Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Birth of a Genre: The Origin of the English Oratorio

I've written before about my love of classical music and my slowly-growing collection of oratorios. While most people my age are keeping up with the popular music scene, much of my music collection has passed its two-hundredth birthday already, and in some cases is pushing three hundred.

Case in point: last month I got Handel's oratorio Esther, originally composed in 1718 (and thus coming up on 295 years!). Most people only know Handel for his Messiah, but he actually wrote a total of 29 oratorios, 25 of them in English. In fact, Esther is the very first oratorio in English rather than German or Italian. Not just the first English oratorio Handel wrote, but the very first one ever. Handel had already achieved a measure of fame in writing Italian (and non-vocal) works, so this departure from his usual fare was unusual, and only done because it was a private commission. It was originally staged as a private performance only, and wasn't revised and publicly performed for over fourteen years.

(The story of how that happened is interesting; Handel had revised the original 1718 composition slightly two years later and this copy apparently fell into the hands of another music company sometime in the intervening eleven years, who then proceeded to put on what was essentially a pirated performance in 1731 which was a huge success. Handel responded by doing some more revisions and adding some new content and putting on a performance of the new and revised Esther the next year in 1732. [The recording I got is a reconstruction of the 1720 version, as best can be determined, however.])

When it was finally performed for the public, however, Esther's success helped show Handel that there was a lively market for classical music that the up-and-coming English-speaking middle class of Britain could actually understand. He came out with his second oratorio Deborah a year later in 1733, and their popularity helped convince Handel to make the switch from Italian to English works. Although he continued to write Italian operas for another ten years after this, of the twenty-three oratorios he wrote after Deborah only one of them was in Italian.

Anyway, I wrote this post because I wanted to examine the first ever English oratorio. I've had Deborah in my collection for some years now (it was the second oratorio I ever got, actually), and it's interesting to compare them. You see, I've always found Deborah to be rather slow and dragging, overall. I admit, I tend to prefer faster tempos in general (and Deborah has a few energetic fast pieces), but I think I can appreciate a good slow piece as well (and Deborah has some sublime ones). It's just that it tends to have a lot more of the latter than the former, and takes a lot of time for anything to happen. I had long unconsciously expected that Esther, being the first oratorio Handel wrote, would also be a bit slow and plodding. I figured that Handel was still finding his feet with these early oratorios, before he got better and wrote such masterpieces as Messiah, Saul, and Belshazzar.

The truth turned out to be a bit more complicated. For one thing, I hadn't really realized just how important the librettist is the finished product. Handel didn't come up with the words to his works himself, he simply set to music words provided him by a librettist. And different librettists had differing levels of competence in composing poetic English that can be sung easily. Some librettists worked with Handel over multiple years and provided the librettos for multiple oratorios (some of the better writers were in this category, thankfully), but the librettists for both Esther and Deborah were one-shots, making it impossible to compare them with anything else fairly.

The point is that Esther, although it also has a bit of plodding in its first half, has some surprisingly fun and peppy rhythms. Haman's first aria has to be the most upbeat and cheerful song about genocide I've ever heard. Once the second half rolls around the action picks up a bit and there are quite a few really good arias in quick succession through the remainder from Mordecai, Esther and Ahasuerus. It helps that it's a bit shorter than the norm for a Handelian oratorio – most run about two CDs long, while Esther only about three-fourths that.

Although I wouldn't classify it as one of Handel's masterpieces, Esther is a decent piece of oft under-appreciated music. After all, if it hadn't been performed without his permission and shown Handel just how popular music in English actually was, he might not have switched from writing Italian works, and we might not have the Messiah we have today. The list of oratorios in English is not over-large, and Handel is responsible for quite a sizable chunk of it. I always find it interesting seeing where things come from, and the origin of the English oratorio is a personally enjoyable subject.

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