The story of a people’s triumph told in music of high drama and glorious pageantry, Judas Maccabaeus is George Frideric Handel at his heroic best, full of rousing choruses, ravishing duets, and fiery arias. Jane Glover conducts a thrilling work that rivals Messiah in choral splendor.
Jennifer More Glagov will give preconcert lectures on Sunday, November 29, at 2pm at the DoubleTree Hotel adjacent to the North Shore Center (Athens Room) and on Monday, November 30, at 6 pm at the Chicago Cultural Center (Garland Room).
- Chorus, "Fallen is the foe"
- Duet, "O lovely peace"
- Aria, "Arm, arm ye brave"
- Aria, "Call forth thy pow'rs, my soul"
- Aria, "How vain is man"
- Chorus, "See the conquering hero comes"
When Handel arrived in London in 1710, he undoubtedly hoped his reputation as a famous opera composer would help him build a new operatic empire in England. Despite the genre’s popularity on the continent, however, English audiences proved resistant to its charms. Performances of Handel’s operas initially attracted large crowds, but literary critics in particular were highly skeptical. In 1711, Joseph Addison published a number of satiric commentaries in The Spectator, ridiculing the liberties opera often takes with reality. Of the first opera Handel produced in London, Rinaldo, Addison wrote:
As I was walking in the Streets about a Fortnight ago, I saw an ordinary Fellow carrying a Cage full of little Birds upon his Shoulder; and, as I was wondering with my self what Use he would put them to, he was met very luckily by an Acquaintance, who had the same Curiosity. Upon his asking him what he had upon his Shoulder, he told him, that he had been buying Sparrows for the Opera. Sparrows for the Opera, says his friend, licking his Lips, what,? are they to be roasted? No, no, says the other, they are to enter towards the end of the first Act, and to fly about the Stage . . . [I later learned] there have been so many flights
of them let loose in this Opera, that it is feared the House will never get rid of them; and that in other Plays they may make their Entrance in very wrong and improper Scenes besides the Inconveniences which the Heads of the Audience may sometimes suffer from them.
By the early 1730s, the critics’ assaults, together with the singers’ lascivious lifestyles, had taken their toll. London audiences were growing increasingly weary of Italian opera, and Handel needed to find a new vehicle for his art. The oratorio proved the perfect solution. Like opera, oratorio relies on the
alternation of recitative and aria; unlike operas, oratorios were rarely staged and were usually based on stories from the Bible. Most important, Handel added a crucial ingredient: the chorus, which was accorded a significant dramatic role for the first time. As the English historian Charles Burney wrote in the late eighteenth century, Handel “rested his fame and future on his choral strength in the composition of oratorios,” and it may have spelled the difference between success and failure. Steeped in the English tradition of anthem-singing, London audiences embraced this new element with gusto. Furthermore, the texts of the oratorios Handel wrote for London were in English, rather than Italian. The prominent chorus and enhanced intelligibility
were an unbeatable combination, and ultimately guaranteed Handel’s fame in London forever.
Its Old Testament subject notwithstanding, Judas Maccabaeus was born of the political events of the times. In 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart the Pretender (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) launched a series of successful attacks on England in an attempt to capture the throne. William, Duke of Cumberland, finally put an end to the Jacobite revolution, leading his English troops to
victory at the bloody battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746. The victory for the loyalists ironically marked a victory for Handel as well. Composed a few months after Culloden as a tribute to the triumphant duke (the printed libretto calls the work a “Faint Portraiture of a Truly Wise, Valiant and Virtuous Commander”), Judas Maccabaeus was an immediate success. The text assiduously avoided direct references to recent political events, but the biblical story on which it was based obviously resonated with audiences, putting to rest any doubts about the quality of Handel’s art. Indeed, Judas Maccabaeus remained an important work for decades. It soon joined Messiah and Samson as a fixture at Covent Garden, and remained so long after Handel’s death.
