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Handel the dramatist – two oratorios

Rosemary Broadbent

Handel’s Messiah is so widely known and loved that it is easy to forget that it is just one of a
long series of dramatic oratorios, composed at the height of the composer’s powers.
We owe this great series of oratorios to increasing problems with Handel’s opera
enterprises, which had been the talk of London for many years. The establishment of a second opera
company in London – one supported by the King and one by the Prince of Wales, who were at
loggerheads – resulted within a few years in bankruptcy for both. Handel was also exercised by the
problem of securing work and income for his company during Lent, when dramatic performances
were forbidden. His inspired solution was to create works based on Biblical stories, performed in the
theatre but without acting or costume. How could the church object to that?

Naturally, the composer sought out the most dramatic stories from the Old Testament, so
we find battles and plagues and dramatic confrontations equal to anything in the Greek and Roman
history favoured by opera librettists. In place of acting and costume, the drama transfers into the
music, not only in solo arias but in magnificent choruses on a scale never attempted in opera at this
period. We have to look ahead at least fifty years to find such choruses on the stage.

We shall consider one early and one late oratorio, giving us the chance to appreciate the
development of Handel’s style over more than thirty years. Acis and Galatea (1718) is variously
described as a serenata, a ‘little opera’ and an oratorio, and it went through various revisions. It
became one of Handel’s most frequently performed works in his lifetime, although it is less often
heard today. In some ways it is a simple pastoral story derived from Dryden’s translation of Ovid, but
it is made extraordinary by the dramatic rôle of the chorus and the passion they convey. It is hard to
listen to the chorus Mourn, all ye Muses without catching your breath.

Jephtha was Handel’s last oratorio and dates from 1752. Here there is a whole family of
individual characters and the range of emotion depicted is wide and extraordinarily vivid. The
choruses and ensembles have a depth and complexity which strain at the limits of accepted Baroque
style. Throughout our discussions it will be interesting to reflect on the comparison of these works
with Messiah, and this all-too-familiar work will no doubt merge freshly illuminated.

One final sobering thought. Last Autumn the Cambridge University Opera Society cancelled a
planned production of a Handel’s oratorio Saul because its narrative of war, victory and celebration
was out-of-tune with the contemporary world situation. Should we then step back from Jephtha,
which also celebrates a victory in battle? No! because that is only half the story. The apparent victor
is emotionally destroyed by what he has done, his family is torn apart, and the greatest suffering is
visited upon the innocent. It bears a moral for our troubled times.

To sign up to the course please go to:

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The Trojan War: Myth and history?

Tony Keen

One of the better April Fools of 2024 was the supposed publication of a Hittite tablet, one that contained correspondence between a king of Taruiša called Pariyamuwa and a Hittite king, about an attack on the city by the sons of Attaršiya, from Ahhiyawa. To anyone familiar with texts from the Hittite empire, which dominated Anatolia in the late Bronze Age (the second millennium BCE), it is obvious what this is meant to be. Taruiša and Ahhiyawā are genuine place names found in Hittite documents and are generally identified with the ancient city Troy and the region of Achaea, one of the Homeric names for Greece. Attaršiya was a military leader of Ahhiyawā, and it has been noted how his name is similar to that of the Greek mythological figure Atreus, the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Pariamua or Priyamuwa is a name found on a text of the same period, the name of a man from the Bronze Age kingdom of Kizzuwatna, in south-eastern Anatolia; many linguists see this as the origin of the name ‘Priam’, in mythology the king of Troy. If real, this tablet would have been the Holy Grail of archaeologists of the Late Bronze Age Aegean, the conclusive proof that the Trojan War of Homer really happened.


The Trojan War, the decade-long conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans, sparked by the abduction/rape/elopement (delete according to the version you’re reading) of Helen of Sparta, is a defining event in Greek mythology. All of Greek myth seems to lead up to this event, and after the war there are only the returns, or in Greek Nostoi, of the heroes, and the immediate consequences of those events. The war is most famous in the account of Homer, who composed the Iliad probably sometime in the eighth century BCE.


The Greeks believed the War was a real event. Thucydides, the great fifth-century BCE historian, writes in Book 1 of his Histories about the War as something that had happened in the past. Some historians writing in antiquity tried to date the start of the war, their guesses ranging from 1334 BCE to 1135 BCE (they didn’t, of course, express the dates in those terms).


