Handel’s use of biblical materials falls into two major categories: his liturgical compositions (anthems) and his oratorios. The use made of biblical materials in each of these categories of work will be examined in turn.

Anthems.

Handel’s liturgical compositions consist of 3 Latin psalms, the 11 Cannons (or “Chandos”) Anthems, and around 17 other English anthems for various ceremonial occasions.

Latin psalms.

Handel’s earliest biblical anthems are three Latin psalms that he set to music while in Rome in 1707: Dixit Dominus (Psalm 109 [English 110]), Laudate pueri Dominum (Ps 112 [English 113]), and Nisi Dominus (Psalm 126 [English 127]). The psalm settings use the text of the Vulgate and intersperse choral movements with solo movements for one or more voice types, with orchestral accompaniment. The settings are doubtless liturgical and may have been used in a ceremonial service of Vespers on 15 July preceding the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on 16 July, which celebrated the foundation of the Carmelite order. Indeed, there is evidence that all three of these psalms were prescribed in the liturgy for the Vespers. It would thus seem that the choice of text for these settings was determined by liturgical requirements.

Cannons Anthems.

The Cannons or Chandos Anthems, written in England a decade later, were produced during Handel’s period as composer-in-residence to James Brydges, Earl of Caernarvon and later Duke of Chandos, whose country residence was at Cannons in Middlesex. The 11 anthems, together with a Te Deum, were composed in 1717–1718 for performance in the nearby St. Lawrence’s Church, which at the time served as Brydges’s private chapel, and like the Latin psalm settings they employed both vocal and instrumental forces. The text for these compositions was in English, again from the Psalms, but using a mixture of the 1539 translation by Miles Coverdale that was employed in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and the metrical paraphrases of the Psalms published by Nahum Tate and Nicolas Brady in 1696. Unlike the Latin psalms, these anthems (with one exception) were supplemental rather than fundamental elements in the liturgy; Handel was therefore free to choose the texts himself, and he used a variety of techniques in selecting the texts. One of the anthems is the Jubilate (Ps 100), which also serves as one of the canticles in the Anglican liturgy, so it is not surprising that Handel set it in its entirety. For the other 10 anthems, however, Handel made selections of verses from the Psalms. In some cases he simply used a shortened version of a single psalm, but in others he used material from more than one psalm, beginning with what might be termed a “framework” psalm and supplementing a selection of verses from this psalm with verses from one or more other psalms, thus producing within the resultant composition a focus on one particular aspect or line of thought that was usually determined by or derived from the first verse of the framework psalm. The basic pattern of the musical setting is of alternating movements for solo voice and chorus, although there are many variations on that pattern. All of the anthems end with a choral movement.

Chapel Royal anthems.

Almost all of Handel’s remaining anthems rise from his connection with the English Chapel Royal, where the regular observance of Anglican forms of worship together with special services for royal and ceremonial occasions linked the monarchy firmly with Protestantism. In such a context the use of scriptural anthems, particularly those for the ceremonial occasions, would have strongly political overtones, providing religious legitimation for the royal family and its achievements in the military and diplomatic arenas. Two Chapel Royal anthems later reworked in the Cannons collection are “As pants the hart” (Ps 42), which appears to have been composed in 1712 as a routine anthem for the Chapel Royal, and the Utrecht Jubilate (Ps 100), which was part of a celebratory liturgy for the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. Several other anthems—“O sing unto the Lord a new song” (Ps 96; ?1714), another version of “As pants the hart” (?1722), “I will magnify thee” (Pss 145; 96; and 89; 1724), and “Let God arise” (Ps 68; 1726)—were probably composed for thanksgiving services celebrating the safe arrival in England of various members of the Hanoverian royal family. The four Coronation Anthems, written for the coronation of George II and Caroline of Ansbach in 1727 and following to some extent the precedents of anthem texts used at previous coronations, include Handel’s famous “Zadok the Priest,” which is based on 1 Kings 1:36–38. The other three coronation anthems use material from the Psalms—Psalms 89, 21, and 45, all psalms designated “royal psalms” by modern scholarship—with one verse from Isaiah (49:23). The seven subsequent anthems were also occasional ceremonial pieces. Six were for royal and/or national events: “This is the day,” for the wedding of Princess Anne and Prince Willem of Orange (1734), using Psalms 118 and 45, Sirach 26, and Proverbs 31; “Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth,” for the wedding of Frederick Prince of Wales and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (1736), using Psalms 68, 128, and 106; “The ways of Zion do mourn,” for the funeral of Queen Caroline (1737), using Lamentations 1 and 2, 2 Samuel 1, Job 29, Philemon 4, Psalms 112 and 103, Daniel 12, Sirach 44, and Wisdom 5; “Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth,” for the espousal of Princess Mary to Frederick, heir to the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel (1740), using a combination of material from the previous two royal wedding anthems; “The king shall rejoice,” for the victory at Dettingen (1743), using Psalms 21 and 20; and “How beautiful are the feet,” for the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (1749), using Isaiah 52, Psalms 96 and 29, and Revelation 5. The seventh, “Blessed are they that consider the poor,” was for the opening of the Foundling Hospital (1749), and in addition to material from Psalms 41 and 72, in this anthem Handel reused verses that he had used in other compositions, from Psalm 112, Daniel 12, Sirach 44, Wisdom 5, and Revelation 11 and 19.

