Handel's English World, Part 2: Great Experimentations
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
For Handelians, certain dates stick in the mind:
1685: Handel's birth;
1710: Handel arrives in London for the first time;
1727: Handel is naturalised and writes the Coronation anthems for George II;
1741: Handel performs his last opera and composes Messiah;
1759: Handel's death.
I've lived with these dates most of my life. But one other, crucial year is often forgotten, and it's a year I've only recently started to see as utterly central to Handel's career. It's also the year in which we start this, the second part of our exploration of Handel's English world. The year is 1732.
Handel's 1731-32 season was planned to be just like those he had mounted as an independent opera impresario for some years. In conjunction with his co-manager, John Jacob Heidegger, he'd started his season at the King's Theatre in November 1731 with a series of eleven performances, comprising revivals of three operas while at the same time composing a new one.
Between January and April of 1732 the season continued with 27 more performances. This sounds staggering; all up the season comprised 38 performances of seven different operas (two of which were new) in five months, but it was Handel's usual way of operating. When you consider that in addition to directing all the performances personally, he was composing new work a lot of the time, rehearsing his casts, and managing financial and administrative matters, it gives an indication of how hard he worked. Most of his small house cast were involved in all the operas as well, by the way. They were learning new music, and performing, all the time.
It's important to point out that all these operas were not only Italian in language but Italian in their style, a form of opera we now call opera seria. Most of the singers were Italian, and the style was highly popular among the nobility and the moneyed middle classes. Handel's theatre performances until April 1732 - some 22 years' work - were entirely made up of Italian operas. It was the form of music he loved and he was its greatest exponent.
London's theatre world at the time was vibrant and busy. Handel didn't work in isolation. Over his career, rival opera companies were set up in opposition to his, and more than once they came perilously close to sending him to the wall. Handel was just part of a thriving and turbulent world, and in the 1720s and 30s there was a huge appetite for Italian opera in London.
But in 1732 there began a chain of events which would see Handel completely abandon Italian opera within nine years, and, in the interim, experiment with English-language works in a way which would set the seal on his later career as a composer of oratorio. I think it's fair to say that Handel himself would have been the last person to have anticipated this turn of events.
In Part One we discussed Esther, a small-scale oratorio which Handel wrote in 1718. This was composed while he was in residence at Cannons Park, the Edgware estate of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and later Duke of Chandos. Esther was designed for a small ensemble of voices and instruments, was cast in six scenes and took about an hour and a half in performance.
In early 1732, Esther made an unexpected return to Handel's life at the hands of one Bernard Gates, master of the boys at the Chapel Royal. Gates somehow got hold of a copy of the score of Esther and - according to the historian Charles Burney - arranged for the boys of the Chapel Royal to perform it on Handel's 47th birthday: 23 February, 1732. This performance took place at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand, and it was repeated on 1 and 3 March. The tavern was a regular meeting place for musical societies, so the idea of children performing a Biblical story in a pub is perhaps not as outrageous as it might now seem to us. [listen]
A particularly interesting point is that Burney specifically notes that these performances of Esther were given with action; that is, as an opera, and not in concert style as an oratorio. Furthermore, Handel himself was present at one of the Crown and Anchor performances. The idea of mounting the work himself in his own theatre seasons must have occurred to him at this time but there was a major hurdle to overcome.
While the involvement of boys from the Chapel Royal in his theatre was not out of the question, the Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson (who was also Dean of the Chapel Royal) strictly forbade the boys to act on a London stage, even with their music in their hands. This prohibition was not as reactionary as it is sometimes made out to be; Gibson's primary concern was the ability of the boys to properly execute their duties at the Chapel Royal, which involved the singing of daily services for the Royal Family. Being involved in theatre performances would most certainly have interfered.
But interestingly, Gibson did not forbid the boys to be involved under any circumstances; he just forbade them to be involved in acting. The presentation of a concert performance - which would presumably need less rehearsal and no memorisation - was not prohibited.
Handel then decided that he would present Esther in his Italian opera season. This was a huge gamble. Firstly, there would be no action; the works would be sung "in concert", but how to prepare his audiences for this? Handel chose his words carefully when he advertised Esther in The Daily Journal on 19 April, 1732:
By His Majesty's Command. At the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, on Tuesday the 2nd day of May, will be performed: The Sacred Story of Esther: An Oratorio in English.
