About this work

Athalia was the first oratorio of Handel's to exhibit all the features of the English oratorio form that would survive for the rest of his life. It was composed after the success of his first two oratorios, Esther and Deborah. Its libretto is adapted from a biblical tragedy by Racine. Racine's intense classicizing influence altered the way Handel viewed oratorio, and was responsible for the development of the dramatic chorus. In Athalia, the choruses are not the turba or crowd choruses of opera seria, but rather characterized groups which participate in the action of the drama, and even act as protagonists. The Israelites and Baalites in the oratorio are each given very distinctive music. The Hebrews have highly contrapuntal choruses, while the Baalites are portrayed as happy hedonists. Their music is lush, sensuous, and expansive. There are a great many choruses, and range in complexity and grandeur. They are composed in as many as eight parts, and provide dramatic and structural unity and character to the work. This new type of dramatic chorus informs the nature of Athalia, dominates its texture, as it was to do in all of Handel's oratorios to come. The orchestrations are rich, and the entire oratorio has an epic quality because of this. The arias are now all integrated into the choral fabric, and there are less of the operatic da capo arias which tend to dominate his other forms.

Athalia is one of Handel's great female characters. She is a fearful, powerful matriarch, with a violent and bloody story, similar to Medea's. From Racine Handel gets a fully carved individual brought down from the classical tradition of Euripides. Her music is strong, passionate, and grim. Racine also gave Handel the classical concept of a tragedy as a struggle of human passions and emotions, and his characterizations reflect a sensitivity to human conflicts and motivations. The story is well constructed, along classical lines. It was intended as a libretto originally, and was initially set as an oratorio by Jean Baptiste Moreau (1656-1733) who also wrote biblical oratorios.

Athalia was premiered at Oxford University as part of the entertainments which Handel provided during the ceremonies conferring honorary degrees. Handel was offered a degree at this time, but turned it down, giving no reason. It may have had something to do with the political climate at the time, for Oxford was run by Jacobites, and Handel was a transplant from Hanover, Germany. Athalia was very well received and acclaimed, but even after the success of Esther, Deborah, and Athalia, Handel continued to use oratorio concerts as a way to help pay for his opera productions only.