Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/558

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'Esther' that farther comparison is needless. Handel himself has rarely reached a higher standard than in 'Immortal Lord of earth and skies'; which, in fixity of purpose, breadth of design, and massive grandeur of effect, may well be ranked with some of the finest passages in 'Solomon,' or even 'Israel in Ægypt: and it is enough to say that the promise given in this glorious beginning is amply fulfilled in the Second and Third Acts. In the first Act of 'Athaliah'—produced in the Theatre at Oxford on July 10 in the same year (1733)—this massive style is wisely modified, to some extent, in order to depict the voluptuous surroundings of the Baal-worshipping Queen: but when Joash and the Hebrew Priesthood make their appearance, in the Second Act, it is resumed with all its original force. A large quantity of Music selected from this Oratorio was introduced by Handel into a Serenata, called 'Parnasso in Festa,' which was prepared in haste for the marriage of the Princess Royal, and performed before the King and the whole of the Royal Family on March 13, 1734. After this we hear of no more Sacred Music till 1739, in which year 'Saul' was produced on January 16, and 'Israel in Ægypt on April 4.[1] In force of dramatic expression, 'Saul' certainly surpasses even the finest Scenes presented in either of the three earlier works. The Song of Triumph in the First Act, with its picturesque Carillon accompaniment, marking out each successive stage in the Procession, while the jealous Monarch bursts with envy; the wailing notes of the Oboes and Bassoons in the Witch's Incantation; the gloomy pomp of the terrible 'Dead March,' and the tender pathos of David's own personal sorrow, so clearly distinguished from that felt by the Nation at large; these, and a hundred other noticeable features, would stamp 'Saul' as one of the finest dramatic works we possess, even were it shorn of its splendid Choruses, its fiery Instrumental Symphonies, and its Movements for Organ Obbligato, designed for the Composer's own interpretation. In 'Israel in Ægypt,' on the other hand, Handel first showed his power of treating a purely Epic Poem. There is every reason to believe that the Composer arranged the Text of this Oratorio for himself. At any rate, it is certain, from his method of dealing with it, that he highly approved of the arrangement, and no doubt chose the epic form from conviction of its perfect adaptability to his purpose; illustrating it—now that the dramatic element would have been clearly out of place—with Music, for the most part of a boldly descriptive character; never descending to the picturesqueness of detail which we have before had occasion to notice, yet never leaving untold anything that was necessary to the intelligent rendering of the whole. Except in describing the 'Plague of Flies,' and in a few other instances, his intention seems to have been to speak not to the outward but to the inward sense. Not to present the Scenes mentioned in the Text by means of vividly painted pictures, but to produce in the mind feelings analogous to those which, it is to be presumed, would have been produced by the contemplation of the Scenes themselves. It is enough that we are made to feel the horror of the 'Thick darkness,' and the might of the crashing 'Hailstones,' without seeing them. If we have been made to rejoice, with the Israelites, on hearing that 'The Horse and his Rider' have been 'thrown into the sea,' we need no galloping triplets to portray their headlong flight. Any other mode of treatment than this would have been beneath the dignity of the Scripture Narrative, the stupendous character of which demanded, for each several Miracle, a choral structure of such colossal proportions as had never previously been attempted. Some of the Movements in the Second Part—which was composed before the First—have been adapted from a 'Magnificat,' the Score of which, in Handel's handwriting, is preserved in the Royal Library at Buckingham Palace. This is not the place to discuss the authenticity of the MS. concerning which Dr. Chrysander holds one opinion, and Professor Macfarren and M. Schoelcher another [see Erba]; but we do not think that any unprejudiced critic after carefully studying this Oratorio, can come to the conclusion that a single note of it betrays the touch of an inferior hand. It is scarcely too much to say that unity of design is the first characteristic we look for in a really great work; and unity of design is evidently the one thing which the Composer has here borne in mind, from the beginning of his work to the end. Hence it is that 'Israel in Ægypt' holds a place far above all other works of its own peculiar kind that ever have been, or are ever likely to be written. But this peculiar form of Epic is not the only one possible. There are other feelings to be excited in the human mind besides those of awe, and horror, and wild thanksgiving for a great and unexpected Deliverance. And with some of these Handel has dealt, as no other Composer could have dealt with them, in the next great work which falls under our notice.

It is too late now to ascertain whether Handel himself chose the subject of the 'Messiah,' or whether it was suggested to him in the first instance by his friend, Mr. Charles Jennens. It is certain, however, that Jennens arranged the general plan of the work, and selected from the Old and New Testament the words which are now so closely associated with its Airs and Choruses; for, in a letter written to him from Dublin, and dated Dec. 29, 1741, Handel alludes to it as 'your Oratorio, Messiah, which I set to Music before I left England.' The Music, as we learn from the dates upon the original Score, preserved in the Royal Library at Buckingham Palace, was begun on the 22nd of August, 1741. The First Part was finished on the 28th, and the

  1. We believe these dates to be correct. In Arnold's edition 'Israel in Ægypt' is said to have been composed in 1738, and 'Saul' in 1740. The former work really was composed in 1738, though not performed until the following year. The mistake with regard to 'Saul' probably arises from the fact that it was again performed in 1740 by the Academy of Antient Musick. Throughout this Article we have preferred giving the date of the first performance to that of the completion of the composition.