Joseph and his Brethren
December 14-17, 2017
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).