Some of these complex compilations of verses go well beyond the Psalms, which were the usual choice for anthem texts, and in several cases (“This is the day,” “The ways of Zion do mourn,” the 1740 “Sing unto God,” and “Blessed are they that consider the poor”) also include verses from the Apocrypha, a part of the Bible that was not universally embraced despite elements of it being included in the BCP lectionary. Handel’s contribution to the choice of these texts is not always easy to determine. In some cases it is likely that others provided the texts for him to set; this is probably true for the 1734 wedding anthem and the 1737 funeral anthem. However, at other times he does seem to have chosen the texts himself, although his choices were not always without precedent. Thus, he was influenced by previous traditions or by other composers’ settings of similar texts, such as in the 1712 version of “As pants the hart” (see Burrows, 2005, pp. 57–59) or the 1727 Coronation Anthems; he also “remixed” elements from previous compositions to create new compilations of texts, as seen in the 1740 “wedding” anthem and the 1749 Foundling Hospital anthem.

Oratorios.

Alongside his liturgical compositions, which built on a well-established tradition of setting biblical texts to music for use in worship services, Handel produced a significant number of oratorios that were more or less closely based on biblical material. For the purposes of this section, the term “oratorio” is taken to refer to a large-scale choral work that deals with sacred subject matter. The oratorios written by Handel over the course of his life consist of one Italian Easter oratorio, one German Passion narrative, and 16 English Old Testament–based oratorios. The non-English oratorios will be considered first.

Non-English Easter oratorios.

During the earlier years of his career, Handel produced two oratorios focusing on aspects of the Christian Easter narrative: one in Italian (La Resurrezione, 1708) and one in German (the Brockes Passion, 1716). La Resurrezione (the libretto of which was written by the Italian poet and dramatist Carlo Sigismondo Capece) uses dramatic dialogic representation to depict the harrowing of hell on Easter Saturday followed by the resurrection on Easter Sunday, and the Brockes Passion (a setting of a libretto written in 1712 by the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes) portrays the events leading from the Last Supper through to the Crucifixion by means of dialogue interspersed with narration and meditative interludes. Although both of these works are ultimately dependent upon the Bible for their broad shape and subject matter, they use paraphrase rather than explicit quotation of the biblical text, together with imaginative characterization of the dramatis personae. They include a range of elements that are not present in the biblical text, such as the harrowing of hell that forms much of the first part of La Resurrezione and the interjected comments from Daughter Zion in the Brockes Passion.

English oratorios.

Handel’s most distinctive contribution to the oratorio genre is his English oratorios, which were the fruit of his later career (1732–1752), and emerged as a response to the cultural and political dynamics of the English context in which Handel had taken up permanent residence. These English-language compositions are fundamentally theatrical in conception and purpose and use the components of Italian opera seria to present dramatized Old Testament narratives by means of soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Like Handel’s earlier oratorios, the libretti for these English oratorios were produced by people other than the composer himself, and rather than quoting directly from the Bible they consist of biblical narratives that are reworked in a dramatic fashion.