Formerly composed by Mr Handel, and now revised by him, with several Additions, and to be performed by a great Number of the best Voices and Instruments.
NB: There will be no Action on the Stage, but the House will be fitted up in a decent Manner, for the Audience. The Musick to be disposed after the Manner of the Coronation Service. Tickets to be delivered at the Office in the Opera house, at the usual Prices.
Handel hadn't been working in theatre for all these years without learning a thing or two; this ad is a superb piece of marketing because it addresses all the concerns the audience might have. Firstly, it points out that a Biblical story will not be acted on a public stage. Such a thing would have been simply unthinkable in London at the time, and Handel would have been keen to allay the fears of the more pious members of the public (not to mention the Bishop of London!).
Secondly, it makes it clear that this version of Esther would be different from the version mounted by Gates, so anyone who might think they'd already seen it (if they caught one of Gates's performances) would know that this would be something new.
Thirdly it makes clear that this will be a concert and not an opera. The line...The Musick to be disposed after the Manner of the Coronation Service...is particularly vital here. Immediately the reader would be made aware of rows of singers and instruments set up in a concert manner and not allowing for stage action. It also, very cleverly, hints that the music would be spectacular, because even in 1732, five years after George II's Coronation, the fact that Handel wrote anthems like Zadok the Priest for that famous event would have been remembered. Handel was also keen to use this music again, and he certainly did in the 1732 version of Esther.
So, on 2 May 1732, Handel for the first time presented an English oratorio in his London theatre. In all it was performed six times over the next couple of weeks and it was a hit with his audiences. The work he performed, though, was very different from the 90 minute work he wrote at Cannons in 1718. A London audience used to a full evening of Italian opera in three acts with two intervals needed to be given a full evening of English oratorio in three acts with two intervals, especially if, as the ad said, tickets were being charged "at the usual prices". Handel filled out the work with extra scenes made up of new arias and - a particular attraction - recycled versions of two of the famous Coronation anthems. My heart is inditing appears in full in act one of the new version and act two concludes with an abbreviated version of Zadok the Priest, which was given new words: "Blessed are all they that fear the Lord". The references to "God save the King" remain as they perfectly fit the acclamation given to Ahasuerus, King of Persia. [listen]
Many of the solo parts in Esther were sung by Italians, and their difficulty with the English language didn't go unnoticed. A witty pamphleteer described it wickedly:
Senesino and Bertolli made such rare work with the English Tongue as you would have sworn it had been Welsh; I would have wish'd it in Italian, that they might have sang with more ease to themselves, since, but for the name of English, it might as well have been Hebrew.
The success of Esther certainly didn't lead Handel to abandon Italian opera; this was no road to Damascus moment for him. It was only an experiment, and the season continued as usual. Three days after the last performance of Esther, Handel was back performing Italian opera.
But Handel wasn't done with works in English from his Cannons period. In June, he prepared a new version of his other dramatic work from 1718, Acis and Galatea. This had four performances between 10 and 20 June and brought the 1731-32 season to an end. Esther had been unpublished and only circulating in privately-owned manuscript copies. The songs from Acis, though, had been in print for a decade, so it wouldn't have taken much for someone (in the days before strict copyright laws) to cobble together a version. This is exactly what Thomas Arne - father of the composer Thomas Augustine Arne - did. Arne was producing performances in a Haymarket theatre right across the road from Handel and during the 1732 run of Esther, Arne mounted his own version of Acis and Galatea using Handel's songs. This almost certainly led Handel to make his own version of this piece, which was a strange, bi-lingual concoction. It was mostly in Italian, with some English songs thrown in, and derived not only from Handel's Cannons version of the story, but from an even earlier one in Italian (Aci, Galatea e Polifemo) which he wrote in Naples way back in 1708. The 1732 version of Acis was performed on a decorated stage set but without action.
And with this the season came to an end. When it started eight months before I'm certain Handel had no idea he'd be including works in English before it ended, but the rapid preparation and execution of the 1732 versions of Esther and Acis show that he was able to jump when circumstances dictated. And something had stirred, a new idea, a new way forward, a new way of cornering the market and making his own niche.
