George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Saxony in 1685 and died in London in 1759, having become a British subject at the age of forty-two.  His early musical ambitions did not please his family who had wanted him to go into the law, but his talent was quickly noticed by the great and the good and he studied harmony and composition as well as keyboard and violin.  He became a violinist in the Hamburg opera orchestra, grew fascinated by that musical genre and then spent four years in Italy learning his craft.  In 1710 Handel was offered the post of Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, who was to become King George I, the first Hanoverian King of Great Britain.  Handel’s acceptance was conditional on first having time to visit England and, although he returned to Hanover for about a year, Britain was to be his home for the rest of his life.

Handel’s musical output was prodigious: he wrote great cantatas and sacred music and his operas – full of high drama – were widely popular.  But by the time he was sixty he was tiring and unwell, ‘disordered in his head’, as a contemporary put it, perhaps from a stroke.  He went to France to recuperate, returning to London in better health, but a little uncertain about his future.  He loved the excitement of opera but staging it was very expensive and its musical conventions could be constraining.

Oratorio was a genre popular on the continent but new to England and created here almost by accident in 1732 when Handel composed the biblical story of Esther for performance as a masque at a private occasion.  He had planned to stage it for the public but ran into opposition from the Bishop of London, who strongly objected to the staging of sacred drama in a secular setting. So Handel expanded the story of Esther, which was then given in concert performance – no actors, costume or scenery – at the King’s Theatre in London.  The Bishop`s obduracy turned out to be a blessing: Handel was to write many oratorios after that, some of which, especially Messiah, the most famous, continue to fill concert halls worldwide.

Although oratorio, the ‘new’ genre, had many fans, there was opposition from the opera lobby who yearned for something more elaborate and ‘showy’.  Some performances were even boycotted by ladies of the fashionable upper class.  Audiences became sparser and, by 1745, Handel’s finances were in a bad way.  Messiah had been a tremendous hit in 1742 when it was first performed in Dublin and Handel perhaps decided that his musical future lay in oratorio, but his fickle public were being hard to please and his health suffered once more.

At this lowpoint for the composer, Britain’s political history took a decisive, if savage, turn. There was a second crisis in the long-running Jacobite rebellion against the Hanoverian Succession when news came that Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, had sailed from Nantes to land with his army in the Hebrides and was moving south.  This caused consternation in London.  The Hanoverian (mostly English) army was promptly recalled from Flanders and the Jacobites were forced into retreat.  Then, under the command of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the rebels were finally crushed in 1746 at the Battle of Culloden.

In England, the scent of victory was in the air; popular feelings of militarism and patriotism were running high.  It was the perfect time for a victory oratorio.  Handel was inspired to write Judas Maccabaeus in honour of the victorious Duke of Cumberland – the man of the moment.  The composer’s librettist, the Reverend Thomas Morell, dedicated it to the Duke with considerable pomp as a ‘Faint portraiture of a Truly Wise, Valiant and Virtuous Commander’.

Thomas Morell was a music-loving cleric and scholar who had spent a long life dedicated to classical and Biblical learning.  He delved into the First Book of Maccabees from the Apocrypha, taking in as well some details from Antiquitates Judaicae by the Jewish historian Josephus in the first century CE.  As a parallel to Cumberland and his victory in the Hanoverian-Jacobite battles of the time, Morell took Judas Maccabaeus and his victory over the Graeco-Syrian invaders of Judaea in the second century BCE.  

The back story to the oratorio concerns an important era of Jewish history when, in about 198 BCE, Antiochus the Great, ruling over the Graeco-Syrian empire, invaded Judaea.  The Jewish people were well treated by their new ruler, but when he died and was succeeded by the brutal Antiochus IV Epiphanes, their lives became unbearable.  This new despot was determined to ban the Jewish faith and culture and impose his own Hellenistic ways which, to the Jews, were abominable heathen customs.  He sacked Jerusalem in 167 BCE and outlawed Judaism and its practices on pain of death.  The people suffered greatly and, when the invaders actually desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, it was such a bitter blow that it sparked a rebellion led by the Jewish priest Mattathias, one of whose five sons was Judas Maccabaeus, who became leader of the revolt after his father`s death.

The Hebrew word ‘Chanukah’ translates as ‘dedication’ and the restoration of the Temple and the miracle of the burning oil following Judas’ victory are commemorated each year in the Jewish Festival of Lights.

Composer:  Handel Wiki Link: Title of Musical Work:  Judas Maccabaeus

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work:

Judas Maccabaeus
(6 November 2014)