George Frideric Handel, later more generally known under the English forms of name that he assumed in London, George Frideric Handel, was born in Halle in , the son of a successful barber-surgeon and his much younger second wife. His father opposed his son's early musical ambitions and after his father's death Handel duly entered the University in Halle in as a student of law, as his lather had insisted. He was able to seize the chance of employment as organist at the Calvinist Cathedral the following month, holding the position for a year, until his departure for Hamburg, to work there at the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, contributing in the latter capacity to the Italian operatic repertoire of the house. At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, he travelled, in , to Italy, where he won considerable success during the next four years. Connections he had made in Venice, brought appointment in as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover.
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George Frideric Handel, later more generally known under the English forms of name that he assumed in London, George Frideric Handel, was born in Halle in , the son of a successful barber-surgeon and his much younger second wife. His father opposed his son's early musical ambitions and after his father's death Handel duly entered the University in Halle in as a student of law, as his lather had insisted. He was able to seize the chance of employment as organist at the Calvinist Cathedral the following month, holding the position for a year, until his departure for Hamburg, to work there at the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, contributing in the latter capacity to the Italian operatic repertoire of the house.
At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, he travelled, in , to Italy, where he won considerable success during the next four years. Connections he had made in Venice, brought appointment in as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. From here he was granted immediate leave to fulfill a commission in London.
Handel's first opera for London was Rinaldo, with which he won general acclaim, and after little over a year in Hanover, he returned to England. It was here that he now established himself as a composer of Italian opera and of other forms of vocal and instrumental music, for which there was an eager audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musical life of the English capital.
His involvement with Italian opera as a composer and organizer continued, eventually under the royal patronage of George I, Elector of Hanover, who had succeeded to the English throne in , on the death of Queen Anne, but by , with the establishment of a rival opera company under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, there were obvious commercial difficulties.
While Handel's work in Italian opera continued, with a final opera to be staged in , he increasingly turned his attention to a new English form, that of the oratorio. This had certain very practical advantages, in language, lack of the need for expensive spectacle and the increasing employment of native singers.
The content of oratorios appealed to English Protestant susceptibilities, providing a winning synthesis of religion and entertainment, and offering no offence to those who had found operatic conventions ridiculous in a city with strong pre-existent dramatic traditions. Handel's first English oratorio, in , was Esther, with a libretto based on Racine, followed, in , by the biblical Deborah in March and in July Athalia, with a libretto by Samuel Humphreys, his earlier collaborator, derived from Racine and biblical sources.
During the following years Handel continued to develop the form of the oratorio, chiefly on biblical subjects but with an occasional excursion into the mythological. These works, with their Italianate melodies, strong choral writing and demonstrable dramatic sense, ensured their composer's continued popularity and dominance, particularly with the wider development of choral singing in the nineteenth century.
Handel's most famous oratorio, Messiah, was first performed in , his last, Jephtha, ten years later. While Messiah may be exceptional in its ambitious subject, most treat narratives derived from the Old Testament, well characterized by the composer's own descriptive title of them as sacred dramas. His funeral drew a crowd of some three thousand mourners, while posthumous Handel celebrations could muster a similar audience in the Abbey, with a proportionate number of performers.
In July the cancellation of the intended opera season was announced by the manager of the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, Johann Jakob Heidegger, after the failure of the Opera of the Nobility in and now a lack of sufficient subscribers for a new season.
To this end he busied himself with the oratorio Saul, while still working intermittently on the Italian opera Imeneo, for which there seemed no immediate prospect of performance. Saul brought the first collaboration between Handel and Charles Jennens, a country landowner of substantial wealth from Gopsall in Leicestershire, known for his eccentricities of behaviour and display of wealth.
Dr Johnson may have seen fit to describe Jennens as an English 'Solyman the Magnificent', but he was, nevertheless, a man of taste and discernment. He had been enthusiastic in collecting works by Handel and in had supplied him with a libretto, presumably for the oratorio Saul. He was to continue his active collaboration with Handel with his adaptation of Milton's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Messiah and Belshazzar.
Handel was his frequent guest at Gopsall and the relationship between the two men was more amicable than might ever have been expected, given their temperaments. At any rate, Handel was here willing, as in his later collaborations with Jennens, to pay some attention to the latter's advice and suggestions and it was through Jennens that he wrote new music for the elegy on Saul and Jonathan, rather than re-using music he had written for the funeral of Queen Caroline the previous December.
In a well known letter to Lord Guernsey on 19th September Jennens describes a visit to Handel, whose head, he found, was 'more full of maggots than ever'. The first of these was a new instrument, a carillon or Tubalcain, as Handel told him some called it, a set of bells to be played from a keyboard, an instrument 'with which he designs to make poor Saul stark mad'.
