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Notes by Bruce Lamott


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 Maccabaeus 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 Triumph of Judas Maccabee” by Peter Paul Rubens 1634-1636

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 Maccabaeus 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

Thomas Morell, librettist of Judas Maccabaeus

Judas Maccabaeus 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 Maccabaeus 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

George Frideric Handel, c. 1748

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 Maccabaeus 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.

John Beard, c. 1743

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

General HRH Prince William Augustus (1721-1765) Duke of Cumberland by David Morier c. 1750

Judas Maccabaeus 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.