There are few Biblical characters more sharply drawn than Saul, the unsuspecting first king of the united monarchy of Israel and Judah, a loving pater familias at times and a fratricidal maniac at others. The Book of First Samuel becomes a page-turner from the moment Saul is introduced as “the handsomest man in Israel, standing head and shoulders above the rest” to his ignominious death in battle, a failed suicide finished off by an enemy solder. The story of the rise and fall of Saul is fraught with drama: violence, madness, mayhem, and sorcery as well as jealousy, love, and the most undeniable description of bisexual devotion to be found in the Hebrew Bible.
As with many of Handel’s librettos from the Hebrew Bible, Saul assumes our knowledge of the Scriptural backstory. Saul became the first King of Israel, not through inheritance but by surprise. Young Saul, son of a wealthy man from the house of Benjamin, engaged the services of a local “seer”–who, it turns out, was the aged prophet Samuel–to help him find some lost donkeys. Samuel, the sole mediator of God’s power, covertly anoints Saul as the first king over Israel and Judah, the ruler for whose leadership the people had been clamoring. Following Samuel’s public declaration of this kingship, and under the Lord’s protection, Saul then goes on the attack against the enemies of Israel: the Ammonites, Philistines, and especially the Amalekites. The Lord specifically wants the latter utterly destroyed, “both man, woman, child, infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey,” because of their mistreatment of the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt. Victorious in battle, however, Saul disobediently pillages their livestock and valuables and spares the life of their king, probably not out of mercy, but for ransom. Nor is Saul’s disobedience ameliorated by his dubious claim that the spoils of victory were to be offered as a sacrifice to the Lord. The Lord rejects the sacrifice, and old Samuel himself “hews in pieces before the Lord” the Amalekite king. Saul’s persistent and self-aggrandizing disobedience sets the stage for the oratorio with an ominous portent: “And the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.”
The three acts of the oratorio move from triumph to tragedy, reflected in the erudite titles of the libretto, from “An Epinicion, or Song of Triumph over Goliath and the Philistines,” to an “Elegy on the Death of Saul and Jonathan.” Act One begins with the celebration of David’s victory over Goliath and the Philistines, a violent action which is reported but not enacted, as in Greek drama. The principal roles in the cast are introduced in turn: Saul’s lovely daughter Michal, smitten with David, David himself, Saul’s haughty and class-conscious daughter Merab, and his eldest son Jonathan, whose reciprocated devotion to David is more vividly portrayed than any other relationship in the libretto or the Scriptures.
The personality of Saul is not revealed until he reacts to the chorus of women who welcome him and David back from the victorious battlefield, singing “Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands,” thus unintentionally sparking the resentment of the king. The Bible attributes Saul’s change of heart to “an evil spirit from God,” remedied by the soothing playing of David’s lyre, but Saul jealously suspects that David is after his kingdom. Saul’s daughters reflect on their father’s mental illness in poetic terms: Michal describes it as “his own disease” of “rage and black Despaire,” and Herab, as a “capricious man in Humour lost, by every Wind of Passion tost.” Thus Act One opens with Saul welcoming David as a future son-in-law and comrade-in-arms and climaxes with his attempt on David’s life, a conflict reflected in Jonathan’s inner struggle to reconcile his “filial piety and sacred friendship.”
Act Two opens with the intercession of Jonathan on David’s behalf. Outwardly, Saul seems to be persuaded by his son’s entreaties and swears no harm. For a time, David naively accepts this apparent change of heart and begins to woo Michal as Saul’s son-in-law-elect. Inwardly, however, Saul confesses his intention of sending David into battle with the Philistines in the hope that they will slay him. Suspecting that they are being set up, however, Michal and David prepare a dummy decoy for David in their bed, and David, once again fearing for his life, jumps out of a window and escapes. Saul then connives to lure back “this blaster of my Fame” for obligatory attendance at the Feast of the New Moon, and when Jonathan tries to cover for his frightened friend’s absence, Saul disavows Jonathan as well, hurling yet another spear, this one at his own son.
