Program Notes

January 29th & 31st, 2016
Cary Hall, Lexington; David Hoose, conductor
Jordan Hall at NEC; David Hoose, conductor


G.F. Handel: Israel in Egypt

Notes by David Hoose
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed Israel in Egypt in the course of only one month, and its premiere took place in London on April 4, 1739, a mere ten weeks after the first performance of its spiritual companion, Saul. The sixth of his more than twenty English-language biblical oratorios, Israel in Egypt received as many as eleven performances, often in dramatic revisions, during the composer's lifetime. During the nineteenth century, the oratorio came to rival Messiah with a renown that has never faded. This is the third time Cantata Singers will perform Israel in Egypt in its original, three-part form.

Israel in Egypt is composed for chorus, soloists, and orchestra. The soloists include at least one alto and tenor, and at least two sopranos and basses. In Part I, the chorus is in four (SATB) parts, and the orchestra is modest: two oboes, bassoon, strings, harpsichord and organ. But in Parts ll and III, the chorus often expands to two four-part groups, and the orchestra becomes the largest Handel would ever use: two flutes (appearing in one movement only), two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, timpani, three trombones, strings, and keyboard instruments—harpsichord and organ—whose parts are frequently differentiated.

An oratorio in two or three parts?
The first time I heard Israel in Egypt, I was dazzled by the music's invention and bold power. The choruses, from the sinister to the uplifting, were thrilling, and the solo movements personalized a drama that is about an entire people. The orchestra, acting as a force equal to the chorus and soloists, depicted the hand of God with a cinematic veracity worthy of a Cecil B. DeMille movie.

But something in the oratorio seemed amiss. Although Handel masterfully painted the bondage of the Israelites, the terror of the plagues that befell Egypt, and the Israelites' release from slavery, the entire work began without any dramatic or emotional preparation. It was akin to a hyperkinetic action film that didn't bother with context. Exciting, but nonsensical.
As it turns out, that performance was missing about one-third of the music Handel had first composed. Today, many ensembles still present Israel in Egypt with only these second and third parts—as if they were the complete work—and soften the abruptness of the beginning by inserting an unrelated instrumental work by Handel as an overture.

What happened to Part I?
Reports of the reception of Israel in Egypt’s first performance are muddled, but many writers suggest a small audience and mixed reactions. If true, Londoners' growing apathy toward music may have kept away an audience that usually anticipated any new work of Handel's. And his promise to present an oratorio each week during that season cannot have helped.

It is also likely that listeners, accustomed to the enchantment of operas about characters and their personal crises, with solo singers displaying their vocal wares, and with colorful sets and staging, were baffled by a concert work in which the protagonist was an entire people. Moreover, it is probable that many in Handel's audience were not yet comfortable with music based on Biblical texts being performed in the theater. Sacred music in the land of opera would have been blasphemous.

Whatever Israel in Egypt's initial reception, Handel made numerous and sometimes radical changes to the oratorio over the next twenty years, including shifts in the balance of choruses to solo numbers, the insertion of arias from other works—even unrelated ones in Italian—and the excision of Part I. Many of his large-scale works underwent revisions—usually to suit the voices (and egos) of his solo singers—but no work underwent the scope of alterations that he made to this oratorio.

A truncated, two-part version, consisting only of Parts II and III (though without the Italian arias) is the music that Felix Mendelssohn conducted in 1833, and it is the version that flourishing choral societies in 19th-century England made extremely popular. Few seemed to notice the strange imbalance of a musical drama that was missing an entire limb.

Restoring Part I to its rightful position, however, gives Israel in Egypt an exquisite equilibrium, and the complete oratorio takes on broad and penetrating meaning. Finally, there is a coherent and powerful arch—Meditation, Narrative, Celebration—that is the same three-part design of all his other oratorios. (Part I of Messiah is prophecy, Part II, Christ's passion, and Part III, the promise of eternal life.) In Israel in Egypt, Part l's reflection and Part III's jubilation stand as luminous pillars that surround the fiery center of Part II. The outer sections, however, are by no means identical, for much of the mysterious music of Exodus inherits its character from the deeply felt The Lamentation of Israelites for the Death of Joseph, and the unleashed drama of Exodus spills over into the brilliance of Moses' Song.

Good composers borrow, great composers steal
These words, supposedly said by Igor Stravinsky, apply perfectly to Handel's frequent pilfering of others—and his own—music. Though he was a composer with one of the most fertile imaginations, he often solved his musical and dramatic challenges with an expedience that, today, would result in lawsuits. Israel in Egypt is probably the high (or low) point of Handel's thievery: many movements in Parts II and III are based on kernels of other composers' ideas or on others' entire compositions. The music of Alessandro Stradella and Dionigi Erbaf, in particular, proved wellsprings for Handel, and some form of their music appears frequently throughout.

