George Frederick Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has the distinction of being the first work of classical music recorded (in June 1888), and apart from the iconic Messiah it’s the Anglo-German composer’s most popular work with public and critics alike. But when Israel in Egypt was first presented in 1739 the London audience gave it, if not quite the thumbs-down, a cool reception.
“I would suggest that this has to do with the audience still being hooked into the formula of Italian opera singers doing arias, and this is a very chorus-heavy piece,” says Matthew White, associate artistic director of Early Music Vancouver. “It’s one of the most important pieces for choir ever written.”
The brilliant oratorio’s lack of initial acclaim may also have been due to Handel’s political associations. Known to be friends with the famously corrupt, wily, and enduring British prime minister Robert Walpole, Handel was also closely linked to the Hanoverian monarchy of George II, so he certainly had enemies and detractors.
“The Ways of Zion Do Mourn”, the first of the three parts of Israel in Egypt, was originally the funeral anthem for George’s wife, Queen Caroline. For the second presentation of the work this opening was cut, but it’s usually included today. “Handel obviously thought the part pretty special. He was trying to find an opportunity to recycle it—which is something he did his whole life with great music,” says White. “It’s an extremely evocative part of a piece that’s mostly set for double choir. But this is set for single choir and it makes a nice start to bring everybody together.”
Israel in Egypt is the most ambitious undertaking to date for EMV. Under the direction of José Verstappen—whom White replaces on September 1—its summertime Vancouver Early Music Festival has become one of the premier events of its kind in North America. This year’s major concert features two choirs of 12 singers and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, playing period instruments. “We’re fortunate to have support from the Quebec Arts Council to bring in a large number of Montreal’s top string and wind players.”
Among the Quebec artists are PBO director Alexander Weimann and sopranos Suzie LeBlanc and Shannon Mercer, familiar names at the festival. From Europe come tenors Charles Daniels and former Vancouverite Colin Balzer, now living in Germany, and Robert Macdonald, low bass for the Tallis Scholars.
As with Messiah, the libretto for Israel in Egypt is a collection of excerpts from Scripture—in this case the Old Testament books of Exodus and Psalms. The texts quoted cover the freeing from slavery of the Israelites by Moses, the affliction of the Egyptians by a series of plagues and infestations, and the destruction of pharaoh’s pursuing army. The epic work contains wonderful passages of sonic word-colouring.
“There’s the string part of the first alto aria, ‘Their Land Brought Forth Frogs’, that sort of hops about,” says White, imitating the part. “Then you’ve got the chorus ‘He Spake the Word’, where ‘There came all manner of flies’ is followed by the fiddles playing 16th notes and sounding very much like flies. And the sharp chords Handel wrote for the chorus ‘He Smote All the First-Born of Egypt’. There are countless number of these little musical illustrations.”
One of the most dramatic and engaging moments of the performance is sure to be the duet “The Lord Is a Man of War”, sung by baritones Tyler Duncan and Sumner Thompson. “It becomes a sort of competition as to who can sing higher and who can sing louder,” White says. “There’s an element of theatricality that’s a big part of Handel’s writing—some of it isn’t overly cerebral and is meant to get you excited.”