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    Handel’s Oratorios and the 18 Century English Thoughts – Part II

    Foreword: This is the continue part of the previous article about Handel’s oratorios.


    In the Part II of Judas Macchabaeus, author Morell writes:


    To Heav’n let Glory, and all Praise be given;

    To Heav’n give your Applause,

    Nor add the second Cause,

    As once your Fathers did in Midian

    Saying, The Sword of God and Gideon,

    It is the Lord, who for his Israelfought,

    And this our wonderful Salvation wrought.


      The above text provides a typical answer. Like many other Handel’s librettos of Israelite oratorio, albeit hedge the bets, the point of defending the Christianity is still clear. Morell’s commitment to the defence of Christianity is rather endearing. Here he contributes directly to the orthodox defence of the evidence of miracles and places great emphasis on God’s salvation and mercy, but at the same time, adding rational explanation to meet the Anglican’s teaching. Although contemporary biblical commentaries by orthodox believers reflect the difficulties inherent in the rationalist position in their attempt to present miraculous events as both mysterious and explicable, the librettists of the Israelite oratorios try to have it both ways, giving a rational explanation, or simply the ‘second cause’ while claiming divine intervention. In Belshazzar, Cyrus conquer Bablyon with intelligent strategy as well as the aid of a God-sent dream; in Jephtha, Jephtha has skills of an outstanding general as well as the support of cherubim and seraphim; and in Joshua, Joshua’s men have courage as well as the help of a stationary sun by God to win the battle[1].


      The deists also tried to attack the traditional plank of ‘proof’ by discrediting the application to Jesus of the Old Testament prophesies of the Messiah and of the miracles he would realize. Charles Jennens, another librettist of the well-known Handel’s oratorios of Messiah, Saul, Israel in Egypt and Belshazzar, stands clearly on the side of defending the Christianity. He again paid attention on the Old Testament and to prompt renewed efforts to validate Christian revelation and its concurrence with the Gospels. The traces of this part of the debate in his librettos are particularly striking. In the libretto of Messiah, Jennens showed the parallels of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment and the ‘harmony of the gospels’ with each other, and the actual verbal correspondences between Old and New Testament texts. Although the deists had pointed out that citations of the Old Testament in the New do not always correspond to the Old Testament text as we have it, Joseph Hallet jnr (1729-1736), a famous scholar, asserted that ‘among almost three hundred citations the far greatest part are exact’, while only ‘about twenty differ’. At least fifty one of the eighty biblical verses in Jennens’ libretto are either conscious quotations, or echoes, of the Old Testament in the New, for example, Isaiah XL.3, heard in the opening recitative, is quoted in Matthew III.3, Mark I.3, Luke III.4 and John I.23[2]. As a result, the 18th Century religious thoughts absolutely have a great impact on the librettos of Handel’s oratorio. Meanings that the texts conveyed to the public were clear. On one hand, Handel maintained the rational ground of the belief of Anglican’s teaching by permitting the second cause adding in the librettos; while on the other hand, together with the contributions of his orthodox religious background of his librettists, Miller and Morell were clergymen, Jennens was a scholarly evangelizing Christian and Humphreys wrote commentary to defend Bible, Handel re-emphasized on the Divine salvation, miracles and prophesy fulfillments of the Old to New Testament in order to defend the Christianity against the deism. Perhaps, this was the factor of the success of Handel’s Oratorios in his day.


      We have just discussed that the importance of music theatre as a vehicle for political messages. Music and musicians also served as a prime analogy for the state and statesmen. It was not surprising for the 18thCentury English audience to expect the presence of political themes in the artworks and entertainments. From the moment that Handel first arrived in England, he was involved in producing music for national events. The librettists would have been unusual if they had excluded political themes from their texts, and the oratorio audience would have been behaving anachronistically if they had not found political themes in them[3]. What were the political events and thoughts of the oratorio years which the librettists could have absorbed into their texts?


