November 2014

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Maurice Greene: Jephtha

sje arts, oxford

Jephtha                                                John-Colyn Gyeantey
Jephtha’s daughter                           Rosalind Coad
First Elder of Gilead                          Nicholas Merryweather
Second Elder of Gilead                     Ben Williamson

Vyvian Bronk, Kate Carberry-Long, Helen Prentice, Fiona Sharp, Julia Wickham soprano; Laura Cappenberg, Lucy Chambers, Catharine Robertson, Delia Robertson alto; Tim Dutton, Jonathan Pearce, Kevin Walsh tenor; Hunter Danskin, Rupert Derham, Damian Riddle bass

Bampton Classical Players, on period instruments
Adrian Chandler, Camilla Scarlett violin; Rachel Byrt viola; Gareth Deats cello; Antonia Bakewell double bass; Joel Raymond, Oonagh Lee oboe/recorder; Simon Munday, Paul Sharp trumpet; Sarah Stuart timpani; James Johnstone harpsichord.

Performing edition                            Peter Lynan
Conductor                                           Gilly French

Whether intended or not, Greene’s Jephtha filled a gap. Handel had had some success with the first of his English oratorios in the early 1730s, but his continuing commitment to opera seria at the time was such that he did not return to oratorio until almost the end of that decade. The 1730s were thus something of an experimental period for English oratorio, the nature of the genre and its conventions not yet well defined and its general direction too still largely uncertain. For a composer able to foresee its dramatic potential, however, oratorio must have seemed particularly fertile ground. One such composer was Maurice Greene (1696–1755).

By the mid-1730s Greene was not only the most senior church musician in England, as organist of St Paul’s Cathedral and organist and composer to the Chapel Royal, but also professor of music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, master of the king’s music. Much involved in London’s secular musical life too, he had been a founder member of the Academy of Ancient Music until his unfortunate involvement in the celebrated Bononcini plagiarism affair, in 1731, led to his resignation, after which he set up the rival Apollo Society. It was under the auspices of the Society that, perhaps sensing a developing appetite for oratorio — and perhaps also keen to steal a lead on Handel, their friendship having soured over the affair — Greene took the opportunity to try his hand at it while Handel’s attention was largely elsewhere. By comparison with Handel, he was not an experienced composer of theatrical works. His first, short oratorio The song of Deborah and Barak (1732) is a descriptive account rather than a true drama played out through first-person interaction, but it nevertheless reveals a composer well attuned to the dramatic possibilities of musical affect, and these were to develop into a defining feature of the mature Handelian dramatic oratorio.

Although Greene was to some extent feeling his way forward — and it must be remembered that Handel had not yet produced any of his oratorio masterpieces — it was in only his second oratorio, Jephtha (1737), that he fully embraced the concept of dramatic oratorio, becoming the first native-born English composer to do so. Jephtha is thus of considerable historical interest. Little is known about its early performances. Like Deborah, Jephtha was no doubt performed by the Apollo Society, which met at the Devil tavern in Fleet Street, and the part of Jephtha’s daughter, originally written for soprano, was on another occasion revised for an alto soloist. It would seem, however, that Jephtha was then not heard again until January 1997 when, to mark the 300th anniversary of Greene’s birth a few months earlier, a performance was given and broadcast by the BBC, for which purpose the present performing edition was commissioned. This evening’s performance is therefore one of only a handful ever given of this unjustly neglected work, and probably only the second in the last 270 years.

For a libretto, Greene turned to John Hoadly, who had written the libretto for Greene’s pastoral opera Florimel (1734) and who became his frequent collaborator in later years. For Hoadly too oratorio was a new challenge, a thought that modern critics of his sometimes slow, occasionally static text for Jephtha might bear in mind when evaluating its qualities against the work of Handel’s more experienced librettists. Hoadly’s text stresses reaction rather than action, and a result is that for much of the oratorio little actually happens. This may seem strange for a dramatic work, especially when judged against the more action-led of Handel’s oratorios, including of course his own (much later) setting of the Jephtha story. To overcome the lack of dramatically realizable incident in the biblical account, Handel’s Jephtha is fleshed out with a supporting cast of named characters each with their own personalities and emotional dynamics that create subsidiary dramatic lines in the manner of contemporary opera seria, accommodated over three acts, making modern-day staging not only possible but effective too. By contrast, Greene’s Jephtha would be a poor candidate for staged performance. With just one named character — not even his daughter is given a name — and only incidental parts for their individual supporters, the drama is linear rather than multi-dimensional, more plainly set moralistic lesson than full-blown operatic entertainment. That is not to say that it lacks either drama or effective characterization, but it is a more simply drawn tragedy that, without the distractions of multiple characters, may appear to progress at a more sedate pace.

Pre-war optimism in Act I is strikingly balanced by the drawn-out anguish of Act II. And with the moment of dramatic crisis occurring near the beginning of Act II, much of that act is then concerned with the dawning realization of the implications of Jephtha’s unfortunate promise and — with neither protest nor consideration of possible alternatives — dutiful resignation to impending doom. Although the protraction of the situation in Act II might easily, in poor hands, have become a dramatic flop, it allows the full emotional impact of the characters’ predicament to be explored, from naïvety to shock, bewilderment, fear and acceptance, and, unsurprisingly, it is in this act that much of Greene’s most effective music is to be found. Among the most notable movements are the several accompanied recitatives which, not least through shrewdly affective use of enharmonic modulation, heighten the characters’ emotional states as they inch hopelessly towards the inevitable. The moral worth of the oratorio is summed up in the final chorus, which ends not in jubilation at the Daughter’s miraculous, last-minute liberation from death — a contrivance of Handel’s libretto though not of Greene’s — but in quiet and mournful reflection on the vagaries of fate.


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, Jephtha 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 vows to offer as a sacrifice whatever he first meets on his return, should he be victorious.

Act II
Jephtha returns in triumph, only to be met by his daughter. He is unable either to tell her of his vow or to retract it, but she is eventually successful in prising the truth from her father. Resolved to her fate, father and daughter say their farewells before a final chorus of mourning.

Peter Lynan