Choral Arts Cleveland presents Handel's Judas Maccabaeus

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Music Director Martin Kessler visited WCLV to preview Choral Arts Cleveland's season opener: the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus by George Frideric Handel on Sunday, November 22, 2015 at 7:30 at Disciples Christian Church, located at 3663 Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights. The soloists are Tim Culver (tenor), John Watson (bass), Diane Menges (soprano), and Sandra Ross (alto). 

Oratorio is nearly synonymous with the name George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Though he composed many Italian-style operas througout his life, he later moved to oratorios in response to the interest shown by the English audiences he composed for after moving to London in 1712. English patrons’ interest in Italian opera was mixed, with some audiences being aloof to foreign words and foreign cultural ideas. In oratorio, audiences relished morally uplifting works sung in English by talented homegrown choirs. Though based on scripture, these pieces were not meant as sacred church music, but a kind of “pious concert” performance. Oratorios were also pleasing from a production standpoint, as they were much less expensive to stage and perform. Early successful oratorios by Handel include Saul (1739), Messiah (1742), and Samson (1743).

However, by 1745, interest in Handel’s oratorio work had diminished. Slow ticket sales for a series of 24 oratorio concerts forced Handel to cancel the series after only 16. Failure to do so might have resulted in his bankruptcy.

Handel, then 60 suffering from poor health and depression, turned to political and military events for inspiration. In April 1746, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, defeated the Jacobites’ rebellion at the Battle of Culloden and ended a movement to return Charles Edward Stuart to the throne. The Duke, George II’s second son, was hailed as a popular hero. In response, Handel composed Judas Maccabaeus, as an allegorical celebration of this victory.

Judas Maccabaeus tells the story of the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BC), in which a Jewish army rebelled against the Seleucid Empire (modern Syria). Under the control of the empire, Judeans were forbidden to adhere to Jewish laws and were ordered to worship Zeus and other deities. An elder priest, Mattathias, rebelled against this persecution by killing a Jew offering a sacrifice to Zeus and destroying a pagan altar. Mattathias and his family then took to the hills, where he later died.

It is here that Handel begins the piece, with the lachrymose chorus “Mourn, ye afflicted children.” Mattathias’ son, Simon, reminds the Israelites that they are the chosen people and rallies them with “Arm, arm ye brave.” Simon’s brother, Judas Maccabaeus, then ascends to become their leader, inspiring the people to fight for their freedom (“Lead on, lead on!”), powered by faith in Jehovah (“Hear us, O Lord”).

Act II begins in triumphant fashion. In “Fallen is the foe”, the Israelites are victorious over foreign invaders from Samaria. However, Judas reminds them that they have been victorious because God willed it so (“How vain is man who boast in fight”). When news arrives of a defeat at the hands of the enemy commander, Gorgias, triumph turns to dejection (“Ah! Wretched Israel!”). However, Judas leads a battle cry (“Sound an alarm”) and Simon brings the people’s attention again to the power of their God (“With pious hearts”). As a calm voice of reason, Simon takes up the restoration of religious altars and the removal of remnants of the pagan religion. The act ends with the people reaffirming their belief in their God (“We never will bow down”).

Act III opens with a celebration of Judas victory over the enemy (“See, the conquering hero comes”). Then joyful news from Rome arrives: An alliance has been formed to protect the Israelites from the Seleucid. Eupolemus, the Jewish ambassador to Rome, announces the pact in “Peace to my countrymen.” The people praise God (“To our great God be all honour given”) and are joyous at the prospect of lasting peace (“O lovely peace”). The oratorio ends with a celebratory chorus (“Hallelujah, Amen”).

Judas Maccabeus premiered at Covent Garden on April 1st, 1747. Perhaps because of his difficulties with ticket sales in 1745, Handel abandoned the traditional subscription model and opened the concert to the general public, to great success.  Despite the allegorical intention of the piece to celebrate the Battle of Culloden, it was a singular hit with the Jewish population of London. Its success helped correct the course of Handel’s declining popularity and finances. During his life, Judas Maccabaeus was one of Handel’s most popular and regularly performed oratorios, second only to Messiah. It is one of the few oratorios to remain popular from Handel’s day through to the twenty-first century.

by Ryan Honomichl (bass)

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