Written by Reverend Thomas Morell (later the author of three more Handel oratorios), the libretto of Judas Maccabaeus tells the ancient tale of the Jews’ resistance toward their Syrian conquerors. Led by their king, Antiochus, the Syrians invaded Judea in 169 BC, killing many people and desecrating the
Jewish temples. The Jews did not submit willingly to their captors, and under the leadership of Mattathias, fought their tormentors. Mattathias died in 161 BC, and it is at this moment that Judas Maccabaeus begins. Morell’s libretto has been criticized as ungainly and inelegant, but Handel’s ability to wrest drama from virtually any text prevails. The intense emotions inherent in the story are present from the very beginning. As Part I opens, a chorus of Israelites mourn the death of Mattathias in vividly funereal music, culminating in
the sighing string figures, mournful bassoons and pungent suspensions of the chorus “For Sion lamentations make.” The Israelites soon decide that their despair is only a distraction from fulfilling their destiny as God’s chosen people,
and the disposition of the crowd rapidly changes. Simon, one of Mattathias’s sons, names his brother Judas Maccabaeus as his father’s successor and his persuasive recitative “I feel the Deity within” and rousing aria “Arm ye brave” prompt the jubilant choral response, “We come in bright array.” In a torrent of
melismas from both singer and orchestra alike, Judas accepts his new role in “Call forth thy pow’rs.” The atmosphere temporarily shifts from warlike to wistful in the rapturous aria and duet “Come, ever-smiling liberty,” but cries of “Lead on, lead on!” soon redirect the crowd’s attentions, and the Israelitish men “rush on their foe” with flurries of string scales in the semi-chorus “Disdainful of danger.” Part I concludes with “Hear us, oh Lord,” in which Handel manages both to invoke the sanctity of prayer and to foreshadow the battles yet to come with vivid word painting.
The prolonged celebration at the beginning of Part II is a good example of Handel’s talent for revealing subtle dramatic complexities. As the Israelites declare victory, the music brings the preceding battle to life. In the opening chorus “Fall’n is the foe,” for example, adversaries clash in rapid string figures and aggressive choral lines, while the enemy is vanquished in a sudden, hushed iteration of the word “fall’n.” In the duet “Sion now her head shall raise” and the ensuing chorus, Handel quickly changes mood, highlighting the phrase “tune your harps” with gently flowing music. In “From mighty kings,” the aria celebrating Judas’s accomplishments in battle, Handel also backs away from militaristic sentiment, creating a melodic line that virtually reenacts “And with his acts made Judah smile.” The celebration is short-lived, however, as Judas’s air “How vain is man” foretells. A messenger arrives to notify the people of their defeat at the hands of the Seleucid commander Gorgias. As the minor mode, slow tempo, and sorrowful melody of “Ah! wretched, wretched Israel” demonstrates almost palpably, “desponding woe” quickly replaces “joyous transport.” In the aria “Sound an alarm,” in which Judas quickly takes action, Handel’s setting of the text takes the listener far deeper into Judas’s psyche than the words themselves suggest. Although the text implies a fanfare, the air’s first iteration is accompanied by continuo alone. The orchestra, trumpets, and chorus finally enter at the repeat, illustrating both Judas’s restraint and his powers of persuasion. Reminded of their “polluted altars” and Bacchus’s “beastly crew,” the people reaffirm their vow that “We never, never will bow down” to conclude Part II.
Part III opens with the Feast of Lights, marvelously foreshadowing the resolution yet to come. In the opening air “Father of Heav’n! From Thy eternal throne,” the languorous, sweet melody is rapturously reverent. The people have faith that their prayers will be answered, and express their certainty with
“seraphic melody” and “sprightly voice” in “So shall the lute and harp awake.” Almost on cue, a messenger bursts in with the news that Judas has not only defeated scores of enemies, but has moved into Jerusalem as well. At this point in the original version of Judas Maccabaeus, the exhilarating chorus “Sing unto God” immediately followed the messenger’s revelation. The success of
the chorus “See, the conqu’ing hero comes” at Joshua’s premiere the following year, however, prompted Handel to insert it at this moment in Judas Maccabaeus, where it has remained ever since. Even more amazing than the messenger’s news is the announcement of Eupolemus, the Jewish Ambassador to Rome, that Rome “will rouse, in our defence,” virtually assuring that peace will one day reign in Judea. The people sing praise to God in “To our great God be all the honour giv’n,” the somber mood eloquently expressing the significance of the moment. Pastoral flutes and strings join in lilting rhythm to form the perfect accompaniment for the air “O lovely peace.” Peace has been restored, and as the final chorus sings in an exhilarating unison, “And in songs divine, harmonious join.”
© Jennifer More Glagov