The Schmooze

Handel, Egypt and the Jews

The sheer number of oratorios that George Frideric Handel wrote on Jewish subjects, including “Solomon,” “Esther,” “Joseph,” “Saul,” and “Judas Maccabeus,” has long led critics to suppose that he was a stout friend to the Children of Israel, and that London Jews were key patrons of his music. More recent scholarship suggests that Handel’s purported empathy with the Jewish people was invoked to prop up “the sacredness of his works” (too steeped in the profane funk of the theater), and that the enthusiasm of 18th-century Jews for Handel may have been overstated to assuage doubts about Jews as loyal British subjects.

Besides, one need look only to Handel’s borrowings from other composers — once derided as plagiarism or evidence of waning genius — to lay bare the old supersessionist agenda. Take, for instance, “Israel in Egypt” (1739, rev. 1756), recently recorded to splendid effect by Trinity Wall Street (Musica Omnia). Exploring Handel’s extensive use of music from Dionigi Erba’s “Magnificat” in Part III of “Israel in Egypt,” Ellen T. Harris of M.I.T. suggested that Handel had conflated words from Exodus with music that had accompanied Mary’s song of praise in Luke, “deliberately reinterpreting the Old Testament (Moses’ Song) through the New Testament (Mary’s Song), in the manner of a Christian theologian.” So much for Handel as BFF to Am Yisrael.

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Handel, Egypt and the Jews

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