It involved the English language, but would it involve opera? In early December 1732, Handel received a letter from Aaron Hill, the man who had been responsible for producing Handel's first London opera, Rinaldo, in 1711. Some impresarios had been experimenting with opera in English, including Hill, but Handel hadn't crossed that line. Now, more than 20 years after their first collaboration, Hill wrote to Handel:
Having this occasion of troubling you with a letter, I cannot forbear to tell you the earnestness of my wishes, that, as you have made such considerable steps towards it, already, you would let us owe to your inimitable genius, the establishment of musick, upon a foundation of good poetry; where the excellence of the sound should no longer be dishonour'd, by the poorness of the sense it is chain'd to.
My meaning is, that you would be resolute enough, to deliver us from our Italian bondage; and demonstrate, that English is soft enough for Opera, when compos'd by poets, who know how to distinguish the sweetness of our tongue, from the strength of it, where the last is less necessary.
I am of opinion, that male and female voices may be found in this kingdom, capable of everything, that is requisite; and, I am sure, a species of dramatic Opera might be invented, that, by reconciling reason and dignity, with musick and fine machinery, would charm the ear, and hold fast the heart together.
Such an improvement must, at once, be lasting, and profitable, to a very great degree; and would, infallibly, attract a universal regard, and encouragement.
Here is one of the most delicious "what ifs" in the history of music. What if Handel had agreed with Hill, that English was a worthy language for opera, and written an opera in English then and there? He would have needed a new cast, of course, as his Italian singers were not generally able to sing in English, but such practicalities aside, this raises the hypothetical notion of a school of English opera starting in the early 18th century, rather than in the 20th century with Britten and Tippett. How different things might have been.
But Handel showed no inclination towards acting on Hill's proposal. His letter in reply - assuming there was one - hasn't survived. Handel's 1732-33 season was in full swing when Hill wrote this letter, and it continued in the new year with three Italian operas: two revivals and a premiere.
But in early 1733 Handel showed he hadn't abandoned the idea of English oratorio, even if English opera was out of the question. On 21 February 1733 he completed the score of a new English oratorio, Deborah. Like Esther, Deborah tells the story from the Bible of a woman whose bravery saves her people and the score is lavish. But interestingly, a great deal of the music is recycled from earlier works, always a sign in Handel that the piece was written in haste. It also shows that Handel wanted to use music which his London audiences would not have heard; the recycled music draws on the German Brockes Passion, the Coronation Anthems, the Chandos Anthems, the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne and works from the Italian period like the Dixit Dominus.
But there is much in the score that is new, and coupled with the cast Handel assembled from his opera company, Deborah proved artistically successful. On the PR front, though, Handel made a grave miscalculation by charging much higher ticket prices. This made him no friends.
Deborah represents an enormous advance over the 1732 version of Esther. Despite the recyclings (which are adapted wonderfully to their new context), the work is intensely dramatic, and the new music shows Handel unafraid to adapt his operatic gifts to a Biblical story. Deborah's aria in the second act, "In Jehovah's awful sight," is just one of the breathtaking highlights of this work. [listen]
In the choral writing of Deborah, Handel shows that "the manner of the Coronation Service" hadn't left his thoughts. The chorus of the Israelite priests in the second act opens with a magnificent invocation of God, followed by an adaptation of the end of the first chorus of the Italian Dixit Dominus written a quarter of a century before and which of course would have been completely unknown to his London public. [listen]
Deborah had its premiere on 17 March 1733 and had six performances. It was followed by a revival of Esther (two performances) after which the season concluded with more Italian opera.
But Handel's performances weren't quite over. At the end of the London season, he put the finishing touches on a new English oratorio, Athalia. (The stress is on the third syllable; it rhymes with Jeremiah.) He then left for Oxford where, in the Sheldonian Theatre in mid-July, he gave five oratorio performances: Athalia was premiered in Oxford and given twice, plus there were two performances of Esther and one of Deborah. He also gave a performance of Acis and Galatea in Christ Church Hall.
