Handel: Israel in Egypt

img_2416Highgate Choral Society’s March Concert features one of the great oratorios by George Frederick Handel “Israel in Egypt”.

The concert takes place on Saturday, 10 March 2018 at 7pm at All Hallow’s Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP. 

Highgate Choral Society will be joined by five wonderful soloists and the New London Orchestra. The concert will be conducted by Ronald Corp. 

1. Israel in Egypt (HWV 54) is an oratorio by George Frederick Handel. It is scored for six soloists (2 sopranos, alto, tenor and 2 bass soli), chorus and orchestra. In our performance the mezzo soprano soloist will sing the alto and the second soprano solo parts.

2. Handel was a very prolific composer of operas. His first opera Almira was premiered on 8 January 1705 in Hamburg. During his life he wrote 42 operas. Typically the libretto of an opera was in Italian and there was great emphasis on virtuoso solo arias and elaborate staging and costumes. When Handel visited London the first time (in 1711), it was mainly because his opera Rinaldo was to be performed there. But opera was not the only genre in which Handel set a dramatic libretto to music. As early as 1707 / 1708 Handel wrote two works which he called “oratorios” in Italy: Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La Resurrectione (1708). Both were written for Rome and both were oratorios and not operas, because operas were forbidden in Rome since Pope Innocence XI papal edict in 1681. These works did not have staging, costumes and acting, but were otherwise operas in everything but name. Handel returned to writing oratorios in London with the oratorio Esther. It was probably first performed in 1718 in a private performance and then in a heavily revised form in 1732 in the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket in London. Esther was the first oratorio based on a story taken from the Old Testament of the Bible and written to an English libretto.

In the 1730s Handel found it more and more difficult to be successful with Italian opera in London. From 1733 the situation became worse because of the competition by a second opera company, the rival “Opera of the Nobility” which was supported by a group of nobles (including Frederick, Prince of Wales). This competition and the declining interest of the public in operas resulted in the bankruptcy of Handel’s opera company in 1737. In the season 1738 / 1739 it was impossible to attract enough subscriptions to mount an opera season. Handel decided that if he could not afford an opera season then he would try an oratorio season with oratorios in English. Oratorios were cheaper to put on, because they did not need costumes and staging. They also had two additional advantages: The religious authorities in England did not allow stage productions of biblical stories and did not allow any stage productions during Lent. A concert style oratorio was the solution to all these problems.

3. Handel wrote the oratorio Saul which was premiered on 16 January 1739 for the beginning of the 1738 / 1739 oratorio season. Israel in Egypt was the second oratorio in this season. The premiere was on 4 April 1739 in the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket, London.  Handel wrote Israel in Egypt in an incredible short time of only one month (1 October – 1 November 1738). Initially the oratorio had three parts. Handel started work on the third part first (“Moses’ Song“) and wrote it between 1 October and 11 October 1738, then he wrote the second part (“Exodus”) between 15 and 20 October 1738. The time until 28 October 1738 he used for instrumentation of the work. Two years earlier he had written an anthem for the funeral of George II’s consort, Queen Caroline. It had the title The Ways of Zion Do Morn and Handel used the work (with only small changes in the words) as the first part of Israel in Egypt which he called “The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph“.  For a revival of the work about twenty years later in 1756 Part one was removed and substituted with music from other works. In later performances a two part version (with only the original parts two and three) was generally preferred. We will perform the two part version of Israel in Egypt. This version does not have an overture and starts immediately with a short recitative. Our performance will start with the overture from the oratorio Susanna which Handel composed in summer 1748 and which had its premiere on 10 February 1749 in Covent Garden Theatre, London.

4. Israel in Egypt is in many ways an exceptional oratorio. It is one of only two oratorios which uses text exclusively from the Bible (without any paraphrases and interpolation). The other oratorio is Messiah. The text for the libretto is taken from the book Exodus and some passages from Psalms 78, 105 and 106 which retell and reflect the story in Exodus. It is not entirely clear whether Handel chose the text himself or whether Charles Jennens who wrote the libretto for Saul and who put the text together for Messiah also helped with the libretto of Israel in Egypt. 

The other reason why it is an exceptional oratorio is that it does not tell the story of one specific individual hero. It rather celebrates the story of the people of Israel, starting with their oppression in Egypt, their exodus and a celebration of their victory and their salvation. For that reason the choir is the main protagonist of the oratorio and the choruses clearly dominate the work. There are only very few recitatives, arias and duets. The first audience was not expecting this extensive use of the chorus and that was one of the main objections to the work in Handel’s lifetime.