In more recent times, the War tended to be thought of as a product of the imagination. That was until in 1870, when, following the identifications of Charles Maclaren and Frank Calvert, Heinrich Schliemann began digging at a mound in Hisarlik, in north-western Türkiye. Schliemann declared that he had found Troy, and nowadays, most archaeologists believe him. As a result, an important trope in most, though not quite all, retellings of the Trojan War story is to treat it as if it is historical fiction; as a consequence of that, the gods and almost all elements of the fantastic are removed from direct involvement (the one regular exception to this is accurate prophecy), and the abduction of Helen becomes merely an excuse to shroud what are seen as more plausible motivations, generally centred around power and/or control of trade routes.


But how much can we treat the Greek mythological accounts of the Trojan War as historical? This is a question that has troubled scholars since antiquity. What the truth is behind the Trojan War is still the most commonly asked question about it, as is also the case with King Arthur or Atlantis. Documentaries about the war are called things like ‘The Truth of Troy’, and the British Museum’s 2019–2020 exhibition was ‘Troy: myth and reality’. Plenty of what I shall call ‘positivists’ reconstruct the historical origins of the war.


But there is a fundamental problem with such an approach to myths of Troy, one identified in 1964 by the great Sir Moses Finley in a radio broadcast. He looked at a number of medieval epics that are set in periods for which we have recorded history. He noted, for instance, the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778, where Basques ambushed the rear guard of the army of Charlemagne. But in the epic version of this battle in the Song of Roland, the Basques have become Muslim Saracens. Finley comes up with several other examples. In my own teaching, I refer to the Wild West and specifically the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Comparing two versions of that event in movies, in My Darling Clementine (1946) and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), we find disagreement on whether Doc Holliday survived the gunfight, how many of the Earp brothers were involved, who led the Clantons, and whether Johnny Ringo was present. Even when the movies are in agreement, they can contradict the historical record, e.g. both movies suggest the Clantons were wiped out in the gunfight, whereas two of them actually survived.


Finley’s point, with which I concur, is that mythologised versions of historical events tend to change what actually happened and to do so in ways which are not predictable. We can only control and correct the mythologised narrative through the historical records. But for the Trojan War, we don’t have any historical record. We can only reconstruct the War from the mythology, and we have no way of knowing whether we have done so correctly or not. This makes the whole process rather futile.


The positivist response to Finley is often to say ‘Oh, but look at the archaeology.’ Well, let’s do that. Finley believed as he set out in The World of Odysseus (1954), that the world portrayed in the Homeric poems was mostly that of Homer’s own day. This needs modifying. There is clear evidence of survivals in Homer of a much earlier culture. The shield wielded by Telamonian Ajax in the Iliad appears to be of the ‘tower shield’ type, a form depicted on Minoan frescoes, but which seems to have gone out of use around 1500 BCE, at least seven hundred years before Homer wrote. The great halls, or megara, that Homer describes have echoes in buildings of the Bronze Age discovered archaeologically (it is possible some of these may still have stood, in a ruined state, in Homer’s time). Nevertheless, Finley must be right to a degree, since every creative work is shaped to one degree or another by the time in which it is composed. In any case, as Classicist Peter Jones states in a particularly scathing review of Barry Strauss’ the Trojan War, arguing that the survival of objects of material culture in the literature demonstrates the truth of Homer’s narrative is like saying the existence of vodka martinis and Aston Martins proves that the James Bond movies are true stories.


Much has been made of the archaeology of Troy itself. Troy VIIa, which seems to have been brought to an end c. 1180 bce, shows signs in its last levels of destruction by fire, and spears and arrowheads. There is other evidence from the period of a city facing siege, such as large vessels buried for storage, and stockpiles of stones.


The trouble is, that archaeology rarely answers the sort of questions raised by historians. We don’t know who the stones were being stockpiled for use against, or why bits of the city were destroyed by fire. Archaeologists have sometimes been too eager to extrapolate from skimpy evidence—Anthony Snodgrass’ An Archaeology of Greece (1992) notes the way successive destructions of the city of Mycenae have been extrapolated from a single building that burnt down on multiple occasions. People who say that the Greeks were responsible for the fall of Troy are often doing so on nothing more than the authority of Homer; that’s bending the archaeology to fit literary texts, and as Finley has shown, that’s often methodologically unsound.


