Handel's English World, Part 4: Sacred and Profane
When we left Handel in Part Three, we were in mid-1743. He had premiered Samson and given Messiah for the first time in London. He'd had a serious illness and yet had bounced back with his usual dogged determination and seemingly endless reserves of energy.
Now, in the summer of 1743, he started preparing for a new oratorio season back at the King's Theatre. In 1741 he'd written a pair of oratorios - Messiah and Samson - in close succession and now he did it again, but there were other distractions.
By 1743, two years after he'd performed his last Italian opera, Handel could probably view rather smugly the efforts of the so-called Middlesex opera company, which had been floundering, throwing good money after bad in an attempt to keep Italian opera going in London. In July 1743 the Middlesex company even tried to recruit Handel, obviously assuming that with him on board they'd get better houses. Great pressure was brought to bear on the composer to provide new operas for the company. His response, interestingly, was initially ambivalent. He seems to have given the impression at first that he'd take on some sort of role with the company, but soon he realised he wasn't interested and refused to have any part in the venture. He lent them the score of one of his old operas, which was rearranged by the company and performed under another title, but that's probably the extent of it, and he certainly wasn't involved in any performances.
The people who ran the Middlesex company were of the nobility and they were enraged when Handel, a mere commoner, wouldn't play ball. That rage would not have been at all placated once they got wind of the fact that he was preparing a new work for his own next season which was as close as he would ever get to writing an opera in English: Semele. [listen]
Only Handel would have had the gall to refuse to write an Italian opera for the Earl of Middlesex and his noble supporters and then respond by setting a famous English opera libretto to music - as an oratorio - to open his next season. Semele's text, by William Congreve, had been set to music by John Eccles in 1707 but not performed. (Handel may very possibly have known Eccles; he lived until 1735.) The text was adapted for Handel (by whom we don't know) to suit the oratorio genre, but even so it still has much about it which is operatic. Handel never intended it to be staged as an opera, but this hasn't stopped many opera companies staging it as an opera since Handel's time.
Handel had already refused the suggestion of Aaron Hill, a decade earlier, to compose real opera in English, and the oratorios were his reply, in a sense: English language works, usually dramatic, but performed "in concert" to use our terminology, and not staged with action, scenery or costumes. And there was a vital change in musical weight with the oratorio giving a major role to the chorus, something very new when viewed from the point of view of Italian opera of the early 18th century. Staging Handel's oratorios as operas, something still done today from time to time, needs to deal with this major obstacle: what to do with the chorus and how to provide enough rehearsal time for them to memorise such a huge amount of music. (Or alternately, engineer the set and the production to allow them to have their music onstage.)
Semele also breaks new ground in another very important respect: it was not only secular but it was classical, "classical" in the Greek-and-Roman sense. Classical mythology was one of the major sources of stories for opera seria, the sort of opera in which Handel had excelled (although Handel's own operas only set classical stories on a few occasions). Greek gods and heroes, and stories derived from Roman history, were commonplace in opera plots of the time. Handel's English oratorios, on the other hand had, hitherto, nearly all been based on the Bible: Esther, Deborah, Athalia, Saul, Israel in Egypt, Messiah and Samson. What secular works there had been almost didn't touch the classical world. L'Allegro was based on poetry about the emotions, and the St Cecilia Ode was a hymn in praise of music; only Acis and Galatea and Alexander's Feast had a classical basis.
Semele is a fully-fledged classical story derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The characters include gods and goddesses as well as mortals. Yet Handel performed it as an oratorio among sacred oratorios in a Lenten season. He was pushing the boundaries still, and he'd pay the price for it. [listen]
Those who marvel at the fact that Handel wrote Messiah in three and a half weeks should recall that such pace of work was normal for Handel. Messiah is a very lightly-scored work when compared to most of the other oratorios, yet a month or so was typical for Handel to write an oratorio from beginning to end, notwithstanding later editing, corrections and changes brought on by last-minute emergencies. Semele took Handel a month to compose, from 3 June to 4 July 1743, and it was clearly intended for his next oratorio season.
Later in July Handel took time out from his theatre involvements and started writing some church music. The city was abuzz with news that the previous month, King George II had led an army to victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen in Bavaria. This battle was part of the War of the Austrian Succession and is famously the last time British troops were personally led into battle by a reigning monarch.