    The main national events in the oratorio years were decades of wars and the rumours of war. Relations with other European powers were deteriorating throughout the 1730s. In 1731, there was a French invasion scare, serious enough for the British fleet to be deployed in the Channel. Also, the war of Polish Succession in 1733, the trade war with the tough rivalry Spain in West Indies for overseas commercial interests and the threaten of war with ambitious the Frederick II of Prussia in Europe for his political expansion in the Continent were the subjects of major debates in Parliament and were extensively reported by the press. The newspaper-reading member of the oratorio audience would have been aware of these popular issues: the foreign policy of the European alliance, the British army, the navy, and colonial and commercial expansion[4]. Therefore, all these political events in the oratorio years nourished the common political thought of the 18th Century British Government and people, that is, the ‘Patriotism’.


      According to the drama historian Murray Roston, ‘Handel succeeded in glorifying in Biblical terms the confident patriotism of the English people as they rose on the wave of imperial expansion, convinced that they were carrying the true God to the pagan corners of the world. The heroic, martial splendour of Deborah, of Judas Maccabeus, and of Joshua was adopted enthusiastically as symbol of English integrity and courage.’[5] Undoubtedly, Roston’s saying points out that the essential idea of the librettos of Handel’s oratorio is a kind of ‘patriot libretto’. But how could the political events and the patriotism be absorbed in the so-called patriot libretto? Ruth Smith gives us the answer.


      The libretto absorbs all the political ideas in allegorical form. The mid-eighteenth century audience had been taught to regard the scriptural protagonists whom oratorios portrayed not just as figures from the semi-mythological history of a remote race and culture but, in a tradition dating from early Christian times, as reminders of their own redeemer, connected with their own individual lives. The preachers, the scholars and the press habitually identify modern Britainwith ancient Israeland they make recurrent specific parallels which bear on the subjects of the librettos. God of Israel is paralleled with God of Britain. English is paralleled with the Israel. The enemy of Israel, such as Egypt, is paralleled with the rivalry of Britainin the Continent. The following comparisons show the commonplace:


    The Stuart Family                       Saul and his descendants

    George II                                     David or Solomon

    The Glorious Revolution            The crown of Israelpassing from Saul and his family to David and his family

    Catholic Europe                           The Philistines

    The threat of Popery                     ‘Egyptian bondage’ of heathen rites

    Irreligion                                       Israelite idolatry

    Licentiousness                              Israelite neglect of God’s laws

      All the figures and circumstances in the right- hand column are subjects of one or more of the Israelite librettos[6]. This kind of analogy was routine, God could intervene in the lives of the British nationals as He had done in the lives of the Israelites. We can take several examples to illustrate this: the Israel events in the libretto are equal to politics events of Britain, the patriotism of Israelis the model of the patriotism of English.


      Newburgh Hamilton’s libretto of Samson, written in its initial form by autumn 1741 and dedicated in the wordbook to the Prince of Wales, reflects the prince’s support of the war with Spain for which the Patriots had clamoured. But Samson contained more political context as time passed and even after its first performance, the political scene changed considerably. While Hamilton was writing his libretto the press was reporting the parliamentary ‘motion’ to remove Walpole, the ruling body of England, and commenting on the criticism of British foreign policy since 1725 with regard to the conflict in Europe, the attacking of the conduct of the West Indies War and the arraigning corrupt government at home. Here, Samson who was the Israelite hero, could well symbolize this Britain– native strength shackled by maladministration. At the same time, Samson might also represent an actual national hero, Admiral Vernon. He had achieved a few triumphs of the Spanish war and was a sharp and bold critic of that government as Member of the Parliament. His image forced to remind us the image of Hamilton’s hero, Samson, a figure of suffering the insults from his enemies and critical of his compatriots. As time passed, the symbolic role of Samson changed accordingly. In early 1743, Samson’s initial incapacity and eventual triumph over Philistines must have been seemed to represent the British fortunes in the war in the Continents and Low Countries. The allied navies of Spain and France invading the British Mediterranean fleet in 1744 undeniably reminded the English audience of the vivid image of the helpless Samson under his rival, Philistines’ hands. What would be the fate of the Great Britain? The patriotic oratorio audience might have been inspired much by the chorus in Act III, scene I of Samson:


    How thou wilt here come off surmounts my Reach;

    Tis Heav’n alone can save both us and thee.

