December 1-4, 2016
By Bruce Lamott
Reading through the Biblical Book of Joshua is not for the faint of heart. Before the children of Israel could settle in Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the Promised Land became the land of blood and carnage, at the behest of Jehovah at the hand of the Israelite hero Joshua. The first twelve chapters of the book are an accounting of numerous forays by thousands of his troops into the towns and cities of the Canaanite inhabitants, often ending with the ominous postscript, “He left no one remaining.”
Joshua was the protégé of Moses during the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and his successor after he died in Moab. Joshua and Caleb–one of the spies whom Moses first sent to scout out Canaan–were the only surviving adults of the original Hebrew refugees, who had been wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years. A ruthless tactician, Joshua’s military exploits succeeded in subjugating the entire area, which he then distributed by lottery to eleven of the twelve tribes of Israel. Caleb, of the tribe of Judah and esconced in Hebron, offered his daughter Achsah as a reward to anyone who would attack the city of Debir; she is the only woman to be mentioned in the twenty-four chapters of the Book of Joshua. Her cousin, Othniel, took Caleb up on the offer, thus providing Handel with both a love interest and the fourth of his principal characters for his oratorio Joshua.
However, it was up to his librettist, the Rev. Thomas Morell, D.D., to spin the scant account of only three Bible verses mentioning Achsah and Othniel into a love story and to interweave it between the vivid accounts of Joshua’s military triumphs. Morell had already supplied texts for Handel’s oratorios Judas Maccabeus (1746), quite possibly the Occasional Oratorio (1745), and Alexander Balus (1747) before Joshua (1747), all of which have militaristic themes. Military victories were very much on the minds of the English, still reeling from of a civil war begun with the landing of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie), whose claims to the English throne could have overthrown the Hanoverian court. The Battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746) ended once and for all this “Jacobite Rebellion,” but patriotic spirits were running high. It is in this time that “God Save the King” first appears in print, setting the standard for national anthems throughout Europe, including Haydn’s Emperor’s Hymn.
Handel composed the music for Joshua at his usual prodigious rate, completing the entire oratorio within a month, albeit freely borrowing material from his own previous works as well as those of other composers, as was his usual practice. His score indicates that he began on July 19, and finished by August 19, 1747. The three acts are focused on three discrete dramatic themes pertaining to the conquest of Canaan: the arrival of the Israelites and their reflections on the exodus from Egypt, the military prowess of Joshua encompassing three different battle scenarios, and the celebration of Joshua’s heroism and Jehovah’s protection.
The brief orchestral Introduzione–the shortest instrumental curtain-raiser in all of Handel’s dramatic works–gives no hint of the drama yet to come. Handel’s inscription “A tempo di Ouverture” is its only resemblance, as it lacks the grandeur, length, and form of the typical French-style overture. The first act begins with hopeful relief: relief from forty years of wandering in the wilderness and its daily diet of manna, and the hopes of the Israelites, who had crossed the Jordan River on miraculously dry land, a parallel to their crossing of the Red Sea pursued by Egyptian chariots. However, this momentary calm is interrupted by an angel delivering Jehovah’s commission to Joshua “that Jericho must fall, and fall by thee; the tyrant king and all his heathen train, at their own idol altars shall be slain.” Handel’s music fortunately distracts us from Rev. Morell’s penchant to go for the easy rhyme. Even Handel took him to task for his affinity for iambs, as in “The Lord commands, and Joshua leads;/ Jericho falls, the tyrant bleeds.” The first act ends with an amorous interlude for Othniel and Achsah, allowing Handel to exercise some naturalistic tone painting as Achsah sings of the linnet (solo violin) and the thrush (solo flute) awakening the morning, and the couple declare their love amidst “limpid streams” flowing with freedom. Their pastoral idyll is interrupted by a flourish of trumpets–one of several to come–calling Othniel and the men of Israel to arms.
