The biblical stories appealed to the religiosity of an important and emerging new audience. I refer here not to the immoral cosmopolitan aristocracy, who had been the great patrons of Handel’s operatic career (partly in order to satisfy their own desires) but to the evermore prosperous, numerous and politically powerful middle class, which grew and thrived in the sustained economic boom that was Georgian Britain. Oratorio became the soundtrack to the emergence of this movement. In 1734 Handel travelled to Oxford where he gave five performances of oratorio in the Sheldonian Theatre, and also concerts of anthems and instrumental music in Christ Church Hall. He was offered an honorary doctorate by the university but declined it on the grounds that he was “….too busy to attend the awarding ceremony”. Handel’s contract for the subscription series at the King’s Theatre still had one year to run, and he filled this with a sequence of pasticcios (pieces assembled with music by more than one composer), and revivals of earlier successful operas and oratorios. He did inaugurate a new practice during this period of performing especially written organ concertos during the intervals of performances, and most of the organ concertos which remain date from this short period.

Audience attendance remained thin, however, and Handel’s company closed in 1735 in financial ruin. Handel’s obstinate reluctance to abandon Italian opera when the writing had been on the wall had cost him both financially and in terms of his reputation, and the change to writing oratorio in English was unplanned and not entirely welcome. Furthermore, his physical ability to perform was suddenly somewhat reduced by the symptoms of a stroke, which he suffered in 1737, and which severely limited the use of his right arm. In September 1738 he went, with Smith, to Aachen on the German/French border (Aix-la Chapelle), to take the warm sulphur baths. Within six weeks they appeared to have effected a remarkable recovery, and in November he returned to London and began working simultaneously on two new oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, in an attempt to clear his debts. For the performances of these works Handel hired the King’s Theatre for twelve nights and gave six performances of each. For Saul (libretto by Charles Jennens) Handel assembled huge orchestral forces including three trombones, a carillon (a huge type of keyed glockenspiel), organ, and the huge double bass kettle drums of the Royal Artillery, which were borrowed from the Tower of London. Israel in Egypt, originally entitled Exodus, had words not written by Jennens, but compiled by him from the Old Testament biblical books of Exodus and Psalms. Israel in Egypt was particularly badly received, the exclusively scriptural words being an unwelcome novelty in a secular theatre; and the imbalance between the many dense double choruses, combined with a notable paucity of tuneful and poignant arias and duets, was also unpopular. In short, there were simply not enough arias enabling the divas to show off.

Other works from the late 1730s are the anthem The Ways of Zion do Mourn, written for the funeral of Queen Caroline in Westminster Abbey in 1738, and the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day of 1739. The original part one of Israel in Egypt, later dropped, was a parody from the funeral anthem – possibly a further reason for its poor reception.


Meanwhile, Handel’s popularity in the provinces continued to spread. The formation of the Three Choirs Festival in 1729 (a collaboration between the cathedral foundations of Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester), led to requests for Handel’s music. (This Festival has continued unbroken to this day making it the longest running music festival in the world.) There are also records of a musical society in Edinburgh paying Handel for copies and orchestral parts of the oratorios Deborah and Esther. Handel’s move to Dublin at this point in his career is documented earlier in these notes.

By 1743 Handel was back in London and made an agreement with a newly-opened Georgian theatre in Covent Garden (the building we know today as the Royal Opera House) to produce a new oratorio: Samson. This was very well received, although Handel was dividing Londoners both politically and morally, there being a significant faction of the more prosperous middle classes who were by now predisposed to Evangelicalism, or the new Methodism, regarding anything hedonistic in art as suspicious. Indeed these people regarded the theatre as “…a haunt of sin and moral laxitude, liable to contaminate anyone or anything with which it comes into contact”. In April 1744, Handel suffered a second stroke, although the effects of this were more marginal than before. Later that year, he took the theatre at Covent Garden again for a subscription series opening with two newly written oratorios Semele and Joseph, moving on to revivals of Saul and Samson.

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