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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel's English World, Part 5: Warlike Flourishes

In late 1745 Handel, aged 60, had another bout of what appears to have been some sort of mental illness. Reports exist of him being "disordered in his head" and even though he seems to have recovered to some extent with rest, it's clear that he was in no fit state to consider composing large-scale oratorios for yet another risky season.

His last oratorio subscription season had ended in April 1745 in some embarrassment for the great man. Having rashly decided to offer an unprecedented season of 24 performances rather than the usual six or twelve, he struggled to make 16 before calling it quits. Now, in October, he had no new works ready to include in a new season of premieres and revivals such as he had mounted for some years.

We do well to remember that Handel still had a small income even when he wasn't performing. His royal pension of 200 pounds, granted decades before by Queen Anne, had been continued under George I and George II. We also know from Handel's surviving accounts at the Bank of England that there were times when his seasons made him a great deal of money. There were also times when he sailed precariously close to the wind, but while he came close, he was never bankrupt.

Hudson: George Frideric Handel (1741)

Still, it's clear that in late 1745 he was exhausted and unsure of where he would go artistically and commercially. What is also clear is that he never seems to have entertained thoughts of retirement. 60 was a good age in the mid-18th century, but Handel must have felt he had more to give, and more to prove. The man who in his 20s went to Italy "on his own bottom", without patronage and on his own terms, was even now as stubbornly independent as ever. And as a composer, we know from hindsight that he most certainly had plenty more to give.

But in late 1745 history intervened. It had been more than 30 years since the controversial establishment of the House of Hanover on the British throne and there were still rumblings of discontent among those who believed the Hanoverian kings - George I and II - were not the rightful rulers of the realm. On the death of Queen Anne in 1714 the throne had passed to Georg, Elector of Hanover, under the terms of the 1701 Act of Settlement which barred Catholics from the throne. Georg, who became George I, was more than 50 places down the line of succession, but he was the first available Protestant.

Were it not for the issue of religion, the throne would have gone to the Catholic James Francis Edward, son of the James II, as Anne had no surviving children. James II (a Catholic) fled England in 1688 in the course of the so-called Glorious Revolution which brought the Protestant William of Orange and Mary (daughter of James II) to the throne as joint monarchs. Anne, James II's daughter and Mary's younger sister, was also a Protestant, and succeeded William on his death in 1702.

James II had gone in to exile in France and had died there in 1701. His son, James Francis Edward, kept the Stuart cause alive despite the establishment of the house of Hanover and had maintained his claim to the throne in exile. He became known as the Old Pretender.

The Old Pretender's son, Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II, maintained the claim.

In 1743, while living in Rome, the Old Pretender made his son Prince Regent, giving him authority to rule in his name. In 1745 the Young Pretender mounted a military campaign to restore his father to the throne as James III. The Latin translation of James is Jacobus, hence the name given to the Stuart cause: the Jacobites.

Belle: Prince James Francis Edward Stuart ("The Old Pretender") (c. 1712)

The Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie as he became known, landed in Scotland in July 1745. Many of the clans supported the Jacobite cause and by September he held Edinburgh. With 6,000 men Charles crossed the border and marched south into England.

Ramsey: Prince Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") (c. 1745)

In London there was huge consternation at this news. While the English gathered their own army to march north, the outcome of this situation was for a while in real doubt. Theatres across London quickly included patriotic songs in their entertainments to bolster the public mood and even Handel played his part in this.

On 14 November, the Drury Lane Theatre included a patriotic song composed by Handel in its program. It was sung by one of Handel's tenors, Thomas Lowe, and a small chorus, and shortly afterwards it was published in The London Magazine. The song, "Stand round my brave boys", was called A Song made for the Gentleman Volunteers of the City of London. [listen]

That song seems to have been all Handel composed in the last four months of 1745. The nation wasn't in the mood for music as the Jacobites made it as far south as Derby by 4 December. Hearing rumours - which were false - of a massive army being sent against them, they retreated back into Scotland, but this only gave the English time to muster an actual army to head north. The Government forces were initially under the command of Field Marshall George Wade, but when he failed to counter the Jacobite incursion into England he was dismissed. His replacement was Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, the younger son of George II.

Reynolds: Price William, Duke of Cumberland (1758)

By the start of 1746 Handel was clearly feeling up to creating something more substantial and in January and February he composed his next English oratorio. The Occasional Oratorio is a work almost never performed today, but it is a fascinating curiosity, especially when the circumstances of its composition are properly understood. The "occasion" of the title is the Jacobite Rebellion itself and Handel wrote the work for exactly the same reason as he had written the song for Drury Lane: it was a work of propaganda, a contribution to the maintenance of public spirit in the face of adversity, and a reminder that (in the view of most Londoners) God was on the side of the House of Hanover and the Protestant cause.