There are, of course, plenty of genuine Hittite documents from the period, and at first they look promising. There are references to Ahhiyawā and Taruiša, and to Wilusa, plausibly argued as equivalent to Ilion, an alternative name for Troy. (‘Ilion’ originally began with the Greek letter Digamma, and would have been pronounced ‘Wilion’, but lost the sound when the Digamma fell out of use.) Better still, there is clear evidence in one document, the so-called Tawagalawa letter, that the Hittites and Ahhiyawā had clashed over Wilusa.


But none of this is describing Homer’s Trojan War. In Homer, though the Trojans have allies from other parts of Asia Minor, such as the Lycians, there is no sign of an Anatolian superpower getting involved. Indeed, the Greeks seem to have completely forgotten the existence of the Hittites, even though they were clearly in contact in the Mycenaean period.


All the Hittite documents and archaeology demonstrate is that there might have been a Trojan war or wars, details of which may have informed the Greek legends; but as Finley says, we can’t know how. Positivist reconstructions of the war almost always remove the gods, and often say ‘Well, the war can’t have lasted ten years’. But this again ends up with a Trojan War, not Homer’s, where the gods’ involvement in the action is fundamental to how events turn out. None of which is to say that a Greek expedition against Troy didn’t take place, or that Agamemnon and Priam didn’t exist, merely to say that we have very little evidence one way or another. Like King Arthur, by the time the Trojan War emerges into our texts, it has already been so mythologised that any ‘truth’ is irrecoverable.


That is why my course on the Trojan War, which runs from the end of April, is subtitled ‘Myth, myth and more myth’. My focus will be on the Trojan War as a story, or more accurately as a background against which different stories can be told. We’ll look at how the stories have been told, from Homer right the way up to Troy: Fall of a City (2018). What is the historical truth behind those stories? It doesn’t really matter.


This course runs from 22 April to 1 July, with a break for 27 May. All sessions are two hours, and are recorded. You don’t have to be able to make the live sessions to get the recordings. The course can be booked here.

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MANCENT Blog: Hail, bright Cecilia!

Rosemary Broadbent

Living through a pandemic, surviving a long period when the performance of music in public practically ceased, and the terribly sad experience of seeing a great Gothic cathedral church devastated by fire . . sound familiar? This actually describes the experience of the young Henry Purcell, born one year before the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and living through the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. No fewer than eighty-six churches were destroyed, but the greatest loss was Old St. Paul’s, a hundred feet longer than Salisbury Cathedral, and outstripped in the height of its spire only by its counterpart in Lincoln. Purcell’s life was short but prolific – so short that he will have seen Christopher Wren’s St.
Paul’s rising stone by stone, but did not live to see it consecrated and brought into use. After the virtual elimination of large-scale music during the Commonwealth, it is no wonder that the musicians of London decided to set up an annual celebration of the power of music on St. Cecilia’s Day, November 22nd . Purcell wrote music for the first celebration in 1683, but our MANCENT session on October 12th takes its title and its focus from his second commission in 1692.

There must have been an element of competition amongst this tightly-knit group of musicians as each year a different composer was presented with the challenge of writing an Ode to St. Cecilia. It is no surprise, therefore, that Purcell’s second contribution, nine years on, reaches new heights of splendour and virtuosity. There will be much to enjoy in this music when we consider it together.
The organisers of the St. Cecilia celebrations in the 17th century ordained both the poet and the composer for each year’s offering. Sadly, they never succeeded in matching greatest poet of the
age, John Dryden, with the greatest composer, Henry Purcell. Dryden’s text was set by Giovanni Draghi in 1687, but Dryden’s refusal to swear allegiance to William and Mary the following year led to his disappearance from court life. It was not all loss, however, because his seclusion gave him the time to translate Vergil! John Milton had met a similar fate earlier, as his support for Cromwell and
the Commonwealth made it politic to disappear from London at the Restoration in 1660. Once again there was a silver lining, as he used his enforced leisure to write Paradise Lost.

We have to wait a long time to find an eminent British composer setting the words of an eminent poet, but our second session, on October 19th, celebrates three remarkable conjunctions: John Dryden set by Hubert Parry, Shakespeare set by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and W. H. Auden set by Benjamin Britten. Unlike many of the seventeenth-century odes, these works have remained
in the repertory, and they provide a fascinating picture of the revival of English choral music after a long fallow period. Saint Cecilia lives again, especially in the work of Benjamin Britten, who was born
on her feast day.