These performances were part of Oxford University's "Publick Act", which involved orations in Latin and the awarding of honorary degrees. One oration was in praise of Handel and oratorio, and there was speculation in the press that Handel had been offered an honorary doctorate but had refused. The university's records, though, make no mention of this offer.
Athalia was again a huge advance on Deborah. Here the music is all new with virtually no recycled material. The libretto is again Biblical but based on Racine's play about the evil Baalite queen, the daughter of the notorious Jezebel. (I conducted the first Australian performance in Melbourne in 1998.) Handel's score contains some of his most vivid music, again drawing on his theatrical expertise. Mathan is a totally unsympathetic character, a priest who has abandoned the Israelite God to serve Athalia and her god, Baal. Yet Handel, as he so often did, shuns the easy painting of the baddies as simple bad guys. Even the bad guys are shown as real people with real emotions, and for Mathan Handel wrote one of his most beautiful arias - containing one of his finest cello solos. [listen]
And the evil queen's attendants are given one of the best choruses in the whole piece. Handel knew that bad guys still know how to have a good time. [listen]
Athalia was Handel's last English language theatre work for three years. He had more pressing matters to deal with on his return to London from Oxford. Most of his singers had abandoned him to work for a new opera company, The Opera of the Nobility, which had been set up directly in competition with his own. Opera politics in London at the time reflected Royal battle lines; Handel's company was supported by the King, while the Opera of the Nobility was supported by the Prince of Wales. Handel had to work, and work hard, if he was going to survive, and from mid 1733 he compiled pasticcio operas, wrote new ones and revived existing operas and oratorios, in an attempt to stem the flow of audiences to his rivals.
In 1734 Handel's lease at the King's Theatre ended and he moved into another theatre at Covent Garden (on the site of the present Royal Opera House; the present building dates from the mid 19th century). During this period Handel wrote some of his greatest Italian operas, including Ariodante and Alcina. The Covent Garden theatre had a chorus and ballet troupe available and Handel wasted no time in including choruses and dances in his operas.
In 1735 Handel performed Athalia in London for the first time. It was around this period that he started performing organ concertos during his oratorio performances as a way of marking out his performances as something unique. He was one of the finest organists in Europe and his playing was greatly admired, so he played his strong suit as part of his constant efforts to beat the opposition and keep his place at the top of the heap. [listen]
Handel continued to give mixed seasons of Italian opera and English oratorio, and many composers in other theatres were imitating him by writing oratorios of their own. The idea of oratorio as a viable theatrical entertainment in its own right was starting to take hold. In July of 1735 Handel wrote to Charles Jennens, a literary scholar and Handel enthusiast, thanking him for sending an oratorio libretto that he had written. Handel would have received many unsolicited oratorio librettos over his time, but the relationship with Jennens would lead to some of Handel's greatest works of any kind.
It seems certain that the libretto Jennens sent was that of Saul, but for the moment Handel put this aside and wrote a shorter work in English setting much better poetry. This was Alexander's Feast, setting one of John Dryden's odes in praise of St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Alexander's Feast was completed in January 1736 and had its premiere at Covent Garden on 19 February, opening the new season.
Alexander's Feast was not a full evening's entertainment in 18th century terms; it's only in two parts, not three, so Handel padded the evening out with instrumental concertos and an Italian cantata in praise of St Cecilia. But regardless of its length, Alexander's Feast contains some stunning music. (I've only ever conducted it once, very early in my career.) [listen]
Handel must have been exhausted. By 1736 there were major dividing lines through London's theatre world: you were either pro-Handel or anti-Handel. There were press campaigns against him and his faithful audiences loved him. In 1736 he was 51 and yet if anything his workload increased. His Covent Garden season (February to June) included five performances of Alexander's Feast, two of Acis and Galatea, two of Esther, plus ten Italian opera performances. In addition to this he'd composed a new piece of church music, an anthem for the wedding of Frederick, Prince of Wales on 27 April.
One of the new operas for 1736 as Atalanta, a light piece which was also written to celebrate the Prince of Wales's wedding. With this, and the wedding anthem, Handel was playing politics at the highest level. Despite the fact that the Opera of the Nobility also mounted an opera to mark the Prince's wedding - he was after all their patron - Handel's music won out and the Prince became more supportive of his ventures.