Indeed, several of the oratorios are based on earlier dramatic treatments of the narratives in question, and thus only indirectly upon the biblical original; this is true of Esther (1718/1732), Athalia (1733), Samson (1743), Joseph and His Brethren (1744), and Jephtha (1752). Others supplement the biblical sources with additional nonbiblical material from antiquity; thus, Belshazzar (1745) uses Xenophon’s Cyropaideia and Herodotus’s Histories, in addition to the biblical books of Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezra, and Judas Maccabeus (1747) draws on material from the first-century C.E. Jewish writer Josephus alongside 1 and 2 Maccabeus. Even where the oratorios are supposedly more directly dependent on the biblical text, as are Deborah (1733), Saul (1738), Joshua (1748), Solomon (1749), and Susanna (1749), they show a good deal of freedom in inventing and rounding out characters, adding dialogue, altering plotlines, and generally reworking the biblical content. These reworkings reflect several aspects of the political, intellectual, and religious culture in which the oratorios were produced. One powerful influence on the oratorios, as Ruth Smith (1995) has convincingly shown, is the “British Israel” paradigm: in a development deriving from England’s decisive break with Roman Catholicism under Henry VIII and the establishment of Protestantism as the official English religion over against a largely Catholic Europe, Britons came to see themselves as modern-day Israelites, defending the true religion against the onslaught of idolatrous Canaanites who surrounded them. Thus, oratorios such as Deborah, Athalia, Judas Maccabeus, and Joshua, which depict the infidel being routed and the triumph of the faithful with the help of the Almighty, are an expression of British Protestant national identity. Judas Maccabeus and Joshua in particular are unquestionably political statements, written as they were to celebrate the victory of George II’s troops over the Jacobite rebels, who in 1745 sought to depose the Hanoverian monarchy in favor of the exiled Catholic prince Charles Edward Stuart. Other oratorios functioned as compliments to the Hanoverian royal family from whom Handel enjoyed much patronage, again no doubt intending to affirm the Hanoverians’ Protestantism as opposed to idolatrous Catholicism; Esther (1732) and Solomon, as well as Deborah, can be understood in these terms.

Not all were so overtly political, though; some reflect the influence of contemporary intellectual debates over the nature of belief and the credibility of the scriptures and offer apologetic presentations of their respective narratives. Such oratorios include Joseph and His Brethren, in which contemporary attacks on Joseph’s character and conduct as prime minister of Egypt are subtly rebutted, Belshazzar, in which the narrative demonstrates the fulfillment and therefore the reliability of prophecy, and Jephtha, in which an angel prevents Jephtha from sacrificing his daughter in fulfillment of his vow, on the grounds that Jephtha has misunderstood what God required of him.

Exceptions to the pattern.

Three English oratorios are an exception to this pattern of scripture usage. One is the Occasional Oratorio (1746), which is unique among the oratorios, in that it is not dramatic but combines paraphrases of scripture (mainly psalms) from John Milton with other nonscriptural poetic stanzas and selections from Exodus 15 to express a message of confidence for victory in battle. It was produced during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion in order to express the conviction that the rebels would be defeated because God was on the side of the establishment. The other two atypical oratorios—Israel in Egypt (1739) and Messiah (1742)—both consist of a selection of verses from scripture that are adapted and compiled into an overall scheme. Although they are not “sacred dramas” (the designation used on the libretti of the other oratorios), they do both have a sense of dramatic progression, although to different ends. Israel in Egypt narrates the story of how the Israelites are freed from slavery in Egypt, ending with Moses’s song of triumph from Exodus 15. Part 1 of the oratorio reuses the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline as a lament for the death of Joseph, and Parts 2 and 3 draw on Exodus 1, 2, 14, and 15 and Psalms 78, 105, and 106 to narrate the Exodus event itself. The oratorio can be understood as an expression of God delivering the righteous from the oppression of the infidel and therefore as part of the same political paradigm as the Occasional Oratorio.

