Thursday, November 1
On today’s date in 1738, George Frederick Handel completed one of his first great Biblical oratorios. It was entitled “Israel in Egypt,” and was based on the Book of Exodus.
At this point in time, British taste for Handel’s Italian-style operas had waned, and, like the filmmaker Cecile B. DeMille some 200 years later, Handel set out to entice his jaded audience back into the theaters with Biblical epics like “Saul” and “Israel in Egypt,” featuring big casts and lots of special effects.
“I hear,” gossiped one young British Lord to his father, “that Mr. Handel has borrowed a pair of the largest kettle-drums from the Tower of London, so to be sure it will be most excessively noisy!”
Even so, many in the audience at premiere of “Israel in Egypt” didn’t know quite what make of it. Some thought religious subjects unsuitable outside of a church setting; others found the music, in the words of one contemporary, “too solemn for common ears.” A few, however, were quite enthusiastic. One gentleman wrote a long letter to the London Daily Post, informing readers that the Prince of Wales and his consort attended, and appeared “enchanted” by the new work.
Even so, for later performances of “Israel in Egypt,” Handel felt the need to reduce the solemnity by interpolating some totally incongruous snappy English songs and up-tempo Italian arias to keep the audience from drifting off – literally and figuratively speaking.
Music Played in Today's Program
George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1759) Israel in Egypt King's College Choir; Brandenburg Consort; Stephen Cleobury, cond. London 452 295