Between August and October Handel composed two new operas and began a new season on 6 November with revivals of three other operas over nine performances. At the same time he composed another new opera. The pace was starting to get manically dangerous and continued into the first few months of 1737 with a punishing series of opera and oratorio revivals.
The season ended on 25 June but Handel wasn't there. The press reported he was ill on 30 April, and again on 14 May, and he was indisposed for the last few weeks of the London season. The intense competition with the Opera of the Nobility had left Handel victorious as the rival company had folded in 1737. But the effect on Handel's health was devastating. He was exhausted and for a while it seems he was unable to even write or play. The press report of 14 May said:
The ingenious Mr Handell is very much indispos'd, and it's thought with a Paraletick Disorder, he having at present no Use of his Right Hand, which, if he don't regain, the Publick will be depriv'd of his fine Compositions.
In September he went to Aix-la-Chapelle (also known as Aachen) to take a vapour bath cure and this break seems to have been exactly what he needed. He returned to London about six weeks later having by all reports made a remarkable recovery.
Some assumed Handel's best days were behind him but in mid-November, he started a new opera. He was far from done yet.
Sadly, the work on the opera was interrupted by the news that Queen Caroline, consort of George II, had died. It's easy to forget that Handel had been associated with the House of Hanover for nearly 30 years, and he knew both George and Caroline from his earliest days as the Hanover Kapellmeister, before any of them came to England. Handel seems to have had a genuine friendship with Caroline and would have been greatly saddened by her death.
For her funeral in December 1737 Handel wrote one of his most austere works, the anthem The ways of Zion do mourn. It's is a lovely tribute to a woman he knew and admired; this is no mere public commission but a work from the heart. The anthem contains a private gesture of connection between the Queen and the composer, and one which the King would not have missed, either. In one movement Handel quotes the music of a 16th century funeral motet Ecce quomodo moritur justus by Jacob Handl (with no e). This motet was sung in Lutheran churches in Germany in the early 18th century and would have been part of any good Lutheran's life experience. Handel in this way was expressing his joint heritage with the Queen, and maybe even providing solace for the King. The quote from Handl's motet is in the fast sections of this movement. [listen]
In the new year Handel's activities moved theatre again, returning to the King's Theatre where his now defunct rivals, the Opera of the Nobility, had been based and where he himself had worked before that. His new company retained many of the Opera of the Nobility's singers (some of whom had abandoned him before) and some of their patrons, too. The new season began on 3 January but the public wasn't in the mood; not even the lighter style of Xerxes could attract much interest. The season ended in June and a new one wasn't planned for 1738-39 because of a lack of interest from subscribers.
Handel found himself in an unusual situation: he had some spare time. His mind must have been greatly exercised by the possibilities and challenges which lay ahead. He was in his early 50s and had been involved in opera since his late teens, but he couldn't deny the success of his experimentation with English oratorio. He must have been amazed that his audiences accepted the conventions of two very different art forms within the same seasons and in the same venue, and certainly he seems now, with opera seriously showing signs of being yesterday's artform, to have considered the possibility that oratorio just might be his future.
In the second half of 1738, with no new theatre season to give, Handel set to work and created three new pieces: two English oratorios and one Italian opera. He first dusted off the libretto Charles Jennens had sent him three years before and created what is to my mind one of the greatest dramatic works of the 18th century, the oratorio Saul. Handel's score for Saul shows that here for the first time he truly grappled with English oratorio as an equal of opera. He rewrote, re-organised and revised constantly. But he had one extraordinarily good libretto to work with. Jennens was no Dryden or Shakespeare, and his poetry, like Jennens himself, could be over-pompous. But Handel didn't really need great poetry; he needed great drama and character, and in adapting the story of the doomed first King of Israel from the Bible for Handel to set, Jennens gave the composer exactly what he needed.
Saul is cast on a vast scale. There are ten solo roles, magnificent choruses, and the largest orchestra Handel ever used, including bells, a harp, trombones and two organ concerto movements. The new world of English music making goes far beyond the language of the text and the absence of stage action in performance. The title role is given to a bass, and there is a major role for a tenor. Tenors and basses in Italian opera traditionally had minor roles in deference to the male and female sopranos and mezzos who ruled the stage. In the oratorios Handel almost never used a castrato, and even though he occasionally gave male roles to female singers (there were in fact women who specialised in such roles), the whole "feel" of the oratorios tends more towards what we would regard as more "natural" voice allocations.
