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BEYOND MESSIAH: Handel’s Other Oratorios

May 25, 2012

by Elizabeth Shuman

Virtually everyone can at least hum one line of Handel’s Messiah. A youtube search for “Messiah Flash Mob” returns about 600 results. The Bethany Oratorio Society, based in Lindsborg, Kansas has performed Messiah every year since 1882. My husband’s family originates there, so I’ve heard firsthand accounts of choristers singing the work every year for most of their lives. Nothing tops Messiah for ubiquity. It is unlikely that many of the Messiah Mobsters, or any of the rest of us, are very familiar with any of the other 25-odd oratorios that Handel composed. It is even more unlikely that one could hum the line “Bloody Wretch, no more I fear thee!” from the first English Oratorio that Handel wrote.  Of course, I am referring to Handel’s Esther. During Handel’s lifetime, Esther was far more popular than it is today, experiencing many performances, including various revivals. Research has yet to confirm a flash mob.

Dutch painter Aert de Gelder’s depiction of Esther adorning herself for a royal wedding. Die Judenbraut (Esther läßt sich schmücken), oil on canvas, 1684.

Interestingly, Handel left us with two complete versions of Esther. They are listed as HWV 50a and HWV 50b. 50a was first performed around 1720 as a masque (Wikipedia link to masque, for those who napped through music history), while 50b was updated and performed later in 1732 in full oratorio form.  Comparing the two versions, it is notable that out of about 33 musical sections in 50a, only 14 are substantially similar in 50b. Rather than simply add new material to fill out the existing work, Handel ditched about half the music from the first version as he revised it. The opening and closing sections are vastly different, but Handel must have been pleased with the middle section including Mordecai’s challenge to Esther, Esther’s subsequent approach to Ahasuerus and his tender response to her. These remain intact in the revised version.

Further revisions include abandoning one aria I will be singing in the upcoming VOX 3 Collective “Veiled Faces” concerts. “Flattering tongue, no more I fear thee” appears only in the earlier version. It is a passionate, vengeful piece, but lacks the refined and even graceful melismatic passages that elevate many of Handel’s other vengeful arias. The text, as noted above, features some awkward turns of phrase with language that must have been colorful for its time.  Perhaps it even seems a bit out of place for Queen Esther, whom many perceive as pious.

Both the original masque and updated oratorio contain beautiful music that matches the greatness of Handel’s other works. I have enjoyed exploring the arias I will be presenting, and I hope the audience appreciates the glimpse into Handel oratorio beyond Messiah.

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