Act Three has a formal symmetry, not only with the plot of the oratorio (the concluding Elegy balances the opening Epinicion] but also with the Biblical backstory. Remember that young Saul’s accession to the throne resulted from his engagement of a seer to find his missing donkeys? So King Saul’s demise begins with another resort to sorcery, this time because he feels forsaken by the Lord. Resolving that “If Heav’n denies thee Aid, seek it from Hell,” he goes to a witch in a cave at Endor, asking that she conjure up the spirit of the dead Samuel. Samuel, grumpily rising out of the “realm of peace” to the “world of woe,” rebukes Saul with reminders of his self-aggrandizing past. Samuel asks, “Did I not foretell thy fate, when, madly disobedient, thou didst spare the curst Amalekite. and on the spoil didst fly rapacious?” The prophet then predicts the death of Saul and his sons, including Jonathan, at the hands of the Philistines. A battle quickly ensues, and the report of their deaths is delivered by an Amalekite soldier who admits that he responded to Saul’s anguished plea to “finish the imperfect work” of his attempted suicide. David literally kills the messenger, because, however flawed, it was “the Lord’s Anointed” whom he killed.
The famous Dead March introduces the final Elegy, in which the bodies of Saul and Jonathan are returned from the battlefield, and each of the surviving characters and chorus express their grief. After David’s plaintive farewell to Jonathan, a brief epilog turns to the bright future of the Jewish people under the kingship of David. The final chorus exhorts him to “retrieve the Hebrew name” while “others,” presumably the Christian English audience, seek to learn from their virtues, or in the words of the chorus, “crowd to own thy righteous sway.”
The saga appealed to the dramatist in Handel, who, by the time Saul premiered in 1738, had only two to go of the forty-two Italian operas and theatrical works in his oeuvre, both flops. English audiences had lost their appetite for the conventions of opera seria–the formalism of the da capo “exit aria,” the hierarchy of leading roles sung by Italian (and therefore papist) virtuoso castrati, the stagnant characterization of roles revealed one personality trait at a time, and extravagant stagecraft. Unfettered by those stagnant formulas, Handel turned to the dramas inherent in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), thereby appealing to popular taste, Anglican sensibilities, and a patriotic parallel by which the English audience could identify with the chosen people of Israel.
He found a brilliant collaborator in Charles Jennens, a wealthy eccentric country squire whose libretto lacks the sentimental moralizing found in those written by clerics such as Rev. Thomas Morell. Though best known for his later libretto of Messiah, in which Jennens masterfully cut-and-pasted only the words of the King James translation of the Bible, it is in Saul that his skill in developing characters and dramatic thrust from the Biblical narrative shines through. Though his private correspondence betrays his condescension (“Mr. Handel’s head is more full of maggots than ever…”), Jennens was clearly respected by Handel, who accepted several suggested revisions, including restoring the “hallelujah” chorus to the triumphal first scene as intended rather than after the final lament. “His third maggot is a Hallelujah which he has trump’d up at the end of his oratorio…because he thought the conclusion of the oratorio not Grand enough; …but this Hallelujah, Grand as it is, comes in very nonsensically, having no manner of relation to what goes before.”
Though the uncut score of Saul runs to 86 musical numbers (our performance is judiciously trimmed), the action is swift and concise. (The longest air, for example, is just shy of six minutes, while the arias in Handel’s opera Alcina run from six to twelve minutes each.) Connective secco recitatives (free verse sung only with continuo) are short and to the point, while recitatives accompanied by the orchestra reveal the multifaceted personalities of the characters. Though oratorios are usually described as unstaged operas, this libretto abounds with stage directions: Saul throws his spear three times, characters exit, David leaps out of a window, and David orders the Amalekite messenger to be slain mid-aria (“Impious wretch!”). Indeed, there is more action indicated in the libretto of this “unstaged” work than in most operas on London stages of the period, and contemporary companies have performed successful stagings of the work, notably at Glyndebourne in 2015.