The second act contains some of Handel’s best dramatic writing. Three separate sieges–against the cities Jericho and Ai, and the concerted effort of five kings of the Amorites–are condensed into a single narrative, and Handel manipulates the elements of recitative, aria, and chorus to create three operatically dramatic scenes. In fact, these scenes are even more dramatic than those in his operas, as he was not constrained by the conventions of opera seria (serious opera); characters do not have to exit after their arias, the arias themselves are not cast in the dramatically static da capo (ABA) form, and, unlike opera of the period–he has at his disposal an ever-present chorus of Israelites to amplify the imagery and emotions of each scene.
The second act abounds with vivid portrayals of trembling nations, crumbling walls, rising flames, and martial fanfares. One of the most effective scenes is at the end of the second act, when Joshua, needing to extend the day to complete his annihilation of the Amorites, commands the sun and moon to halt in their orbits, as described in Joshua 10:13: “And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation [of Israel] took vengeance on their enemies.” The static sun is depicted by a sustained high A in the violins, later reinforced by the oboes and trumpets; the continuo section (bassoons, cellos, and basses) sustains a low D to represent the stock-still moon. Meanwhile a vigorous battle rages and the chorus narrates the defeated Amorites: “Breathless they pant, they fall, they die.”
While in other Handel oratorios the chorus may change roles, from Hebrews to Babylonians for example, the chorus in Joshua remains exclusively the voice of the Israelites. Within this context, however, they are given a variety of musical styles and moods. In addition to Biblical narration, the chorus praises Jehovah as one people in block chords and imitative fugues. Handel gives other choruses the form of the English verse anthem, in which Joshua initiates a melody and the chorus amplifies it. Somewhat ironically, though most of the choruses are celebratory, one of the most affective is that of the momentarily defeated Israelites. After an attempted first assault on the city of Ai, Jehovah withdraws his protection because one in their midst had looted Jericho against orders. The despairing confusion (“our glory’s lost”) is reinforced by the minor key, slow tempo, descending chromatic (moving by half-steps) bassline, and the scoring with flutes, rare for chorus accompaniment. This low point in the drama acts as a foil to Joshua’s exhortation “to redoubled rage return.” The chorus responds with martial zeal, their burning fury depicted by agitated strings.
One of the greatest hits of Joshua, “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” was actually recycled from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus of the previous year, and that, in turn came from a March in Georg Muffat’s Componimenti musicali, one of Handel’s favorite sources of inspiration. Handel himself predicted its popularity when he, while agreeing with music historian John Hawkins that he had written better stuff, said, “You will live to see it a greater favourite with the people than my other fine things.” Beethoven later wrote variations for cello and piano on this popular melody, which appears in the third act of the oratorio, first as a “Chorus of Youths” accompanied by a bold duet of horns, then a delicate “Chorus of Virgins” with transverse flutes and organ, and finally with the whole ensemble with timpani ad libitum.
Morell gives the four solo roles in Joshua face no personal conflict, and unlike their counterparts in opera seria, they do not go through a cycle of emotional affects. Joshua is unrelievedly proud and mighty. “Insufferable,” says the great Handel scholar Winton Dean, “…with nothing to do but give orders to all and sundry, including the sun and moon.”. Nonetheless, the heroic role of Joshua further establishes Handel as an originator of the modern tenor voice. Othniel, originally sung by mezzo-soprano Caterina Galli, has some lovely tunes, especially the popular “Heroes, when with glory burning,” a charming and decidedly un-heroic dance tune (gavotte), providing respite between sieges. Dean says that this was the eighth time Handel had used this versatile tune, also found in works by Antonio Cesti, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Reinhard Keiser. The pastoral intermezzo of Achsah and Othniel prior to the Battle of Jericho add a refreshing element of naturalism and the musical simplicity of ballad opera, the popular entertainment that contributed to the demise of Handel’s Italian operas. The role of Caleb was written for Handel’s go-to bass for a dozen oratorios, Henry Theodore Reinhold. The extremities of his musical and dramatic range are exploited in arias ranging from bravura (“See the raging flames arise”) to contemplative (“Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain”).
More of a pageant than a plot, Joshua abounds with dramatic contrasts, brilliant orchestration, and a celebration of The Chosen People led by a heroic leader, not much of a stretch for the audience of Georgian England to identify themselves.