Saturday, March 8, 2003, 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 9, 2003, 3 p.m.
Tickets are $28
An oratorio of emancipation and deliverance
G. F. Handel’s
Notes about the concert
Mark P. Risinger:
Michael A. Ingall:
Frequently asked questions
Julian Wachner conducting
The Providence Singers
Notes on the Concert
Israel in Egypt: A composer masters the oratorio form
By Mark P. Risinger
Israel in Egypt occupies a peculiar place in the history of Handel’s English oratorios. Like Messiah, composed three years later, it is a non-dramatic oratorio that makes no use of a conventional cast of named characters who sing in dialogic recitative and arias to narrate a series of dramatic events. Instead, its libretto consists of passages drawn from Scripture, set through an abundance of choruses rather than solo airs, to describe events and conditions surrounding the exodus of the children of Israel from the land of the Pharoahs.
Handel composed this work immediately after he completed the score of Saul, in October 1738. In its original form, it consisted of three large sections rather than the two that are customarily performed today. The original opening of the work at the first performance in April 1739, was Handel’s “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline,” composed in December 1737. By judicious alteration of the text, Handel transformed this multi-movement anthem of some 45 minutes’ duration into a “Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph.” Hence, in the first movement, “The Ways of Zion do Mourn” became “The Sons of Israel do Mourn.” Similar alterations followed where necessary. The second and third sections of Israel, entitled “Exodus” and “Moses’ Song” respectively, include musical and stylistic links that tie them to the “Funeral Anthem. Thus did Handel create musical unity on an impressive scale.
In actual performance, however, the oratorio was a commercial disaster, primarily because the London audience was unaccustomed to and unwilling to accept so much choral singing in place of the arias they expected to hear. Handel, ever watchful of his box office receipts, was at work within a week of the première, making alterations for subsequent performances, primarily through the addition of solo airs.
The more successful life that Israel in Egypt has enjoyed on the concert stage since Handel’s death, extending to our present day, can be dated from the “Commemoration of Handel” that took place in London during 1784, the supposed centennial year of the composer’s birth (Handel was actually born in 1685). Among the audience members at a performance in Westminster Abbey, site of the Commemoration, was Franz Joseph Haydn, who is said to have burst into tears at the conclusion and remarked of Handel, “He is the Master of us all!” Indeed, one need only listen to the fanciful text-painting in Haydn’s Creation to hear how deeply he had absorbed the lessons of Handel’s music and incorporated them into his own.
Many critics have cited Israel in Egypt as the locus classicus of Handel’s common habit of “borrowing” or recomposing music from earlier compositions, whether his own or another composer’s. As always in Handel’s music, however, the mere inclusion of themes or motifs from pre-existing works is far less interesting than the manner in which the composer has transformed them. The list of sources from which Handel drew his ideas in this work includes everything from Lutheran chorale tunes to keyboard fugues from his student notebook to chamber and choral works he encountered during his Italian sojourn in the years just before he arrived in London. Throughout the oratorio, however, he weaves these borrowed threads into a tapestry of sound that can be mistaken for the music of no other composer. The portrayal of jumping frogs, buzzing flies, pounding hail and running fire may strike us as clever, but much more impressive are those places in which he takes motifs from two or three separate compositions by other composers and weaves them into one seamless, unified piece. Most of these borrowings are not readily perceived by the majority of concertgoers, nor were they likely to have been recognized in Handel’s own day. Their presence in the work suggests, therefore, that Handel took less interest in what his audience might recognize than in the pleasure he derived from exercising his considerable skills for their own sake.
Because it stands outside the mainstream of Handel’s oratorio compositions, Israel in Egypt bears the earmarks of a large-scale experiment. Handel seems to have learned its lessons well, since he never again attempted to compose an oratorio with the same proportion of solo to choral movements. The initial experiment served its purpose, however, since the composer learned what he needed to know before moving ahead to the works on which his reputation long has stood, with a heightened understanding of what did and did not appeal to his audiences.
The preceding notes are copyright ©1996 by Mark P. Risinger and appear here by permission of the author. No other distribution or use may be made without the author’s consent.