The orchestra is one of the largest possible for the period. In addition to the “festive Baroque” orchestration of strings (with violins sometimes divided into three parts), two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, and continuo–harpsichord, organ, and theorbo– Handel calls for three trombones, harp, solo organ, and “carillon,” a keyboard glockenspiel. It distressed Jennens (“a very queer instrument”) and amused others, one of whom likened it to “squirrels in a cage.” Another listener noted that Handel borrowed “a pair of the largest kettle-drums in the Tower [of London], so to be sure it will be most excessive noisy with a bad set of singers.” The latter were used in one of five instrumental “symphonies” that act as musical stage sets or scene changes. There is great attention to orchestral effects: for instance, in the final “battle symphony” Handel divides the orchestra into three ensembles: strings and continuo; oboes and bassoons; and trumpets, trombones with those Tower kettledrums. Giving the same music to each group in alternation, Handel creates spatial illusion of echoing distant camps which converge in the final climax.
The famous Dead March has taken its place along with those by Beethoven and Chopin in public mourning, including the obsequies for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill. Surprisingly, it is written in a very un-funereal C major and features a plaintive flute duet because in the Baroque period, the flute was an instrument associated with mourning.
Handel crafts the solo airs (arias) in a variety of forms to maximize dramatic impact and vivid characterization. David’s modest “O King, your favours with delight I take” begins without introduction, with short phrases answered by violins. Likewise, Jonathan’s rejection of his princely status, “Birth and fortune I despise!” is a simple unison aria with strings doubling his austere vocal line. Status-conscious Merab’s rebuke of her brother, “What abject thoughts a prince can have,” though sung as an aside, is operatic with bravura display, while Michal’s modesty is reflected in her more tuneful airs.
Most forward-looking is the music given to the title role. Saul is clearly the central focus of the plot, and were he the leading man (primo uomo) in a Handel opera seria, he would have received five or more arias, each revealing a single aspect of his character. With only two-and-a-half airs, Saul’s mercurial disposition cannot confine itself in precast forms. His most revealing moments are set in five accompanied recitatives (accompagnato) such as the soliloquy which precedes his visit to the Witch of Endor (“Wretch that I am!”), more characteristic of later operas by Mozart or even Verdi. The orchestra reveals his fluctuating state of mind from fearful hesitancy to firm resolve, using punctuating rhythms and unstable minor harmonies that end emphatically in major. Even his rage aria (“With rage I shall burst his praises to hear!”) is an outburst stripped of fulminating passagework. While his aria “A serpent in my bosom warm’d” has all the markings of a standard-issue A-B-A da capo aria–including serpentine figuration in the orchestra and modulation to a related key for what appears to be the B section, Handel thwarts our expectations by cutting it off after three bars when Saul suddenly hurls his spear at David to the accompaniment of plummeting descending scales.
The role of the chorus is central to the plot. After all, it is the women’s chorus (“Welcome, welcome mighty King!”) who set the conflict in motion by unintentionally inciting Saul’s jealousy of David. As Israelites, the chorus frames the opening scene with regal acclamations and a recounting of David’s slaying of Goliath. As the plot unfolds, they become observers in the tradition of Greek drama, commenting on the action, both amorous (“Is there a man?”) and moralizing (“O fatal consequence of rage”). Returning to their initial role as Israelites, they lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (“Mourn Israel”) in one of the most profound moments in the work, and as David mourns Jonathan (“O fatal day”), they despair of their future as a nation.
“With Saul Handel raised Old Testament oratorio to its highest point, and produced one of the supreme masterpieces of dramatic art, comparable with the Oresteia and King Lear in the grandeur of its theme and the certainty and skill of its execution.” So writes Winton Dean, foremost authority on Handel’s operas and oratorios, never hesitant to critique their shortcomings, and never more clearly on the mark.