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    Handel’s Oratorios and the 18C English Thoughts-Part I

    Foreword: Messiah, Handel’s most influential oratorio, is always the favorite concert program in the recent Christmas time. As I know, Messiah was also performed in the Christmas season this year in Hong Kong.  The following article is about something interested to be found in the achievement of Handel’s oratorio. This is the first paper that I wrote while studying in the first year of undergraduate program. Interestingly, my perspective of the writing at that time was quite similar to the current historical research, that is, from the receptive side. As such, the following paper is about the receptive history of Handel’s oratorio in his day.


    George Frideric Handel, a German composer but with success of his career in England, undoubtedly, was a towering figure of the later baroque period. If Madame de Stael very perceptively remarked that Michelangelo was the “Bible’s painter”, Handel must then be called its composer. The number of his oratorios based on Biblical subjects runs to over thirty, for example, Messiah and Judas Macchabaeus. Their continual performance by people of every kind from the date of their composition to present proves their accessibility[1]. The success of Handel’s oratorios is not only its accessible music, but also the contribution of its librettos. Similar to Mozart accompanied with Ponte, Handel also had a lot of silent supporters, the librettists, such as Charles Jennens, James Miller and Thomas Morell. Although Handel did not write any of the librettos, he involved in editing the librettist’s texts, or principally cutting them. He absolutely recognized the importance of the librettos. The printed libretto-the wordbook-was an indispensable part of attendance at the oratorio. English audience customarily bought copies of the text in the theatre in order to read the words during the performance[2]. Therefore, it is no doubt that the success of the oratorios is largely the contribution of Handel. However, different views of Handel’s success of oratorio is not hard to be found in the major modern study of Handel’s English theatre works. For example, Winton Dean asserts that “in the modern opinion an almost complete failure largely because of its dreadful libretto, was popular in his own day.” He continues, ‘Samson suffers from an excess of diversionary airs…..’ and he states that at least eight of these are better omitted in the modern performance[3]. In order to understand what captured the interest of the original English audience, it is worth to explore how the meanings were conveyed from the librettos of Handel’s oratorio, and especially to recognize the impact on them of the thought of their time and to appreciate the artistic and moral criteria that influence their authors. The religious discourse, the moral teaching and the political ideology provide the entry point.

    It is almost impossible to understand the artworks, including the music, completely in 18thcentury without knowing the thoughts and ideas of the English of the same period. The dominant influences on mid-eighteenth-century English thought were religion and politics. They permeated life and art. The pulpit was the major public–address system. Sermons addressed and influenced every aspect of private and public life, of course, including art. Religious discussion, debates and even critics, were the major element of intellectual life. Religious publications dominated book production, and people believed that God supervised lives and could and would intervene with punishment on a personal or national scale if provoked by wrongdoing[4]. Such 18thCentury religious atmosphere nourished many of the Handel’s oratorio librettos.

    The 18th Century Anglican teaching stressed good works more than faith. Ethical social benevolence is the road to salvation. It was a time that concept of original sin was neglected, doctrine of redemption by grace was relaxed and humanity’s potential to fulfill the requirements of divine precepts in life was emphasized. Some versions of religion even secularized ethics to the extent of suggesting that men and women did not need God to teach them perfection[5]. At the same time, the English translation of Richard Simon’s Critical History of the Old Testamentdramatically undermined English Protestant faith in the integrity, inspiration and authority of Scripture. These scholarly criticisms of the text of Bible laid down the seedbeds of the freethinking deist movement in England[6]. Therefore, the years of the performances of Handel’s oratorios, 1732-1752, were the years of Biblical criticism and religious debate, even the years of the major Anglican rebuttals of deism. Under such chaotic background, the bases of Christianity were threatened. Did the concept of divine revelation was still important? Mercy, miracles and fulfillment of biblical prophecies were the main elements of truth and salvation? It is this extraordinary religious, as well as socio-cultural background that brings us to the understanding of how the circumstance influenced the librettos of the meaning conveyed in Handel’s oratorio.

    To be continued…….

    David Leung (theorydavid)
    2012-12-28 published

    [1] H.C. Landon, Handel and his world, Weiden and Nicolson, London, 1984, p133.


    [2] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp5-6, p23

    [3] Winton Dean, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990, pp631-7.

    [4] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp.8-9


    [5] Ruth, p.141.

    [6] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp141-142.

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