On Sunday 17 July 1743 a Thanksgiving Prayer was issued to be read in all churches; on that same day Handel started composing a monumental setting of the Te Deum which he must have assumed would be part of national celebrations on the King's return. Thirty years before, similar services in St Paul's had featured his "Utrecht" Te Deum and Jubilate and it's clear that now Handel expected to be involved in similar events. If so, he badly miscalculated.
George II was not only King of Great Britain but he was still, as his father George I had been, Elector of Hanover as well. Britain was not officially at war with France at the Battle of Dettingen. George had led the British troops in the battle in support of the Electorate of Hanover and other German states, so Britain wasn't officially involved in her own right.
This "Pragmatic Army" as it was called was led by George wearing the colours of Hanover, and even though it fulfilled the King's long-term fantasy of being a military hero, the victory was of little consequence to Britain. In Britain there was much opposition to the King using British forces to support his "other" interests (ie: Hanover) and as Britain wasn't actually at war with France at the time, there wasn't really anything for Britain to celebrate.
There can be no doubt that Handel composed his "Dettingen" Te Deum with St Paul's in mind. But unlike the earlier "Utrecht" canticles, which were his first settings of an English text and which used Purcell as a model, the music of 1743 is on a colossal military scale, with the famous acoustics of Wren's mighty edifice carefully considered as part of the overall effect. [listen]
By 3 August Handel had not only completed the Te Deum but also a companion anthem setting a text which begins, "The King shall rejoice", not to be confused with the anthem with the same opening line which he'd composed for the King's coronation in 1727. The "Dettingen Anthem" is much less well-known these days than the Te Deum, which is a pity; it's one of his finest church anthems. Handel's choice of the text from the Psalms ends with words which clearly were intended to commemorate a military victory: "We will rejoice in Thy salvation, and triumph in the name of the Lord our God. Alleluia." [listen]
Here Handel was in high celebratory mode, with his theatrical genius inspired by the thought of his music in the legendary spaces of St Paul's. Sadly, it was not to be. It soon became clear that George was in no hurry to return to London and he remained in Hanover for the rest of the summer and beyond.
Putting the Dettingen music aside for now, Handel returned to his theatrical plans and set to work on another oratorio. As a foil to the secular and classical Semele, another sacred oratorio was required to follow up on the success of Samson and Handel's hopes for London's acceptance of Messiah, not to mention the fact that works like Saul, Deborah and Athalia had proved popular and could be easily revived as well.
Charles Jennens, the librettist for Messiah, Saul and L'Allegro would have been the obvious choice as the librettist for a new work, but it seems Handel was reluctant to approach him for a new text in 1743 given the fact that Jennens's nose was very much out of joint over several aspects of Messiah. He had been aggrieved by the fact that Handel hadn't premiered it in London, and that when he did perform it in London it didn't open the 1743 season. He also felt that much of the music was substandard and had never liked the fact that it had an overture. Handel was probably wise to keep clear of Jennens for now.
It's known that even at this stage, before oratorio had really become a firm, fixed feature of London's artistic world, that many people sent librettos to Handel in the hope that he would set them to music. How he came to meet Rev James Miller isn't known, but Handel certainly took a liking to his libretto Joseph and his Brethren, which became the sacred companion piece to the secular Semele.
Miller was far from being just a clergyman who dabbled in poetry. He was educated at Oxford and apart from being a vicar in various parishes, spent much of the 1730s writing comedies and satires for London theatres. He was a controversial figure, making more than a few enemies with his clever, often barbed theatre work. He died in 1744 at the age of only 36.
It was therefore in the year before Miller's death that Handel set his libretto Joseph and his Brethren, which was composed in August and September of 1743. This oratorio is almost completely ignored today and nearly all the blame for this is laid at Miller's feet.
Joseph attempts to tell an enormous story and Miller, far from starting from scratch, clearly based his work on that of others. Librettos for plays and oratorios telling the Joseph story from the Bible were known since the beginning of the 18th century, and Miller seems to have known some of them well. Still, it has to be said that there are gaps in his narrative which make the story almost incomprehensible to anyone coming to the work without prior knowledge of the details of the story from Genesis. Miller's audience would have known the story well; the Bible was far better-known in the 18th century by the educated classes than it is today. And it is clear that the oratorio was popular because Handel frequently revived it.
