Passion, redemption, sacrifice, and honor - Handel's electrifying oratorio Jephtha tells the story of a warrior willing to sacrifice it all for a chance at glory. For the first time since 1867, the Handel and Haydn Society brings the legend of Jephtha to life, premiered in the US by H&H in 1855. Experience the transformative powers of Handel's music as Harry Christophers leads the H&H Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus alongside a stellar cast of soloists in this theatrical story on stage at Symphony Hall.
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- Handel: Jephtha
West Coast Tour 2013
In the spring of 2013, Artistic Director Harry Christophers takes the H&H Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus on tour to California with Handel’s oratorio Jephtha and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
Pre-Concert Conversation with Ruth Smith
Author and scholar Ruth Smith will lead a conversation one hour before curtain within Symphony Hall. Lecture location for Friday: Cabot-Cahners Room. Sunday: Higginson Hall.
Jephtha, a symposium
Saturday, May 4, 2013 10am–12pm
MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, 48 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA
Sponsored by MIT Music and Theater Arts
Free and open to the public
The symposium will be monitored by scholar and professor emeritus Ellen T. Harris and will include conversation with Ruth Smith, H&H Artistic Director Harry Christophers, and Margaret Murata, a professor of musicology from UC Irvine. The event will feature a brief performance by Handel and Haydn Society musicians as well as a small reception.
A story centered on a promise that results in sacrifice, Jephtha is also a story of fate and acceptance, transformed from abstract ideology to human interactions through Handel’s music. This was Handel’s last oratorio; it was a crowning achievement of some 20 years of oratorio composition.
Georg Frideric Handel (1685–1759) composed Jephtha in 1751 to a libretto by Reverend Thomas Morell (1703–1784). A Greek scholar, Morell had supplied Handel with other librettos, including Judas Maccabaeus. He based this libretto on the Book of Judges (Chapter 11) from the Old Testament and Jephtes sive Votum (Jephtha or the Vow) written in the 16th century by George Buchanan. Act I of the oratorio opens with a decision. The recitative, sung by Jephtha’s brother, Zebul, begins “It must be so,” before explaining that Jephtha, although treated harshly by his compatriots in the past, is the best person to lead them against the Ammonites, who have ruled over Israel for 18 years. Zebul’s proclamation that the Israelies will no longer be forced to worship a false god and make “sacred rights profane” is answered with a chorus of support, whose music falls into a familiar dance pattern on the words: “in dismal dance around the furnace blue/no more to Ammon’s god and king, fierce Moloch, shall our cymbals ring.”
Jephtha agrees to command the army and sings an aria, “Virtue my soulshall still embrace,” that is filled withconfidence expressed through strong musical lines and virtuoso passages. After Jephtha’s acceptance, his wife, Storgè, sings a poignant aria, filled with exquisite text painting, that reflects the distance she perceives between her worries and her husband’s duty. The interplay of the voice and orchestra is particularly striking as Storgè sings, “In gentle murmurs will I mourn as mourns the mate-forsaken dove.” It is an aria that is exposed musically just as Storgè does not withhold any of her emotions at her husband’s departure. This aria is a counterbalance to all of the (male) bravado that has comebefore; for the first time we get an inkling that there will be a struggle.
The next recitatives and arias, for the young lovers Hamor and Iphis, Jephthaand Storgè’s daughter, express hope for their future. Hamor presses Iphis, exclaiming how he languishes in anticipation for her and “pants for bliss invain.” Iphis replies by saying that he must be a hero in the field “and he shall not want his due reward.” There is a playful seriousness about these characters which blossoms in their duet “These labors past.”
The youthful exuberance of the preceding scene is sharply contrasted with Jephtha’s dark forebodings of the battle and his private promise, if he is victorious, to sacrifice “whoever shall first salute mine eyes” on his return.
In another juxtaposition of hope and trepidation, Storgè tells Iphis about her dreams and her fears for her daughter. Iphis replies to this with the aria “The smiling dawn of happy days.” This aria contains rising motives in which the voice and strings join in unison, an indication of Iphis’ conviction and belief in the words she sings even as she tries to console her mother.
Act II begins with news of Jephtha’s victory and Iphis’ decision to greet her father on his return. A pastoral symphony, Iphis’ aria, and the chorus “Welcome
as the cheerful light” elicit Jephtha’s response, “Horror!” Then his previous promise is revealed.
The quartet “O spare your daughter!” encapsulates the conflicting feelings of this new situation. Scored for Jephtha, Storgè, Hamor, and Zebul, the strident
accompaniment in the strings and isolation of the vocal entrances create an unrelenting tension in this scene indebted to opera. Further on in Act 2, Jephtha sings, “Deeper, and deeper still,” recounting his shock and dread at being met by his daughter when he returned from battle. Accompanied by strings, the recitative fluctuates between a quiet intensity and emotional outbursts.
At the beginning of Act 3, as he prepares to sacrifice his daughter in fulfillment of his promise, Jephtha beseeches the angels to take his daughter to heaven in the aria “Waft her, angels.” In the orchestral opening, a rising violin line in a long-short, then steadier rhythmic pattern is played against a pulsing bass. As the violin line reaches its goal, the voice enters with Jephtha’s plea in this sweetly tender aria. This aria and the accompanied recitative that precedes it became favorite excerpts from the oratorio and were often performed as a pair into the 19th century. In response to Jephtha’s plea, an angel appears and tells him that Iphis does not need to die, but only dedicate her life to God.
This story is complex and gives the audience much to contemplate. Jephtha is bound to a promise that, in hindsight, was foolish. He must do what he feels is right despite the opinions of others, even his own wife. Jephtha’s steadfastness is rewarded in the end, but not without conditions. Through no fault of her own, Jephtha’s daughter, Iphis, is bound by her father’s promise as well. Her fate and that of her fiancé, Hamor, represent the innocent victims of any action.
These conundrums were often points of discourse in religious and philosophical inquiries, and Handel, through music, explores these ideas within the context of touching expressions of human emotions. In the choruses, too, Handel expresses the helplessness of the events once set into motion and unifies the whole of the oratorio. In Act 1, the chorus “O God, behold our sore distress” comments on the plight of Israel and speaks for all those involved in the story to come with its opening cries set in chords (homophony) before separating into parts with imitative entrances.
The chorus “Cherub and seraphim” from Act 2 is nothing short of angelic in the string introduction, opening line for sopranos answered by oboes, and its overall gentle mood. This chorus alludes to the end of the oratorio and the mystical nature of angels as “unbodied forms.”
Handel took longer to complete this oratorio than others. He began composing it on January 21, 1751. He had to suspend work on it because his eyesight was failing. At the end of the final chorus of Act 2, “How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees” Handel wrote, in German, on the autograph score: “Reached here on 13 February 1751, unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.” He returned to it later in February and intermittently through the summer, completing it on August 30, 1751. The first performance was in London at Covent Garden on February 26, 1752, with Handel conducting. Two more performances were given that season and the oratorio was revived three times during the 1750s before Handel’s death.
©Teresa M. Neff, PhD, 2013
2012–2013 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.
(The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists; Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor)