Oratorio saved Handel's career

October 30, 1997|By Judith Green

When Georg Friedrich Haendel came to England as court composer to the Elector of Hanover, who had been named King George I, he changed his name to George Frederick Handel and became a British subject.

But there was one thing he didn't change. As one of the foremost opera composers in Europe, he continued to write operas in Italian, after the fashion of the time. He reckoned, however, without the stubborn British public distaste for foreign languages.

For the better part of a decade (1730-1736), he wrote operas and lost a fortune, as did his rivals in London, Italians Giuseppe Bononcini and Niccolo Porpora. Eventually, all went bankrupt.

But the resourceful Handel turned around and invented a new kind of production called oratorio.

Oratorio called for the same musical forces as opera: soloists, choir and orchestra. But it was much cheaper to produce because it required neither costumes nor scenery. The stories were from the Bible, so everyone knew them, and the words were in English, so everyone could understand them. Most important, they could be performed in church, with the blessing of the clergy.

Handel's reputation was restored. He wrote oratorios on such characters as Deborah, Jephtha, Joshua, Judas Maccabeus, Saul, Saint Theodora and Esther. His greatest work, of course, was "Messiah."

"These Old Testament stories concerning the chosen people, Israel, were a metaphor for the chosen nation of England," says T. Herbert Dimmock III, director of Baltimore's Handel Choir. At this formative stage of the British Empire, when London was called "the new Jerusalem," "Israel's triumph was seen as the triumph of England."

Just after "Messiah," Handel wrote "Samson" (1741), which the Handel Choir will perform Sunday. Though based on the story of the Israelite champion in Judges 13-16, "Samson" uses not the King James Bible text but the epic tragedy "Samson Agonistes" (1671) by John Milton, adapted by Newburgh Hamilton.

This great poem describes Samson's long struggle with vanity and arrogance after Delilah's betrayal, and the text reflects Milton's own despairing struggle with his encroaching blindness.

Scholars attribute its misogyny to the poet's anger against women after two unhappy marriages.

The best-known music from "Samson" is the aria for coloratura soprano and trumpet, "Let the bright seraphim," and the funeral march for the hero after he brings down the temple of Dagon, the Philistine god, on his own head.

The Handel Choir's performance features baritone David Arnold in the title role and soprano Rosa Lamoreaux as Delilah, with full choir and orchestra.

'Samson'

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Beth Tfiloh Congregation, 3300 Old Court Road, Pikesville

Tickets: $10-$21

Call: 410-366-6544

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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