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ADDED 12/11: Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus

Nicholas McGegan, conductor; Lisa Saffer, soprano; Patricia Spence, mezzo-soprano; Guy de Mey, tenor; David Thomas, bass; U.C. Berkeley Chamber Chorus

Originally released in 1993

Program Notes

by Bruce Lamott

[written for the December 2019 performances in the Bay Area]


Eight of the previous dramatic oratorios Handel had written in London had been based on the history of the Old Testament Israelites, but the heroic exploits of the guerilla rebel Judas Maccabeus were particularly relevant to the contemporary circumstances of his audience. Leader of the eponymous Maccabean Revolt in 160-167 BCE against the Greek Seleucid Empire, Judas recovered the Second Temple of Jerusalem from heathen hands and preserved the Jewish religion against the encroachment of Hellenistic culture. Similarly, the Duke of Cumberland–to whom Handel’s work is dedicated–had recently quashed the Jacobite Rising of 1745 at the Battle of Culloden, thereby protecting the Protestant Hanoverian monarchy from the encroachment of Catholicism in the guise of the exiled Catholic Pretender to the throne, James Francis Edward  Stuart and his French allies. Handel’s audience could readily identify with the anxieties and triumphs of a “chosen people” under the threat of rebellion at home and invasion from abroad, as did audiences for the next two centuries who made it–second only to Messiah– Handel’s most popular oratorio.


The story is taken from the First Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha and the Antiquities of the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus. In Part I, the Israelites lament the death of Mattathias, father of Judas Maccabeus and previous leader of the Jewish resistance to persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, King of Syria. Accepting the role of leader, Judas incites a rebellion, resolving –like Patrick Henry–to face liberty or death.

In Part II the Jews, celebrating their victory over Apollonius and all of Samaria, are interrupted by the news that the troops of Antiochus are on the march from Egypt to “root out Israel’s strength, and to erase /Ev’ry memorial of the sacred place,” i.e., the Second Temple in Jerusalem, sacred center of Judaism for centuries. Judas summons the people to arms while Simon, Judas’ younger brother and later high priest of Jerusalem, and the representative Israelitish Woman and Israelitish Man, invoke God to drive out the profane worship of the Roman, Greek, and Syrian deities from “holy Sion, seat of God.”

Part III begins in Jerusalem with the celebration of the Feast of Lights in the reconsecrated sanctuary of the Temple. [The Hanukkah miracle of the lights, however, does not figure in the oratorio, as it is recounted only in the Second Book of Maccabees.] A messenger arrives “with tidings of impetuous joy” that Judas has vanquished enemies armed with state-of-the-art weaponry: coats of mail, gold and brass shields, and a front of “huge tow’r back’d elephants.” The people greet the conquering hero, and Judas pauses to prepare “obsequies for those who bravely fell in war.” The Jewish Ambassador to Rome enters with a treaty from the Roman Senate (to whom King Antiochus was subject) guaranteeing the freedom and independence of Judaea, and the grateful people welcome the arrival of “lovely peace.” 

The Subject

Judas Maccabeus marks a departure from Handel’s previous London oratorios, both in its tone and construction. It is the first libretto written by Rev. Thomas Morell, D.D. (1703-84), who would continue to write the books for four, and possibly six, more of Handel’s final oratorios.  Pastoral duties as an Anglican vice-vicar seemed to be low on Morell’s priorities, who was also an amateur philologist and scholar who had authored a lexicon of Greek prosody, and modern English renditions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Seneca’s letters, and Greek plays.

The nature of the collaboration with Handel is revealed in a letter written by Morell some twenty years after Judas which leaves no doubt as to who was in charge. Handel initiated the project, sending for Morell on the recommendation of Frederick, Prince of Wales. When Morell appeared after a few days with Part One, Handel asked, “Well, and how are you going to go on?” Morrell: “Why, we are to suppose an engagement, and that the Israelites have conquered, and so begin a chorus as ‘Fallen is the Foe’ or, something like it.” “No, I will have this,” replied Handel, insisting on taking the line as is; after going to the harpsichord, he asked Morell to come up with the second line on the spot. Suggestions flowed in only one direction, evidenced by Handel’s reply to a musical suggestion made by Rev. Morell: “You teach me musick, sir! Mine musick is good musick. It is your words that is bad. Hear the passage again… Now go and make words to that musick!”

