June 2007


Greene O think what Joy to him is giv’n; Pity soothing melts the soul; Our prayers with God acceptance find; Thou, universal Lord; God of hosts whom we adore; Here let me hold thee to my heart
Handel Deeper and deeper still; How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees
Carissimi Jephte (semi-staged performance)

The biblical story of Jephtha comes from the Book of Judges, chapter 11 vv 29-40. Jephtha, the illegitimate son of Gilead, was on his father’s death scorned and thrown out of Israel by his half-brothers. He had been living in Tob with his wife and daughter when the Ammonites attacked Israel and began a long and bitter war. Before leaving for the war, he vowed unto God that if he were to return home victorious, ‘whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house’ to meet him would be given as a sacrifice. He was indeed victorious, but he was met on his return not by a slave or an animal but by his only child.

Eighteenth century audiences would have known their Old Testament stories, especially as the source of political parallels written into the collective national consciousness (Israel’s battles with the Ammonites as an analogy with British battles against Catholic Europe, for example). Handel’s oratorios reflected and celebrated British identity and it was even suggested that he could cure the national ills, irreligion and faction, and through his music unite the nation. Jephtha has parallels with the other great story of father-daughter sacrifice, that of Iphigenia by Agamemnon (set by Gluck as Iphigenia in Aulis): in both stories a daughter is killed in fulfillment of a vow made by the father in order to secure military success, and the vow is made a by ruler in his country’s interests without any realisation of its possible outcome. In Greene’s and Carissimi’s versions the daughter is a willing sacrificial victim but in Handel’s an angel intervenes, providing what has been described as an ‘imaginative contribution to a controversy in Biblical scholarship which had been rumbling on for many centuries’: that of whether the sacrifice was allowed by the Law and thus by its priests. Handel’s oratorio, to a libretto by Thomas Morrell, lasts over three hours and the closing chorus to act II, ‘How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees’ is the most profoundly moving movement in one of the composer’s finest scores.

Maurice Greene was in the 1730s one of the few native English composers to show an interest in English oratorio, that essentially new form of entertainment established by and most readily associated with Handel. Greene’s posthumous reputation has suffered somewhat from harsh criticism by musicologists of the time and his second oratorio Jephtha, with a libretto by John Hoadly, is deserving of better recognition – indeed it has received only one other modern-times performance in this country. It may claim to be the first oratorio by an Englishman to have been written according to the dramatic principles of Handelian oratorio, and it is therefore of considerable historical importance. It is in two acts, lasting about 95 minutes in total, and features just four characters. The piece contains much fine music, especially in the duets between Jephtha and his daughter, the lengthy arias for the daughter (sadly for reasons of time not included this evening) and the triumphant victory-choruses. Most of tonight’s excerpts are from Act I. Jephtha, having been expelled by his fellow Israelites, is recalled to lead his people in battle against the oppressive Ammonites. At first reluctant to comply with this request, he is soon moved to do so out of pity. In turn, the Israelites agree to give up their false gods and promise allegiance to Jehovah. Amid general thanksgiving and rejoicing, Jephtha makes his vow…

Carissimi’s version, to a text adapted from the Vulgate, sets the tragic story in 25 exquisite minutes of music, narrated by different solo voices in alternation as well as the six-part chorus who also depict a bloody battle scene and the triumphs of winning the war. In the moving dialogue between father and daughter Carissimi achieves what has been described as the ‘perfect recitative’; the final chorus, Plorate, filii Israel is an outstandingly vivid expression, of almost unbearable beauty, on the tragedy of human loss.