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Handel Oratorios (not Messiah)

Which of Handel's Old Testament Oratorios works best for performance?  I'm thinking in terms of quality of music, appeal to modern day listeners, dramatic pacing (such as there is in Handel), good balance in the use of chorus and soloists, length (with or without cuts), etc.
I am somewhat familiar with Saul and Israel and Egypt both of which are very fine pieces but the former seems quite long while the later seems extremely chorus-heavy.  I have much less familiarity with others like Joshua, Jeptha, Samson, and the other old-testament oratorios.
Dennis Malfatti
Evansville, IN
Replies (14): Threaded | Chronological
on August 5, 2014 2:51am
I'd suggest Solomon - especially if you're using an orchestra. Have heard Saul, and have a vocal score of Jephtha, but I think they'd have limited appeal. Israel in Egypt would still be my first choice! Samson is also good, even better with a good male alto. Very subjective topic..... Best wishes.
on August 5, 2014 6:00am
I would suggest you look at Judas Maccabeus.  We performed it here to great success.  Dramatic and interesting in that it deals with the background to the Channukah story, so a great alternative to a "Christmas" Messiah.  You need a good tenor for the lead.
--Bruce Borton
on August 5, 2014 6:32am
Recently the community chorus I direct performed "Jephtha", Handel's last and very profound oratorio. The music is wonderful, the story truly tragic (until the appearance of the deus ex machina), the choruses challenging but varied and all well worth the effort.  I made some "tucks" in some of the longer arias to reduce the final performance length slightly, but it was a very successful venture.  I hope to explore "Sampson" in a similar fashion in the near future, as it also presents a character and situations that can speak directly to today's singers and audience. We also did a program once of just the choruses from "Solomon", which were particularly engaging as they are all for double chorus.
So much of the interest in these works lies in the imaginative orchestral accompaniments, making the world beyond "Messiah" such a treat to explore!
Barbara Jones
Stow, MA
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 5, 2014 7:01am
Dear Dennis:
One of my favorite oratorios is "Judas Maccabeus", the story of Chanukkah and the Maccabees. This works well, especially if you have a lead tenor!! Synthesizing the orchestral editions with the choral editions can be a bit challenging, but probably not any more challenging than it is for other oratorios...
Ron Isaacson
Germantown MD
on August 5, 2014 8:14am
I would recommend "Israel in Egypt." Beautiful music and a timely theme.
Anthony Antolini
Bowdoin College
Brunswick, Maine
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 6, 2014 7:44am
Israel in Egypt is brilliant! How can the flies and the frogs and the hailstones for rain not appeal to a modern audience. Ooh it's marvellous!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 2, 2014 10:05pm
I did this with my choir two years ago and they still rave about it. It is and extremely rewarding piece that has many relevant applications throughout the church year.
on August 5, 2014 8:37am

Hi Dennis,


This started as a short reply and grew into the lengthy epistle below


I've spent a lot of time as a performer and student of non-Messiah works. I think that Saul and Solomon are both great options.  Saul is a difficult piece in that the orchestral forces are quite large and the dramatic narrative relies on having very strong soloists in each role. And there are a large number of strong roles!   With some very careful cuts, it can be shortened to a manageable length and still make sense.  I think it is Handel's best oratorio. It feels much like an opera and works very well even with no 18th century context, provided that you have a myriad of excellent soloists available. The choral writing is sublime and at times raucous as the chorus plays into the drama very deliberately.


Solomon is also great, but the dramatic aspect of it can sometimes seem dry to modern audiences until the second and third parts. The pacing of the first part is tricky, and you'll need some soloists with a great sense of timing to get it right in part one.


Although I love Joshua, Alexander Balus, and Judas Maccabeus they rely so heavily on a sense of 18th century context that can leave them a little underwhelming for contemporary American audiences. If these Old Testament stories were more familiar to a modern audience these would be strong contenders. As it stands I think that they might be great for an audience with a large population of academics or musicians.   I think my colleagues are spot on about needing an excellent tenor in Judas, but you also need a strong Bass for the role of Simon too.


I wonder about a grouping of a few smaller works, perhaps one of the Chapel Royal works or Chandos anthems.    The ensemble size is quite conservative, especially in the Chandos Anthems, and the solo lines could possibly be sung by members of the ensemble or emerging professionals/university students. While not strictly oratorios, they might be worth exploring. There are the various Te Deum settings and I am also very fond of the Odes Alexander's Feast and the very early and Purcellian  Ode for the birthday of Queen Anne.