Yet it's clear that Handel was far from being back in top form after his illness. This is not reflected in any lack of quality in the music, but in the fact that a substantial amount of the work is recycled from earlier pieces. Whenever Handel recycled large amounts of his own earlier music we can be sure that he was either unwell or in a hurry; here he was both.

The Occasional Oratorio set a libretto cobbled together probably by Newburgh Hamilton, who had worked for Handel before in adapting the texts of Alexander's Feast and Samson. Here Hamilton uses the Bible and Milton to make a text which speaks of pursuing and defeating the enemy and trusting in God. There's no real narrative and, at best, the libretto could best be described as a morale-raising exercise; the audience would have known exactly what was being suggested.

For his part Handel reused parts of Athalia, Israel in Egypt, the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, the music for Comus, and music written for George II's coronation (including a reworking of Zadok the Priest). But there is much that is new as well. In short, The Occasional Oratorio is a collection of "Handel's Greatest Hits" designed to raise the spirits of the people in the face of adversity. It anticipates victory over the Jacobites although at the time of Handel's performances this victory was still some two months away.

The work opens with a massive overture which is arresting and brilliant. The fact that the main melodic idea in the fast section was borrowed from Telemann would have been something probably only Handel would have known. [listen]

In the music specially composed for The Occasional Oratorio (rather than recycled) there is much that is first-rate. In Act One the soprano solo and chorus beginning, "Be wise at length, ye kings averse," encourages the nation to trust in God. The theatrical genius of the man comes to the fore in music designed to comfort a city in panic. In this music we hear a simple harmonic device - the movement of the music to the subdominant - which to ears versed in traditional western harmony conveys an unmistakable sense of calm and repose. Mozart knew this; so did Handel, and the music is in Handel's "repose" key of E major. It ticks all the boxes. [listen]

Handel was not beyond a reference to popular culture in his score. After all, the "occasion" of the title was as current as you can get. On at least two occasions he made an unmistakable reference to Rule Britannia. This song came from Thomas Arne's opera Alfred, which had been premiered only six years before. In 1745 Rule Britannia had started to be sung by theatre audiences in London as part of the patriotic fervour being whipped up during the Young Pretender's threatened invasion.

In Act Two of The Occasional Oratorio the aria, "Prophetic visions strike my eye," unmistakably quotes the opening of Rule Britannia when the soprano first sings the words, "War shall cease, welcome peace". His audience couldn't have failed to notice. [listen]

Handel gave three performances of The Occasional Oratorio at the Covent Garden theatre in February 1746. They were his only performances in that season and they were given in an attempt to compensate for the shortfall of his over-ambitious season the previous year. During the course of the season he turned 61.

Bonnie Prince Charlie's attempt to wrest the British throne from the Hanoverian dynasty ended bloodily on 16 April, 1746 at the Battle of Culloden. On a field near Inverness the Duke of Cumberland earned his sobriquet "Butcher". Between 1,500 and 2,000 Jacobite soldiers were killed or wounded and Cumberland's subsequent crackdown on the fleeing enemy forces was brutal. On the Government side the losses were relatively light: 50 killed, 259 wounded. Over the longer term, the rebellious Scottish highland clans were targeted so as to weaken Gaelic culture and bring them to heel.

A contemporary engraving depicting the executions of Kilmarnock and Balmerino at Great Tower Hill, on 18 August 1746

"Butcher" Cumberland was hailed as a popular hero and Handel joined the throng. His first tribute to the military commander was a song which was published in The London Magazine in July, three months after Culloden. The Song on the Victory obtained over the Rebels is a bit of popular tub-thumping, but it interestingly contains melodic fragments from two other Handel works, one past and one future. The main tune begins very much like an aria from Ariodante (written the decade before) and it ends with a fragment which three years later showed up in the major key minuet from the Music for the Royal Fireworks. [listen]

The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and the Battle of Culloden in 1746 led to Handel discovering a new way forward in his art. In writing these songs and The Occasional Oratorio in response to a major public crisis, Handel went to his audience, rather than expecting them to come to him. He had been working to create and lead public taste for decades, and he was often successful, although at times he failed spectacularly. Now, in deliberately courting the public on their terms and in recognising their needs and aspirations, Handel must have realised he could mine this seam a lot more.

