About this work

Jephtha took Handel quite a while to compose, as he struggled with his own misfortunes and destiny. It was during the composition of Jephtha that Handel began to go blind. There are notes on the sides of the manuscript which bear testimony to his ongoing struggles. Particularly touching is the note next to the piece "How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees." He had to break off composing this section because the sight in his left eye had completely gone, and the note next to the passage merely states the date and makes mention of his lack of sight in that eye. Toward the end of February 1751, he had completed Act II, but was unable to continue work on the oratorio until the month of June. He continued to perform on the organ, but the sight in his right eye was also leaving him, and by the end of his work on Jephtha he was totally blind.

The story of the daughter of Jephtha comes from the Book of Judges. The librettist of the oratorio, Thomas Morell, used the biblical version of the story as well as a sixteenth-century popular account by the humanist author George Buchanan. In the seventeenth century, the theme of the lament of the daughters of Israel for the daughter of Jephtha was a popular one. However in the eighteenth century, tragic themes were not as well liked, and Handel and Morell had to amend the story. Instead of being sacrificed on a pillar of fire, Jephtha's daughter is claimed by an Angel of the Lord and taken up to heaven. The extreme nature of the story is also humanized by the perspicacious Handel, who delineates the characters of Jephtha's family completely. His wife is a fully concerned mother, his daughter betrothed to a young man who must relinquish his bride and future wife, and Jephtha, the military hero and unlikely son of Israel, gains stature and depth by these humanizations. The family dynamics throughout the oratorio add to the work's dramatic completeness.

Much of the music of Jephtha is borrowed, both from other composers and from earlier works of Handel. They say that due to his great extemporizing abilities, Handel needed ever greater resources of musical material, and so borrowed and altered pieces of others and himself. Seven out of the nine choruses are heavily indebted to the music of composer Franz Joseph Habermann. Although Handel develops the music of Habermann in ways previously unthought-of, he does directly transpose complete sections of Habermann's works into his own.