Notes on the Concert
The Exodus Narrative and The Song of the Sea: A Jewish Perspective
By Michael A. Ingall
Five weeks after this concert, Jews all over the world will celebrate the festival of Passover. During the evening Seder meal, families and guests read the story of the Exodus from the Hagadah (the “telling”). The Exodus is the critical event in Jewish history and theology, in which a group of oppressed slaves was emancipated by their God, who set them free and redefined them as a people. The Hagadah reminds Jews that “in every generation each person must see himself as though he had made the Exodus from Egypt.” Jews are commanded to tell their children the story of the Exodus, even those who are too young to ask.
The Passover evening is a festive one, marked by chanting of the dramatic narrative from Exodus, by songs proclaiming the might of the Lord, and by the ritual eating of matzah (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs (a reminder of the bitter life Jews led in Egypt). Participants drink four cups of wine at the Seder table, spilling ten drops from one of the cups during a recitation of the ten plagues. This ritual shows a measure of sympathy for the oppressors and for their suffering. The story of the Exodus is a reminder of the value of freedom from oppression and of the obligation to stand against slavery and tyranny in every age.
The Exodus narrative forms Part I of Handel’s oratorio. The text is drawn directly from the book of Exodus, except for the descriptions of the plagues, which Handel chose to draw from the Psalms. Part II of the oratorio is a direct translation of Shirat Hayam – the Song of the Sea – from the book of Exodus. Here the Bible breaks suddenly into verse – poetry that has rhythm, meter and rhyme. The Hebrew text is dramatically different from that of the Exodus narrative; it is archaic, ornate and dramatic in structure. These verses are, according to most scholars, among the oldest texts in the Bible, dating to the 12th century B.C.E.
When the verses of Shirat Hayam are chanted in the synagogue, they are read in a unique chant that also is one of the earliest Jewish chants, originating many centuries before Handel. When it extols the might and power of the Lord, the Hebrew chant crows proudly in a descending major triad. But when the text describes the drowning of the Egyptians, the chant reverts to ordinary chant. According to one rabbinic commentary, the angels rejoiced at the victory of God and the deliverance of the Children of Israel at the Sea of Reeds (the term Red Sea results from a textual error), and they invited God to join their celebration. God declined, saying, “How can I rejoice when my children are drowning?”
The singular and ancient verse form, the drama of the story, and the heroic nature of the Song of the Sea identify it as an epic. Triumph at the sea is the hallmark of many classical epics, including some in ancient Ugaritic.
Because it presents both the Exodus narrative and the Song of the Sea, Handel’s Israel in Egypt gives listeners an opportunity to compare the texts. There are some significant differences. In the Exodus narrative, for example, Moses splits the waters with his rod in a Hestonesque manner. In the Song of the Sea, however, it is God who parts the sea with the breath of His nostrils, and it is God who makes the wind blow to cover the Egyptians. The same breath that God used to create man in Genesis God now uses to create His people.
Notes on the score
What have you done with Part One?
As Mark Risinger explains in his program notes above, Israel in Egypt originally began with the “Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph,” Handel’s adaptation of his own 45-minute multi-movement “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline.” In fact, Handel offered his audiences several other versions of Israel in Egypt, some of them even including arias in Italian.
For most of the last 100 years, the standard performance text has included only Parts Two and Three of the work as it was originally presented, designating them as Parts One and Two. Each piece – whether recitative, chorus or aria – was individually numbered, from 1 to 39. That is the edition the Providence Singers used to prepare the work for these concerts.
Three years ago, however, the German publisher Bärenreiter produced a new performance score which eliminated more than two centuries of thickened editorial fog, restored the original Part One, and, as much as possible, allowed Handel’s own vision to re-emerge. As they shaped the work for performance, Artistic Director Julian Wachner and Associate Conductor Andrew Clark studied the Bärenreiter score and developed new perspectives on tempi, rhythmic patterns and Handel’s overarching conception of the text and the musical setting of the story.
The differences were striking, according to Wachner, who last conducted the work in 1996. In some cases, what had traditionally been performed as three or four separately numbered pieces emerged as a single coherent set with its own internal textual, thematic and rhythmic relationships. The new groupings suggested different tempi and phrasing, and the snap of Handel’s dotted and double-dotted figures came to the fore.
These concerts present the traditionally performed portions of the oratorio but they acknowledge the new understanding of Handel’s work by adopting the numbering scheme of the Bärenreiter edition.