Though less sophisticated in his poetry than Handel’s previous librettists, Charles Jennens (Messiah, Saul) or Newburgh Hamilton (Samson, Solomon, Theodora),  Morrell was a good fit with the new and less sophisticated audience. Handel had recently opened ticket sales to the general public, making his performances more accessible to a greater cross-section of Londoners than his previous aristocratic subscribers, and Morrell responded with less subtlety, more pageantry, and closer connection with current events. The dedication to Judas makes this clear: “The plan was designed as a compliment to the Duke of Cumberland upon his returning victorious from Scotland… Had not the Duke carried his point triumphantly, this Oratorio could not have been brought on.”

It’s clear that the Lutheran Handel mined the Apocrypha for its dramatic contents, not its doctrinal authority, as those seven books–which are found between Old and New Testaments in some Bibles– were accepted neither into the Hebrew nor Protestant Scriptures as fully canonical texts. Handel scholar Ruth Smith attributes Handel’s focus on the pre-Christian Israelites to a concept she calls “British Israel,” i.e., using the Old Testament as “a faithful repository of future truths.” Analogies comparing biblical Israelites to contemporary Britons had been made since the sixteenth century, evidenced in this prayer from the 1662 Prayer Book: “O Lord save the King. And mercifully hear us when we call upon thee. Endue thy ministers with righteousness. And make thy chosen people joyful.” From the pulpit, Morell sermonized that “there are some instances in which our present condition so nearly resembles the ancient State of Israel, that I doubt not, but while I was reciting the foregoing passages from the History of that Nation, your Minds were fixed at home.” Even though Judas Maccabeus celebrates a rebellion and the Duke of Cumberland had just suppressed one, the defeat of the “popish” Jacobite rebels by the “chosen people” of the Church of England finds an allegory in Judas’ defeat of the Hellenistic heathens.

The Music

A singular feature of Judas is its generic characterization, and the majority of the work is given to an allegorical duo, Israelitish Woman (soprano), Israelitish Man (mezzo-soprano) who give voice to the personal feelings of their people, and to the Chorus of Israelites, without the multiple roles of friends and foes that they portray in other oratorio. Recitatives introduce the solo airs, but there is no dialogue as is found Handel’s more operatic oratorios, further supporting the observation that Judas is more pageant than drama.

The Overture begins with solemnity befitting the opening obsequies for Judas’ father, a French overture with dotted rhythm in G minor. Its fugal Allegro with its rapidly reiterated sixteenth-notes introduces an element that will be heard throughout the work: a style called concitato (agitated). Handel employs it frequently in the orchestral accompaniments to the martial music that lies ahead.

As in Handel’s oratorio Saul (1739), Part One begins with two mournful lamentations by the “afflicted children” of Zion, mourning the death of Matathias, who heretofore had led the resistance against the Hellenistic suppression of the Jewish religion and the imposition of pagan rites in the Temple. In a libretto Ruth Smith describes as “fraught with anxiety,” the choruses vacillate between expressions of misery, oppression, piety, and triumph. The elegaic opening laments the loss of their “hero, friend, and father” with another recurring melodic element: a wide-ranged falling or rising arpeggio. In “For Sion lamentation make,” strings toll over the gently rocking siciliana rhythm in the bass while bassoons sigh in plaintive suspensions. Midway the chorus breaks down into sobbing figures (suspirans) punctuated by rests.

Following a hymn-like invocation (“Hear us, oh Lord”) the chorus rallies around Judas “resolv’d on conquest or a glorious fall” with optimistically rising scales of hope.  The churning arpeggios suggesting a “battle symphony” that opens Part Two abruptly halt when the men, in a downward arpeggio,  proclaim in unison, “Fall’n is the foe.” Twice Handel interrupts their mounting jubilation with a startlingly sympathetic reflection the defeated: “fall’n” sung sotto voce over string pulsations.

The most famous tune in Judas Maccabeus is actually a chorus he wrote for his next oratorio, Joshua in 1747. It proved so popular that he added it to Judas in 1751, but Beethoven’s title for twelve variations for cello and piano on “‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’ from Judas Maccabaeus” permanently fixed its identification with the later work.

