Handel and Haydn's Israel in Egypt

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Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus and Orchestra perform George Frederic Handel's Israel in Egypt, a dramatic telling of struggle and freedom through the Exodus as reflected in text from the Bible, recorded in concert at Symphony Hall in Boston in February 2011.

You can hear the entire concert in two parts on demand here.  Further down the page, you'll find a video preview from Harry Christophers, as well as video program notes in three chapters, as well as full written program notes.

Part 1 of Handel's Israel in Egypt



Part 2 of Handel's Israel in Egypt













The Handel and Haydn Society performed Israel in Egypt on February 13, 1859. By that time, the piece was firmly ensconced in the concert repertoire as being second only to Handel’s Messiah. The origins of the work in London in the 1730s, however, were less auspicious.

Composed between October 1, and November 1, 1738 and premiered in London the following year, Israel in Egypt is one of only two Handel oratorios with texts taken directly from the Bible; other texts were gleaned from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The librettist is not known, but scholars suggest that Charles Jennens, librettist for Messiah, the only other Handel oratorio with a Biblical text, compiled this libretto as well. Unlike his other oratorios, Israel in Egypt contains more choral movements than solo ones. This may be one reason why the work was not enthusiastically received at its premiere in London at the King’s Theater on April 4, 1739. Handel, as was his custom, made changes for subsequent performances, adding more solo movements and shortening some of the choruses.

The mood in London at this time also had an impact on the reception of this oratorio. England was ruled by King George II who was also the Elector of Hanover and therefore part of the select group who sanctioned and supported the Holy Roman Empire, which was firmly in the hands of the Austrian family, the Habsburgs. Thus, England was allied with Austria. For some English subjects in the 1730s, this association was another reminder that their king and his wife, Queen Caroline, were foreign-born monarchs. This was not an issue for supporters of King George II, but for those who felt the throne had been usurped by Hanoverians, this alliance rankled. Handel and his music became unwittingly involved in this situation because Handel was also German-born and enjoyed the favor of the royal family despite the opposition to him and his opera companies mounted by some English noblemen. Moreover, in the press Handel was associated with Sir Robert Walpole, a leading figure in the government of George II. Walpole’s unpopular policies, such as the Excise Tax, were conflated with Handel’s own business practices and transformed Handel into the public face of many attacks on the government.

Despite the political overtones imposed on his works by the press, Handel continued the oratorio performances begun in the early 1730s. With Israel in Egypt, the extra-musical message seemed to apply to all aspects of politics in England, which was facing several crises simultaneously. In 1733, the War of Polish Succession tested the alliance between England and Austria especially when England did not contribute direct military support due to Walpole’s policies. Also in the 1730s, Spanish ships boarded and searched English merchant ships. Public reaction in England called for a quick and strong response. That response did not come until 1739 when England began what was called the War of Jenkins’ Ear, named for a published picture showing the Spanish attacking an English sailor.

Internal strife also affected life in England. There was opposition not only to the Hanoverian monarchy but also to Sir Robert Walpole. The leading opponent to Walpole, Lord Bolingbroke, attempted to limit Walpole’s power at about the same time Israel in Egypt premiered. Because of this, the idea of dissent, enslavement, and the desire to be delivered from an unjust government resonated with the press and members of the audience. Reviews of the first performances openly associated England’s political troubles with Israel’s plight. The desire of some for the return of the “true” royal family, the Stuarts, was another point for domestic uncertainty; they, too, looked to this oratorio as a source of inspiration. The ability of this story to be interpreted in so many diverse and even contradictory ways is a testament to the power and appeal of Handel’s music.

The number and variety in the choral movements sets Israel in Egypt apart from Handel’s other oratorios. The chorus does not just comment on the narrative; it actively participates in telling the story. The oratorio is divided into three parts: The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph, The Exodus, and Moses’ Song. The music for Part 1 references earlier compositions. Parts 2 and 3 were composed in reverse order.

As a whole, Part 1 is a reworking of Handel’s Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline. Within the opening chorus, Handel borrows from the motet “Behold how the righteous man dies” (Ecce quomodo moritur justus) by the 16th-century composer Jacob Handl (Gallus). A meditative and serene quality emerges out of the initial feeling of sadness and mourning as Handel weaves varying textures with the vocal and instrumental parts.

Part 2, The Exodus, begins with the announcement that a new king of Egypt has taken the throne and does not treat the Israelites with compassion. God then calls Moses to aid the Israelites and lead them from slavery. The depictions of the plagues and the passage through the Red Sea contain some of Handel’s most vivid writing. In “The land brought forth frogs” the short-long rhythmic pattern and leaping melodic figures portray the movement of these animals. Similarly, in “And there came all manner of flies” the running notes in the violins are as incessant as the pestilence they represent. Further on, the oboes and bassoon enter with the chorus to relate a new plague: locusts.

Handel also uses text painting to express more general feelings. The descending line in the orchestra that begins the chorus “He sent a thick darkness” and the chromatically rising and falling line in the vocal parts convey the oppressive nature of this text (“even this darkness which might be felt”). This movement contrasts with the lilting melody and pedal tones Handel employs for the pastoral setting of “But for his people.”

In “But the water overwhelmed their enemies” the orchestration again underscores the text with timpani rumbles, triplet figures in the strings, and melodic leaps in the violins, viola and oboes. Here too, Handel goes beyond the depiction of specific words to reflect the overall emotion of the scene.

In Part 3, images of crossing the Red Sea are conveyed differently in the chorus “And with the blast of thy nostrils;” steady notes in the voice and oboe confine the fast figuration in the first violins to reflect the text “the flood stood upright.”

In the final chorus, a recitative recounting the safe passage of the Israelites through the sea separates two choral exclamations of “The Lord shall reign.” A third iteration of this text begins with alternating passages for soprano and chorus. In the orchestra, trumpets and trombones contribute to the regal sound and at “for he hath triumphed gloriously” Handel creates distinct vocal lines, expanding the sound to a joyous celebration of all the people.

Scored for soloists, two choruses, and an orchestra consisting of oboes, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, timpani, strings, continuo and organ, Israel in Egypt is a monumental work. Through Handel’s unparalleled skill of story telling in music, this oratorio speaks to audiences today as powerfully as it did in Handel’s own time.

Program notes prepared by Teresa M. Neff, Ph.D.
2010–2011 Historically Informed Performance Fellow



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