Program Notes: Judas Maccabaeus
Had G.F. Handel not composed his ever-popular oratorio Messiah, it is likely that Judas Maccabaeus would have taken its historic place. After all, Judas Maccabaeus was Handel’s second most popular oratorio during his lifetime. Reverend Thomas Morell (1703-1784), who would also supply the libretto for four later oratorios, wrote the libretto for Judas Maccabaeus.
Morell based the libretto on the Old Testament Apocrypha I and II Maccabees, but he also added a few details from Josephus’Antiquitates Judaicae. This was Morell’s first collaboration with Handel and it must have been a fascinating one since some 25 years later Morell actually had documented his feelings about the oratorio and more importantly an amusing observation of what it was like to work with Handel. It is known that Morell, who was a lover of music, was an easy-going collaborator when compared to the vane Charles Jennens (the librettist for Messiah), hence a possible explanation why Handel chose to continue to work with Morell for future oratorios.
The first performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was not only hugely successful, but it also marked an important change at the box office in Handel’s career. Handel decided to abandon the subscription scheme and for the first time opened the doors to the public. This scheme proved significantly profitable for Handel, with at least 54 performances of Judas Maccabaeus during his lifetime, and he was able to pocket a sizeable amount of money by the third performance.
The story of Judas Maccabaeus is a fascinating heroic story (presently rumors have it that there is even a Hollywood film about this Jewish hero being made). Morell is paralleling the victory of the Duke of Cumberland with the heroic efforts of Judas, and the theme of having a victorious leader was enough to launch Judas Maccabaeus as the oratorio to celebrate the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion. Despite the controversy about the comparison of the story of Judas with that of the Duke of Cumberland’s victory at Culloden, there can be little argument about the splendid music that can be heard in this masterpiece.
The story of Judas Maccabaeus marks a significant event in history for the Jews, as they rose to victory over the Syrians after many years of oppression under the rule of Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) who had imposed Hellenic traditions on the Jewish population. By 198 B.C., in Palestine, under Antiochus the Great, the Jews were allowed to practice their religious customs. But later, under his successor Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), the Jewish people were discriminated against. Their religious customs were forbidden and this included desecrating the Temple at Jerusalem; subsequently pagan rites were instituted. Some Jews did not tolerate this oppression. One of these Jews was a priest from Jerusalem by the name of Mattathias. Mattathias led the Jewish rebellion and after his death in 166 B.C., his sons (John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar and Jonathan) continued this revolt. The libretto begins with the mourning of Mattathias’ death and then moves on to Judas’ appointment as military leader of the nation. Judas ultimately leads his nation to victory regaining the Temple for the Jews in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. This victory resulted in the purification and reconsecration of the Temple, which marks the Jewish feast of Hanukkah.
Judas Maccabaeus is made up of three Acts and in each Act the mood changes progressively from mourning to triumph. TheOverture in Act I is one of Handel’s greatest pieces of orchestral music ever written. The French-like dotted rhythms in the introductory bars foretell the military mood that is to come. The beginning is solemn, but the triumphant theme is obvious in the masterful fugue that follows.
In Act I, the mourning of the death of their military leader Mattathias is heard in the solemn, yet magnificent opening chorus. The funeral atmosphere turns into an uplifting and promising turning point as Simon’s recitative “I feel the Deity within” and aria “Arm, arm ye brave” marks the official appointing of Judas as the next leader of Israel who will bring the people out of oppression and bring liberty. The hope of liberty is heard in the delightful aria “Come, ever-smiling Liberty”, and is even more prominent in the powerful military chorus “Lead on, lead on!”. With Yahweh on Israel’s side, Judas is determined to lead his people to freedom – So will’d my father, now at rest.
Act II begins with the vigorous and hair-raising chorus ‘Fall’n is the foe’ celebrating the Israelites’ victory over invaders from Samaria and Syria. The energy perpetuated throughout the chorus is interrupted by unexpected whispers of “fall’n” which calms the ardor only to be interrupted by more arrow-piercing chorus lines, especially in the thunderous orchestral accompaniment for ‘where warlike Judas wields his mighty sword’. The celebratory spirits are dampened rapidly as the messenger breaks news of defeat to the Seleucid commander Gorgias. The magnificent aria and chorus ‘Ah! Wretched Israel’ is a representation of wailing and depression from the Israelites. A delicious solo cello line at the start conveys the pathos, and is immediately followed by the grieving soprano line. The following chorus entry augments the pathos even more. Simon’s encouraging words again restore their morale and Judas, renewed in spirit, is ready for battle in the aria ‘Sound an alarm’. The growing intensity conveyed in this aria is brilliant. The chorus solidifies the message with a powerful ‘We hear, we hear the pleasing dreadful call’. At the end of Act II, in ‘We never will bow down’, the cleaning of the temple takes place and the Israelites resist false religions and choose to worship God and God alone.