    With thunder arm’d, great God, arise;

    Help, lord, or Isr’el’s champion dies:

    To thy protection this thy servant take,

    And save, O save us, for thy servant’s sake[7].


      The political ideology in the text is clear and, perhaps, this is the charm of Samson, of Hamilton’s libretto, of Handel’s oratorios.


      As we have examined before the main idea of the Handelian oratorios is Patriotism, it is not surprising that the text of the Handel’s oratorio was conveying the ideal of self-scarifice whenever the conflict between public and private interests occurred. In Morel’s Jephtha (1737), the author chose the biblical version of the classical topic concerning the offering up of a daughter for the sake of national success, instead of the private interest. In the story of Jephtha of the Old Testament, Jephtha vows that he will sacrifice to God the first being he encounters on his return from battle if God grants him the victory. His daughter, unfortunately, is the first one he met. He is shaken but his daughter accepts the fate and keeps alone for her whole life to serve God. Morell, undoubtedly, conveyed a message of a patriot king, Jephtha and a patriot daughter. He writes:

    True, we have slighted, scorn’d, expell’d him hence,

    As of a Stranger born; but well I know him;

    His generous Soul disdains a mean Revenge,

    When his distressful country calls his Aid –

    And, perhaps, God may favour our Request,

    If with repentant Hearts we sue for Mary[8].

      (Part I Scene I)

    How godlike is it to be great!

    When Greatness, free from private ends,

    The Good of all Manking intends!                
     ( Part III Scene II)


      Morell here expresses the Patriot King’s noble aspiration to a public life guided by moral principles. ‘Virtue my Soul shall still embrace; goodness shall make me great’ shows that Jephtha ‘s whole family shares his moral principle. Jephtha’s daughter, also, put the national interests above her personal favorite. Therefore, the whole libretto, main characteristic of Patriot drama uses predominantly family relationships, rather than those of lovers as a source of trial, pain and tenderness[9]. This gives more touching aptness and can immensely attract the oratorio audience. Besides the charm of the text, the patriotic theme is again obvious. We can conclude that the Handelian oratorios not only reflect certain moral teachings of the 18thCentury English, but also promote an image of a Patriot King of England, or an ideal Government, with its patriotic standards set in Miller’s Joseph and his Brethren, Morell’s Judas Macchabaeus, Joshua and Solomon that the general English people had long been expected.


      Undeniably, 18th Century English thoughts have a tremendous impact on the librettos of Handel’s oratorios. Although it is rather difficult to assert that the ideas influence the texts more or vice versa, one important point is that the oratorios possess more meanings to the audience in Handel’s days than to the modern audience. The oratorio and the theatre were the essential centres of conveying messages, both of religious and political affairs. Oratorio audiences habitually accepted the allegorical meaning of the wordbooks. Christianity defending and the Patriotism were the hot topics in 18thCentury England and linked the daily life of the people. What the 18thCentury English people interested were mainly religion and politics. There was no conceptual separation between issues of Church and state, religion and politics. Handel’s oratorios could probably fulfill the necessities of the people, the government, and the country in his day. The plentiful meanings conveyed in Handel’s oratorio were valuable and essential to them. Therefore, this is the secret of the dramatic success of Handel’s oratorios to the 18thCentury English people, or perhaps, to some extent, to the oratorio audience in the present.


    [1] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp146-147.


    [2] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p149.


    [3] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp10-11


    [4] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp175-176


    [5] C.V. Palisca, A History of Western History, 3 ed., W.W. Norton, New York, 1981, p443.

    [6] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p220


    [7] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp298-299


    [8] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p341


    [9] Smith Ruth, p341
    David Leung (theorydavid)
    2013-01-01 published


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