At the time of Jennens's visit to Handel in September , the composer was at work on the third act of Saul, the composition of which he had started on 23rd July. By 8th August he had finished the second act and the whole work would presumably have been virtually complete by the end of September.
In early the London Daily Post advertised the first performance of the new oratorio, to take place on 16th January at six o'clock in the evening. Various rumours arose as to the coming performance. Lord Wentworth, in writing of a rehearsal of the oratorio, reports that 'one Russell, an Englishman that sings extremely well' is taking the principal part, with Francescina, but believes that 'all the rest are but indifferent'. A few days later he writes to the same correspondent with the news that Handel 'has borrowed of the Duke of Argyll a pair of the largest kettle-drums in the Tower, so to be sure it will be most excessive noisy with a bad sett off singers', taking a pessimistic view of Handel's chances of recouping his losses on the opera.
The performance, in the event, was warmly greeted by an audience that included the Royal Family, and was repeated for five nights. The architect William Kent in a letter to Lord Burlington comments on the use of the carillon: 'There is a pretty concerto in the oratorio with some stops in the harpsichord that are little bells, I thought it had been some squirrels in a cage'.
The singers employed by Handel included the tenor John Beard, who, as a boy, had sung the part of the Israelite Priest in the first performance of Esther in Beard sang in Handel's Italian operas and in most if not all his oratorios.
His marriage, on the day of the public rehearsal, to Lady Henrietta Herbert, daughter of the Earl of Waldegrave, occasioned considerable contemporary scandal. In Saul Beard sang the part of Jonathan.
The first name of the countertenor Russell, who sang David, remains unknown. He was later induced to set up a puppet-show mocking Italian opera and, it seems, Handel's oratorios, going out of his mind and dying in the Fleet Prison in about The part of Merab was taken by Cecilia Young, since the wife of the composer Thomas Arne, and that of Michal by the French soprano Elisabeth Duparc, known as La Francesina, closely associated in this period with performance of Handel's operas and oratorios.
It seems that at some point the part of David was given to the mezzo-soprano Maria Antonia Marchesini, known as La Lucchesina, or possibly she sang the part of the Witch of Endor in the first performance, but surviving autograph additions to the score and the book of the text are by no means clear.
Handel played organ concertos in performances of the oratorio and one later performance reports a violin concerto, played by Signor Plantanida. The text of Saul was published in , described on the title-page as 'an oratorio or sacred drama'. On the same page appear two quotations that might be thought to add weight to the work, one, in Greek, from Marcus Aurelius on the nature of virtue, and the other, in Latin, from Cicero on the relation of friendship to virtue.
Jennens derived his text from the Books of Samuel and from Abraham Cowley's lengthy epic Davideis, the latter acknowledged in the libretto as the source of Merab's scornful behaviour. The oratorio starts with the aftermath of the boy David's victory over Goliath Samuel I, xvii. Goliath, a Philistine warrior, had challenged Saul and his subjects, continuing to do so for forty days, while none dared go out to meet him.
David, sent by his father to take food to his older brothers, who were in Saul's army, accepts the challenge and kills Goliath with a pebble from his shepherd's sling. He cuts off Goliath's head, and with it in his hand is ushered before Saul by Abner, captain of Saul's army.
David tells Saul that he is the son of Jesse, from Bethlehem, and is to be rewarded with the hand of Saul's daughter. Jonathan, Saul's son, at once becomes close friends with David, loving him as his own soul, and David remains in Saul's household. Saul offers his daughter Merab as a reward to David, but she, in the incident drawn from Cowley's poem, scorns David's humble birth. Another daughter of the King, Michal, however, loves David. In a re-ordering of the biblical events, David is now greeted by the women of Israel, who claim that Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands.
Saul is jealous and fears David's possible ambition, but, at Michal's urging, David is persuaded to calm Saul's disturbed spirits with his harp. Saul, in madness, hurls a javelin at him, but David escapes. He now seeks to kill David, trying to enlist Jonathan in his purpose, but Jonathan puts the duty of friendship before that of filial obedience. Saul now gives Merab in marriage to another but is persuaded to receive David again, to whom he offers the hand of Michal, hoping, however, that he may fall victim to the Philistines.
David is victorious and once again, as he plays before Saul, the latter hurls a javelin at him, forcing him to make his escape by subterfuge. Samuel, the prophet who had anointed Saul as King, has died, and now Saul, still fearing the growing power of David, who has won wide support in his exile, seeks out the woman of Endor with a familiar spirit Samuel I xxviii , defying his own law that had banned necromancy from the land.
