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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: https://mancent.org.uk/?page_id=5517

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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.