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2011年6月2日 星期四

The Influence of 18th Century English Thoughts on the Librettos of Handel’s English Oratorios (Part 3)

前言: 韓德爾的神劇被視為同類型樂種的經典。但我們又是否知道,韓氏的神劇在當代音樂聽眾聽來,不單純是音樂美妙絕倫,非而且充滿愛國情懷和外在意義。皆因韓氏選擇劇本和處理音樂時,往往以樂音借喻,令聽眾能了解其中含意。雖說是巴羅克時期,當代英國的聽眾在聽音樂時,也慣於尋求音樂的表達意義。以下的學術文章,就簡論了韓德爾的神劇腳本和當代的英式思維的關係,讓讀者看出韓氏的神劇精彩奧妙之處。




Paper Continued:

The Influence of 18th Century English Thoughts
on the Librettos of Handel’s English Oratorios (Part 3)


Newburgh Hamilton’s libretto of Samson, written in its initial form by autumn 1741 and dedicated in the wordbook to the Prince of Wales, reflects the prince’s support of the war with Spain for which the Patriots had clamoured. But Samson contained more political context as time passed and even after its first performance, the political scene changed considerably. While Hamilton was writing his libretto the press was reporting the parliamentary ‘motion’ to remove Walpole, the ruling body of England, and commenting on the criticism of British foreign policy since 1725 with regard to the conflict in Europe, the attacking of the conduct of the West Indies War and the arraigning corrupt government at home. Here, Samson who was the Israelite hero, could well symbolize this Britain – native strength shackled by maladministration. At the same time, Samson might also represent an actual national hero, Admiral Vernon. He had achieved a few triumphs of the Spanish war and was a sharp and bold critic of that government as Member of the Parliament. His image forced to remind us the image of Hamilton’s hero, Samson, a figure of suffering the insults from his enemies and critical of his compatriots. As time passed, the symbolic role of Samson changed accordingly. In early 1743, Samson’s initial incapacity and eventual triumph over Philistines must have been seemed to represent the British fortunes in the war in the Continents and Low Countries. The allied navies of Spain and France invading the British Mediterranean fleet in 1744 undeniably reminded the English audience of the vivid image of the helpless Samson under his rival, Philistines’ hands. What would be the fate of the Great Britain? The patriotic oratorio audience might have been inspired much by the chorus in Act III, scene I of Samson:

How thou wilt here come off surmounts my Reach;
Tis Heav’n alone can save both us and thee.
With thunder arm’d, great God, arise;
Help, lord, or Isr’el’s champion dies:
To thy protection this thy servant take,
And save, O save us, for thy servant’s sake[7].

The political ideology in the text is clear and, perhaps, this is the charm of Samson, of Hamilton’s libretto, of Handel’s oratorios.

As we have examined before the main idea of the Handelian oratorios is Patriotism, it is not surprising that the text of the Handel’s oratorio was conveying the ideal of self-scarifice whenever the conflict between public and private interests occurred. In Morel’s Jephtha (1737), the author chose the biblical version of the classical topic concerning the offering up of a daughter for the sake of national success, instead of the private interest. In the story of Jephtha of the Old Testament, Jephtha vows that he will sacrifice to God the first being he encounters on his return from battle if God grants him the victory. His daughter, unfortunately, is the first one he met. He is shaken but his daughter accepts the fate and keeps alone for her whole life to serve God. Morell, undoubtedly, conveyed a message of a patriot king, Jephtha and a patriot daughter. He writes:

True, we have slighted, scorn’d, expell’d him hence,
As of a Stranger born; but well I know him;
His generous Soul disdains a mean Revenge,
When his distressful country calls his Aid –
And, perhaps, God may favour our Request,
If with repentant Hearts we sue for Mary[8].
     (Part I Scene I)

How godlike is it to be great!

When Greatness, free from private ends,
The Good of all Manking intends!                 ( Part III Scene II)

Morell here expresses the Patriot King’s noble aspiration to a public life guided by moral principles. ‘Virtue my Soul shall still embrace; goodness shall make me great’ shows that Jephtha ‘s whole family shares his moral principle. Jephtha’s daughter, also, put the national interests above her personal favorite. Therefore, the whole libretto, main characteristic of Patriot drama uses predominantly family relationships, rather than those of lovers as a source of trial, pain and tenderness[9]. This gives more touching aptness and can immensely attract the oratorio audience. Besides the charm of the text, the patriotic theme is again obvious. We can conclude that the Handelian oratorios not only reflect certain moral teachings of the 18th Century English, but also promote an image of a Patriot King of England, or an ideal Government, with its patriotic standards set in Miller’s Joseph and his Brethren, Morell’s Judas Macchabaeus, Joshua and Solomon that the general English people had long been expected.

Undeniably, 18th Century English thoughts have a tremendous impact on the librettos of Handel’s oratorios. Although it is rather difficult to assert that the ideas influence the texts more or vice versa, one important point is that the oratorios possess more meanings to the audience in Handel’s days than to the modern audience. The oratorio and the theatre were the essential centres of conveying messages, both of religious and political affairs. Oratorio audiences habitually accepted the allegorical meaning of the wordbooks. Christianity defending and the Patriotism were the hot topics in 18th Century England and linked the daily life of the people. What the 18th Century English people interested were mainly religion and politics. There was no conceptual separation between issues of Church and state, religion and politics. Handel’s oratorios could probably fulfill the necessities of the people, the government, and the country in his day. The plentiful meanings conveyed in Handel’s oratorio were valuable and essential to them. Therefore, this is the secret of the dramatic success of Handel’s oratorios to the 18th Century English people, or perhaps, to some extent, to the oratorio audience in the present.


[1] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp146-147.

[2] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p149.

[3] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp10-11

[4] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp175-176

[5] C.V. Palisca, A History of Western History, 3 ed., W.W. Norton, New York, 1981, p443.
[6] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p220

[7] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp298-299

[8] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p341

[9] Smith Ruth, p341


Paper Finished

David leung (theorydavid)

2011-06-02
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