Details on MANCENT’s Course: Hail Cecilia can be booked here.

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MANCENT 2023 Programme now out

Just in time for the bank holiday weekend, MANCENT is publishing its Autumn programme.

Courses will start in September and there is a wide range of humanities courses from Music to literature to History and Archaeology.

We are also reviving our Cultural day trips to various museums and sites and hope that will once again prove popular.

The full programme is on the website and can be booked either by contacting the lecturers or with many of them the online courses via Eventbrite links, which are very popular with our overseas students.

All the best and we look forward to seeing you soon at one of our events.

Birgitta Hoffmann
MANCENT Course Director and her team.

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The Ancient Greeks – Zenith

 Michael Tunnicliffe

The Ancient Greeks were at the height in the 6th-5th centuries. Though divided into competing city states there were able to unite for a time to meet the challenge of invasion by the might of the Persian Empire. This period also saw the flourishing of Athenian democracy and the building of works such as the Parthenon. Greek dramatists were also appearing on the scene, and the first philosophers, the pre-Socratics, were beginning to ask fundamental questions. Yet simmering tensions between Athens and Sparta were not far below the surface. The topic will continue in the summer term.


MINIMUM No: ……8…….MAXIMUM No  25 (please check with venue provider):..


PRICE:………..£80. CONCESSIONS?:……….No…………………………………………………..



Recommended reading (for publication in brochure):    


Robin Osborne 2009 (2nd ed.) Greece in the Making; 1200-479BC Routledge  

Simon Hornblower 2002 (3rd ed.) The Greek World 479-323, Routledge

Sarah Pomeroy et al 2009 A Brief History of Ancient Greece Oxford University Press



CONTACT ADDRESS FOR BOOKINGS (this will be printed in the brochure):


Michael Tunnicliffe 5 St George’s Way, Northwich, CW9 8XG, 01606 42116

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Today we are 12 years old!

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Past Courses

I know some of you organise lectures for the U3A or local societies and are looking for suitable topics and lecturers. Many of our lecturers are available for one off lectures and will be happy to discuss terms with you.

After a lot of requests, we decided to leave the past courses online, so you can see what we have already done, and what the area of general interest of our lecturers is. I hope you approve.

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New exhibition co-curated by our lecturer Anthony Burton

The Elizabeth Gaskell house in Manchester is  showing from February an exhibition on
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester

Elizabeth Gaskell lived in Manchester from 1832 until her death in 1865, a time of huge change and expansion for the city, which raised many challenges for its residents from the coming of the railways and the Free Trade Movement and the Reform Acts to the Cholera and the Cotton Famine on the other.

The exhibition focuses on the Politics, Commerce, Transport, Learning, Churches, the Mills, the Poor, the Shops, Art, Music and Literature.

Anthony is hoping to offer a day school in the Summer term on the topic

The Elizabeth Gaskell House at 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester M13 9LW

is open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 11.00am – 4.30pm (last admission 4pm) enquiries: 0161 273 2215 or



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What is Heka? – An introduction to the Course

Joanne Backhouse

fertility-figurine-2 The course

Heka: The Magical Arts of Ancient Egypt

will focus on the concept of Heka (magic) in ancient Egypt. Heka was a divine force imbued in deities, the king and the dead.  It could be used for good or bad, private or state purposes.  This course will focus on two main areas.  Firstly, deities and ritual practitioners (priests and priestesses), this will include the god Heka and and the gods as healers, for example Sekhmet.  Secondly, the course will examine the objects and images created to channel the power of heka, including execration and fertility figurines, amulets, wands and spell books.

sekhmet-figure-3Although much, if not all, of Egyptian art was magical this course will examine images and objects created specifically for magical practice. A broad definition of magic will be used; which is, any activity that seeks to obtain its goal outside the natural laws of cause and effect, will be deemed magical.

This includes rituals in the home, temples and in the funeral realm; most rituals in ancient Egypt used a combination of recitation and action.

The lectures will demonstrate the assimilation of magic, medicine and religion in ancient Egypt and illustrate how magical practice was part of everyday life. As Egyptologist, Robert Ritner said, ‘one man’s magic is another man’s religion’.  The course also presents a rare opportunity to handle and photograph many magical objects from ancient Egypt at Manchester Museum.