Somehow, Handel always found a way to give the stolen music his unmistakable voice. Often, he completely recomposed someone else's not very compelling music and invested it with musical logic and dramatic energy. "He gave them hailstones" is a stunning movement in Israel in Egypt that he based on a fine kernel of an idea left unfulfilled by Stradella. Other times, Handel did little more than realize the potential of a marriage between existing music and a particular text, and then to give it three-dimensional voicing and orchestration. A wonderful example of this magic touch is "Egypt was glad when they departed," in which he uses, almost note-for-note, an organ toccata by the now obscure Caspar Kerll (1627-1693). With little more than the addition of the text and a colorful orchestration, Handel turned Kerll's antique-sounding music into a depiction of the Egyptians as outmoded, and their gladness at the Israelites' departure as sinister.

Part I, The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph
Handel composed the music of Part I in 1737, for the funeral of Queen Caroline. She was not only a great supporter of the arts, but also a friend and patron of Handel himself; ten years earlier, he had composed her Coronation Anthem. When Caroline prematurely died, he quickly composed music that Charles Burney (1726-1814), the first biographer of Handel, considered the greatest among his compositions.

Handel, too, recognized the music's special qualities, and he unsuccessfully tried to mount performances of it after the funeral. Two decades later, he considered reworking the anthem as part of Saul, but then realized that it could work beautifully as the opening portion of Israel in Egypt. With a few changes of detail in the text based on verses of Lamentations and Job, The Ways of Zion Do Mourn became The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph. The new anthem now remembered the wise and beloved Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel who was sold into slavery by his brothers, who became the pharaoh's trusted advisor and interpreter of dreams, and who had asked the Israelites to carry his bones out of Egypt when they left.

After an affecting sinfonia, the anthem unfolds simply, its delicate inflections absent histrionics. While there is much variety—delicate music ("And the ear heard him"), ferocious music ("How is the mighty fall'n"), and uplifting music ("He deliver'd the poor" and "They shall receive a glorious kingdom")—the tone is one of autumnal melancholy. The movement that closes Part I, "The merciful goodness of the Lord," is quietly heart-stopping music, some of the most moving Handel ever composed.

Part II, Exodus
Nothing in Part I foreshadows the abyss that opens Part II. The tone becomes severe, and the musical arch looms oppressively. From this first movement's emotional chasm emerges a colorful account of the plagues, thus fulfilling Handel's promise—in his own words—that "the storm of thunder is to be bold and fine, and the thick silent darkness is to be express'd in a very particular piece of musick."

Waters turn to blood in a tortured chromatic fugue; frogs overrun the land in a grimly humorous alto aria; locusts and lice swarm in the violins' ferocious buzzing; and hailstones batter the tyrannical people with fiery choral writing and terrifying orchestral virtuosity. The horrors mount, and God strikes out at the Egyptian first-born, the orchestra's violent strokes threatening to overwhelm aside the furious chorus. Abruptly, the Lord turns away from his anger and reaches toward his people with beguiling sympathy. Then, the Egyptians peer on with creepy satisfaction as the Israelites depart. With two stunning silences and the only unaccompanied choral music in the entire work, God turns back the Red Sea. The Israelites slog arduously through the prickly thicket toward a promised freedom that, when reached, sweeps them up in a glowing testimony of faith.

Part III, Moses' Song
It is difficult to imagine that Handel could exceed, or even match, the gripping drama of Exodus. But his nearly limitless imagination and skill carry Part III to even greater depths and heights. One of the most thrilling choruses, "The horse and his rider," launches the celebration; when this music returns at the close (paralleling the Biblical verse), it is somehow even more exhilarating. Between those poles is some of the most engaging music in the entire oratorio.

Both savoring their salvation and praising the Lord, the Israelites sing with renewed vigor. Amid the spectacular choruses, three character-filled duets and three quite detailed arias suggest that the people's need to find safety in unity has begun to ease. But they gather again for "All the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away," the oratorio's emotional climax, with a vision that reaches well beyond the horizon. At the same time, this is music tinged with regret for the extreme costs that the Israelites' survival has required. In the shadow of this great chorus, a single, gentle voice offers a benediction, "Thou shalt bring them in." Then, in several waves, the celebration builds again and, in a thrilling marriage of earthly jubilation and heavenly joy, Israel in Egypt catapults to its triumphant end.

Music and politics intersect
Eighteenth century Londoners reacted to Handel's bold and experimental oratorio on more than musical grounds. England's political anxieties, shifting ideologies and rising nationalism—the Hanoverians vs. the Jacobites, tensions with France, Austria, and Spain (which had turned to seizing British ships and sailors)—led many English citizens to view themselves as hostages and to identify both with the Israelites' bondage and with the desire for freedom.

While Londoners found personal significance in Israel in Egypt, it may be tenuous to read specific political meaning into a work of art, if only because we cannot be certain of the composer's intent. But the non-verbal aspect of music—even music with a text—easily allows such connections. So it has been for Israel in Egypt for the two and a half centuries since its premiere. Somewhere in this world someone has always been oppressed, threatened, or held in bondage, whether by American slavery, Soviet totalitarianism, forces threatening the nation of Israel, or Syrian tyranny. Handel's Israel in Egypt continues to speak fluently and powerfully to such inhumanity. And it looks well beyond it. There is much to lament; plagues threaten. We also believe there is much to rejoice.

-David Hoose