Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Baroque Era > Judas Maccabaeus (Handel)
George Frideric Handel
The oratorio of "Judas Maccabaeus" was written in thirty-two days, between July 9 and August 11, 1746, upon the commission of Frederic, Prince of Wales, to celebrate the return of the Duke of Cumberland from Scotland after the decisive victory of Culloden. The words were taken from the narrative of the exploits of the Jewish deliverer contained in the first book of Maccabees and in the twelfth book of Josephus' "Antiquities of the Jews." It was first performed at Covent Garden, April 1, 1747. The characters represented are Judas Maccabaeus; Simon, his brother; an Israelitish messenger; and Israelitish men and women.
The first scene introduces the Israelitish men and women lamenting the death of the father of Judas in the sorrowful chorus ("Mourn, ye afflicted Children"), which, after a duet for soprano and tenor, followed by still another chorus in a similar strain ("For Zion Lamentation make"), but much more impressive, and rising to a more powerful climax. After a brief and simple soprano solo ("Pious Orgies"), the chorus sings the prayer ("O Father, whose almighty Power"), closing with a characteristic fugue on the words ("And grant a Leader"). After a short recitative, Simon, bass, breaks out in the heroic and sonorous aria ("Arm, arm, ye Brave!") which has always retained its popularity, notwithstanding its antique bravura. It is followed by the chorus in the brief but stirring number ("We come in a bright array"). Five arias, a duet, and two choruses, nearly all of which are now omitted in performances, being of the same general character, and mainly apostrophes to liberty lead up to the great chorus closing the first part ("Hear us, O Lord!").
The second part opens with the Israelites celebrating the return of Judas from the victories over Appollonius and Seron. An instrumental prelude, picturing the scenes of battle, leads directly to the great chorus, the best in the work ("Fallen is the Foe"). The triumphant declaration is made over and over with constantly increasing energy, finally leading to a brilliant fugue on the words ("Where warlike Judas wields his righteous Sword"); but interwoven with it are still heard those notes of victory ("Fallen is the Foe"), and the response ("So fall Thy Foes"). The Israelitish man sings a vigorous tribute to Judas ("So rapid thy Course is"). Their triumphant strain ("Zion now her Head shall raise") is taken by two voices, closing with the soprano alone; but before her part ends, the whole chorus takes it and joins in the paean ("Tune your Harps"), and the double number ends in a broad, flowing harmony. In a florid number ("From mighty Kings he took the Spoil") the Israelitish woman once more sings Judas' praise. The two voices unite in a welcome ("Hail Judaea, happy Land"), and finally the whole chorus join in a simple but jubilant acclaim to the same words. The rejoicings soon change to expression of alarm and apprehension as a messenger enters and announces that Gorgias has been sent by Antiochus to attack the Israelites, and is already near at hand. They join in a chorus expressive of deep despondency ("Oh, wretched Israel"); but Simon, in a spirited aria ("The Lord worketh Wonders"), bids them put their trust in Heaven, and Judas rouses their courage with martial trumpet song ("Sound an Alarm"), which through very brief, is full of vigor and fire. After the departure of Judas to meet the foe, Simon, the Israelitish man, and the Israelitish woman follow each other in denunciation of the idolatries which have been practised by the heathen among them, and close with the splendid chorus ("We never will bow down to the rude Stock or sculptured Stone"), in which vigorous repetition of the opening phrase lead to a chorale in broad, impressive harmony, with which is interwoven equally vigorous repetitions of the phrase ("We worship God alone").
The third part opens with the impressive prayer ("Father of Heaven, from Thy eternal Throne"), sung by the priest. As the fire ascends from the altar, the Sanctuary having been purified of its heathen defilement, the Israelites look upon it as an omen of victory and take courage. A messenger enters with tidings of Judas' triumph over all their enemies. The Israelitish maidens and youths go out to meet him, singing the exultant march chorus ("See the conquering Hero comes"), which is familliar to everyone by its common use on all occasions, from Handel's time to this, where tribute has been paid to martial success and heroes have been welcomed. It is the universal acompaniment of victory, as the Dead March in "Saul" is of the pageantry of death. It is very simple in its construction, like many others of Handel's most effective numbers and first sung as a three-part chorus, then as a duet or chorus of virgins, again by the full power of all the voices, and gradually dies away in the form of an instrumental march. A very elaborate chorus ("Sing unto God"), a florid aria with trumpet solo for Judas ("With Honor let Desert be Crowned"), the chorus ("To our Great God"), a pastoral duet with exquisite accompaniment ("Oh, lovely peace!"), and a "Hallelujah" in the composer's customary exultant style, close this brilliant and dramatic oratorio.