Sadly, though, some of Miller's language is unavoidably hard for a modern audience to swallow and as such it will probably never gain much currency nowadays. The aria beginning, "Ah jealousy, thou pelican" [listen] evokes a metaphor usually lost on a modern audience, and Handel dealt bravely with setting Joseph's Egyptian name to music. It isn't every day you have to find notes to fit "Zaphnath-Paaneah", but this is mercifully shortened to just "Zaphnath" when the chorus sings it. [listen]
One of the most beautiful scenes in the work comes at the end of the second act, where Joseph, not recognised by his brothers, enquires of his father and meets his youngest brother Benjamin. Judah's moving accompanied recitative is followed by a touching dialogue between Benjamin and Joseph. The plight of the boy would have moved the hardest heart in Handel's audience. This is just one of the scenes in Joseph which shows that the work doesn't deserve the obscurity it currently endures. The concluding chorus of this act, turning to the major key and simple chordal structures, is just beautiful. [listen]
The secular-sacred pairing of Semele and Joseph in 1743 shows Handel's creative muse now spanning the operatic world and the religious; the classical inspirations of opera were now intermingled with the religious utterances of oratorio. It's an extraordinary metamorphosis, and it would have its sequel soon enough. But after completing Joseph in September 1743 Handel's attentions were for a while distracted from his preparations for the next concert season.
Between August and November of 1743 a major publishing event took place, with the printing in ten instalments of the complete score of Acis and Galatea. This was most unusual; large-scale works like this were almost never published complete in Handel's day. Usually a selection of songs, and maybe some chorus and instrumental movements, were published, but almost never the complete work, including recitatives. This showed Handel was done with the piece and he never performed it again, so he could afford to make it publicly available in this way.
Then, in November, news arrived that the King was finally returning to England. George left Hanover on 9 November, and on that same day Handel held a public rehearsal of the Dettingen music in the Banqueting House in Whitehall. This famous building was built in 1619 and it was outside it that Charles I was beheaded in 1649. The magnificent Rubens ceiling is only one of the building's artistic glories, but what is sometimes forgotten is that by Handel's day the interior had been converted into a chapel, and it remained so until late in Victoria's reign, after which it was made a museum. It wasn't until 1962, with the closure of the museum, that the great south window was reopened.
So it was in the Banqueting House chapel that Handel held a public rehearsal of the "Dettingen" Te Deum on 9 November, 1743. Mrs Mary Delany (née Granville) was a friend and supporter of Handel from the 1730s, and she later achieved fame as an artist [read more about her here]. Her references to Handel's music in her letters are invaluable sources of information. She attended the rehearsal of the Te Deum and wrote to her sister about it.
It is excessively fine, I was all rapture...everybody says it is the finest of his compositions; I am not well enough acquainted with it to pronounce that of it, but it is heavenly.
Not everybody agreed. Given the huge military-inspired bombast of the piece, the Banqueting House acoustic must have made it almost overwhelming. The Marchioness Grey is on record as saying it was...
...vastly loud & I thought not agreeable.
The King arrived in London almost a week later and Handel held another public rehearsal on 18 November. He seems to have been keen to keep the music, and himself, in the public eye now that the King was back, but any sort of celebration was postponed because the Sunday after the King's return - 20 November - was the anniversary of Queen Caroline's death.
It must then have been made clear that there would be no grand celebration of the Dettingen victory in London, and therefore no prospect of Handel's enormous Te Deum being heard in St Paul's, the space for which it was intended. Instead, it was performed at a service in the King's presence the following Sunday, 27 November, in the Chapel Royal at St James's. How such a huge piece sounded - indeed, how all the performers could have actually fitted - into such a small space can only be imagined. The Chapel Royal was tiny by comparison to the gargantuan expanses of St Paul's, and the piece must have seemed inappropriately loud and verbose.
