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Since 1815 Handel Has Delivered for H+H


Jonathan Cohen launches his first season as Handel and Haydn Artistic Director with Handel’s epic Israel in Egypt at Symphony Hall on October 6th and 8th Tickets HERE. We asked Cohen some questions such as “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

JC: The opening night of the season is a very special one for me as it is my first concert in my new capacity as Artistic Director of H+H. I chose this wonderful piece for several reasons; first the music is extraordinary, monumental Handel with double chorus and a colourful orchestral tapestry; second, we get to showcase our extraordinary home talent and can celebrate the wonderful strengths of the musicians and singers of H+H; third, Israel in Egypt (and Messiah) was highly likely heard in London by Haydn and served (in my opinion) as Haydn’s inspiration for his choral compositions, especially The Creation. Israel in Egypt is therefore a symbolic piece in the connection between Handel and Haydn.

FLE: Should H+H issue a trigger warning for the pain Handel dispenses on the Egyptians in the name of God? The smitings and plagues come across with visceral power and unimproved-upon word painting. (The strings’ swirling swarms of  32nd-note flies and lice tops the category.) In the final double chorus the oratorio energetically posits that “The Lord Shall Reign Forever” while taking glee in drowning the Egyptian horses and riders in the sea (sing “rickety-tickety-tin”). Is this ok by modern standards?

J.C.: Israel in Egypt is a setting of biblical passages from Exodus of the Old Testament. The libretto is directly that of the Bible. I think people understand that the biblical stories are from a different time and are complex at all levels of analysis. In Exodus, the Egyptians hold the Israelites captive and in slavery performing extremely hard and cruel labour. This is a story of faith in God and a deliverance from suffering. 

Handel’s music rejoices in the wonders of miracles and the natural world, using ingenious orchestral colours in creative and bold depictions of the plagues and the parting of the red sea. I believe that Haydn would have heard this piece in London and this would have served as inspiration for his Creation.

There is certainly a victorious element to the music celebrating the Israelite’s escape from the pursuing army of Egyptians as they made their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. The rhythm of the pursuing galloping horses in the music is ingenious and very pictorial. I don’t believe that the right way to “judge” a story of ancient origin (Exodus was approximately 1445 BC) is to apply “modern standards” of morality and modern notions of “justice.” 

Will you be staring the show with the somewhat dreary 1739 “Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph?” Without some intro, Part II begins awkwardly. Will this necessitate any cuts?

We’re doing the 1757 version of the piece. Handel revisited this work several times with some major cuts and additions. The 1757 version has an entirely new part 1, containing a balanced proportion of arias and choruses by selecting items from Solomon, the Occasional Oratorio and the Peace Anthem. Parts 2 and 3 are largely unchanged, a few cuts and changes and the inclusion of new aria “Toss’d from thought to thought” from Alexander Balus. 

Did you personally audition and/or select the 13 soloists? Are some stepping out of the chorus?

All the solo arias in this concert will be performed by various singers in the H+H chorus. Casting has been done by H+H in collaboration with me and I’m thrilled that we get to showcase some of our extraordinary local vocal talent.  

Can you tell us the history of H+H performances of the work?

I believe that the duet “The Lord is a Man of War” was performed in the inaugural concert at the founding of the Handel and Haydn Society in 1815.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. So the new guy in town is faced with an unserious query that is aimed at needling readers whose politics might be described as progressive. And Cohen has to waste his time dismissing this posturing. Just so tedious.

    Comment by Anthony — October 3, 2023 at 5:23 pm

  2. I believe he took it lightly as intended…not to mention that pointing out the sensational theatricality of the wonderful oratorio might be good for sales!

