Interlude: Handel’s Secular World

J.S. Bach’s Lutheran faith animated his music. Handel, by comparison, apparently liked a good time and was less concerned about religion. Indeed, Handel’s most famous tune is arguable from his “Water Music”, which was written for King George I’s concert on the Thames.

George Friderich Handel, Water Music Suite No. 1, XII: Alla Hornpipe

Given the eduring fame of this music, I wonder if Handel in any way inspired a more recent, less elegant, concert on the Thames:

Handel’s 42 operatic works also largely eschewed religious themes. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the best known religious oratorio remains Handel’s Messiah, his great Easter oratorio. No less strange is that the Messiah was far from Handel’s most successful oratorio during his lifetime.

In contrast, Handel’s most successful oratorio–and indeed one of the most successful compositions of his entire career–was Judas Maccabaeus, a secular work. That’s right, Handel’s most successful work (that is, the one that made him the most money) is based on the story of Hanukkah. This was not the first Jewish subject Handel had chosen–eight of his previous oratorios had been based on Old Testament stories. But this one was quite different: the rebel Jewish leader, Judas Maccabaeus, who led the revolt against the the Seleucid Empire in 160-167 BC, is a secular historical figure. He might well be the first Jewish hero to appear in Western Music. This is no small thing: Jews would not be portrayed sympathetically in Western Music again until Giussepi Verdi’s NabuccoVa, pensiero, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, would become closely associated with Italy’s unification in the late 19th century. A Conversation at least in subject matter for sure.

It is unclear why Handel chose a heroic Jewish figure as the subject for this work, especially since Judas Maccabaeus was dedicated to the Duke of Cumberland, following his route of the Jacobites in 1745 and putting flight to the Catholic Pretender to the throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie. History is silent on Handel’s choice to equate the Protestant Duke with the Jewish revolutionary. That silence alone speaks volumes, whether Handel had intended to make a statement on religious tolerance or not.

Today, Judas Maccabaeus is best known for one of its choruses: See the conquering hero comes. This chorus was actually written for a subsequent work, Joshua, but proved to be so popular that Handel added it to Judas Maccabaeus in 1751. Beethoven found inspiration in the melody and wrote a variation of it for cello and piano. Over a century later, the great violin teacher, Shinichi Suzuki, transcribed the chorus and Handel’s theme has since been scratched out by myriad tiny bows, including my own.

George Friderich Handel, Judas Maccabaeus: “Chorus of Israelites, Mourn, ye affected children

Giussepi Verdi, Nabucco, “Va pensiero”

George Friderich Handel, Judas Maccabaeus, “See, the conquering hero comes”

Ludwig van Beethoven, 12 Variations on See the conquering hero comes

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