Act III begins with the Israelites regaining the temple and consecrating it once again. The prayer sung by the priest in the aria ‘Father of Heav’n’ is as beautiful and delightful as Handel’s more famous aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Xerxes. This prayer is commemorated with what is known as the Festival of Thanksgiving. This involved a ceremonial lighting of lamps and it became known as the Feast of Lights. The good news of Judas defeating invaders in their thousands with elephants and all at Capharsalama arrives, and the Israelites celebrate as Judas enters in triumph. He is greeted exuberantly by the Israelites in the ever-popular exultant march chorus ‘See, the conqu’ring hero comes!’. This enthusiastic reception is followed by a grateful and exuberant florid duet in ‘Sing unto God’, which is immediately followed by a celebratory and joyful chorus which might well have fit into Handel’s Coronation Anthems marked with their jubilant trumpet fanfares. In Judas recitative ‘Sweet flow the strains’, he asks for those killed in battle to be remembered, especially his beloved brother Eleazar. Finally, at the end of Act III, the Israelite ambassador brings good news that a treaty has been reached in Rome to protect Judea as an independent nation. After hearing such relieving news, the Israelites are grateful for the peace they have been praying for as sung in the pastoral aria ‘Oh lovely peace’ depicting tranquility and harmony. Now with the Israelites looking forward to peace and prosperity, the oratorio ends with a lovely joyful aria ‘Rejoice, oh Judah!’. After a jubilant ‘Hallelujah’ chorus at the end of this brilliant and dramatic oratorio, Handel adds a magnificent close to the chorus by incorporating a thrilling ‘And in songs divine, harmonious join’.
Notes by Mario Fonseca
April 15, 2012 – 7:00 PM
Westminster United Church
745 Westminster Avenue, Winnipeg, MB
Requiem in E flat major – Johann Adolf Hasse
Miserere in c – Johann Adolf HasseSoloists
Henry Engbrecht, Conductor
With MusicBarock Ensemble
A brief note on Johann Adolph Hasse
Canzona will perform two of the most-recently-republished works of Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783). It is a name that few people recognized on this continent throughout the 20th century, mainly because the music simply wasn’t available. Yet history records that Hasse was highly regarded (also by other composers) as the leading opera composer in Germany. He spent several years in Naples where a number of his operas received their first performances. His voluminous output included instrumental chamber music, a vast number of vocal solo pieces, oratorios, masses and motets, and much more.
Hasse’s long life spanned most of the period of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi…..Mozart and Haydn. He worked with Zelenka and several other leading composers in Dresden. They all knew him and were influenced by him.
The Miserere in c (Psalm 51) and the Requiem in Eb represent his finest writing. Melodious arias and duets – one for two tenors and another for two altos – are unusual when compared with other Baroque composers that have been performed here.
These two works, composed during the 1730s and 1763, respectively, for-shadowed the style of Mozart and Haydn two to four decades later.
The concert goer will not be disappointed in the quality of these works, and will surely be struck by the beauty of the music.
Program Notes: Requiem in E flat and Miserere in c
Although Hasse is primarily known for his operatic output, he composed several exceptional works for the church. His sacred works are of exceptional quality. Having converted to Catholicism, Hasse composed a number of his sacred works for the Dresden Catholic court chapel. At least two requiem masses by Hasse are known to exist. Unfortunately, Dresden became a battleground during the seven-year war, leaving considerable damage and ruin of the city and economy. In 1763, after the war, August II returned to Dresden, as did Hasse. Two days before Hasse’s opera Leucippo was to be performed in Dresden for the Elector’s birthday on October 7, August II died of a stroke. Hasse then composed one of his finest sacred works, the Requiem in C. However, shortly thereafter the new Elector Frederick Christian died on 17 December after contracting smallpox. Hasse then went on to fulfill one final duty to the court by composing another requiem, but this time in E flat.
