps, have met Handel at the University in Halle, during the latter’s brief period as a student there. At all events, with the death of his father in 1704 Schmidt moved the following year to Nuremberg and shortly afterwards to Ansbach, where he married, and after the death of his wife in childbirth in 1708 took a second wife, the mother of his four children. In 1716 he accepted an invitation from Handel, who was visiting Ansbach, to work with him in London, later to be joined there by his wife and three surviving children. His first son and second child, given the same name as his father, to the confusion of later writers, also followed his father in changing his name to the English John Christopher Smith.

John Christopher Smith the elder served Handel as a principal copyist and assistant until the composer’s death in 1759, and thereupon received as a bequest Handel’s manuscripts, a collection that passed to his son after his own death in 1763. The Handel autographs were bequeathed in 1795 to King George III and are now, with the rest of the Royal Music Library, held by the British Library, while the conducting scores were left to the younger Smith’s stepdaughter, eventually to be auctioned in 1851.

The younger John Christopher Smith, born in Ansbach in 1712, had his schooling in London. At the age of thirteen he had keyboard lessons from Handel and studied composition with Thomas Roseingrave and Johann Christoph Pepusch, winning an early reputation as a music teacher and, to a lesser extent, as a composer. In the 1750s he helped Handel in the performance of oratorios, particularly after the latter’s blindness, and served as unpaid organist and choirmaster at the Foundling Hospital, where he conducted regular annual performances of Messiah for a number of years after Handel’s death. He also collaborated with David Garrick in three operas. From 1762 he was Master of Music to the Princess of Wales, serving in this capacity until the latter’s death in 1772. Two years later he retired to Bath, where he died in 1795.

Smith enjoyed a significant reputation in the musical life of London, but preferred the society of leading figures in other professions. His first wife was the sister of the future Lord Longford, and after her death and those of his own children by her, he married the widow of the Royal Physician, Dr Foxe, assuming responsibility for her children. His connection with Handel was an important one and his possession of Handel’s conducting scores and autographs put him in an unrivalled position when it came to continuing the regular annual series of oratorios that had been initiated in Handel’s lifetime. From 1760 until his retirement he collaborated with the blind organist and composer John Stanley in the provision of oratorios performed in London on Fridays in Lent. He had had his first attempt at the genre with his David’s Lamentations over Saul and Jonathan in 1740, followed twenty years later by Paradise Lost, based on Milton, but Handel remained the overwhelmingly popular composer in the form.

The pasticcio, a form of composite work bringing together excerpts from other works, often by different composers, had, by the early eighteenth century, a sound commercial purpose. Employed particularly in opera, it came to offer an equally useful vehicle for new-minted oratorios. Smith had a stock of Handelian material on which to draw, and had offered his first oratorio derived from Handel with his Rebecca on 16th March 1764. The same occasion brought the Handelian pastiche Nabal, with a libretto by Thomas Morell, who had provided Handel with libretti for Judas Maccabaeus, Alexander Balus, Theodora and Jephtha, and probably also for Joshua. For Handel’s English version of an earlier work under the new title of The Triumph of Time and Truth he had written a text that fitted the existing music, and for Nabal he performed the same task, as he was later to do for Smith’s Handelian Gideon, fitting the words to the music.

The biblical source on which Morell drew was Samuel I.25. The events described take place after the death of Samuel. Nabal is a rich man with three thousand sheep and a thousand goats and with a wife Abigail, a woman of good understanding and a beautiful countenance. David, the future king and continuing object of Saul’s jealousy, now in the wilderness and dependent on the support of other clan leaders, sends his young men to Nabal with greetings and seeking provisions. Nabal, described as churlish and evil in his doings, refuses and sends the young men away with insults. Abigail learns of Nabal’s action, although the young men claim to have been treated well by Nabal’s shepherds, when they were with them at the sheep shearing. David, however, prepares to attack Nabal with a force of four hundred men. Abigail, without telling her husband, takes two hundred loaves, two bottles of wine, five sheep, five measures of parched corn, two hundred clusters of raisins and two hundred cakes of figs, and has them loaded onto asses, sending them ahead with her servants to David. Approaching him, she seeks pardon for the offence given by Nabal, this man of Belial, pledging loyalty to David. Returning, she finds Nabal feasting, his heart merry within him, and very drunk, and tells him nothing of what has passed until the next morning. When he hears what she has to say, his heart dies within him and he becomes as a stone. Ten days later he dies. When David hears the news, he sends messengers to Abigail to bring her to him and she becomes one of his wives.