The spirit of Samuel threatens defeat on the morrow. In the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, the former are defeated, and Saul and Jonathan are killed. News of their death and the defeat is taken to David by an Amalekite, who had listened to Saul's wish as he lay wounded and killed him. David has the Amalekite killed and now mourns the death of Jonathan.
The libretto, as constructed by Jennens, telescopes events that seem repetitive in the biblical account. Here they are made to accord, in a measure at least, with classical canons. In history, the eleventh-century Saul was the first King of Israel and conquered the Philistines, Ammonites and Amalekites. His jealousy of his son-in-law David led the latter to take refuge and even to serve the Philistine King of Gath, as Saul mounted expeditions against him.
He was secretly anointed king by Samuel and on the death of Saul at Mount Gilboa he reigned as King of Judaea in Hebron for seven and a half years, succeeding Saul's surviving son Ishbosheth as King of all Israel for a further 32 years, during which he made Jerusalem his capital. In iconography he is often pictured with a harp or lyre, a reference to the musical skill with which he attempted to calm Saul's madness.
The tragedy in the oratorio is of Saul, and deals chiefly with his envy and his final defeat and death after earlier greatness. The oratorio Saul calls for a dozen soloists and chorus, with an orchestra of pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons and trumpets, three trombones, timpani, carillon, harp, organ, harpsichord and strings. The instrumental introduction to the work ends with a triple-metre Andante larghetto. The chorus has an orchestral introduction that answers Lord Wentworth's contemporary expectations, with the voices of the chorus at first in homophonic texture, before the introduction of a brief passage of counterpoint.
Jonathan, in a recitative, warns his friend of his danger  and in a C minor Air swears loyalty. David, however, would, in any case, prefer Michal. David and Jonathan leave together. An Allegro provides the opportunity for an organ concerto movement. The Symphony ends with a C minor organ Gavotte . David tells Michal of Saul's treachery, his renewed anger and his attempt to kill him. He is shown to have made his escape, by leaving an effigy in his bed. Threatening the consequences, Doeg leaves,  while Michal is left to declare her trust in Jehovah in an E flat major Air.
In an accompanied recitative he laments his own fate, cast off by God and now turning to Hell for aid. He asks her to conjure up Samuel. He learns of the death of Saul, killed by the Amalekite at his own request. There is a brief transition,  leading to the C minor choral elegy on Saul and Jonathan.
It is assumed that the essential conflict that determines the order of events in Handel's oratorio is that between God and Saul. This has led to the restoration of some recitatives and arias for the High Priest, removed by Chrysander as dispensable in his edition of The present version finds the High Priest a symbol of God in his interventions.
Other modifications include the restoration of David's air, Fly, malicious Spirit, fly, to emphasize the power of music described by Michal and the High Priest.
The lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan, biblically and more usually in the oratorio given to David, has here been divided between those with reason to lament, the High Priest, Merab and Michal, as well as David himself.
It has been found preferable to refer to the so-called witch of Endor as the woman of Endor, on the ground that the concept of witchcraft is an anachronism. The Vulgate, Luther's translation of the Bible and the English Authorised Version all simply refer to her as a woman of Endor, her activity that of a medium]. Saul's action in consulting the woman, in spite of his own ban on necromancy, violates a divine command and thus shakes the very basis of his political power.
The woman, however, shows compassion at Saul's distress when he hears the words of the apparition of Samuel. Her action has been compared by Lisa Jung with that of the angel that gives the bread of life to the prophet Elijah.
There are few Biblical characters more sharply drawn than Saul, the unsuspecting first king of the united monarchy of Israel and Judah, a loving pater familias at times and a fratricidal maniac at others. The story of the rise and fall of Saul is fraught with drama: violence, madness, mayhem, and sorcery as well as jealousy, love, and the most undeniable description of bisexual devotion to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Saul became the first King of Israel, not through inheritance but by surprise. Victorious in battle, however, Saul disobediently pillages their livestock and valuables and spares the life of their king, probably not out of mercy, but for ransom. Suspecting that they are being set up, however, Michal and David prepare a dummy decoy for David in their bed, and David, once again fearing for his life, jumps out of a window and escapes. Act Three has a formal symmetry, not only with the plot of the oratorio the concluding Elegy balances the opening Epinicion] but also with the Biblical backstory. The famous Dead March introduces the final Elegy, in which the bodies of Saul and Jonathan are returned from the battlefield, and each of the surviving characters and chorus express their grief.
A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in , when Howells himself conducted the premiere. Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger. The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance — alas, plethora — of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.