- Acis and Galatea
- Alexander’s Feast
- Israel in Egypt*
- L'allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato
- Joseph and his Brethren
- Judas Maccabeus
- The Occasional Oratorio
- Alexander Balus
Above is a chronological list of the oratorios Handel wrote. The starred ones are those that I personally recommend for anyone new to the composer. My endorsement is based on the fact that each demonstrates a different period in the development of Handel’s works, is a masterpiece in its own right, and is reasonably easy to find.
This is not to say that many of the others are not fantastic; frankly almost all of them are. But these six are a manageable handful with which one might start. A summary of each, along with further explanation of my motives for its inclusion, can be found below. Click on the music icon for a playlist of great oratorio excerpts.
Athalia comes from an easy-to-miss Biblical story about a wicked queen who ruled Judea around the 9th century BC. The protagonists are the Jewish temple priests who refuse to abandon the traditions of their people for idolatry. Among them is a young child, heir to the throne, whom they saved from death and have reared. The plot is a simple one in which God delivers his people and restores a pious leader to the throne.
Handel’s treatment of it is very straightforward as well. Later he would work with more complex situations, but he quickly perfected this simple kind. The oratorio is well-paced and contains some brilliant arias and choruses. Athalia’s fears about losing her kingdom are captured by her frantic solo pieces, along with her desires for vengeance. The vain flattery of her followers, as contrasted with the solemn gravity of the Jewish people, is well-illustrated by different choral styles.
The oratorio ends with an overwhelming chorus praising the glory of God. Many of the early oratorios contain such moments, perhaps because Handel was eager to exercise his new freedom to add such massive movements. (He must have been ready to explode after all those years of opera.) The one that ends Athalia is one of his grandest.
Israel in Egypt (1738)
This unusual oratorio illustrates in music the story told in Exodus about the flight from slavery in Egypt . Its most unusual feature is the overwhelming number of choruses, as though Handel were purposefully challenging the conventions of his time.
But it is not the novelty of the piece then that makes it interesting today. The shifts in mood as the chorus narrates the story (as in Messiah there are no actual characters) are phenomenal, beginning with mournful prayers to God for release from bondage. Handel then has a field day as he relates the plagues sent against the Egyptians. Rapid string trills tell of swarming locusts followed by drums and trumpets for the thundering hail. A slow and eerie chorus represents the plague of darkness, which turns abruptly to a piercing fugue describing the horror of the killing of all first-born children.
The first part is decidedly narrative, ending with the parting of the Red Sea. The latter half is a setting of the Song of Moses, a collection of movements expressing praise and thanks. For sheer excitement and grandeur, few of Handel’s works can surpass Israel in Egypt.
While it is regrettable that Handel should be remembered for his Messiah alone, the piece itself is certainly a worthy one. Like many people, it was the first piece I ever heard, and it created my enthusiasm. I quickly memorized it so as to sing along with every aria, from "Every Valley" to "Who May Abide" to "I Know that My Redeemer Liveth."
One might expect an oratorio on a sacred theme to be no fun, but we see Handel’s dramatic skills working full tilt. The choruses are lively and rousing, and can be as menacing as reverent, as in the mockery scene "He Trusted in God." And though the great "Hallelujah" chorus is the most recognized, the final "Amen" is equally worthy to conclude such a great work.
Messiah is likely to remain the most accessible of Handel’s oratorios, partly because of tradition, and largely because everyone already knows the story. Around the holidays it is not uncommon to hear churches hosting sing-alongs. They are a wonderful opportunity to appreciate just how spirited the music can be even when sung by amateurs, and I recommend looking one up in your area.
Charles Jennens was a friend of Handel’s who compiled the Biblical passages that were used for Messiah. Jennens was also something of a poet, and he wrote the libretto to Belshazzar, one of Handel’s greatest dramas. Since most people could probably use a summary of the story, here it is in brief.
Belshazzar, king of Babylon, is under attack from the Persians (led by Cyrus). Behind impenetrable walls he scoffs at his attackers and passes his time in various Epicurean delights. Meanwhile he mistreats his Hebrew slaves and defies their god to save them. The drama takes place in a single day; the last day of Babylon . It ends with the Persians gaining entrance to the city, killing Belshazzar, and setting free the Jewish prophet Daniel and his countrymen.
Jennens and Handel make the story memorable through the wonderfully differentiated characters. Belshazzar is made to seem irresponsible and vain through arias that sound like drinking songs, while Cyrus sings with humility and pious confidence. The arias of Gobrias (a general of Cyrus seeking vengeance for his son’s murder by Belshazzar) express both his grief and determination, and Daniel shows a calm faithfulness that his god will deliver him.
But the most sympathetic and tragic character is Belshazzar’s mother, Nitocris, who pleads endlessly with her son to consider his actions and save himself from divine vengeance. (In act II she clashes with him in a very memorable duet.) In addition to the various characters, the chorus adopts different modes to express the Persians, the Babylonians, and the Jews.
Belshazzar shows Handel at his best in characterization. This was the first oratorio I ever saw (besides Messiah) and it was spectacular.
Unlike Belshazzar, this oratorio has almost no action. In the Bible the story of Solomon consists of vague praises of his wisdom and utopian kingdom. Not surprisingly, whoever wrote the libretto had trouble finding interesting dramatic episodes with which to pass the time (other than the great scene with the dispute over the child).
But Handel’s music is first-rate throughout. The lack of a compelling story paves the way for an oratorio that celebrates the harmony of the reign through charming pastoral arias, rousing military choruses, fun romantic duets, and other great movements. Put them together and you get another masterpiece, demonstrating the composer’s creativity under seemingly adverse conditions.
The choruses in Solomon are particularly glorious. Handel’s boisterous nature and love of grand effects become apparent early on, and in the final chorus he outdoes himself, if that is possible.
Handel’s various collaborators were perhaps overly fond of the happy ending. Even when it meant breaking with tradition or changing a Biblical story, they would often resolve their dramas in improbable ways. This is unfortunate, for though Handel wrote splendid music for celebrations, he also excelled at tragedy. Theodora is his most solemn and tragic oratorio.
Instead of the Bible the librettist, Thomas Morell, uses a legend about a Christian martyr in the 3rd century. Theodora refuses to compromise her faith and participate in Roman sacrifices, and as a result she is imprisoned and threatened with forced prostitution. A Roman soldier name Didymus, who is in love with her and secretly a Christian convert, tries to intervene. He helps her to escape, but is held by his superiors and condemned to die for his transgression. In the end Theodora surrenders herself to them, hoping by doing so to placate their anger and save his life.
The characters are moving and expertly drawn. Theodora is the noble Christian whose faith and calmness are tested by the fear that besets her. Irene, a fellow Christian, shows fear and admiration for her friend through deeply solemn music, as does the Christian chorus.
The Roman governor Valens is a strong and warlike leader, and the chorus joins with his militaristic music. Didymus sings with similar heroism, but it alternates with sympathy, showing his double life as soldier and convert. His friend Septimius is the other great character. As a soldier he believes in order and discipline, but objects to cruelty, and as the piece unfolds he begins to challenge the system that threatens to destroy his friends. You hear this change in his arias, until the end when he is pleading for their lives in vain.
There is little joy or celebration in Theodora, but it is among Handel’s best. It was his second to last work, and the other, Jephtha, contains similar gravity. The second act of Theodora ends with a chorus that Handel considered his finest work. If you should see this piece somewhere, buy it at any cost. Next Page
Handel's Music: Introduction | Oratorios | Operas | Other Vocal Works | Instrumental