Israel in Egypt

George Frideric Handel

Israel in Egypt

HWV54

About this work

Very few people have ever heard George Frideric Handel's sacred oratorio Israel in Egypt in anything like the form in which he first composed it. The story of the work's genesis is interesting: as Handel originally penned it in 1738, Israel in Egypt was a work in three acts, the first of which was an adaptation of the Funeral Anthem, HWV 264, composed the previous year on the death of his former pupil Queen Caroline. (Such wholesale borrowing from his own works -- or even sometimes from other composers' works -- was one of Handel's favorite time-saving tactics.) The texts of both this original and the later versions of Israel in Egypt were taken almost entirely from the Book of Exodus (by Charles Jennens, who also provided the libretto for the oratorio Saul), and tell of the Israelites' suffering in and deliverance from Egypt. The only additions are a few psalms.

At its King's Theatre premiere on April 4, 1739, Israel in Egypt was an utter failure. Handel had long since recognized that his English audience had lost its taste for Italian opera and forms derived from it, and throughout the 1730s he had been exploring ways to make his natural flair for musical drama commercially viable. With the first version of Israel in Egypt, however, one might argue that he went too far in "de-operatizing" his style; his audience had no idea what to make of the use of biblical texts in a theater environment, and the absolute predominance of the chorus meant a shortage of the solo arias that were still the only reason they came to performances. The work was, in addition, rather lengthy. Handel tinkered with Israel in Egypt many times -- shortening it, adding arias -- in an attempt to make the work a more audience-friendly one. For a 1756 performance of the oratorio, however, he decided to start more or less from scratch; it is this 1756 verison of Israel in Egypt that today's audiences will recognize.

Gone is the three-act work with its opening lamentation based on the 1737 Funeral Anthem. In its place is a leaner two-act oratorio that begins with music taken straight from the Occasional Oratorio (1746) and Solomon (1749). The chorus is still far more prominent, and serves much greater variety of expressive purposes, than one finds almost anywhere else in Handel's output, and the use of the six vocal soloists -- two sopranos, an alto, a tenor, and two basses -- is minimal. But it would not take long for this 1756 version of Israel in Egypt to assume a place alongside the Messiah as one of England's favorite choral treasures. Part One tells of the Israelites' deliverance from their Egyptian captivity at the hands of Moses; the 12 choruses that describe the miracles leading to the Israelites' freedom are among the most stunning and colorful ever written -- images of hailstones, pestilence, and even the glorious parting of the Red Sea are achieved without once resorting to the kind of pictorialism that a lesser composer would relish. Part Two, Moses' Song, recounts the Israelites' victory and has room for more arias than does Part One; the two-soprano duet "The Lord is my strength" and the solo soprano aria "Thou didst blow with the wind" are particularly fine.

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