George Friedrich Händel, Israel in Egypt, HWV 54
Horizon Chamber Orchestra, Christian Campos, artistic director
CSUF University Singers, Dr. Robert Istad, conducting
Lauren Graham, Soprano
Erika Jackson, Soprano
Katie Martini, Soprano
Bradley Sharpe, Countertenor
Sammy Salvador, Tenor
Victor Mercado, Tenor
Rayvon Moore, Bass
Matthew Kellaway, Bass
German composer, George Friederic Handel, was a major composer of the Baroque era who found his success with audiences in London by becoming a vital part of that city’s burgeoning 18th-century music scene. During his lifetime, he was best known for his keyboard works, anthems, operas, and oratorios. Handel’s background and training shows the influence of German polychoral writing and the Italian operatic style. Rarely satisfied with the dramatic unity of his oratorios and operas, Handel frequently edited them after their premieres to enhance pacing and encourage future performances.
Israel in Egypt is one of the more unique oratorios within Handel’s repertoire. Like Messiah, composed three years later, it is an oratorio that has no specified cast of named characters who sing recitatives and arias to narrate a series of dramatic events. Instead, its libretto consists of passages excerpted primarily from the Old Testament. The drama is set primarily via choruses which describe the events and conditions leading up to the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt and out of enslavement.
Handel composed Israel in Egypt shortly after he completed another oratorio Saul, in October 1738. In its original form, Israel in Egypt consisted of three large sections rather than the two that are customarily performed today. The original opening of the work at the first performance in April 1739, was Handel’s “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline,” composed in December 1737. By judicious alteration of the text, Handel transformed this multi-movement anthem of some 45 minutes’ duration into a “Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph.” The second and third sections of Israel in Egypt, include musical and stylistic links that tie them to the funeral anthem of the first part. It is through this method that Handel created musical unity on an impressive scale.
Unfortunately, in actual performance, the oratorio was a commercial disaster, primarily because the London audience was unaccustomed to and unwilling to accept so much choral singing in place of the arias they expected to hear. Handel, ever watchful of his box office receipts, was at work within a week of the première, making alterations for subsequent performances, primarily through the addition of solo arias. Handel never again attempted to compose an oratorio with the same unbalanced proportion of solo to choral movements. He soon learned to better equalize the dramatic elements in his compositions, which bolstered his reputation with audiences and historical consensus.
The first part of two, as performed by our University Singers, draws its narrative text from the book of Exodus and from several psalms. It begins by illustrating the Israelites’ bondage and enslavement in Egypt, followed by the introduction of the prophet Moses. Moses respectfully requests that Pharaoh release the people of Israel from bondage so that they might return to their homeland. Pharaoh refuses, and instigates a number of highly dramatic and miraculous plagues unleashed upon the Egyptian people. Handel used the extraordinary nature of each plague to create outlandish musical descriptions in the score. Listen for word painting in the orchestra as Handel inspires you to imagine hopping frogs, swarming locusts and lice, apocalyptic hail, and water turned to blood. The most redolent and important musical writing in the first part accompanies the tragic story of the visitation by the angel of death and the Passover. The visitation of the angel of death takes the shape of slow, sinuous singing and playing, while the slaughter of the firstborn assumes a primal, violent exposition in the orchestra. In the story, the devastation of the Passover finally persuades Pharaoh to release the Israelites, only to change his mind and send his army to retrieve them shortly thereafter. Part One culminates as Moses parts the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape, the destruction of the Egyptian army in the sea, and the Israelites’ acknowledgment of the power of their God.
Part Two is largely an extended celebration of the victory described in Part One, entitled “The Song of Moses.” Handel presents the celebration with large choral compositions contrasted with relatively quieter duets and arias. Because of the lack of distinctive narrative in this part, Handel takes the opportunity to set the text with less figurative writing, and a more careful eye toward proportion and composition. The finest examples of his mastery of baroque style in composition flourish in Part Two. It begins in ceremonial style indicated by the orchestra’s dotted rhythms and is followed by a solemn chorus. The subsequent double chorus’s grand fugal anthem “For He hath triumphed gloriously” perfectly embodies the joyful feeling of the second half of the oratorio, and establishes a more abstract artistic approach. He inspires gentleness and ornamentation in the soprano duet “The Lord is my strength,” and assumes a less martial character in the chorus “He is my God.” In the middle of the second part, Handel again turns to word painting and creative orchestration to add interest to the text. The baritone duet, “The Lord is a man of war,” is a powerful statement of antagonism, and became so popular that Handel quoted it in Messiah in the bass aria “The trumpet shall sound.” One of the most delightful choruses in part two is the madrigal chorus “And with a blast of Thy nostrils.” In it, the chorus depicts the dramatic sinking of the Egyptian army with musical figures that sound like sneezing and other vocal effects. The work ends triumphantly with musical repetition. The chorus “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever” becomes a strophic hymn of praise surrounding dramatic recitative. Finally, the climacti