And mine it he did. His next work in honour of the Duke of Cumberland was much more than a simple song; this time it was a whole oratorio. For a month - from early July to early August, 1746 - he composed Judas Maccabaeus, for the first time setting a libretto by Rev Thomas Morell. Morell's libretto was his version of a story from the Old Testament Apocrypha which tells simply and plainly the story of a national hero who saves his country from oppression. [listen]

Morell's libretto is clear, direct and occasionally gauche, but the mood of the times demanded clear and direct...and even occasionally gauche. Gone is the subtle character development and human drama of Hercules and Belshazzar; in their place is energy and pageantry, and the formula worked.

The overt militarism of Judas Maccabaeus appealed to the mood of the time, and Morell's libretto appealed to Handel who needed simple, direct sentiments in order to capitalise on the public sentiment. Morell's libretto explicitly stated that it was designed as a compliment to the Duke of Cumberland, although it avoids any mention of his more bloodthirsty repression of the Scots and Prince Charles's army. This simple directness, and Handel's gift for setting the right tone for the right words, mean that Judas has always been one of Handel's more popular oratorios. It has to be said, though, that many of Handel's most ardent admirers (myself included) find Judas difficult to love. After the glories of Hercules and Belshazzar (and much else), it seems two-dimensional and - like those patriotic songs - faintly embarrassing. [listen]

Yet the tone of Judas is not unrelentingly martial; Handel the theatre composer knew better than that, and Morell gave him the dramatic light and shade he required. The threat of invasion and revenge in the second act brought forth from Handel music of dark beauty to set the words, "Ah! wretched, wretched Israel! Fall'n, how low, / From joyous transport to desponding woe". These sentiments Handel's audience would have well remembered. [listen]

Doré: Judas Maccabeus before the army of Nicanor

After completing Judas on 11 August 1746, Handel seems to have kept a low profile. Very little is known of him for the rest of the year but certainly plans must have been underway for his next oratorio season.

This next season saw a couple of innovations. Most notably it wasn't offered on a subscription basis. Maybe he had been badly shaken by the failure of the subscription method in 1745, but perhaps this change simply reflected a new mood in the London theatre market; it's hard to say. Abandoning subscription sales meant that he depended simply on single ticket sales for every performance. He could then keep performing or stop as the market dictated.

The other innovation was the use of the word "Lent" in his marketing. Handel's seasons had been evolving in this direction for some years but now he officially called his 1747 season at Covent Garden a season of "Lent Oratorios". Aligning his season with the period of Lent (the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, traditionally a period of reflection and penitence) gave his performances a tag, an easily memorable niche, and he stayed with this designation and performance period for the rest of his life.

The 1747 season ran from 6 March to 15 April and included revivals of The Occasional Oratorio and Joseph and his Brethren as well as the premiere performances of Judas Maccabaeus. Judas was an immediate hit and Handel's accounts show that after paying all his performers he could still bank 250 pounds after its third performance. The following year he made at least 800 pounds after six performances of the work. The re-connection with his audience must have done him a great deal of good; it had been a long time coming.

Another reason for the enormous popular success of Judas was possibly the fact that there was no official, large-scale public celebration of Cumberland's victory over the rebels. George II wisely avoided any such grandstanding when the victory, to quote Donald Burrows, "involved the King's army killing the King's subjects". Now, a year after the Battle of Culloden, there was finally in Judas Maccabaeus a grand expression of the public mood which the public could attend. In other words, it expressed what people wanted to hear.

As we've seen in past instalments in this series, Handel went to great lengths to make his oratorio performances major attractions and part of this was the inclusion of instrumental concertos. The organ concertos had been major attractions in the 1730s and early 1740s, and the Opus 6 concerti grossi would also have been included in his programs. They would have been performed between the acts, or sometimes during the course of an act, at appropriate dramatic breaks in the story, and in the late 1740s Handel added to this repertoire with three spectacular new pieces.

Among Handel's instrumental concertos are three works scored for two wind choirs and string orchestra. These are some of his largest scale instrumental pieces, in terms of parts and complexity, and yet they are almost never performed today. Handel simply called them "concerto" but when they were published in the 19th century by Friedrich Chrysander, they were given the clumsy Italian title of Concerti a due cori (Concertos for two choirs). This title has more or less stuck but it creates confusion when the uninitiated expect vocal choirs instead of instrumental ones.

Still, the pieces themselves are spectacular. Two of them call for four oboes, four horns and two bassoons, divided into two antiphonal bodies each side of the string orchestra. The other concerto doesn't use horns but has choirs of oboes and bassoons only.

