Blending the Genres: Handel’s Theatrical Innovation


George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner


George Frideric Handel has confused many a casual classical music devotee. Was he a German composer? An Italian composer? An English composer? The truth is, he was a dazzlingly unique mix of all three. Born in 1685 in Halle, Germany, Handel grew up in the German polyphonic tradition of Protestant church music. He spent five formative years in Florence and Rome where his style was heavily influenced by the Italian Baroque. Then, in 1710, he moved to London where he would live out the rest of his life, becoming a naturalized British subject in 1727.

Handel is credited with the creation of the English oratorio, and his particular style combines elements of all three countries’ musical and cultural traditions. As an organist in Lutheran and Calvinist churches in Germany, Handel was charged with writing weekly cantatas and anthems that sparkled with choral polyphony. But it was in Italy that Handel learned about the solo voice, and the style and structure of the two large-scale Italian vocal forms: oratorio and opera.

The Italian Baroque oratorio had existed since the early 1600s, but it took a backseat to the much more popular Italian Baroque opera. While the early operas were about kings or gods, or were often based on Greek or Roman mythology, the early oratorios were based on Latin biblical texts. The word oratorio comes from the Latin verb orare, to orate, plead, or pray. Its sacred implication defined the Italian Baroque oratorio as a religious genre for the first part of the 17th century, and many of them were performed in the Catholic churches and cathedrals in Italy. By 1700, however, secular themes were woven into the Italian oratorio, and Handel’s first, in 1707, was about five of the Muses.

The more significant structural difference, however, between oratorio and opera was the chorus. The oratorio originated with a quartet of unnamed singers that represented the crowds, or who commented on the action like a Greek dramatic chorus. Over time, composers expanded the quartet into a larger and larger chorus. Italian opera, on the other hand, became characterized by its alternation between recitativo and the da capo aria, without any choruses; indeed, many Italian Baroque operas include almost nothing but arias with few, if any, duets, trios, or other ensembles. Giulio Cesare, for example, contains just two duets, while Alcina boasts a single trio; the rest of the numbers in each of these operas are solo arias. Handel, like some of the earliest Italian Baroque opera composers, might bookend his operas with choruses, but they are often sung by the soloists of the opera themselves, and not by a separate group of choristers. Consistently and throughout the plot, however, the dramatic adoption of the chorus was almost nonexistent in Italian Baroque opera.

By the time he moved to London, Handel had written two Italian oratorios and six Italian operas—some of which, interestingly, had arias in both Italian and in German, as they were first performed at the opera house in Hamburg. Once in London, Handel secured the opportunity to launch his career as a successful composer of Italian opera. He wrote five Italian operas in his first five years in London and an incredible thirty-six more over a twenty-year span after that. Toward the end of that output, however, the political and theological environment in London started to turn against Italian opera.

The English nation was unusually politically and theologically aware, the two being quite inseparable: opinionated religious and political debate dominated everyday life, while church sermons influenced every aspect of public policy and intellectualism. Early in the 18th century, “religious freethinking” was a hot topic of public debate, pitting the conservative-minded Protestants against the humanistic Deists. Many reformists in the Church of England saw religious freethinking as a form of heresy, culminating in ecclesiastical reprimands and trials of treason for the more liberal-minded believers. Keep in mind, this is the same environment that spurred the mass migration of religious minorities from England to the Americas.

The theater found itself in the middle of this debate. Public performances influenced private behavior and were therefore considered to be matters of public concern: the theater was seen as the foremost purveyor of vice and bad habits. Many influential writers even wanted all the theaters to be closed, as the Puritans had done to the Shakespearean theaters between 1642 and 1660. Though no closure occurred, a reform movement was championed for art to revitalize the nation’s morals. In order for art to be more than a vice-ridden, heretical pastime, it needed to be moral, serious, and instructive, with emotional subjects that brought the viewer closer to God and the Church of England. It certainly did not help Italian opera’s reputation that it came from a Catholic country. Seeing the public appetite shifting toward religious art, Handel, the commercially minded entrepreneur, saw an opportunity for religious-themed opera. But the Blasphemy Act of 1605 had, for over a century, prohibited works based on scripture from appearing on the acted stage. Enter the English oratorio.

In 1718, Handel introduced Esther, his first English oratorio, to the London public. The oratorio form allowed Handel to compose for dramatic subjects with religious themes without the performers “acting” the drama on the stage, and he cleverly introduced this genre in the vernacular. Exploiting the patriotism woven throughout the religious debate, the phrase “Oratorio in English” was the largest font size on the posters—the language was a chief selling point. Newburgh Hamilton, a writer and later one of Handel’s librettists, commented that “Mr. Handel had so happily here introduc’d Oratorios,a musical drama, whose subject must be Scriptural, and in which the Solemnity of Church-Musick is agreeably united with the most pleasing Airs of the Stage.” The solemnity of church music refers to the seriousness of style, the morality of subject, and the extensive employment of choral polyphony, while airs of the stage simply refers to the English word for the operatic aria. As Italian Baroque opera had been structured primarily with arias, Handel combined those with the anthem choruses of church music—on a sacred subject and in the English language—thereby introducing a brand-new genre of musical form.

After Esther, Handel spent the next twenty years writing almost exclusively Italian opera: he wrote only three more oratorios during this time. But as his operas’ ticket sales dropped and the Christian defense against the “Notorious Infidels” raged on, his musical ventures reached an inflection point. In 1738, he began composing Saul to a libretto by Charles Jennens, a noted landowner, writer, and patron, famous for his public opposition to “freethinking Deism.” Jennens would go on to write at least three other known libretti for Handel, including the famous Messiah. When Saul premiered in 1739, it was met with enormous enthusiasm—and, surprisingly, not only from one side of the religious debate. Despite Jennens’ personal stance, the reflective nature of the libretto, along with the requisite distillation of the biblical story into musical text, meant that none of the words argued for or against a specific “side.” It was the best of both worlds: a sacred theme that aroused the noblest of religious thoughts in the audience, set to words that were theologically moderate enough to appeal to a wider public without serious objection. Indeed, Handel was a true entrepreneur.

If Saul is Handel’s compositional inflection point, we can clearly see the change in his output. After 1739, Handel wrote only two more Italian operas, one in each of the following two years, but he wrote at least fifteen more known English oratorios over the course of his career. He solidified his reputation in 18thcentury London as the preeminent composer of popular music, drawing sell-out crowds to each of his English oratorios in the 1740s and 1750s, and doing so with public acclaim from traditionalists and freethinkers alike. He created the musical genre of the English oratorio: blending the Italian aria, German choral polyphony, and the English language together with the cultural backdrop of intense religious debate. Handel designed the ideal musical experience for his audience, one that has gone on to inspire generations of musicians and audiences all over the world.