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8.570966-67 - HANDEL: Israel in Egypt (Aradia Ensemble)
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Today it is hard to believe that George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt, perhaps his most popular after Messiah, was considered a failure during the composer’s lifetime. One of the chief reasons for this is also the very same one responsible for its later success: a preponderance of large-scale choruses and very few solos—perfect for all those nineteenth-century English amateur choral societies, but fatal for its success with a public who in many ways still enjoyed the colourful drama and virtuosic arias of Italian opera. One need only look at how Handel’s pseudo-operatic oratorio Saul, completed just before Israel in Egypt, succeeded, where the latter failed. Dealing with the events surrounding the relationship between the hero David, slayer of the giant Goliath, and the doomed king of Israel, Saul was first performed on 16th January 1739 at the King’s Theatre in London and revived often during the eighteenth century. The tragic and dramatic nature of the work, as well as some superb arias and choruses, ensured its popularity.
How then did Handel come to write these ‘sacred dramas’ in the first place? Esther, not only Handel’s but the first English oratorio, started the ball rolling. Originally written for the composer’s former employer the Duke of Chandos, Esther was given an official private performance at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand in February 1732—but was followed by an unauthorised public performance on 20th April. Handel was thus forced to mount his own public performance at the King’s Theatre on 2nd May. It was an enormous success, and two further oratorios, Deborah and Athalia, were written soon after. The rest is history. Handel’s early biographers put the success of the oratorio in England down to a number of reasons, including their being sung in English, their being less expensive to put on than opera (no sets or costumes being required), and the religious texts and subject matter being most productive in bringing out the best of Handel’s talents.
The text of Israel in Egypt is thought to have been compiled from the Old Testament of the Bible by Charles Jennens, Handel’s librettist for Saul and, most famously, Messiah. The work is in three parts. For Part One, Handel reused his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, written ten months previously and first considered for recycling in Saul but rejected; the text, drawn from Old Testament books of Samuel, Job, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes, and the Epistle to the Philippians from the New Testament, needed only some slight modifications. In this new incarnation, it thus served as ‘The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph’.
The texts for the remaining two parts, Exodus and Moses’ Song, are derived from the Book of Exodus and three Psalms, again from the Old Testament of the Bible. Handel started working on Part Three on 1st October 1738; the draft was finished on the 11th of that month. He began Part Two on 15th October, finishing the draft on the 20th. Both parts were filled out (Handel habitually sketched the framework for his operas and oratorios first before fleshing them out) and completed by 1st November. The score is impressive in its grandeur, with a double chorus and an orchestra using trombones, trumpets, timpani, woodwinds and strings with continuo.
Israel in Egypt’s first complete performance took place on 4 April 1739 at the King’s Theatre, together with some organ concertos, also by Handel and featuring the composer himself as soloist. Owing to the work’s less than enthusiastic reception, Handel realised he had misjudged matters, and in the subsequent two performances that same month interspersed the choruses with four arias and cut down the choruses themselves. Apart from one other performance in 1740, Israel in Egypt was not to be revived until sixteen years later. Even then, there were many alterations, probably by Handel’s assistant John Christopher Smith. A different Part One was provided, comprising material from Handel’s oratorio Solomon, his Occasional Oratorio and his Anthem on the Peace; there were also some changes made to the second and third parts.
That Israel in Egypt is today considered a masterpiece is in no small way attributable to Handel’s lavish and sophisticated word-painting—all the more impressive given his extensive borrowing from his own and other composers’ music. Apart from the borrowings from the Funeral Anthem used for Part One, Handel found it expedient to reuse music from his keyboard works; a chorus from his Dixit Dominus and the aria The Lord is my light from one of his Chandos Anthems. He also borrowed much from Alessandro Stradella’s wedding cantata Qual prodigio and Dionigi Erba’s Magnificat, as well as making use of some instrumental works by Strungk, Kerll and possibly Giovanni Gabrieli. This was a common enough procedure in Handel’s time, and if we look at music as a language then it is easy to see how one can appropriate entire passages for one’s own use. Indeed a similar process for centuries formed an essential component of rhetorical training. Seen in another light, the meaning of these musical objets trouvés are altered in their new context, yielding surprising results.
