Handel invented the English oratorio, more or less by accident. He wrote Esther for the Duke of Chandos, most likely in 1720. It was probably staged as a masque. In 1732 Bernard Gates, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, obtained a copy, and staged performances in private music clubs. Someone got hold of a further copy and in April 1732 a public performance of the work was advertised. Copyright protection was non-existent, so Handel received nothing from these pirated performances. He decided the best way to earn something out of the work, and to blast the pirates out of the water, was to turn it into a spectacular. He expanded it, enlarged the orchestra, and incorporated the Coronation Anthems, music from the Queen Anne Birthday Ode and movements from his Italian works. He imported his star Italian singers, and rewrote the music for their voices. A contemporary commented that Senesino and Bertolli “made such rare work with the English tongue you would have sworn it had been Welsh”. He probably intended it to be staged, but the Bishop of London forbade that. It was a huge success.
Samuel Humphreys rewrote the original libretto, based on Jean Racine’s play. Handel turned to Humphreys the following year for Deborah, presented as “an Oratorio, or Sacred Drama, in English” at the King’s Theatre on March 17th 1733. In the same year, Handel received a commission to write a work for the Publick Act in Oxford. He requested Humphreys for another libretto on a Biblical subject. Humphreys adapted Racine’s play Athalie. Handel completed the oratorio on June 7th 1733. It received its premiere at the Sheldonian Theatre on July 10th.
Listen to this 1986 recording of Athalia, conducted by Christopher Hogwood and starring Dame Joan Sutherland while you read...
In Esther and Deborah, Handel was feeling his way, but in Athalia, he brought his experience of opera and of choral writing together to produce a towering work. Handel produced his finest dramatic music when he could respond to a character. For Queen Athalia he wrote music which elevates her into a great tragic character. Other characters are sharply drawn, and Handel’s treatment of the chorus as integral to the drama is masterly.
When the oratorio begins, Athalia has been on the throne for some years. According to the libretto, Athalia had murdered all possible claimants to the throne, but had missed one, Joas (Jehoash), raised under the name Eliakim as their son by Joad (Jehoiada), high priest of Yahweh, and Josabeth (Jehosheba). The oratorio opens with Joad lamenting Athalia’s blasphemy. All pray for deliverance from her. At the palace, the Queen has a dream in which a young boy dressed as a Jewish priest plunges a dagger into her heart. Mathan, the high priest of Baal, previously a priest of Yahweh, says it was only a dream but suggests she should have the temple searched. Abner, Captain of the Guards, goes to the temple to warn, just as Joad and Josabeth are preparing to reveal that Eliakim is Joas, the rightful King. Josabeth despairs at Abner’s news, but Joad tells her to trust in God.
In Act Two, the Jewish people offer praise to God. Athalia enters. She sees in Eliakim the child who stabbed her in her dream. She offers to adopt him, but he refuses to be associated with an idolator. Athalia vows that she will have the child. Josabeth is downcast, but Joad urges her to trust God.
In Act Three, Joad prophesies Athalia’s downfall. He and Josabeth tell Eliakim that he is Joas, the rightful King, and crown him. Athalia orders the treason to be punished. However, her forces have deserted her. Athalia goes to her death defiantly, declaring that she will seek vengeance from the grave. All praise the rightful King and the true God.
It is useful to know the backstory to understand the action of the oratorio. Athalia is generally considered to be the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, king and queen of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jezebel was Phoenician. Her marriage with Ahab was probably to cement relations between their countries. As a Phoenician she was a follower of Baal, and brought her religion with her. She persuaded Ahab to erect altars to Baal, and eventually to follow her religion. This led to conflict with followers of Yahweh, culminating in Elijah’s revolt.
Ahab’s son Ahaziah succeeded him. When he died without an heir, his brother Jehoram succeeded him. Their sister, Athalia, brought up as a Baalite, had a political marriage, to Jehoram of the southern kingdom of Judah, who had secured his succession by murdering his six brothers. On his death, his son by Athalia, Ahaziah, became king. Following the Battle of Ramoth-Gilead, King Jehoram of Israel, attended King Ahaziah of Judah, went to Jezreel to recover from wounds. While there they were killed by Jehu, who seized the throne of Israel, murdered Jezebel and the royal princes, then hunted down and murdered the relatives of Ahaziah. As Queen Mother, Athalia was the most powerful woman in the land. On Ahaziah’s death, she became queen, the only female monarch mentioned in the Bible.
History is written by the winners. There is an alternative reading to Athalia’s story, as a political conflict between followers of Baal and those of Yahweh. Elijah led a revolt which saw the priests of Baal killed, yet a generation later, the religious divide endured. Jehu usurped the throne of Israel, ostensibly in the name of Yahweh, by murdering King Jehoram and Jehoram’s mother, Jezebel. He also murdered Ahaziah, King of Judah. The Bible records his murder of the royal princes of Israel and the “brothers of Ahaziah”. Athalia would have been the grandmother of direct descendants and have a vested interest in ensuring her line was continued. The survival of the rightful heir, brought up incognito by the High Priest of Yahweh, seems to be rather convenient. However, he was a figurehead behind whom the followers of Yahweh could stage a coup d’état.
The music in Athalia was too good to waste. In 1734, Handel wrote two works, Parnasso in Festa, a Festa teatrale or Serenata, and the wedding anthem. This is the day that the Lord hath made, to celebrate the marriage of his pupil Anne, Princess Royal, to Prince William of Orange. He recycled much of the music of Athalia into these works. The Serenata enjoyed great success and Handel revived it in several seasons. He was not to write another English oratorio for five years, when he produced one of the finest of all his compositions, Saul.
Written by Peter Jones