Messiah, however, is somewhat different: it narrates the prophecy of and then the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and eschatological glorification of the Messiah, using texts from Isaiah, Haggai, Malachi, Matthew, Luke, Zechariah, John, Psalms, Lamentations, Hebrews, Romans, Revelation, Job, and 1 Corinthians. Geoffrey Cuming (1950) pointed out the close connection between the selection of texts in the Messiah libretto and those used in the BCP for the major festivals of the Christian liturgical year; this gives Messiah a quasi-liturgical, credal, or even catechetical flavor and locates it alongside oratorios such as Belshazzar and Jephtha within a context of domestic religious controversy. Amid eighteenth-century rationalistic and anti-supernaturalist currents of thought, Messiah affirms the traditional Anglican understanding of Christianity, showing how the Messiah is referred to throughout scripture and how what are regarded as messianic prophecies have been fulfilled in his person. It thereby vindicates the biblical record with its portrayal of an interventionist God and indicates that biblical claims about what is still to come should also be taken seriously. Other more sinister and controversial polemics have also been identified in Messiah: based, among other things, on the close correspondence between the passages in Messiah and those used by Richard Kidder, an eighteenth-century Christian anti-Jewish apologist. Michael Marissen (2007, 2011), and Tassilo Erhardt (2007) have recently argued that Messiah contains anti-Jewish elements, thereby defining Messiah’s apologetic function not just in relation to contemporary intellectual challenges to Christianity such as deism, atheism, or freethinking, but also in relation to the religious challenge of Judaism.

Librettists.

As remarked earlier, libretti for these oratorios were produced by individuals other than Handel. Handel is known to have worked with five librettists for his oratorios. The first, Samuel Humphreys (ca. 1697–1737), was a poet and translator who had provided translations of some of Handel’s Italian operas before producing libretti for Handel’s first three English oratorios: Esther (1732), for which he expanded an anonymous libretto already set by Handel and associated with John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Arbuthnot; Deborah (1733); and Athalia (1733). Humphreys also compiled a three-volume Bible commentary, which was published between 1735 and 1737. Handel’s second librettist, Charles Jennens (1700–1773), is perhaps the most interesting of the five. A landed gentleman and High Church Anglican, his refusal to take the oath of allegiance to the Hanoverian monarchy meant that he was excluded from political and ecclesiastical office. However, he threw his energies into cultural, intellectual, and theological pursuits, which included writing several oratorio libretti for Handel—Saul (1738), Messiah (1742), and Belshazzar (1745), and possibly also Israel in Egypt (1739). Judging from the surviving correspondence, Handel and Jennens appear to have had a rather tempestuous relationship: Jennens had firm ideas about the musical settings for his libretti, to which Handel was not always prepared to accede. Jennens’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Hanoverian monarchs meant that his cooperation with Handel on oratorios was brought to an end by the Jacobite rebellion, in which the exiled Stuart royal line was finally defeated. Nevertheless, the two men remained in some form of contact, and Handel made Jennens a bequest in his will.

Handel’s third librettist produced only one libretto: James Miller (1704–1744), a clergyman and playwright, crafted Joseph and His Brethren (1744), but unfortunately died two months after the oratorio’s premiere. Several of Miller’s plays were adaptations of European originals, so it is no surprise that his libretto for Joseph was adapted from an Italian libretto by Apostolo Zeno. Handel’s fourth librettist was Newburgh Hamilton (ca. 1692–1761), who was responsible for two libretti: Samson (1742), which was an adaptation of John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, and the Occasional Oratorio (1746), which again incorporated elements from Milton’s poetry. Hamilton had previously adapted John Dryden’s ode Alexander’s Feast into libretto form for Handel to set to music (1736).

Handel’s fifth known and final oratorio librettist was Thomas Morell (1703–1784), a clergyman and classical scholar, whose collaboration with Handel began with Judas Maccabeus (1747). Thereafter Morell produced libretti for Alexander Balus (1748), the nonbiblical oratorio Theodora (1750), and Jephtha (1752). He has sometimes also been credited with one or more of the anonymous libretti Joshua (1748), Solomon (1749), and Susanna (1749), although current scholarship generally rejects these attributions. Morell’s familiarity with biblical exegesis is particularly evident in Jephtha, where he alters the wording of Jephtha’s vow in accordance with a rabbinic understanding of its underlying Hebrew, so that the vow can be fulfilled by dedicating the girl to God for the rest of her life instead of sacrificing her.

