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George Frideric Handel
An Oratorio; or Sacred Drama
Programme Notes
In 1735, the wealthy patron and man of letters Charles Jennens, an admirer of Handel’s work for many years,
delivered a libretto to the composer. Handel replied politely that at first glance it looked quite satisfactory, and that in
due course he would “read it with the Attention it deserves.” It is thought that the libretto was that of Saul, the story
of the great King’s descent into madness.
Handel did not return to it until three years later, in the summer of 1738. The year before, during a particularly
stressful period, Handel had suffered a paralytic stroke and mental collapse. He spent two months recovering at the
famous sulphur baths at Aix-la-Chapelle, returning to London full of renewed energy and optimism. A busy opera
season followed, and then a turning point: he spent the summer of 1738 setting the libretto of Saul, devoting an
unusual amount of time and attention to it. He had composed a few English oratorios earlier in the decade, but with
Saul he forged the form of “Sacred Drama” that was to be the focus of much of the rest of his career, a synthesis of
elements of English masque and anthem, French drama, and Italian opera seria. The oratorios were performed in the
theatre, but without scenery, costumes, or staging. Remarkably, some of Handel’s most dramatic music is to be found
in the oratorios: without stage effects to amplify the story, the music itself is left to impart the psychological and
emotional machinations of the human mind and heart, all set against the backdrop of the sweeping spectacle of history.
A new and potent character joins the dramatis personae: the chorus, largely absent from the London opera stage, at
turns participates in the action, and reflects and even moralizes upon it.
So to Saul, arguably the first great Handel oratorio. Jennens’ libretto is perhaps not the most eloquent, but it offers a
tale filled with drama: national pride, rejoicing, suspicion, jealousy, friendship, love, the supernatural, tragic selfrealization, grief, and restoration. The manuscript score is evidence of the tremendous effort and creative energy
Handel devoted to the work: it is the most heavily corrected of all of his scores. Countless details have been altered
and entire scenes replaced, many of the changes reflecting shifting approaches to characterizations and to the pacing of
the drama.
Handel clearly set out to impress and astonish the London audiences, introducing into the orchestra a number of
unusual instruments: David’s harp; a newly built and very expensive organ from which Handel directed the
proceedings (and featured in organ concertos played between the acts); double-sized kettle-drums, especially
borrowed from the Tower of London and rife with historical significance; and trombones. The latter were virtually
unknown in England at this point, and would have been played by a trio of visiting German trombonists  —  Handel
was also to use trombones in Israel in Egypt, written and produced in the same season. Most unusual of all is a carillon,
of which Jennens reports:
Mr. Handel’s head is more full of Maggots than ever: I found yesterday in his room a very queer Instrument, which He
calls Carillon (Anglice a Bell), and says some call it a Tubalcain, I suppose because it is both in the make and tone like a set
of Hammers striking upon Anvils. ‘Tis play’d upon with Keys like a harpsichord, and with this Cyclopean Instrument he
designs to make poor Saul stark mad.
The instrument was specially commissioned by Handel, but unfortunately does not survive  —  nor does a similar
instrument used by Mozart in The Magic Flute. They are clearly both forerunners of the celeste, made famous in
Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Handel used his carillon again in L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, there to denote the
"merry bells" of the city. In Saul, Handel uses it to be true to the Biblical account: the women’s welcome song is
described in the Bible as being accompanied by a shalish or sistrum, an instrument made of metal rods hit by metal
hammers, like Handel’s “Tubalcain” (so named for the first blacksmith, from Genesis). For our performances we are
using a modern celeste, the mechanics being similar to what Handel must have had, and the sound appropriately
bright. An account after the first performance by the artist William Kent includes a reference to “some stops in the
Harpsichord that are little bells, I thought it had been some squirrels in a cage" (arguably not the response Handel
All of these instruments were used by Handel to evoke the time of Saul and David, and to heighten the drama. Other
unique features of the work include having a bass singer as the lead character, very rare on the operatic stage, and a
first for Handel. Many have suggested that Handel's own breakdown of the previous year contributed to his
characterization of the manic ruler.
Handel’s dramatization is described by the Saul scholar Ruth Smith as “breathtakingly inventive.” In taking drama
from the opera to the oratorio stage, Handel relied on the audience having the libretto in hand: they were expected
to follow along, and “stage directions” were included in order to help them imagine the action. [We hope you too
will follow the libretto provided here.] The audience would have identified to some extent with the emotional
upheaval of the characters on stage, and perhaps more generally with the themes of leadership, succession, and
nationhood, many of which resonated in the machinations of English history. The anniversary of Charles I’s
execution, for example, was honoured with a solemn service each year in London, the prescribed reading for which
was David’s lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan, a connection the audience would have fully understood.
©Tafelmusik 2014