In any case, I'd encourage you to do your exploration/listening from a point of strength so that you can make decisions about cuts etc. A good number of the available scores are based on 19th century sources that have been nipped, tucked, rescored, and often horribly maimed. Be aware that some recordings are based on these editions. I'd steer clear of any Novello score that hasn't been re-edited according to urtext ideals.  The Novello Judas Maccabeus, Messiah, and Samson scores have been recently and beautifully re-edited.   The last time I checked Novello's Saul, Joshua, Samson, and Chandos Anthems editions are reprints of older editions rooted in Victorian musicology. While a interesting side trip are a mess from the standpoint of exploring options. I'd look to the New Handel Halle Edition from Barenreiter or The Clifford Bartlett editions from King's Music.  Otherwise there may be alternate movements, cuts, and da capo choices that might make a piece a better fit but will escape your search. I have found that working with a facsimiles of the original and uncut libretto has been a great tool here for discovering possibilities too.

There are so many possibilities here. I'd be curious as to where you settle. Good luck as you wade through!  
--Jay Carter, Artist in Residence
William Jewell College
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 5, 2014 7:57pm
Thank you so much for this very thoughtful and detailed response.  I appreciate your insight!
on August 5, 2014 12:02pm
Handel's best oratorios are not always the most performed because the choral component is reduced. That's why Israel in Egypt and Judas Maccabeus get performed: they have more choruses, even though they are pretty bottom-of-the-barrell.
Samson is not based on the bible; instead, it is based on Milton's "Samson Agonistes," a secular play about how much Milton hated his wife.
Of the biblical oratorios, I prefer (in this order):
Alexander's Feast
All the other ones are pretty lousy or don't have many choruses, except Esther, which really should only be performed one-on-a-part. Regarding Jephtha: the arias are modern, and the duets/ensembles even more, but the choruses are antique because he copied them from Czech mass music. It's a great oratorio, except the choral parts. 
The non biblical oratorios are 9000+ times better, and I prefer (in this order):
L'Allegro, Il Pensiero, ed il Moderato (the best piece he EVER wrote by a milliongazillianfold. If you don't know it, check it out. Also, the Barenreiter edition is really messed up because it was made in East Germany in the 50's and they wouldn't let the editors go abroad to check the primary sources)
Theodora (Note: this is a Christian work if you care about that type of thing)
on August 5, 2014 7:56pm
Wow!! So many great replies!  (And thanks for not pointing out my misspellings in the first message.)
Just for a little background, a few years ago, I formed a chamber choir and launched a Bach cantata series at the church in Evansville where I am music director.  I am wanting to expand it to other types of works and the committee at the church that oversees it was very excited when I suggested one of the Handel Old-Testament oratorios.  Despite having conducted Messiah a couple of times and one of his Chandos anthems, my knowledge of Handel's Old-Testament oratorios is a bit academic.  So, it's great to read all of your first-hand experiences with these works.
To the post about L'Allegro...I heard a live performance of that about ten years ago at the Oregon Bach Festival and I THOROUGHLY enjoyed it!
Thanks to all of you very much!
on September 4, 2014 2:01pm
I was chorusmaster for the OBF performance of Handel that you heard, have sung and prepared a number of Handel oratorios under Helmuth Rilling, and have conducted five. I would gladly repeat any of them!
I can't believe that another poster gave a blanket characterization of "lousy" for several of the oratorios. Saul is a masterpiece! So are several others.  Almost all of the dramatic oratorios are longer than most modern audiences will enjoy, I don't have a problem with cuts.  Saul can easily be cut to a manageble length without losing the heart of the story.  It does require a larger orchestra than some others. All the oratorios require excellent soloists who can "act" through their voice, not just sing pretty.  The more you treat these pieces as concert productions of opera, instead of traditional, quasi-devotional renditions of oratorio, the more you and everyone else will be happy!
If something a little smaller is required, both Alexander's Feast and the Ode to St. Cecilia are fantastic.
on September 5, 2014 5:41am
Alexander's Feast gets my vote.   The chorus "Break His Bands of Sleep Asunder" is about as thrilling as Handel gets.  And the aria "Drinking is a soldier's pleasure" is quite funny.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 6, 2014 7:16am
Wow Dennis, you have created quite a log here!  I may just print it out and file it!!
When I was a grad student at UCLA, we did performance of DEBORAH...the warrior.  It is a large endeavor, but the choruses are a blast.  Maybe for the future; sounds like you want to keep it managable!  Good luck to you.  And thank you for the original post.
Stephanie Henry
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