Interestingly, both of the Requiem masses Hasse wrote are in major keys. The Requiem in E flat is undoubtedly and unjustly a forgotten 18th century masterwork, and along with the Requiem in C, represents his finest writing. The English diarist Charles Burney described Hasse as ‘the most natural, elegant, and judicious composer of vocal music’. As a fine tenor himself (in 1721 he took the title role in his own first opera, Antioco), Hasse wrote well for the voice. The naturalness of his melodies and the emotional aspects of his arias are evident in his sacred music.
The opening Requiem aeternam (Lord, grant them eternal rest) is comforting, giving a sense of peace and tranquility. The Kyrie andChristie (Lord/Christ, have mercy upon us) sections are full of majestic elements so characteristic of the beloved leader Frederick August II. Hasse intertwines his solo voices remarkably. The beginning of the vigorous Dies irae (Day of Wrath) is a stunning depiction of the images of the Last Judgment. The colours and contrast in this movement are extraordinary. Hasse brings his soloists to the forefront, along with the choir, to depict the Day of Judgment. Towards the end, the delightful bridge Salva me, fons pietatis (Save me, fount of pity), is shattered again by the returning theme which has been prominent throughout the movement. Although, there are no trumpets scored for this piece, the presence of the French horns adds that special ‘Judgment Day’ quality to it. W.A. Mozart may have been familiar with this particular movement.
The combination of soloists that Hasse employs is remarkable. For instance, the duetto for two tenors in Inter oves (Give me a place among the sheep) is a gem, and yet a rare combination for the musical period. Since Hasse himself was a tenor, he explores possibilities the two voices can exploit. It is a lovely duet with an exquisite woodwind accompaniment depicting supplication. Again, W.A. Mozart may have been familiar with Hasse’s minor key Lacrimosa (On this day full of tears) and this may have influenced his own setting. The heavenly and lyrical duetto for two altos in Benedictus (Blessed is he that cometh) is also similar to Inter oves in that it is a rare combination not normally employed by other composers of the time. The almost chant-like Lux aeterna (May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord) is followed by a da capo of the opening Requiem aeternam. Although the work is scored in a major key, it does have its moments of funeral-like character, but Hasse made it possible to shift from mourning to the celebration of his leader’s life.
While Hasse was still employed in Dresden, he was maestro di cappella in the Venetian orphanage known as Ospedale degli incurabili. This girls’ conservatory was one of the Ospedales in Venice where musical education played a dominant role. Hasse was loyal to the Venetian institution virtually all his life. Reports say that Hasse conducted 400 voices and instruments – chosen from among the virtuosos of Italy who had gathered in Venice for the festival of St. Lawrence – that made up the forces directed by the famousSassone who had composed the music. The first setting of the Miserere in c (Psalm 51) by Hasse was composed around 1730 for the girls in the Ospedale degli incurabili. Hasse revised the Miserere in c around 1760 for the Dresden court, which included a “mixed choir”. The Miserere in c is full of expressive melodies with elegant chorus lines, which are already gravitating towards the style galant idiom.
The choral opening of the Miserere (Have mercy upon me, O God) has almost a Vivaldian character, which is followed by an enthusiastic tenor solo. The Ecce enim in iniquitatibus (Behold, I was shapen in iniquity) is a lovely display between the soloists and the choir where eventually the choir skillfully picks up the tempo. This is followed by the delightful pastorale Libera me de sanguinibus Deus (Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God) scored for soprano and alto. One cannot help but notice the sweet and florid lines written for the soprano in Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium (For thou desirest not sacrifice), where the solo contains coloratura and is almost operatic in character. The pleasant alto solo in Gloria Patri et Filio (Glory be to the Father and to the Son) is reminiscent of Handel’s solo arias, and leads into a well balanced closing chorus.
After hearing tonight’s performance (magnificent choruses, melodic solo arias and duets), one will understand why Hasse was immensely popular during his time and why audiences in Vienna, Dresden, Venice, Naples, Paris, London and Berlin worshipped him and flocked to see and hear his operatic and sacred music. It’s unfortunate that after his death, Hasse’s name and music went into obscurity. However, it is exciting that his music is beginning to be re-discovered and that tonight we are privileged to hear only a fraction of this master’s magnificent vocal music.
Notes by Mario Fonseca
Photography by Ian Clark.