Whatever you think of the ethical implications of what today we should call plagiarism, Israel in Egypt contains some of Handel’s most majestic and inspiring choruses. Handel’s fitting of the sound to the sense is masterly, even in matters as subtle as mirroring the original grammatical parallelism of Hebrew versification, as in ‘He rebuked the Red Sea, and it was dried up’: the thundering chorus of the first half of the verse is balanced by the desiccated utterance of the second.
These moments provide a kind of backdrop to those set pieces for which this oratorio is most famous. Such as the swarming strings representing flies in ‘He spake the word’, or the furious brass and timpani in ‘He gave them hailstones for rain’. Then there are the violent orchestral blows in ‘He smote all the first-born of Egypt’ and the turgid, creeping textures and harmonies of ‘He sent a thick darkness’.
Despite its failure during Handel’s lifetime, Israel in Egypt did have many admirers among the cognoscenti, who no doubt immediately recognised its many superior qualities. Given the work’s popularity today, we can all congratulate ourselves for having such unerringly good taste.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, the Book of Genesis ends with the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel. It is the death of this same Joseph that the Israelites lament in Part One of Israel in Egypt, and a knowledge of the key events in his life are useful to an understanding of Handel’s oratorio. These events are as follows:
It came to pass that Joseph’s older brothers were envious of him owing to their father Jacob’s having given Joseph a splendid coat of many colours. When Joseph told his brothers of two dreams, in which it was foretold that he would become their superior, they resolved to kill him. One of the brothers, however, hoped to save his life, and therefore persuaded the others to throw Joseph into an empty well. They eventually sold him to some passing Ishmaelites, besmearing his coat with goat’s blood and sending it to Jacob as proof of Joseph’s having been slain by wild beasts. The Ishmaelites carried Joseph to Egypt where he was sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. Following a period of loyal service, Joseph was thrown into prison after being falsely accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife. He soon earned his freedom by correctly interpreting two of Pharaoh’s dreams. Seven years of plenty were to be followed by seven years of famine. By advising Pharaoh to save one fifth of the prosperous years’ yield for the lean period, thus preserving the population from starvation, Joseph was made second in rank only to Pharaoh and allowed to marry Asenath, the daughter of the High Priest. Joseph made peace with his brothers after Jacob and his family came to settle in Egypt. Their descendants dwelt in the land of the Pharaohs until one came who wished to enslave them.
Part Two of Handel’s oratorio relates the story of the plagues visited upon Pharaoh and the subsequent flight of the Israelites out of Egypt as detailed in the Old Testament Book of Exodus.
It was Moses who delivered the children of Israel (the name given Jacob by God) out of Egypt and guided them to the Promised Land. Pharaoh had resolved to rid Egypt of the Israelites, and so ordered that all their babies should be drowned. Moses’ mother Miriam therefore hid him in a basket among the reeds by the Nile, where he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought up as one of her own. As he grew older, Moses became aware of the true plight of his people. After killing an Egyptian overseer who was beating an Israelite, he fled to the desert and lived as a shepherd for twenty years. However, God spoke to him from a burning bush, commanding that he return. The Lord then visited ten plagues upon Egypt in order that Moses and his brother Aaron should convince Pharaoh that he must let his people go. But each time Pharaoh agreed to do this, God hardened his heart against the Israelites, and he refused. The ten plagues were as follows: all the waters turning to blood; frogs infesting the land; dust turning into lice; swarms of flies covering the land; disease being visited upon all the beasts; boils being made to cover the skin of both man and beast; hail, rain and thunder ruining the crops; locusts eating everything that remained; darkness covering the land for three days; and, finally, all the first-born in the land, human and beast, dying mysteriously. It was this last that finally persuaded Pharaoh to let the Israelites go once and for all, but he pursued them to the Red Sea. Moses, with the help of the Lord, stretched his hand over the waters, causing them to part. The Israelites then proceeded safely over the dry land. The Egyptians tried to follow, but God caused the wheels of their chariots to fall off and Moses again stretched out his hand, closing the waters upon Pharaoh and his army, who perished.
The Israelites, now safe from danger, sing the Lord’s praises and give thanks for their delivery from Pharaoh’s army.