Handel: Israel in Egypt
Date: Sunday 5 July 2015 at 7:30 pm
Location: The Guildhall, Royal Parade, Plymouth. PL1 1HA
Tickets: £17 at the door; Child/student £5; £15 in advance
“Handel understands effect better than any of us; when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born in 1685 in Halle, Saxony, to middle-class parents, Handel’s father, a court surgeon, dreamt of his son growing up to become a lawyer. However, his son’s early aptitude for music suggested a different future which the father attempted to discourage. Musical instruments were banned from the family home forcing the boy into the attic to practise secretly on a hidden clavichord.
It was not until the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels heard the nine-year old playing that his father was persuaded to allow his son a musical education.
At Halle University, Handel read both law and music, but his passion for the latter consumed his legal studies. Soon his musical achievements started to amass and accelerate. At 17, George was appointed as organist in Halle’s Domkirche (Cathedral). In 1703, aged 18, he became second violinist in the Hamburg opera orchestra; a year later saw his first compositions for the Hamburg opera house and at 21 he was in Italy, where a variety of patrons commissioned operas and other pieces.
By 1710, Handel had returned to Germany as Kapellmeister (orchestra and choral leader) to the Elector of Hanover. It was in this capacity that he first visited London, where Italian opera was increasingly popular. Soon, he was writing new Italian operas for English audiences.
Queen Anne granted Handel an annual stipend of £200 in the hope of keeping him in England as court composer and this was continued when the Elector of Hanover became King George I of England in August 1714. Handel had been officially dismissed from his post in Hanover in May 1713, and lived the rest of his life in England.
Handel soon became central to London’s burgeoning music scene. In 1717 as the King boated along the river Thames, it was to the accompaniment of Handel’s The Water Music. Two years later London’s first Italian opera company had Handel as their new ‘Master of the Orchestra’.
On 20 February 1727 he was granted British citizenship.
With the death of King George I in 1727 his son succeeded him as King George II. Handel was commissioned to write the anthem for the coronation, and Zadok the Priest was first performed on 11 October. It has formed a part of every British coronation since. It was in 1938 that Israel in Egypt was first performed.
But it was in 1741 that Handel composed his most famous work: Messiah. First performed during a visit to Dublin in 1742, Handel introduced the work to London on 23 March 1743, and during his lifetime produced a further 35 performances.
His last significant royal commission was for music to open the celebrations to mark the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la Chapelle in 1748. Handel’s composition was to accompany the King and his retinue as they rode from St. James’s Palace to Green Park to inspect a specially created building that would form the basis for a grand firework display. Handel called his music simply Ouverture but it is more familiarly known as the Music for the Royal Fireworks.
In the early 1750’s, however, Handel’s eyesight had begun to deteriorate, and by 1753 he was blind. Composition became more difficult as his vision faded, but he managed to continue to supervise the production of his oratorios and to perform public organ concerts.
Handel died in bed at his home in Brook Street on 14 April 1759 at the age of 74. In his will Handel left bequests to his servants, the Foundling Hospital and a number of charities. He also bequeathed £600 for his funeral and a memorial in Westminster Abbey, where he was buried a week after his death and is commemorated by a statue.
Twenty five years after Handel’s death a Handel Commemoration was initiated in London by George III in 1784, with five concerts in Westminster Abbey and the Pantheon. These concerts, repeated over the next few years and establishing an English tradition for Handel festivals in the nineteenth century and beyond, were on a grand scale, with huge choruses and instrumental forces, far beyond what Handel had at his disposal.
Handel: Israel in Egypt
Of the 19 oratorios Handel wrote in the early 18th century, his fifth, Israel in Egypt, is the most dramatic. Taking just 27 days to complete, it is an iconic choral masterpiece which has stood the test of time.
Premiered in 1739 at the King’s Theatre Haymarket, the initial response from the audience to the three-sectioned piece was uncertain, if not cool. London audiences at that time were not used to such extensive choral pieces presented as commercial entertainment. Handel quickly revised the work, omitting the long opening “Lamentations” and adding Italian-style arias of the kind contemporary audiences expected and enjoyed. In its two-sectioned form which we shall be performing, Israel in Egypt was very popular in the 19th century as it is today.
Charles Jennens is believed to have written the libretto for Israel in Egypt.