While all this was going on, Handel was preparing his next oratorio season at Covent Garden. A twelve concert season was advertised, and this opened on 10 February 1744 with the premiere of Semele. Mrs Delany reported in one of her letters that there was a faction who were opposed to the new work. Part of this was bigotry; it was unusual for Handel to have opened his season with a secular work on the first Friday of Lent. But part of it was stirred up by the opera opposition, who realised that in setting an English opera libretto as an oratorio - after refusing to write Italian operas for them - Handel was doing nothing more than rubbing their faces in his talent. In Mrs Delany's words:
All the opera people are enraged at Handel.
The season ran until 21 March and in addition to Semele included revivals of Samson and Saul. Joseph and his Brethren was also premiered and it was well-received. In all, the new works (Semele and Joseph) had four performances each. The revivals (Samson and Saul) each had two.
Sadly, any thought of Handel collaborating again with Miller after Joseph was dashed by Miller's death in April. It seems that this was the catalyst for Handel biting the bullet and going back to Jennens to patch things up. Jennens wrote:
Handel has promis'd to revise the Oratorio of Messiah, & He & I are very good Friends again. The reason is he lately lost his Poet Miller, & wants to set me at work for him again.
It is stunning to us today to think that Handel would have considered revising Messiah to keep Jennens on side. And given Handel's unshakable belief in his own talent and the quality of his work, it is virtually inconceivable that Handel would have changed anything in his music just to keep someone else happy.
We need to remember that Handel and Jennens had collaborated at least three times before: on Saul, L'Allegro and Messiah (and possibly on Israel in Egypt). While L'Allegro and Messiah required a great deal of rearranging of pre-existing text (Milton and the Bible respectively), Saul was pretty much all Jennens's own verse. And it was in Saul that Handel on one occasion actually did change the music when he saw the sense of Jennens's argument about the placement of a "Hallelujah" chorus.
But there is no evidence that Handel made any changes to Messiah based on Jennens's views of the work's supposed shortcomings. Clearly he made some sort of undertaking to Jennens to get onside again because he needed him, and so it was in, in April 1744, that the two men were again in contact and planning a new oratorio.
In the summer of 1744 Handel visited the country and planned his new season. On his return to London on 18 July he was clearly in good spirits; the very next day he started work on his next oratorio and, like Semele it was a secular story drawn from classical mythology. [listen]
The work was Hercules, with a libretto by another literary clergyman, Rev Thomas Broughton, his only collaboration with Handel. Hercules took less than a month to write, and was completed on 17 August. Like Semele it reads very much like an English-language opera, and Broughton based his libretto on both Sophocles (The Women of Trachis) and Ovid (the Metamorphoses).
It is such a shame that Broughton and Handel only collaborated once. His libretto for Hercules is astoundingly good. Its tight dramatic sequences and powerful language inspired Handel to write one of his most glorious works. The thread of jealousy and revenge which runs through the work is of course the stuff of opera (as it was in Saul, but here the poetry is superior), and Handel's theatrical spirit responded with some of his finest music. That Hercules is hardly performed at all these days is the musical world's loss.
Also like Semele, Handel had no intention of staging Hercules as an opera. The sheer amount of chorus writing would have made that unthinkable to him, as it would have been with all the oratorios, and his lifelong resistance to opera in English never wavered. But this doesn't mean Handel didn't imbue the oratorios with drama, especially when presented with as good a libretto as this (and interestingly, Hercules is called a "musical drama" rather than an oratorio; the term didn't originate with Wagner). True, Broughton omits Dejanira's suicide after she finds out that her jealousy is the cause of Hercules's death, and as such robbed us of an even more dramatic ending. But her emotions are palpable as she battles with guilt and grief in the third act. [listen]
When Hercules was finished, Handel was keen to get to work on its companion piece, and this was to be the new libretto provided by Jennens. Just as he started work on Hercules he received from Jennens the first act of the new libretto, Belshazzar. Thankfully the correspondence from Handel to Jennens regarding this survives, and it's very enlightening. Handel to Jennens:
At my arrival in London, which was Yesterday, I immediately perused the Act of the Oratorio with which you favour'd me, and, the little time only I had it, gives me great Pleasure. Your reasons for the Lenght [sic] of the first act are intirely Satisfactory to me, and it is likewise my Opinion to have the following Acts short. I shall be very glad and much obliged to you, if you will soon favour me with the remaining acts.
Then, very tellingly, as if to make sure Jennens was kept happy, he adds:
Be pleased to point out these passages in te [sic] Messiah which You think require altering.
On 21 August, four days after finishing Hercules, Handel wrote again:
The Second Act of the Oratorio I have received safe, and own my self highly obliged to You for it. I am greatly pleased with it, and shall use my best endeavours to do it Justice. I can only Say that I impatiently wait for the third act.
And unable to wait any longer, two days later he started setting to music the text that he had, even before seeing the final act. By the middle of September these two acts were finished, around which time Handel's next letter said, in part:
I intreat you heartily to favour me Soon with the last Act, which I expect with anxiety, that I may regulate my Self the better as to the Lenght [sic] of it.
It doesn't take much detective work to read between the lines that Handel was alarmed at the length of Jennens's text. The composer had the final act by early October. His next letter finally says plainly what he had been hinting at since seeing the text for act one:
I received the 3rd Act, with a great deal of pleasure, as You can imagine, and You may believe that I think it a very fine and sublime Oratorio, only it is realy too long, if I should extend the Musick, it would last 4 Hours or more. I retrench'd already a great deal of the Musick, that I might preserve the Poetry as much as I could, yet still it must be shortned [sic].
He then goes on to suggest some alterations and to tell Jennens of his proposed cast of singers for the piece.
Belshazzar is one of the most amazing musical works of the 18th century, and one of Handel's most staggering creations. (I've adored it since discovering it in my 20s; I finally got to conduct it - once - in Adelaide in 2017.) For all his verbosity, Jennens's work is masterful. Yet Handel knew exactly what he was talking about; Jennens had created a monster. Handel completed the piece on 23 October and when Jennens arrived in London shortly afterwards they would no doubt have talked long and hard about the piece. Oh to have been a fly on the wall... [listen]
As it turned out, Handel omitted a large amount of the libretto but Jennens held his own work in such high esteem that when the word books were printed for the audience to follow in the performances, he insisted that his entire text be published, with the lines Handel omitted specially marked. Reading the entire text - which is printed in the front of the 19th century Chrysander edition - shows that Handel's instincts were spot on in every regard. Jennens's poetry may be lovely, but it does go on in far too much detail for setting to music.
Belshazzar tells the Biblical story (from the Book of Daniel) of the fall of the Babylon at the hands of the Persians. At the centre of the story is the famous episode of Belshazzar's feast, at which Belshazzar profanes the sacred vessels of Jerusalem. The writing of the mystical hand on the wall at the feast foretells Belshazzar's fall. Jennens envelopes this story within a larger narrative concerning the rise and fall of human empires, and treats the Persian King Cyrus as a willing instrument of the Jewish God. Wisdom and decorum are personified in the soprano role of Nitocris, Belshazzar's mother, one of the greatest dramatic roles for soprano Handel ever conceived. Only Dejanira in Hercules and one or two other such roles can compare to it for sheer depth of feeling, but the music Handel wrote for Nitocris is a gift to any singer brave enough to tackle it.
The chorus in Handel's oratorios usually represents a nation, or at least a nation's aspirations. Sometimes (as in Samson) it represents two opposing nations. But uniquely in Belshazzar the chorus represents three nations, and each given its own style of music. The Jews are austere and restrained, the Babylonians wild and worldly, while the Persians are warlike and belligerent. The chorus of Babylonians mocking Cyrus's attempts to besiege Babylon is simply wonderful. [listen]
The feast scene is delayed until the second act; the build up of tension in the first act is remarkable testament to Jennens's dramatic gifts. In the feast itself Belshazzar's drunken arias never quite fall to the point of slapstick. The dissolute King is always an object of disgust, never of humour. But the interruption of his revels with the sight of the hand of God writing on the wall wasn't matched until William Walton depicted the same horrific vision in his oratorio nearly 200 years later. [listen]
Clearly Handel was aware of the quality of both Hercules and Belshazzar and, caught up in the sweep of creating such masterpieces, must have assumed his audiences would be aware of it too. On 20 October 1744, three days before completing Belshazzar, he announced his new season. His previous seasons had been one or two six-performance subscriptions, or in the case of the last season, a single twelve-performance subscription. Now he proposed an unprecedented 24-performance season. Handel was skating on thin ice, and it showed that even approaching his 60th birthday he relished the cut and thrust of the theatrical marketplace. The thought of resting on his laurels clearly never entered his mind.
Back in the King's Theatre again, the subscription was planned to run over several months, and at first the performances were spread out by some weeks. It opened on 3 November with a revival of Deborah, but the second performance, scheduled for the 24th, was postponed after requests in the papers asked Handel to do so seeing most of his subscribers were "out of town".
Semele was given on the 1 and 8 December, after which Hercules had its premiere on 5 January (with a repeat performance on 12th). The opening night of Hercules was beset with difficulties, with one of the principal singers, Susanna Cibber, indisposed. This necessitated some re-allocation of arias (which would have been hurriedly learned by other singers) and the results under such circumstances are never satisfying, especially for a brand new work. But Handel's troubles were only beginning.
By mid-January it became clear to him that his gamble of mounting a 24-performance subscription wasn't paying off, and, having only managed six performances, he published a long apology in the press stating that he couldn't proceed with the season. He offered his subscribers three-quarters of their money back, to reflect the three-quarters of the season not given, but there were responses by others in the press encouraging subscribers to show their support for Handel by not asking for their refund.
Handel must have felt there was enough goodwill to continue in some fashion, so he re-started the season on 1 March and by 23 April had given a further ten performances, after which he reluctantly brought the season to a close. This period saw revivals of Samson, Saul and Joseph, after which came the premiere of Belshazzar. Susanna Cibber either continued to be unwell, or dropped out of Handel's cast altogether, as the premiere of Belshazzar was also beset by last minute reallocations of the solo work to account for her absence. The season ended with a revival of Messiah.
So with 16 out of 24 performances given, Handel's brave experiment came to an end. The music on offer was among his best, but he had misjudged the market. It seems that his music was as popular as ever; his works were being performed by others in London and elsewhere in England. But London in 1745 seems to have just tired of the theatre for a while, and as such this affected Handel adversely.
As if to draw a line under this venture, Handel vacated the King's Theatre, the venue in which (as the Queen's Theatre) he had had his first operatic triumph more than 30 years before. He never performed there again.
Handel was now 60 and he'd had one of his toughest seasons ever. He'd also produced some of his greatest music ever, but after the 1745 season ended he didn't rush, as he had in previous years, into the composition of new oratorios. He went into the country and stayed with friends, although as to who and where these friends were, we are none the wiser.
With one exception. In 1959 letters were published which revealed that in June 1745 Handel was a guest of the Earl of Gainsborough at his estate in Leicestershire. While he was there he was persuaded to write some music for a family performance of Milton's masque Comus, which had been popular in London since 1738.
Handel composed three songs, each concluding with the same short chorus. The music had long been presumed lost, but it was discovered by Anthony Hicks in 1969. It provides a tantalising, and almost solitary, insight into Handel's social life outside London's theatre. [listen]
Sometime in July or August Handel returned to London. One gets the impression he was licking his wounds, contemplating his future, or just depressed. At least that's the easiest way to interpret the fact that even though he was in London we know almost nothing of what he was doing at the end of 1745. He certainly wasn't composing any more oratorios.
Interestingly what he did compose was another Italian duet. Just as he'd composed those mysterious Italian duets in 1741 right before composing Messiah, now he created another, possibly his last composition to an Italian text. It was finished on 31 August and it's hard not to read something of Handel's probable mental state into the mood of the first of the work's two movements. And the text only underlines these sentiments: "Alas, in this mortal life the greatest happiness a heart can expect is to be free from care!" [listen]
Worse was to come. Not long after writing this Handel was reported as being seriously unwell again, and Jennens refers to him as being affected by madness. The Earl of Shaftesbury described Handel as being "a good deal disordered in his head". So in the autumn of 1745 Handel was in no fit state to contemplate organising a new season, and certainly not able to contemplate the creation of new works for such a season.
The next new work, such as it was, was some months off yet, and its creation would be spurred on by - of all things - an army heading south from Scotland. Handel's return to his public is the point at which we'll start the next instalment in our exploration of Handel's English world. We'll conclude for now, though, with happier music, the final chorus from Hercules which celebrates the elevation of Hercules to Olympus. [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.