5. Part one consists of only two recitatives (for tenor soloist) and one aria (for alto soloist). The other 13 movements are choruses. Part two has 23 movements. The majority of these movements are again choruses (15), but part two contrasts the choruses with two recitatives (for tenor soloist), three duets (one for two sopranos, one for two basses and one for alto and tenor) and three solo arias (one for tenor, one for soprano and one for alto).

a) Part one (“Exodus”) starts with a short recitative in which a tenor soloist sets the scene: a new king reigns in Egypt and this leads to the oppression of the Israelites. The first chorus (double choir) gives a voice to the people and describes the burdens and bondage of the people of Israel. The next recitative (again sung by a tenor soloist) introduces Moses and Aaron who will rescue the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt. The next five choruses and the only aria in Part one (for alto soloist) speak about the ten biblical plagues: God turns water into blood (chorus), sends frogs – even to the king’s chamber in the palace, brings disease over the cattle and other livestock and boils over the Egyptians (aria for alto). The following chorus (for double choir) speaks about three plagues: flies, lice and locusts which devour the fruits of the ground. Next follows the hailstorm which brings hail and lightening (chorus – double choir), a darkness for three days (chorus) and finally the death of all the firstborns (chorus).

After all these plagues the Israelites are finally allowed to leave (chorus) and the Egyptians are glad that they do so (chorus). However the Egyptians change their mind and go after the Israelites. The culmination of part one comes in the following two choruses (both for double choir): God gives Moses the power to divide the Red Sea and lead the people of Israel safely through dry ground with a wall of water on both sides. When the Egyptian king and his army follow, the water returns and kills everyone (chorus). Part one closes with two choruses (one for double choir) which acknowledge the greatness and power of God.

b) Part two (“Moses’ Song“) is primarily a celebration of the victory described in part one.  It sets Chapter 15 of the book Exodus almost completely. The part starts with two choruses (both for double choir) which celebrate God’s triumph. The following duet for two sopranos is more contemplative and sets the text “the Lord is my strength and my song, he is become my salvation”. Solemn and joyful choruses follow in this part and arias and duets – some are prayerful, other are martial like the duet for two bass soloists “the Lord is a man of war”.

The last movements round off the whole work in an affirmative way. The double choir sings “the Lord shall reign for ever and ever” after a short tenor recitative a reprise of the same setting for double choir follows. The final chorus which is again preceded by a short tenor recitative has a more elaborate version of the same sentiment and sets an extended version of the text. This chorus brings the work to a triumphant and celebratory end.

6.  Perhaps because of the haste in which it was written Israel in Egypt contains only comparatively little original music by Handel. Examples of completely original pieces are the chorus “And I will exalt him” and the tenor aria “The enemy said”. Both are in part two. There is a high proportion of borrowings from other composer. Altogether ten movements across both parts contain music taken from the Magnificat by Milanese composer Dionigi Erba (1692-1730). Five movements include music borrowed from a cantata by another Italian composer Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682). In addition Handel used music from an instrumental piece by Stradella for the choruses “He spake the word” and “He gave them hailstones”. The chorus “Egypt was glad” is based on an organ canzona by the German composer Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693). Other music which Handel uses is by Giovanni Gabrieli (1554/1557-1612) and Francesco Urio (1631-1719). To adapt and borrow music of other composers was not unusual in Handel’s time as there were no copyright protections. But it is remarkable how much Handel borrowed and how much he made it his own to produce a musical cohesive work which uses different technics of choral settings, including settings for double choir, elaborate fugues, cantus firmus themes and also choral settings were all voices sing in one thunderous block of sound.

Also remarkable is Handel’s extensive use of word painting in this oratorio. The descending phrases in the first chorus of part one depict the “sighing” which the text mentions. The music imitates the images in the text in particular in the movements about the plagues: the leaping figures in the violins for the frogs and the buzzing strings for the flies and lice. The movement about the “hailstones” start with only a few chords. Then the music becomes more agitated as if the hailstones get more frequent and the timpani sound like a thunderstorm. Similar word paintings occurs also in part two. A good example is the galloping rhythm in the two choruses which mention the “the horse and its rider”.

7. Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was initially not very popular. It was only performed twice in 1739. Also when the oratorio was performed in 1756 in a revised version it was not a great success.

The reception of the work changed after Handel’s death. There was a revival performance in 1784 to celebrate the centenary of  Handel’s birth (one year early). The audience which included Joseph Haydn was very enthusiastic. During Victorian times the oratorio became one of the favourite pieces of choral societies. Thanks to Felix Mendelssohn, who got to know the manuscript on one of his visits to England, it was also performed in Germany with great success. He conducted Israel in Egypt on 26 May 1833 in Düsseldorf, 1836 in Leipzig and 1844 in Berlin. He performed it with a German text, wrote an overture, cut some of the movements and changed some of the instrumentation. In a letter he describes vividly the performance in Düsseldorf which even included costumes and a kind of staging.

One of the earliest recordings ever made was of a chorus of Israel in Egypt. It was made on 29 June 1888 during a performance at the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace, London (with a choir of 4000 singers) and can be heard on YouTube.


2 thoughts on “Handel: Israel in Egypt

  1. Thank you for this extensive and informative report on Handel’s Israel in Egypt. Just one comment I’d like to make.It is very unusual to call the people of Israel the “Israelite people”. The name more commonly used is “the Israelites” or “the people of Israel”.

    Liked by 1 person

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