Handel Israel in Egypt

19 March, 2011  |  7.30pm  |  Canterbury Cathedral <visit website>

Mary Bevan and Susanna Hurrell: soprano, David Allsopp: counter-tenor, Benjamin Hulett: tenor, Michael Pearce and Peter Cox: bass
The Hanover Band <visit website> (Leader: Madeleine Easton)
Canterbury Choral Society
Richard Cooke: Conductor

Programme Note

Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has much in common with his Messiah, written four years later. Neither work presents a drama with solo singers portraying particular characters, and both are settings of biblical texts compiled almost certainly by the same librettist, Charles Jennings, and both make much greater use of the chorus than any of his other oratorios. In the case of Israel in Egypt it is the people of Israel who are the ‘hero’.

At its first performances in 1739, Part I consisted of a lengthy textual re-working of his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, The Ways of Zion do mourn, under the title The Lamentation of the Israelites over the Death of Joseph, and this in turn was replaced in 1756 by a succession of numbers extracted from some of his earlier works. Because of the oratorio’s great length, this part is usually omitted today. In order, however, to avoid plunging straight into the tenor soloist’s introductory recitative, we open with the overture to Judas Maccabeus which is also a lamentation on the hardships of the Israelites.

We follow this with Part II which tells of the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians, their appeal to God, his inflicting on the land of a series of plagues, and the escape of the Israelites through the Red Sea. After an interval comes Part III, the “Song of Moses”, the Israelites long hymn of praise to God for the mercies vouchsafed them.

Handel, along with J.S.Bach, was one of the great composers of the Baroque, the two standing head and shoulders above most of their contemporaries. Today we are well acquainted with many of the rest, Domenico Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Telemann etc., but how many of us have heard of Stradella, Erba, Urio and Kerl? In Messiah, Handel was to ‘recycle’ some of his earlier pieces, but in Israel in Egypt he made use of much material from the compositions of those latter four composers. This was, of course, common practice at the time and was not regarded as in any way reprehensible; in any case Handel’s transformation of them was invariably superior to the originals. We are omitting one or two choruses where he did a great deal of borrowing. Where the work was entirely Handel’s, we find some of his best writing, particularly the opening and closing choruses.

The directness of the Old Testament words (‘the land brought forth frogs’, ‘blotches and blains broke forth on man and beast’, etc) powerfully convey the horrors of the plagues inflicted by Jehovah while providing Handel with the opportunity for some appealing musical illustration. The chorus ‘and there came all manner of flies’ is a good example of Handel’s use of borrowed material: after the introductory ‘He spake the word’ he represents the flies by the superimposition on an instrumental Serenata by Stradella of streams of fast demi-semi-quavers. As Donald Tovey witheringly put it, “Stradella wrote this chorus first, with the exception that ‘He’, the choral writing and the flies are omitted.”

The ‘Hailstone’ chorus once again draws upon Stradella’s work but the execution of it is Handel’s, and the chorus which follows, ‘He sent a thick darkness’, is Handel at his most powerful and harmonically inventive. The mood lightens as Jehovah leads the Israelites ‘forth like sheep’ with a beautiful melody (also borrowed) accompanied by pastoral flutes. The drying up of the Red Sea is evoked by the chorus’s only unaccompanied passage, and the first half ends with the escape of the Israelites and the engulfing of the pursuing Egyptian hoards by the returning waters.

Part III of the oratorio begins and ends with the Israelites song of triumph, singing praises to the Lord but gloating over the destruction of the Egyptians. Apart from the tenor’s recitatives and the alto’s description of the arrival of the frogs, there is nothing in the first half to occupy the soloists; they have more to sing in the second. There are three duets including the well-known ‘The Lord is a man of war’ for two basses, and some fine arias. Perhaps the finest chorus in the work is ‘The people shall hear’ with some wonderful music to the words ‘All the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away’, ‘They shall be as still as a stone’ and ‘Till thy people pass over, O Lord.’

The oratorio was popular at the end of the nineteenth century despite suffering from plodding tempi and enormous choirs. That most acerbic critic, George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1893, wished that for ‘The Lord is a man of war’ it could have been possible for the conductor “to find two singers capable of dealing with those chosen captains, instead of falling back on his four hundred tenors and basses ”, but as for “the thick darkness that might be felt, the hailstones and the fire mingled with the hail running along the ground, the waters overwhelming the enemy, the floods standing upright as a heap – these he worked up into tone-pictures that make it impossible to leave Israel unperformed . . .”

© John Andrewes