Oregon Repertory Singers presents
Israel in Egypt
3pm, April 21 & 22, 2018
First United Methodist Church
In one of the great ironies of music history, the composer who is associated with the most celebrated choral music in the English language was a German whose deepest passion was Italian opera. Handel wrote and produced more than 40 operas, composed some of the most engaging keyboard and orchestral music of the Baroque period, and was one of the great organ virtuosi of all time. Yet he is largely remembered for a single musical form, the oratorio, to which he turned only when Italian opera fell out of favor.
In the 1730s Handel’s opera company at Covent Garden suffered severe financial losses, and he himself had a stroke. He envisaged his return to the concert stage with two dramatic oratorios— Saul and Israel in Egypt—which premiered within a month of each other in 1739. Both could be produced at less expense than his operas (no sets or costumes), and they would be sung in English, which might appeal to many Londoners who never felt comfortable with the aristocratic entertainment of Italian opera. And while many of Handel’s predecessors and contemporaries used Old Testament texts for their oratorios, Handel’s are rare works of art that portray Jews in a favorable light, to which London’s Jewish community responded with enthusiasm.
While most of Handel’s oratorios are loosely based on Old Testament stories, Israel in Egypt and Messiah are the only two that are drawn directly and exclusively from the biblical text, with no paraphrases, interpolations or interpretations. They also remain to this day his most successful compositions. The libretto from Israel in Egypt consists of verses from the book of Exodus and a few passages from Psalms 105 and 106. He divides the work into two parts—the first tells the story of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, the advent of Moses the liberator, the plagues upon the Egyptians, and the crossing of the Red Sea; the second is the resultant song of praise often referred to as The Song of Moses and Miriam. The plagues seem to have inspired Handel to create some of the most colorful word painting of his career: sometimes whimsical as in the hopping frogs, the buzzing flies, or the falling hailstones, along with unusually dark music for Handel, as darkness covers the land and the angel of death comes to smite the first-born children of Egypt.
Israel in Egypt is also unique in its abundance of choruses and double choruses, and its paucity of solo arias. A traditional Handel oratorio is divided into scenes with recitative-aria-chorus, while Israel in Egypt consists almost entirely of choruses. Even so, Handel achieves great variety in the creativity of his choral writing. Many movements are for traditional four-part chorus; others are for traditional double-chorus, where the two choirs sing in alternation. Unique to this work, Handel also writes complete eight-part polyphony, where each of the eight voices has its own part, and he writes a recitative for chorus, a technique not used by any of his predecessors and which no one attempts to imitate for almost 100 years after. This makes Israel in Egypt by far Handel’s most challenging work for the chorus. Some think this is why the work was a failure at its premiere: perhaps the chorus wasn’t prepared to perform pieces of such unprecedented difficulty. And perhaps Handel was so accustomed to writing for professional operatic soloists that he was unaware of how much he was demanding from his choir. The fact that none of his later oratorios make such demands of the choir support this argument.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to spend every Tuesday evening working with the amazing individuals in Oregon Repertory Singers—musicians who not only are capable of mastering a work of this scale and complexity, but also relish every minute of the challenge. Enjoy!
Program notes by Ethan Sperry