In all these pieces Handel reworks music from his past, combined with some music which was newly-composed. The operas and the oratorios, even the early birthday ode for Queen Anne, provide raw material which Handel adapts for this combination of duelling wind bands and strings.

The first documented performance of one of these concertos took place during Judas Maccabaeus in the premiere season in 1747; the concerto itself (HWV334) is called the Concerto in Judas Maccabaeus in an early copy from Handel's lifetime. This concerto contains the least borrowing from earlier works; at least three or four of the movements are apparently completely new. The sound is lavish and it shows Handel could be theatrical even with no text to set whatsoever. I can't help thinking that the success of the first performances of Judas Maccabaeus would have been in part due to this gorgeous music with the two bodies of wind instruments throwing their music from one side of the theatre to the other. [listen]

The success of Handel's non-subscription season in 1747, and the appeal which the two military oratorios had obviously had for the public, led him to repeat the formula. Clearly feeling more like his old self, he requested two more librettos from Morell along the same lines as Judas. The speed with which Handel set these to music during the summer of 1747 shows that at 62 he could still work as fast as he always had. The first of these, Alexander Balus, took a month and three days and was finished on 4 July. Two weeks later he started work on Joshua and this took exactly a month to complete; it was finished on 19 August.

Alexander Balus, again, is almost completely ignored today. The story is not a familiar one but its source is the same as that of Judas Maccabaeus, the Book of Maccabees from the Old Testament Apocrypha. Taking place in the middle of the second century BC, it is far more complex, involving the treachery of Ptolomee, King of Egypt, towards Alexander Balus, King of Syria, and the alliance between Israel and Syria. Alexander marries Cleopatra Thea, the daughter of Ptolomee (not the famous Cleopatra associated with Caesar and Antony), but the ending is tragic when Alexander is executed, enabling Handel to give Cleopatra one of the finest laments he ever wrote. The ending is unusually but appropriately muted, with some of Handel's most unusual settings of the words "hallelujah" and "amen", in the minor key.

Alexander Balus and Cleopatra Thea

Alexander Balus most definitely does not deserve the obscurity it now suffers. Most fascinating for me, having conducting Handel's opera Julius Caesar many times, are the emotional parallels between that opera and this oratorio. I can only assume that the exotic setting in Egypt and the presence of a character called Cleopatra (even if it isn't the same Cleopatra) sparked some sort of connections for Handel and reminded him of the music he wrote in the opera 23 years before. The fast section of the overture to Alexander Balus starts with repeated notes and bubbles along in exactly the same way the fast section of the overture to Julius Caesar does. [listen]

Cleopatra's first aria is a tribute to Alexander which immediately reminds us of the other Cleopatra's seductive entertainment for Caesar in Act Two of the opera. In the oratorio aria, Handel employs a lavish array of instruments, including flutes, mandolin, harp and pizzicato strings to accompany Cleopatra's aria of homage which invokes the name of the god Apollo. [listen]

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the tenor soloist in Alexander Balus plays the role of Jonathan, the leader of the Israelites. Handel's tenor was Thomas Lowe, about whom contrary reports have come down to us. He was reputed to have not been blessed with great intelligence, yet he must have had a phenomenal technique if he could sing this aria, which Handel specifically wrote for him. [listen]

Thomas Lowe (1778)

It's clear that in commissioning Morell to write two more Biblical military librettos along the lines of Judas Maccabaeus, Handel was wanting to capitalise on a successful precedent. But Alexander Balus and its companion piece, Joshua, contain romantic subplots, a feature which is lacking in Judas, and these provide much-needed emotional contrast from the otherwise relentless narrative of victory, defeat, death and liberty.

The love story of Cleopatra and Alexander in Alexander Balus is woven wonderfully into the libretto and is pivotal to the drama. The libretto for its companion piece, Joshua, is less well-crafted, though, and its various scenes (including the love story between Achsah and Othniel) are more a series of events than a seamless narrative. This may reflect the haste with which Handel was working and he may have been pushing Morell to finish quickly.

Still, Joshua contains some wonderful music and it was immensely popular in Handel's day and throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. It is rarely heard today although to date I've had the privilege of conducting it twice (in Melbourne and in Adelaide).