The piece begins as the Israelites mourn the death of Joseph, Israelite and favoured adviser to Pharaoh, King of Egypt. But with the death of the Pharaoh all that was to change, as expressed in a short recitative for the tenor: ‘Now there arose a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph…’
Part One then draws from Psalms 78, 105 and 106 and from the Book of Exodus and tells the plight of Moses and his people and their struggle against the Egyptians. This epic story has all the ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Unlike his predecessor, the new Pharaoh does not look kindly on the Israelites. God chooses Moses to lead his people out of bondage. In his quest for revenge against the oppressive and cruel Egyptians, Moses calls on God to turn the rivers into blood. He causes the land to bring forth frogs, a plague of locusts devour the fruits of the ground, blotches and blisters break out on the skin of cattle and people, flies and lice swarm everywhere, locusts appear and destroy all the crops, hailstorms blight the country, a palpable darkness descends and, finally, the eldest-born sons of all the Egyptians are struck down dead.
Handel’s thunderous climax is staged on the shores of the Red Sea with the miracle of parting the waves to allow Moses and the Israelites flight to safety and subsequent drowning of the Pharaoh and his army as they follow.
Throughout Handel used the orchestra to create sound pictures of the dramatic scenes. The addition of three trombones to the orchestra, reinforcing the more usual trumpets and drums, often gives splendid weight to the sound. There are several delightful touches, such as the flutes briefly evoking a pastoral mood to the words “he led them forth like sheep” and the “buzzing” of the violins to illustrate the plague of flies. “Their land brought forth frogs” is expressed through wittily hopping violins with “buzzing” strings and a thunderous bass line at the mention of the locusts. The depiction of the plague of darkness is especially memorable: eerie, unsettled harmonies coloured by the lugubrious tones of low strings and bassoons, usher in the choral voices, which soon break up into fragments of recitative as if blindly wandering away from each other.
In Part Two, ‘Moses’ Song’, the Israelites celebrate their deliverance. Handel references the stories of Part One, especially the parting of the Red Sea, but this is primarily a euphoric elegy to the power and glory of the Lord.
Scroll down for information on all our soloists for this concert.
Héloïse West was born in Devon. She received a gifted pupil award when she joined the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. She gained an Entrance Exhibition to the Royal Academy of Music, graduating with an LRAM and a Bachelor of Music degree in Performance. She has also studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Héloïse currently studies with Robin Bowman, Jessica Cash, Lionel Friend and Peter Adcock. She has a very busy career in the South West singing oratorio.
Her performances include: Bach – St Matthew Passion, St John Passion, Mass in B Minor, Christmas Oratorio, Brahms – Requiem, Carter – Horizons, Dvořák – Stabat Mater, Elgar – Spirit of England, Handel – Messiah, Judas Maccabaeus, Chandos Anthems, Haydn – Nelson Mass, Creation, Maria Theresa Mass, Mendelssohn – Elijah, Mozart – Exsultate, Jubilate, C Minor Mass, Coronation Mass, Requiem, Poulenc – Gloria, Rossini – Stabat Mater, Petite Messe Solennelle, Vaughan Williams – A Sea Symphony, Verdi – Requiem.
Her operatic excerpts and roles have included Helena – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cleopatra – Giulio Cesare, Monica – The Medium, Rusalka, First Lady – Magic Flute, The Governess – Turn of the Screw and the title role in Isabella and the Pot of Basil by Lawrence Roman, which premiered in London and at the Buxton Festival.
Héloïse has recently started an in-depth course of study on Wagnerian roles with Lionel Friend. Future engagements include performances of: Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle under Sir Neville Marriner and a recital at Dartington Hall.
Rebecca Smith graduated from Trinity College of Music where she won many awards and prizes and was the recipient of the Morag Noble Memorial Scholarship.
Operatic roles vary from Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, to Jocaste in Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky, and ‘The Traveller’ in the première of the opera, Victory over the Sun by Jeremy Arden performed at the Barbican.
She was a member of Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and Touring Opera for several seasons, touring also to Paris.
She has sung at the Purcell Room, London with the Company of Singers and Players to critical acclaim, and at the Festival Hall, several Promenade concerts at the Albert Hall, and other venues such as the British Embassy, Brussels, St George’s, Hanover Square, St Martin’s-in-the -Fields and Exeter and Truro Cathedrals.
Future engagements include Bach, B Minor Mass, Christmas Oratorio and St Matthew Passion, Mozart Requiem, Nelson Mass, Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle.
Recordings include a collection of Handel Italian Duets and the première recording of Isabella and the Pot of Basil by Laurence Roman.