The title role, first sung by Handel’s stalwart tenor, the Englishman John Beard, is introduced with a call to arms accompanied by torrential scales and the agitated concitato style in the unison violins. He is a champion of liberty, but having rallied his rebellious Chorus, he cautions them against “lust of unbounded pow’r,” reminding them that freedom and peace are their objectives. Handel dramatically amplifies his call to arms in Part Two (“Sound an alarm”) by beginning with the voice alone, then as a continuo aria (with harpsichord and cello) for the A and B sections of the conventional A-B-A (da capo) form. When Judas returns to the beginning, the full orchestra–with three trumpets and timpani, oboes, and strings–answers with concitato animation, soon to be joined by the mounting Chorus, pledging to “follow thee to conquest.” In a sudden pause for reflection, they consider the consequences should they fall, but recover their resolve to fall for laws, religion, and liberty.

The roles of Israelitish Woman and Israelitish Man [hereafter called Woman and Man] were sung by the English-born soprano Elisabetta de Gambarini and the Italian mezzo Caterina Galli, respectively. Galli also sang the parts of Second Israelitish Woman and Priest. It is to these roles that Handel devotes the greatest dramatic attention. Their opening lines in their first duet add a recurring melodic element to the work: the expressive rising (or falling) arpeggio. It first spans a rising octave before immediately plummeting beneath it, tracing a trajectory of mounting grief and abject hopelessness, but will appear later in as a martial fanfare and shout of triumph.

The “liberty scene” of the Woman and Man in Part One was very popular in an era preoccupied with the topic, both home and abroad.  The Woman’s continuo air ,”Oh liberty,” is in the style of a popular ballad, followed by a pastoral “Come, ever smiling liberty” with wide lilting leaps suggesting a “jocund train” of gamboling sheep and warbling birds in the violins. The Man continues the bucolic theme, observing that liberty alone “bids all nature look more gay,” and the two voices unite in a concluding duet. This is a close as the oratorio comes to a love scene–or even a relationship–but the liberty of which they sing in Rev. Morel’s chaste text is political, not amorous.

The priestly role of Simon was first sung by Henry Reinhold, a Saxon bass who followed Handel to London. He contributes gravitas to the proceedings . The beauty of Simon’s brief invocation (“Pious orgies, pious airs/ decent sorrows, decent prayers”) is so musically affecting that it distracts us from Morell’s unfortunate rhymes. This exemplar of Handel scholar Winton Dean’s observation that “the airs often fall into a jog-trot doggerel” attests to the power of Handel’s music (sometimes inclining us to wish that it were sung a foreign tongue). Reinhold’s expansive range is exploited with octave leaps in his exhortation to the Israelites (“Arm, arm ye brave!”), beginning with the signature rising arpeggio using a pair of oboes in trumpet-like fanfares

Judas Maccabeus was performed at least 54 times in Handel’s lifetime, undergoing a variety of modifications, transpositions, and adjustments in roles. It earned the composer net profits of nearly £3,000, and, according to Dean, “For once the whole royal family and all classes of opinion except the Jacobites were found in the same camp.” Long after the Duke of Cumberland was buried in 1765 (possibly  to the strains of Simon’s “Pious orgies” reworked as a Dead March) and his brutality to the Scots earned him the title of “Butcher of Culloden,” Handel’s oratorio not only transcended current events but even its central topic. Its themes of liberty, courage, triumph over oppression, and peace found resonance with revolutionaries well into the twentieth century. Even Nazi Germany could not resist Handel’s musical appeal, but had to disguise one of the greatest Jewish heroes as Wilhelm von Nassau.

ADDED 12/4: Handel’s Joseph and his Brethren

Nicholas McGegan, conductor; Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; Gabrielle Haigh, soprano; Diana Moore, mezzo-soprano; Abigail Levis, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Philip Cutlip, baritone; Bruce Lamott, chorale director

Originally released April 2019

Program Notes

by Bruce Lamott


The story of Joseph and his complicated filial relationships, as told in the final thirteen chapters of the Book of Genesis, contains all the makings of good theater: jealousy, violence, sexual predation, trickery, imprisonment, mistaken identities, deception, and an exotic locale. It is a story too complicated to be recounted in a single musical evening, and the glorious music of Handel’s oratorio on the subject, Joseph and His Brethren, has been neglected as a result.

Perhaps better marketing (a Technicolor Dreamcoat perhaps) would have helped sell the admittedly problematic libretto by an Anglican vicar, the Rev. James Miller, but so would a closer reading of the Old Testament.