In the work itself the accompanied and unaccompanied recitatives are presumably the work of Smith, while for the arias recourse is largely had to Handel’s operas and sometimes to other oratorios, anthems or cantatas.


CD 1

Part I

[1] The oratorio opens with a Symphonia, an overture in the expected style, a slow introduction leading to a fugal Allegro and a final Menuet. [2] In a recitative David laments the death of Samuel, [3] and is supported by the chorus. [4] An accompanied recitative brings David’s plea for divine mercy in the wastes of the wilderness, [5] recalling in an aria earlier examples of such help. [6] Asaph, singer and musician with David, recalls David’s escape from Saul’s javelin. [7] He expresses trust in the Lord in a Da capo aria. [8] The chorus endorses his confidence.

[9] Abigail laments her fate as the wife of the churlish Nabal. [10] In an aria she seeks solitude. [11] Nabal expresses his objections to this course of action, [12] proceeding to a Da capo aria calling for drink. This is followed by dances, [13] a Minuet, [14] Gavotte and [15] Siciliana taken from Il Pastor Fido. [16] An aria, described in the autograph as ‘for Miss Brent’, Thomas Arne’s former pupil Charlotte Brent, who was enjoying success in opera and oratorio at this time, celebrates the task of shepherds, [17] in which the chorus agrees. [18] Nabal declares an annual holiday, [19] the chorus joining in the delight of the occasion.

Part 2

[20] David finds the time opportune for seeking provisions from Nabal, and [21] prays for a relief from hunger. [22] The chorus seeks divine protection. [23] Asaph, sent as a messenger to Nabal, seeks support, [24] calling for Nabal’s proper generosity. [25] Nabal, however, will have nothing of this man David, refusing any assistance, [26] before returning to his celebration of the annual festivity. [27] A shepherd summons his companions to pleasure. [28] The shepherd continues, in joy at the harvest, a defence against the cold of winter, as his friends agree, [29] and continues the celebration.

CD 2

[1] Abigail, in a pastoral accompanied recitative, contrasts the happiness of the sheep with her own wretchedness. [2] In an aria she seeks divine comfort. [3] A shepherd brings her news of coming danger, an imminent attack by David and his men, and she resolves to avert danger by taking offerings to David.

[4] David is indignant at Nabal’s ingratitude, [5] and expresses his anger in an aria. [6] Abigail approaches, seeking David’s mercy, [7] adding further pleas in an aria. [8] David accepts her request and tells her to go in peace. [9] The chorus points out the dependence of men on the Lord.

Part 3

[10] A series of instrumental interludes depicts pleasant and dismal dreams, pleasant yet alarming dreams, and the struggle between pleasant and dismal dreams. [11] Nabal feels a sudden dread, [12] in an aria feeling his own shame and guilt. [13] A shepherd comments on the change of mood, [14] while the chorus anticipates divine retribution. [15] Asaph brings news of the death of Nabal and David remembers the good action of Abigail. [16] In an aria Asaph points out the appeal of beauty in sorrow. [17] David agrees, [18] and sings in praise of beauty.

[19] Abigail appears before David, kneeling at his feet. He raises her and bids her share the throne with him, an offer she gratefully accepts. [20] Abigail now rejoices, [21] and a shepherd calls for peace and love for them, [22] joining then in a duet with Asaph. [23] The shepherd and chorus join together to express delight in the union of the brave and the fair. [24] Abigail praises the Lord, [25] and joins in a duet with David, their hearts united. [26] The chorus crowns this with expressions of general happiness at the outcome.

Keith Anderson

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