Saul contains music of incredible dramatic power. The opening scene of the third act, where Saul, abandoned by God, summons the ghost of Samuel with the aid of the witch of Endor, is simply incredible. [Listen to this track and the three which follow.]
I've had the privilege of conducting Saul twice and it is for me my favourite work by my favourite composer.
But Handel was far from giving up on Italian opera. As soon as he finished Saul he composed another opera, Imeneo. And as soon as this was finished he set to work on another oratorio, Israel in Egypt.
Israel in Egypt is often referred to as the companion piece to Saul, but in many ways Handel went to the opposite extreme in the latter work, his experimental ideas wildly swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other. In Saul, the focus is on the soloists, and while the chorus has important and magnificent music to sing, they are not the focus of attention. In Israel in Egypt it's exactly the opposite. There is comparatively little for the soloists to do, and the chorus sings almost the entire work on its own.
We don't know who compiled the libretto for Israel in Egypt. It may have been Handel himself, but the evidence such as it is points to Jennens. A few years later, Jennens referred in a letter to his libretto for Messiah as a "second" scripture collection compiled for Handel; Israel in Egypt may therefore have been the first. The text is entirely from the Bible - from Exodus and the Psalms - and it really forms a gigantic choral anthem describing the plagues of Egypt in one part and the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea in the other. To make a three-act evening, Handel appended to the front of the work an adaptation of the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, with the text slightly altered to make it a lamentation by the Israelites on the death of Joseph. There is no denying the beauty of the anthem, but it is that - an anthem - and in a concert situation it can be a little hard to sit through when one is waiting for the blood and thunder of the plagues to start in the next act. Israel in Egypt makes a perfectly satisfying evening for a modern audience in two parts without the Funeral Anthem, especially if one of the organ concertos is played at the start to fill the role of an overture.
It's the magnificent choral writing which makes Israel in Egypt beloved of choral organisations today, and this is where Handel experimented even further. The propulsion of drama via solo voices he had been doing for decades, but could drama be propelled by a chorus on its own? Such a thing was utterly new. Handel rose to the challenge and his chorus writing made it possible to tell, amongst other things, of the terror and violence experienced by the Egyptians with the death of all their firstborn. [listen]
But as for his people, the public, Handel had mixed responses to his experiments. He opened a new season at the King's Theatre on 16 January 1739 which was not based on subscriptions but simply on individual ticket sales. Saul was given first, and over the season it had six performances. The season ran until early May, and in addition to revivals of earlier works, the premiere of Israel in Egypt took place during Lent.
Saul seems to have gone down well, but the reaction to Israel in Egypt was decidedly negative. Italian opera usually had no chorus at all, or if there was one it had very little to do. Handel's audiences were raised on evenings made up virtually of nothing but solo vocal music. To have an evening almost entirely made up of choral music and very few solos was just too much of a change. Handel's efforts to tart up Israel in Egypt in later performances with more solo arias - some of which were in Italian - didn't make much difference, and Israel in Egypt had to wait until the 19th century to become really popular, as part of the rise in amateur choral singing in Britain during the Victorian era. (I've conducted it several times - in Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane - and I love it passionately.)
But Handel had made a decisive break, albeit not a total one, with opera. The 1739 winter season was overwhelmingly English, with very little Italian-texted music in it. Handel would still perform opera in the next couple of years, but he would never again mount a season made up entirely of Italian operatic works. The writing was on the wall, but as usual the composer wasn't about to sit around and let the world pass him by. At 54, after six years of mixing two very different forms of creativity, he was about to start on a new career and put behind him the artform he had identified with, and with which he was almost universally identified by his public, for decades. We pick up the moment of this momentous change in Part Three.
We'll finish with the magnificent final chorus of Israel in Egypt. It's almost impossible for me to imagine that Handel's audiences didn't "get" this music. It's a perfect example of the English Handel, portraying triumph with melody, harmony and monumental choral writing. [listen]
Handel's English World was presented on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) as a special six-part series in December 2014 and January 2015.