One of the greatest moments in Joshua comes near the start of the second act where the story is told of the destruction of Jericho. The Ark of the Covenant is taken around the city during a solemn march, after which the chorus sings praises to God in order to make the walls of Jericho fall. The middle section of the chorus vividly depicts the collapse of the walls and the panic of the people at the words, "The nations tre-e-e-e-emble". For the chorus Handel reworks music he wrote as part of a Latin psalm setting in Rome forty years before. [listen]

The other moment in the score I think is extraordinary - and one Handel's audiences seem to have loved as well - is at the end of Act Two, telling the story of Joshua commanding the sun and moon to stand still, so as to give the Israelites enough daylight to win an important battle. Handel makes us see in our minds the sun rise into the sky, and as Joshua sings the word "stop", the note A is sustained in the violins. As the chorus enters the held A is transferred to the oboes and then to the first trumpet. The effect is simple yet stunningly effective. Eventually the music dies away as we are told the of the enemy's humiliation: "Breathless they pant, they yield, they fall, they die." [listen]

Martin: Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (1816)

With the completion of the score of Joshua on 19 August 1747, Handel could relax a little, knowing he had ample material on hand for a new Lenten season the following year. Again we know very little of his movements for the remainder of 1747 although it was probably around this time he wrote some sacred music on a much more intimate scale. Handel was a contemporary of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his brother, the great hymn writer Charles Wesley. The first wave of Methodism was affecting the Anglican church at this time and while there is no evidence that Handel met either of the Wesleys, he did set three of Charles Wesley's hymn texts to music.

Russell: Charles Wesley

It's possible that this was undertaken at the suggestion of Penelope Rich, the third wife of the theatre impresario John Rich (who owned the theatre at Covent Garden where Handel performed). Handel was connected with the family as a music teacher and Penelope Rich had strong Methodist sympathies.

The hymns were not written in the way we think of hymns today, for voices in four parts, and neither were they intended for public worship. Handel's settings are much simpler - a melody line with a continuo bass - and they were intended for private devotions in the home. They have since been arranged by others for conventional use in church. Two of the hymns (Sinners obey the gospel word and O Love divine, how sweet thou art) are not well known today, but the third, Rejoice the Lord is King, is still widely used, with Handel's tune being given the name "Gopsal". This arrangement is by John Wilson. [listen]

Handel's Lenten season for 1748 opened on 26 February - the first Friday in Lent - and performances generally took place on Wednesdays and Fridays. This season consisted of 13 performances of only three works: revivals of Judas Maccabaeus and the premiere performances of Joshua (four) and Alexander Balus (three). This made the season rather uniform in tone - three military oratorios - and has led to speculation regarding the ways in which these works were viewed by his public. It has been fashionable for a long while to say that given the victory over Bonnie Prince Charlie, the British - and particularly the English - viewed themselves as God's chosen people, thereby identifying with the nation of Israel in Handel's bellicose compositions. I find this rather hard to accept and agree with Donald Burrows that it seems more likely that the public wanted to put the horrors of 1745 and 46 behind them.

Rather, the staunchly Biblical tone of the Morell oratorios chimes in well with the general religious ambience of the period. Not only were the Wesleys encouraging a revival of personal piety within the Anglican church (and without) but the associated wave of new evangelism which swept through the Anglican church in the mid-18th century led to a stronger sense of interest and commitment to religion in general. Thus Handel's oratorios - performed in Lent, a time of heightened spiritual reflection - connected perfectly with the tone of the times yet again, and this goes a long way to explaining their popularity.

In the 1748 season Handel also included more of the concerti a due cori which had first been heard in Judas the previous year. The second and third concertos were heard in the seasons of Joshua and Alexander Balus, and they draw extensively on musical ideas in Handel's operas, oratorios and church music.

The concerto without horns was almost certainly linked with Joshua. The other concerto would therefore have been heard in Alexander Balus and it's one of Handel's most impressive instrumental works. Two movements from the 1718 version of Esther are reworked to open the concerto, which goes on to reshape material from Messiah, the Queen Anne birthday ode, Esther again, one of the Chandos anthems and The Occasional Oratorio. Handel's long term audience members must have loved playing "spot the tune". [listen]

Handel's 1748 season seems to have been a success although there is not a lot of evidence indicating how it went. At 63 Handel seemed reinvigorated and reinspired to create and - even more importantly - to innovate. His oratorio seasons might have become familiar and much-loved fixtures in London's theatrical calendar but he was far from resting on his laurels. Five oratorios, one his most famous orchestral works, and other substantial creations still lie in wait for us. In our next and final instalment in Handel's English World we'll look at the end of Handel's career and cast our eyes over the sublime masterpieces he produced in the final eleven years of his life.

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.

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