Judas Maccabaeus by Georg Frideric Handel
The Story The libretto for Judas Maccabeus was written by the Rev.Thomas Morrell, rector of Buckland in Hertfordshire, who was an acquaintance of Queen Caroline. Morrell, who later wrote other libretti for Handel, was easygoing compared to the vain Jennens (the librettist for Messiah and several other Handel works), although Morrell later admitted that working with Handel was not the easiest task! He built the text upon the descriptions in I Maccabees and II Maccabees, from the Old Testament Apocrypha. The story of the Maccabees- the name has been applied to the entire movement, although it is not clear that anyone other than Judas himself was ever called “the Maccabee”– is a classic of the weak-defeating-the-strong genre. Judas was the third son of Mattathias of Modein, who had begun the revolt against the Greco-Syrian empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes after the emperor attempted to impose the Greek religion on all subjects. Judas, a priest, led the resistance after Mattathias’ death in 166 B.C. His forces subsequently won several critical battles, and in 164 B.C. they recaptured the Temple and restored it to the worship of Yahweh as prescribed in the Torah: This event is the basis for the celebration of Hannukah. They failed, however, to drive the entrenched Syrian garrison from the rest of Jerusalem, lost other battles, and Judas himself was killed in 160 B.C. Neither Judas nor his brother Jonathan, who succeeded him, left offspring, but his eldest brother Simon became the progenitor of a line of Judean kings.
The Music Judas Maccabeus represented a stylistic departure from Handel’s most recent previous oratorio, Belshazzar. In many respects, Judas is more like Messiah, which was written over five years earlier; it contains more narrative and less action than Belshazzar, even though Jennens was the librettist for both of the earlier works. Handel, of course, was first an opera composer, with a keen sense for the dramatic; while Judas has dramatic music, there is little of an operatic character in the libretto. However, the melodies are among Handel’s best, and many have survived outside the oratorio, even if sometimes endowed with other texts.
There are only three named soloists- Judah (Judas); his eldest brother Simon; and, briefly, the Jewish ambassador to Rome, Eupolemus. Many other solos are sung by a man and a woman representing the Israeli populace, or, in a few arias, an unnamed priest or a messenger; this is a departure from the earlier success of Saul, in which the chorus itself represents the Israeli people. The work is in three parts: In the first, we hear mourning of the death of Mattathias and concern over his successor, with rejoicing when Judas emerges in the latter role. In the second part, there is celebration of some of Judas’ victories and concern for yet another battle in the offing; in the third part, Judas has returned victorious and restored the Temple, and the oratorio concludes with rejoicing and celebration of peace and liberty.
Handel, as others have noted, was an inveterate recycler of his own works, and, as he often did with his most successful oratorios, he augmented Judas by adding numbers from other works: “Sion now her head shall raise”, for example, was a 1757 addition from Esther, and “See the conquering hero comes” was appropriated from the 1748 oratorio Joshua. Whatever the rationale, and in spite of the mismatched story lines, the English public- and other audiences since- have kept this a favorite of the repertoire.
Although Handel did not write operas after the early 1740’s, he remained a prolific composer- at least six works separated Judas from Messiah– and as noted by Anthony Hicks, Handel was a contributor to every musical genre of his time, remaining so even after becoming totally blind in his last years. He died in April, 1759.
The Back Story In the tangled web of British royal history, it is often difficult to tell who is the foe. One of many reversals in direction occurred in1685, when James Francis Edward Stuart became King James II of England. James, a Roman Catholic, succeeded his brother Charles II, a good-natured but less-than-effective ruler, and thereafter did everything possible during his nearly four-year reign to re-establish Catholicism in England. Ultimately, James’ intransigence in that pursuit led to his overthrow and banishment to France, whence he was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William, the only co-regents in British history. James II, though banished (and owing his life to William, who guaranteed him safe passage from England), continued to seek his rightful place; in 1690 he attempted a military assault, which failed, and he died in 1701. His son James and his grandson Charles– known in England, respectively, as the “Old Pretender” and the “Young Pretender”– each made one attempt at recovering the monarchy- the former in 1715, following the death of Queen Anne (the last of the Stuart line), and the latter in 1745, in the middle of the reign of King George II. These were the “Jacobite Risings” (Jacobus being the Latin form of “James”). Meanwhile, the Hanover-born kings, George I and George II, were enthroned in England under a succession law passed by Parliament in 1701. Both had links to the German-born composer, organist, and impresario, George Frideric Handel; he had been an employee of George I before the latter’s accession to the English throne- and had favored the young George-II-to-be with harpsichord lessons, not to mention a set of coronation anthems at his succession in 1727.
When “Bonnie Prince Charley”– the Young Pretender– landed in Scotland in 1745, with the obvious intent of invading the motherland, a veritable explosion of patriotic fervor surged in England. Crowds sang the national anthem at Drury Lane for the first time ever. Handel was quite ill at the time, but he supported the patriotism by contributing an Occasional Oratorio, made up in large part of music previously used in other oratorios and operas.
Patriotic fervor was also rampant in Scotland- at least in the Highlands (the more affluent lowlanders were less than enthused). Charles, like his father, tried to take advantage of other stresses on England: His invasion came on the heels of war which broke out between England and France in 1744. Charles raised a Scottish army of about 5000, and marched south, winning at least three major battles, and going as far as Derby, less than 100 statute miles from London. This brought palpable fear in the capital, and those able to do so made plans to evacuate. Fortunately for the English, Charles did not get timely support from France (even though that had been promised), and he withdrew to the north. However, because of the threat to London, the Duke of Cumberland, who was then in the Netherlands preparing to face the French, was recalled to England, and in December 1746 his army of about 10,000 met Charles’ Highlanders at Culloden Moor, near Inverness, decimating their forces. Charles escaped and went back to France, but the Stuarts never again threatened the monarchy. If the initial threat from the Young Pretender had prompted a patriotic outcry, his resounding defeat gave rise to nothing less than an orgy, and this time Handel, now recovered, used the occasion to launch a new oratorio– Judas Maccabeus.
One can certainly question the applicability of the Maccabee story- celebrating the victory of a grass-roots rebellion against an established military occupation- to the crushing of an offshore-led Scottish rebellion by an establishment army twice its size. Cumberland’s victory came in April, 1746, and Handel composed the oratorio in 34 days, beginning early in July of that year; the premiere, however, was not given until April 1, 1747, almost a year after the victory. (The delay may have resulted in part from the sensational trial of a Jacobite sympathizer– Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat– for high treason.) Handel’s apparent intent was to draw a parallel between the valiant Judas and the victorious Duke: Morrell, in fact, wrote a dedication, in the nature of a subtitle, which appeared on the title page of the music: “Faint Portraiture of a Truly Wise, Valiant and Victorious Commander”. Apparently the English public was not critical of the parallel; at any rate, Handel, who had been on the verge of bankruptcy, became once again the apple of the public eye. The popularity of this oratorio nearly eclipsed that of Messiah, and it was performed almost every year thereafter during Handel’s lifetime.
This is the first time the Chorus has performed this oratorio; the Chorus has a rich history, however, of other Handel works, including multiple performances of Messiah, one of Israel in Egypt (1996), and shorter works including the Coronation Anthems.
J. R. Fancher, Oct. 2007