Richard Rowntree is a leading oratorio and consort singer who enjoys a busy schedule as a freelance performer. Richard studied voice, viola and piano at Trinity College of Music, London. On leaving college, Richard became a tenor Vicar Choral at Wells Cathedral, a post he held from 1999 – 2007 when he joined the choir of the London Oratory, with whom he sang for almost six years.
Richard is greatly in demand as a consort singer and regularly appears with many of the country’s leading groups including The Monteverdi Choir, The Gabrieli Consort, The Sixteen, The King’s Consort, the Tallis Scholars, Tenebrae, I Fagiolini, The Clerke’s Group, The English Concert, Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Retrospect Ensemble, Britten Sinfonia Voices, The Cambridge Singers, The Early Opera Company, The London Handel Festival, Ex Cathedra, Concert d’Astree, The Armonico Consort, Ensemble Oculum, and The Philharmonia Voices.
As a soloist, Richard has appeared with The Gabrieli Consort in London, Paris, Rome and at the BBC Proms. Richard made his solo debut at The Wigmore Hall with Retrospect Ensemble in 2010 and made a return visit, again with Retrospect Ensemble, in 2011. Richard also made his solo debut with The English Concert at St John’s, Smith Square, London in December 2011.
Richard is a much sought-after soloist for an increasing number of choral societies throughout the UK and abroad. Richard’s extensive oratorio repertoire includes Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions (both as Evangelist and aria soloist), Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and B Minor Mass, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Stainer’s Crucifixion, Monteverdi’s Vespers, Mozart Requiem and Haydn’s Creation and Seasons to name but a few. In 2011, Richard performed the tenor solos in Verdi’s Requiem, alongside Sir Willard White.
Recent engagements have included tours to Malta with The English Concert, Leipzig with The Monteverdi Choir and Australia with The Australian Chamber Orchestra, including his debut appearance at Sydney Opera House in December 2013.
Julian is in constant demand as a soloist around the South West, performing in a wide range of choral and operatic works with many of the foremost groups in the region. He is also a full-time member of Exeter Cathedral Choir.
Julian began his singing career as a boy chorister with St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, and continued to sing regularly while an Engineering undergraduate at Cambridge University. He moved to Japan in 1990, and later to Shanghai, returning to the UK in 2007. While in the Far East, Julian appeared frequently as soloist, both on the stage and in the concert hall.
His solo repertoire includes Monteverdi Vespers, Handel Messiah and Judas Maccabeus, J.S. Bach B Minor Mass, St John Passion, St Matthew Passion and Christmas Oratorio, Mozart Requiem, Beethoven Symphony No. 9, Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle, Mendelssohn Elijah, Verdi Requiem, Brahms German Requiem, Stainer Crucifixion, Fauré Requiem, Mahler Symphony No. 8, Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony and Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Carl Orff Carmina Burana, Duruflé Requiem, and Howard Goodall Requiem.
Julian has recently performed in J.S. Bach St John Passion and Puccini Messa di Gloria, while future engagements include J. S. Bach Christmas Oratorio.
CHRISTOPHER FLETCHER Conductor
In 1978, Christopher was awarded a scholarship to study music at Trinity College of Music, London, becoming a Graduate and Fellow of the College. He moved to South Devon in 1984, since when he has been actively involved with choirs, church music and teaching. After 8 years as organist and Director of Music of the Parish and Priory Church of St Mary Totnes, in 2001 he was appointed to a similar post at the Plymouth Roman Catholic Cathedral. Since 1996 he has been Director of Music and Conductor of Plymouth Philharmonic Choir. During his tenure the choir has become recognised as one of the best large amateur choirs in the country.
Performances with the choir which stand out include: Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ with Sir Thomas Allen as soloist, David Fanshawe’s ‘African Sanctus’ in the presence of the composer, Karl Jenkin’s ‘The Armed Man’, with the Orchestra of the Royal Marines, which was judged by the Plymouth Herald to be the best classical concert of the year, and the choir’s recent performance of Dvorak’s ‘Stabat Mater’ which many members of the audience thought possibly the choir’s best ever!
In addition Christopher is conductor of the Chagford Singers, the Lupridge Singers and the Stanborough Chorus . He has also conducted the South Devon Choir. As well as being in demand as a choral workshop leader, Christopher helped to found the annual Rotary ‘Come and Sing’ charity concert at Buckfast Abbey in 1999, which he has conducted each year since and which regularly attracts 200 singers from all over Devon and beyond. In 2008 he was awarded a Paul Harris Fellowship by Rotary International. Christopher is also in demand as an after – dinner speaker.