Miller, better known for his comedies and satires for the London stage than for his pastoral ministry, based his work on an Italian libretto by Apostolo Zeno for an oratorio by Antonio Caldara (Giuseppe, 1722), which in turn was adapted from a five-act French tragedy (Joseph, 1711) by Abbé Charles-Claude Genest. Handel’s oratorio premiered in March 1744, following on the successes of Messiah, Samson, and Semele in the previous two years and just weeks before Miller’s death. In this three-stage game of theatrical Telephone, discontinuities were bound to arise, and even Rev. Miller didn’t rely on his audience’s familiarity with Scripture, adding an “Advertisement” to his wordbook that synopsized the Biblical saga.


Backstory. In Handel’s oratorio, we find Joseph in an Egyptian prison, “reclining in a melancholy posture.” How did he get there? Here’s the backstory in brief: Joseph was the elder of the two youngest sons of Jacob (also known as Israel) and Rachel, who died giving birth to Benjamin, the youngest son whose fate figures prominently in the oratorio. The jealousy and hatred of the other ten half-brothers, arising from their father’s favoritism towards Joseph as well as  his expressed dream of superiority over them, led the Brethren to attempt fratricide by throwing Joseph into a pit. Dissuaded by brother Reuben, they instead sold the teenager to Ishmaelite traders, returning to their father with his coveted coat (the legendary “coat of many colours” but literally, just long-sleeved) stained with goat’s blood as evidence of his faked death. The traders in turn, arriving in Egypt, sold Joseph to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharoah’s guard, who became so fond of Joseph that he made him major domo of his household. However, rejecting the sexual advances of Potiphar’s predatory wife, the “handsome and good-looking” servant was nonetheless framed by her accusations and imprisoned. “Here then our Drama finds Joseph, two years after this incident happened,” writes Miller.


Synopsis Part I: Prosperity. While in prison, Joseph’s reputation for accurately interpreting dreams comes to the attention of the Pharaoh, who is troubled by the double visions of fat and lean cattle rising from the Nile and full ears of corn devoured by thin ones. Summoned to the court, Joseph’s prediction of seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine not only leads to his elevation to supervisor of Egyptian infrastructure but also to betrothal to the daughter of the high priest Potiphera (no relation to Potiphar), Asenath. He also gives Joseph the Egyptian name “Zaphenath-paneah,” shortened in the libretto to “Zaphnath.”


Part II: Famine. [Miller alludes to these events of this “first embassy” in the libretto but does not include them in his plot. Joseph’s foresight in storing corn during the years of prosperity saves the Egyptians from the famine affecting other regions, including Joseph’s native land of Canaan. Jacob dispatches ten sons to Egypt to buy corn, keeping Benjamin with him. Unrecognized by his elder siblings, Zaphnath/Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies, and insists that they return with his beloved Benjamin, holding another brother, Simeon, behind as a hostage. Before they leave, Joseph orders that the money they paid for the corn secretly be returned to them, hidden in their corn sacks.]


Part Two of the oratorio begins with the “second embassy,” in which the brothers return with Benjamin as well as money and produce from their father Jacob. While entertaining the brothers but still incognito, Zaphnath/Joseph secretly orders another subterfuge, this time that his silver cup be stashed in Benjamin’s sack.


Part III: Reconciliation. The “planted evidence” of Benjamin’s supposed theft is discovered shortly after the brothers’ departure, and thus accused, he is doomed to become a slave of Joseph. However, when the brothers refuse to return to their father without Benjamin, Joseph can contain himself no longer and reveals his identity. The Brethren are reconciled, and Joseph and Asenath sing an amorous and rather incongruous duet before the closing chorus.


The Music. The Overture is appropriate to a drama which opens with a prison scene. Rather than the grand gestures of the French overture, it begins with a lyrical Andante in E minor followed by a gentle Larghetto in G major. The bold Allegro begins like a fugue already in progress, and a melancholy Minuet returns to the somber scene.


Joseph begins with a melancholy aria in da capo (ABA) form, but with a soliloquoy in recitative replacing the B section. Rather than the heroic bravura characteristic of a title role, his music rises from modest and contemplative to bold and virtuosic in parallel with his social status. He never seems to lose the common touch he reveals in “The peasant tastes the sweets of life,” in which he muses about the naive simplicity of what the simple folk do to the accompaniment of a pastoral drone and the lilting rhythm of the siciliana. Even at his most virtuosic, in “The people’s favour and the smiles of pow’r” in Part Three, he never loses the common touch. The role was originally sung by the countertenor Daniel Sullivan, who was described by Mrs. Delaney as “a block [emphasis hers] with a very fine voice.”


