George Frideric Handel | Israel in Egypt

“Handel understands effect better than any of us; when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”

–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Saxony, to middle-class parents.  He exhibited an early aptitude for music, which his father – who had hoped his son would grow up to be a lawyer – reportedly attempted to discourage.  According to an early biographer, when Handel was a child, his father banned musical instruments from the house, and the boy was forced to practice secretly on a clavichord hidden in the attic.  When Handel was nine, however, the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, who had been impressed by Handel’s organ playing, persuaded Handel’s father to give the boy a musical education.  Handel went on to study both law and music at Halle University, but he soon determined that he was more skilled in and passionate about music.  In 1703, at age 18, Handel became second violinist in the Hamburg opera orchestra.  At age 19, he began composing operas for the Hamburg opera house.  In 1706, when he was 21, he left for Italy, where he continued to compose, writing operas and other pieces for a variety of patrons.

In 1710, Handel traveled north to Hanover and was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover.  It was in this capacity that he first visited London, where Italian opera was increasingly popular.  Soon, he was writing new Italian operas for English audiences.  Queen Anne granted Handel an annual stipend of £200 in the hope of keeping him in England as court composer.  At some point after this first visit, Handel decided to settle in London, although he continued periodically throughout his life to travel on the continent.  Any conflict with the Elector of Hanover over the decision to move to England was mitigated when, following Queen Anne’s death in 1714, the Elector himself ascended to the throne of England as King George I.  In 1725, Handel took a lease on a house in London, where he lived for the rest of his life.  In 1727, he became a naturalized English citizen and anglicized the German spelling of his name.

Very soon after his arrival in London, Handel became a vital part of that city’s burgeoning 18th-century music scene.  He had a natural aptitude for theater and was involved in managing a number of opera companies.  Although he composed for many instruments, Handel is best known for his vocal music, particularly his Italian-style operas and English oratorios.  Between 1719 and 1752, he composed and produced quite a number of both for several different patrons and theaters.  In the early 1750’s, however, Handel’s eyesight had begun to deteriorate, and by 1753 he was blind.  Composition became more difficult as his vision faded, but he managed to continue to supervise the production of his oratorios and to perform public organ concerts.  Handel died in 1759.

We know little of Handel’s personal life, as he left few letters or other writings.  He appears to have been a very private man, dedicated to his art above all else.  Although there were some rumors of a brief affair or two with female opera singers while he was in Italy, he never married.  He appears from contemporary depictions to have been hard-working, practical, and independent, though somewhat rough around the edges.  Charles Burney, who played violin in Handel’s concerts in the 1740s, describes an unpretentious, serious man with a deep capacity for humor:

“He was impetuous, rough, and peremptory in his manners and conversation, but totally devoid of ill-nature or malevolence; indeed, there was an original humor and pleasantry in his most lively sallies of anger or impatience, which, with his broken English, were extremely risible.  His natural propensity to wit and humor, and happy method of relating common occurrences, in an uncommon way, enabled him to throw persons and things into very ridiculous attitudes. . . .Handel’s general look was somewhat heavy and sour; but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud.  There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humor, beaming in his countenance, which I hardly ever saw in any other.[1]

Handel is credited with creating and establishing the English oratorio form.  Oratorios are concert pieces involving orchestra, soloists, and chorus, usually on a sacred theme, but without action, costumes, or spectacle.  Beginning in the 1730s – perhaps in response partly to a ban on operas during Lent and more generally to changing English musical tastes – Handel began to shift his focus away from producing Italian-style operas and towards writing oratorios.  His oratorio Esther, performed at the King’s Theatre in 1732, is generally agreed to be the very first oratorio written in English. Between 1732 and 1757, Handel presented more than 20 oratorios to London audiences, including, most notably, Messiah in 1742, Samson in 1743, Judas Maccabaeus in 1747, and Jephtha in 1752.

