The Oratorios of Handel


The Italian Baroque oratorio was hardly anything other than an opera on a sacred subject, presented in concert instead of on the stage.  This conception is an essential element of Handel's oratorios.  Most of the arias in these works differ in no important respects -- neither in form, musical style, nature of the musical ideas, nor technique of expressing affects -- from the arias in his operas.  As in the operas also, the mood of each aria is usually prepared, and the aria introduced, by a preceding recitative.  But there are alterations and additions which transform the oratorios into something different from the conventional 18th-century opera.


Fundamental is the fact that Handel's oratorio librettos were in English.  The Italian used in opera undoubtedly had snob appeal for London listeners, most of whom, if pressed, could hardly have translated a dozen words of that language without help.  The use of English was gratifying to the middle class;  it also meant that at least some of the absurdities and conceits which were part of the tissue of the usual opera libretto must be renounced, since they could no longer be decently concealed under the cloak of a foreign tongue.  Even more important, a new kind of subject matter had to be found.  Classical mythology and ancient history were all very acceptable for upper-class audiences who, whatever the actual state of their education, felt obliged to pretend some acquaintance with such matters.

The entire storehouse of both history and mythology known to middle-class Protestant England in the 18th century was the Bible, or, more accurately, the Old Testament, including the apocryphal books.  All of Handel's sacred oratorios, and especially his most popular ones, were based on Old Testament stories (even "Messiah" has more text from the Old than from the New Testament, except in it third part).  It was impossible for English audiences in an era of prosperity and expanding empire not to feel a kinship with the chosen people of old whose heroes triumphed by the special favor of Jehovah.

Not all of Handel's oratorios are on sacred subjects.  Some, like "Semele" and "Hercules," are mythological.  Others like "Alexander's Feast," the "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day," and Handel's last composition, "The Triumph of Time and Truth," are allegorical.

The arrangement of the libretto varies:  "Susanna," "Theodora," and "Joseph" are practically straight operas; most of the Biblical  oratorios stay close to the original narrative, but the Biblical text was rewritten in recitatives (sometimes prose, sometimes rhymed verse), arias, and choruses;  "Israel in Egypt," on the other hand, tells the story of the exodus of the Israelites entirely in the words of scripture.  "Messiah" also has a purely Scriptural text, but is the least typical of all Handel's oratorios in that it tells no story.  It is a series of contemplations of the Christian idea of redemption, starting with Old Testament prophecies and going through the life of Christ to His final triumph.

Function and Form

The oratorios are not to be regarded as church music.  They are intended for the concert hall, and are much closer to the theatre than to the church service.  Handel more than once was chosen to be the official musical spokesman on occasions of national moment.  The oratorio "Judas Maccabaeus," like the "Occasional Oratorio" of the previous year, was designed to honor the Duke of Cumberland for his victory over the Jacobite rebels at Culloden.  But even where there was no immediate connection with a particular occasion, many of Handel's oratorios struck a responsive patriotic note with the British public.

Handel, like most 18th-century composers, occasionally incorporated in his compositions themes, sections, or even whole movements from other works, sometimes literally but more often with changes and improvements.  Most of his borrowings were from his own earlier works, but a considerable number were from other composers;  three duets and eleven of the 28 choruses of "Israel in Egypt," for example, were taken in whole or in part from the music of others, while four choruses were arrangements from earlier works by Handel himself.  Further borrowings, although not on such an extensive scale, have been traced in many of Handel's compositions written after 1737.  It has been conjectured that he resorted to this when he was beginning a new work, particularly after 1737, when he had suffered a paralytic stroke and nervous collapse.

Beyond question the most important innovation in the oratorios was Handel's use of the chorus.  To be sure, the chorus had had its place in the Italian oratorios of Carissimi, and Handel's early training had made him familiar with the Lutheran choral music of Germany as well as the characteristic combination of the chorus with orchestra and soloists in the southern German Catholic centers; but the English choral tradition impressed him most profoundly.

Handel's Choral Style

The monumental character of Handel's choral style was particularly appropriate to oratorios in which emphasis is on communal rather than individual expression as in the opera aria.  Handel often used choruses in the oratorios where in opera an aria would appear -- as commentary or reflection on a situation (a quality similar to that of the ancient Greek drama chorus).  Handel's oratorio chorus also participates in the action ("Judas Maccabaeus"), is an element in incidental scenes ("Solomon"), and even narrates ("Israel in Egypt").

Pictorial and affective musical symbolism is one of the most conspicuous and endearing features of Handel's choral writing.  The chorus in "Messiah" sings:  "all we like sheep have gone astray (diverging melodic lines);  we have turned (a rapidly twisting, turning figure that never gets away from its starting point) every one to his own way" (stubborn insistence on a single repeated note).  Passages such as these reveal Handel the dramatist, the unerring master of grandiose effects.  He is one of the great composers who know how to write well for a chorus.

His style is simpler than Bach's, less finely chiseled, less subjective, less consistently contrapuntal.  He:  1)  alternates passages in open fugal texture with solid blocks of harmony;  2) sets a melodic line in sustained notes against one in quicker rhythm3) Everything is planned so as to lie well within the most effective range of the voices; 4) at points where he designs the maximum fullness of choral sound, especially, Handel brings the four parts tightly together, the basses and tenors high, the sopranos and altos in the middle register.  This grouping is often used in the characteristically Handelian closing cadencesa)  an allegro chorus climaxing on an inconclusive chord; b)  a tense moment of silence; c)  and then the final cadential chords in three or four splendid sonorous adagio harmonies, in which the chorus, in one great outburst of sound, gathers up the whole meaning of everything that has come before.


La Resurrezione (1708)
Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (1739)
Israel in Egypt (1739)
Messiah (1742)
Joseph (1743)
Semele (1744)
Hercules (1744)
Occasional Oratorio (1746)
Judas Maccabaeus (1747)
Susanna (1748)
Theodora (1749)
Solomon (1749)
Jephtha (1751)
Alexander's Feast
The Triumph of Time and Truth (1757)
(See also The Oratorio)