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on the Librettos of Handel’s English Oratorios (Part 2)
In the Part II of Judas Macchabaeus, author Morell writes:
To Heav’n let Glory, and all Praise be given;
To Heav’n give your Applause,
Nor add the second Cause,
As once your Fathers did in Midian
Saying, The Sword of God and Gideon,
It is the Lord, who for hisIsraelfought,
And this our wonderful Salvation wrought.
The above text provides a typical answer. Like many other Handel’s librettos of Israelite oratorio, albeit hedge the bets, the point of defending the Christianity is still clear. Morell’s commitment to the defence of Christianity is rather endearing. Here he contributes directly to the orthodox defence of the evidence of miracles and places great emphasis on God’s salvation and mercy, but at the same time, adding rational explanation to meet the Anglican’s teaching. Although contemporary biblical commentaries by orthodox believers reflect the difficulties inherent in the rationalist position in their attempt to present miraculous events as both mysterious and explicable, the librettists of the Israelite oratorios try to have it both ways, giving a rational explanation, or simply the ‘second cause’ while claiming divine intervention. In Belshazzar, Cyrus conquer Bablyon with intelligent strategy as well as the aid of a God-sent dream; in Jephtha, Jephtha has skills of an outstanding general as well as the support of cherubim and seraphim; and in Joshua, Joshua’s men have courage as well as the help of a stationary sun by God to win the battle.
The deists also tried to attack the traditional plank of ‘proof’ by discrediting the application to Jesus of the Old Testament prophesies of the Messiah and of the miracles he would realize. Charles Jennens, another librettist of the well-known Handel’s oratorios of Messiah, Saul, Israel in Egypt and Belshazzar, stands clearly on the side of defending the Christianity. He again paid attention on the Old Testament and to prompt renewed efforts to validate Christian revelation and its concurrence with the Gospels. The traces of this part of the debate in his librettos are particularly striking. In the libretto of Messiah, Jennens showed the parallels of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment and the ‘harmony of the gospels’ with each other, and the actual verbal correspondences between Old and New Testament texts. Although the deists had pointed out that citations of the Old Testament in the New do not always correspond to the Old Testament text as we have it, Joseph Hallet jnr (1729-1736), a famous scholar, asserted that ‘among almost three hundred citations the far greatest part are exact’, while only ‘about twenty differ’. At least fifty one of the eighty biblical verses in Jennens’ libretto are either conscious quotations, or echoes, of the Old Testament in the New, for example, Isaiah XL.3, heard in the opening recitative, is quoted in Matthew III.3, Mark I.3, Luke III.4 and John I.23. As a result, the 18th Century religious thoughts absolutely have a great impact on the librettos of Handel’s oratorio. Meanings that the texts conveyed to the public were clear. On one hand, Handel maintained the rational ground of the belief of Anglican’s teaching by permitting the second cause adding in the librettos; while on the other hand, together with the contributions of his orthodox religious background of his librettists, Miller and Morell were clergymen, Jennens was a scholarly evangelizing Christian and Humphreys wrote commentary to defend Bible, Handel re-emphasized on the Divine salvation, miracles and prophesy fulfillments of the Old to New Testament in order to defend the Christianity against the deism. Perhaps, this was the factor of the success of Handel’s Oratorios in his day.
We have just discussed that the importance of music theatre as a vehicle for political messages. Music and musicians also served as a prime analogy for the state and statesmen. It was not surprising for the 18th Century English audience to expect the presence of political themes in the artworks and entertainments. From the moment that Handel first arrived in England, he was involved in producing music for national events. The librettists would have been unusual if they had excluded political themes from their texts, and the oratorio audience would have been behaving anachronistically if they had not found political themes in them. What were the political events and thoughts of the oratorio years which the librettists could have absorbed into their texts?
The main national events in the oratorio years were decades of wars and the rumours of war. Relations with other European powers were deteriorating throughout the 1730s. In 1731, there was a French invasion scare, serious enough for the British fleet to be deployed in the Channel. Also, the war of Polish Succession in 1733, the trade war with the tough rivalry Spain in West Indies for overseas commercial interests and the threaten of war with ambitious the Frederick II of Prussia in Europe for his political expansion in the Continent were the subjects of major debates in Parliament and were extensively reported by the press. The newspaper-reading member of the oratorio audience would have been aware of these popular issues: the foreign policy of the European alliance, the British army, the navy, and colonial and commercial expansion. Therefore, all these political events in the oratorio years nourished the common political thought of the 18th Century British Government and people, that is, the ‘Patriotism’.
According to the drama historian Murray Roston, ‘Handel succeeded in glorifying in Biblical terms the confident patriotism of the English people as they rose on the wave of imperial expansion, convinced that they were carrying the true God to the pagan corners of the world. The heroic, martial splendour of Deborah, of Judas Maccabeus, and of Joshua was adopted enthusiastically as symbol of English integrity and courage.’ Undoubtedly, Roston’s saying points out that the essential idea of the librettos of Handel’s oratorio is a kind of ‘patriot libretto’. But how could the political events and the patriotism be absorbed in the so-called patriot libretto? Ruth Smith gives us the answer.
The libretto absorbs all the political ideas in allegorical form. The mid-eighteenth century audience had been taught to regard the scriptural protagonists whom oratorios portrayed not just as figures from the semi-mythological history of a remote race and culture but, in a tradition dating from early Christian times, as reminders of their own redeemer, connected with their own individual lives. The preachers, the scholars and the press habitually identify modern Britain with ancient Israel and they make recurrent specific parallels which bear on the subjects of the librettos. God of Israel is paralleled with God of Britain. English is paralleled with the Israel. The enemy of Israel, such as Egypt, is paralleled with the rivalry of Britain in the Continent. The following comparisons show the commonplace:
The Stuart FamilySaul and his descendants
George IIDavid or Solomon The Glorious RevolutionThe crown of Israel passing from Saul and his family to David and his family
Catholic EuropeThe Philistines
The threat of Popery‘Egyptian bondage’ of heathen rites
LicentiousnessIsraelite neglect of God’s laws
All the figures and circumstances in the right- hand column are subjects of one or more of the Israelite librettos. This kind of analogy was routine, God could intervene in the lives of the British nationals as He had done in the lives of the Israelites. We can take several examples to illustrate this: the Israel events in the libretto are equal to politics events of Britain, the patriotism of Israel is the model of the patriotism of English.