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 3, 2023 at 6:59 pm

  3. Problematical?

    Comment by denovo2 — October 6, 2023 at 11:00 pm

  4. This Interview is cut short? Warum? OK, Relax folks! I’ve seen this before. “Father, why is this night different..”–a sure sign the writer is a Jew! Whether it’s the annual railroadiana night of the Boston Chapter 50 years ago or the new H&H leader’s being interviewed now. Bitterly ironic that this comes within days and hours of Hamas’ massive attacks on Israel with hundreds dead. History does not exist to console readers–it is what happened, sort of! I have read that what really happened was that the Israelites had come into Egypt while the Hyksos (a foreign invader from Down South supposedly) were ruling. When the Egyptians rose and expelled the Hyksos they might then legitimately see the Israelites as “Collaborators with The Enemy”. History can be like that. A bit more on Handel’s London in the 1740’s and ’50’s would be useful here. Getting familiar with other versions of Israel in Egypt might be very useful. Plus ALL music from The Past is a period piece; think of what’s going on. Program writers could make hay by noted where their listeners/readers might look for more. Now no more beting dead horses–and now I’ve gotten the SPCA and PETA upset!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — October 8, 2023 at 12:34 pm

  5. Notes on HANDEL’S LONDON (written for the Berkshire Choral festival)
    Georgian London was (in theatrical terms) quite unique among European cities. The numerous theaters of Shakespeare’s day were abolished by the Puritans in 1642. After Charles II was restored in 1660, he granted only two courtiers theatrical patents, creating a monopoly for more than fifty years. The two oldest “official patent” theaters during Handel’s early London career were commercial enterprises dependent on daily ticket sales: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (built in 1663) and the Lincoln’s Inn (founded in 1660 and succeeded by the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1728).

    Handel was a very public man who needed to be fluent in several languages. Most of the London dancers who performed between operatic acts were French, and approximately 320 Italian musicians and designers dominated the opera house and concert venues. The soloists for the premiere of Israel in Egypt included a French operatic soprano, an English soprano who performed arias between the acts in the dramas at Drury Lane, a male alto also known for low bass roles (singing “The Land brought forth frogs”), an English tenor and two German basses. Used to coping with the necessities of the box office, the whims of very famous singers, and the fickleness of the public, Handel carved out a place for himself in the musical life of early eighteenth-century London that established him as the best-known composer of the Baroque period.

    Beginning in 1732, Handel shifted the focus of his career from opera to oratorio. The new approach led to a conspicuous change in London theatrical entertainment. Despite Handel’s long association with the King’s Theatre, oratorios were particularly welcomed at the other theaters, where only English-language works were presented. London theaters had always been dark during Passion Week, but early in Queen Anne’s reign the Lord Chamberlain started to enforce a prohibition of all theatrical performances on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. The ban did not apply to concerts.

    Anglicans and Dissenters came together within the Handelian tradition as they did in no other cultural context. The continuing performance of Handel’s works – the oratorios and odes especially – was the most important starting point of ‘canonic’ repertoires that were deemed to be “great music.” Handel’s oratorios contributed significantly in redefining the identities of a nation, its monarchy, and the British people.

    We have a vivid account of Handel’s oratorio concerts from Madame Anne-Marie Fiquet de Bocage, a French lady who detailed the London seasons around 1750 to her sister, Madame du Perron: “The Oratorio, or pious concert, pleases us highly. English words are sung by Italian performers, and accompanied on a variety of instruments. HANDEL is the soul of it; when he makes his appearance, two wax lights are carried before him, which are laid upon his organ. Amidst a loud clapping of hands he seats himself, and the whole band of music strikes up at exactly the same moment. At the interludes he plays concertos of his own composition, either alone or accompanied by the orchestra. These are equally admirable for the harmony and the execution. The Italian opera, in three acts, gives us much less pleasure…”

    English oratorios were always separated by a long interval, during which Handel remained at the small organ, playing improvisations, organ sonatas, and even organ concertos with the orchestra between acts. Bach’s Leipzig Passions of the same period observed a similar pause between hour-long sections, filled by a sermon from the minister’s pulpit.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — October 16, 2023 at 10:52 pm

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