Israel in Egypt

Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was originally performed in 1739, in the same season as the premiere of his oratorio Saul.  Unlike Saul and Handel’s other early oratorios, however, Israel in Egypt is almost entirely a choral piece, with relatively few arias for soloists interspersed among the choruses.  Rather than unveiling a plot that is driven by individual passions and actions, it presents and celebrates the story of a people.  That is perhaps why, although it is now one of Handel’s most popular works, Israel in Egypt was not well received by its 18th-century London audience.  It was performed only twice more in the 1739 season, after Handel had revised it by deleting the first of its original three sections and adding additional arias, but it still failed to elicit an enthusiastic response.

It was not until the 19th century, when choral societies and amateur music festivals began to flourish in England, that Israel in Egypt attained the level of popularity it has today.  In fact, one of the earliest recordings of the piece still extant is of a June 29, 1888, performance at the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace in London.[2]  The 4,000-voice chorus was recorded from 100 feet away, and the sound of the wax-cylinder recording has greatly degraded, but it is still wonderful to hear the faint, soaring sounds of singers exulting in this beautiful piece almost 125 years ago.

Part One (as performed by SF Choral) draws its text from Exodus and from several psalms.  It begins with the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt, followed by descriptions of the plagues that Moses calls down upon the Egyptians to persuade the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.  Eventually, the Pharaoh is persuaded and the Israelites are led out of Egypt, only to be pursued by the Egyptian army shortly thereafter.  Part One culminates in the parting of the Red Sea, the destruction of the Egyptian army, and the Israelites’ acknowledgment of the power of their God.

Part Two is largely an extended celebration of the victory described in Part One, presented in various forms through large choral compositions contrasted with relatively quieter duets and arias.  It begins in a ceremonial style indicated by the orchestra’s dotted rhythms and is followed by a solemn chorus.  The subsequent double chorus’s grand fugal anthem “For He hath triumphed gloriously” perfectly embodies the joyful feeling of the second half of the oratorio, and Handel repeats it again at the end of the piece.  Though some gentler prayerful feeling is evoked by the women’s duet “The Lord is my strength” and by the chorus’s “He is my God,” the majority of this section rings with martial triumph.

While Moses and Miriam are mentioned in the text, the oratorio lacks any defined individual characters or conventional plot.  The dramatic movement of the piece is embodied in and through the music.  In order to achieve these dramatic effects, Handel made use of “every choral texture in his repertory – fugues, cantus firmus themes with moving counter-melodies, antiphonal double choirs, thunderous choral homophony and so on.”[3]

Moreover, the oratorio is replete with word painting, where the sound of the music imitates the imagery of the text.  Handel’s evocation of the plagues, for example, is particularly effective, beginning with the eerie, jagged chromatic lines of “They loathed to drink.”  We sense Handel’s humorous touch in the leaping violin lines that mimic the hopping frogs described in “Their land brought forth frogs.”  The contrast between the chorus’ authoritative “He spake the word” and the following frenetic orchestration of “there came all manner of flies” calls to mind onslaughts of buzzing insects.  Pelting hail and running fire are manifested in the double choral rhythms of  “He gave them hailstones.”  The relatively simple but powerful choral recitative “He sent a thick darkness” calls forth the image of dark clouds, settling down on the land.  And finally, in “He smote all the first-born of Egypt,” the audience can hear both the violence of the blows and the lamentation of the Egyptian people.

Other examples of Handel’s effects occur in the music’s mimic of the movement of the waters in Part Two’s “And with the blast” and in the fading lines predicting the “melting away” of  “all the inhabitants of Canaan” in “The people shall hear.”  But it is the infectious, galloping rhythm of “the horse and his rider” in the opening and closing portions of Part Two that will most probably linger in the listener’s ear, well after the oratorio has ended, recalling the pure physical joy evoked by Handel’s final triumphant anthem.

– Nina Anne Greeley

1   Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances in Westminster-Abbey . . .  in Commemoration of Handel

(1785), 31-32, 37.

2   The recording is available at http://archive.org/details/EDIS-SFP-0154-17 and on YouTube.

3   Donald Burrows, Handel [The Master Musicians series] (Schirmer Books, 1994), 248.