The vocal pyrotechnics begin–literally– with the appearance of Asenath, who confesses to carrying a torch for Joseph with appropriate vocal pyrotechnics in the first bravura aria in the piece, “I feel a spreading flame.” Their courtship lasts only a few measures of recitative before they confess their mutual admiration in a pristine love duet of entwining vocal lines. Then it’s off to the wedding with a grand march with trumpets and timpani, a grand acclimation by the chorus of Egyptians, and a flashy wedding toast aria by the Pharaoh. Asenath provides  humanizing relief from the sibling strife with a plaintive description of the famine in Part II contrasted with a proud Allegro acknowledging her husband’s role in staving it off. The role featured the French soprano Elisabeth Duparc (aka “La Francesina”) who had just premiered the title role in Handel’s Semele in the previous month.


Asenath’s aria in Part III, “Prophetic raptures swell my breast” is perhaps the best-known of the out-takes from this oratorio, and certainly its most dazzling moment. After a full-scale introductory ritornello (which Handel curtails or omits for dramatic effect elsewhere in the oratorio), she enters with a cadenza (“ad libitum”) and a musical pun: a three-measure sustained D on the word swell which begs for an ornament called mesa di voce, in which the voice crescendos (swells) sustains, and fades on a single note. Her confident raptures, however, contrast with Joseph’s prescient (and historically warranted) fears that bringing his Israelites to Egypt may turn out badly with the Pharaoh.


Though his role in the libretto is relatively small, Simeon–first sung by Handel’s favorite tenor, John Beard–is one of the most effectively drawn characters.  Imprisoned as a hostage until the brothers return with Benjamin, he contemplates his collusion with his brothers in selling Joseph into slavery, expressing his “Remorse, confusion, horror, fear” in a dramatic scena with vivid and torturous contrasts.  Hauling him into court, Zaphnath/Joseph interrogates Simeon as a spy, badgering him into recounting the fabricated tale of Joseph’s  gruesome death and the grief it brought to their father. Joseph catches him in the lie and Simeon (“Impostor!”) buckles in disgrace.


The original cast list includes “The Boy” as Benjamin (thereby setting musicologists off on a hunt as to just which boy might have been a contender). Handel underscores his youth and innocence with delicate airs supplied with ample rests. His non-duet with Zaphnath/Joseph is especially moving; Benjamin, believing that his brothers must return to their father without him, sings of his pity for his father while Joseph expresses his anguish in asides without revealing his true identity.


The Chorus plays two roles–first of the Egyptians, and later of the Israelite Brethren, the latter in more solemn style. There is more chordal (homophonic) writing for them than is usual for Handel, especially effective in the hymnlike invocation and postlude to the chromatic fugue (“Thou know’st our wants before our pray’r) ending Part II. The text closely parallels the closing words of the Anglican Te Deum, “O Lord, in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded.”

The final chorus begins in medias res with a double fugue seemingly already in progress: “Alleluia!” and “We will rejoice in thy salvation.”


The story of Joseph is central to the history of the Jewish people. Once reconciled, these twelve sons of Jacob become the patriarchs of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The revelation that his favored Zaphnath is actually a son of Jacob/Israel motivates the Pharaoh to invite Jacob and all of the Israelites to relocate in Egypt (in the land of Goshen), where for a time they thrive. Joseph’s earlier premonitions come true after the Israelites become first indebted to and eventually enslaved by the Pharaoh. Thus this least-known of Handel’s oratorios, Joseph and his Brethren sets the scene as a prequel to one of his earlier and  best-known works, Israel in Egypt (1739).


ADDED 10/30: Handel’s Teseo

Nicholas McGegan, conductor; Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Amy Freston, soprano; Dominique Labelle, soprano; Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Drew Minter, countertenor

ADDED 10/23: Bach’s French Suites

Richard Egarr, harpsichord


Conducted by Nicholas McGegan, recorded live at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, California, April 6 & 7, 2019. Libretto, program notes, and biographies available here.


Conducted by Nicholas McGegan, recorded live at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, California. Les Paladins recorded September 11 & 12, 2004; Scylla et Glaucus recorded March 9 & 15, 2003.