Although there is little evidence for precisely how the collaboration between librettists and composer functioned, it is clear that Handel himself contributed to the final shape of the texts that were set to music. The most obvious indication of this is that the printed libretti of Samson and Belshazzar contain sections that Handel never set to music, because he thought the libretti were too long as they stood. So even though Handel did not actually write the libretti, it seems reasonable to assume his active partnership with the librettists in producing the oratorios. He did not simply set to music whatever was put in front of him but exercised his own judgment on its suitability and was not afraid to make emendations where he thought them appropriate.

Conclusion.

Handel made extensive use of the Bible in his compositions, but his most distinctive use of it was in his development of the genre of English oratorio. Other composers before and after him produced anthems, but the oratorios, with their mixture of religion and politics, were his unique contribution to the cultural and musical landscape. They need to be understood in the context of an age and a culture in which scripture was a long-established and significant element in national self-understanding, despite challenges to its validity from some quarters. The loss of that significance has contributed to a loss of appreciation for the dramatic oratorios, while ironically allowing the more directly scriptural Messiah to endure, though recovering an appreciation of the oratorios’ eighteenth-century context may well present a more distasteful view of Messiah at the same time as it illuminates the other oratorios.

[See also ORATORIO.]

Bibliography

  • Burrows, Donald J. “Handel’s Peace Anthem.” Musical Times 114 (1973): 1230–1232. Reconstructs the 1749 anthem for the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, which had been lost since Handel’s day.
  • Burrows, Donald. Handel and the English Chapel Royal. Oxford Studies in British Church Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. An in-depth study of the English Chapel Royal and Handel’s association with it, including the compositions he produced for it.
  • Burrows, Donald. Handel. 2d ed. The Master Musicians. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. A comprehensive and authoritative survey of Handel’s entire musical career.
  • Cox, Howard. “The Text Selection Process in Handel’s Chandos Anthems.” Bach 24, no. 1 (1993): 21–34. Discusses how Handel constructed the texts for the Chandos (Cannons) Anthems.
  • Cuming, Geoffrey. “The Text of ‘Messiah’.” Music & Letters 31, no. 3 (1950): 226–230. Highlights the connections between the Messiah text and the Anglican liturgy.
  • Erhardt, Tassilo. Händels Messiah: Text, Musik, Theologie. Bad Reichenhall, Germany: Comes Verlag, 2007. Argues that Messiah was designed to be anti-deist and anti-Jewish.
  • Hall, James S. “The Problem of Handel’s Latin Church Music.” Musical Times 100 (1959): 197–200. Proposes the Carmelite Vespers as the liturgical context for Handel’s Latin psalm settings.
  • Marissen, Michael. “Rejoicing against Judaism in Handel’s Messiah.” Journal of Musicology 24, no. 2 (2007): 167–194. Argues that parts of Messiah are consciously anti-Jewish.
  • Marissen, Michael, and John H. Roberts. “Communications.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64 (2011): 471–481. An exchange between Marissen and Roberts in which Marissen argues for and Roberts against anti-Judaism in Messiah.
  • Roberts, John H. “False Messiah.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 63 (2010): 45–97. Argues against Marissen’s claim of anti-Judaism in Messiah.
  • Rooke, Deborah W. Handel’s Israelite Oratorio Libretti: Sacred Drama and Biblical Exegesis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Discusses the use of biblical material in 10 English oratorios with particular reference to eighteenth-century ideas of biblical interpretation.
  • Rooke, Deborah W. “The King James Bible: Messianic Meditations.” In The King James Version at 400: Assessing Its Genius as Bible Translation and Its Literary Influence, edited by David G. Burke, John F. Kutsko, and Philip H. Towner, pp. 401–411. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013. Highlights deviations from the King James text in the libretto of Messiah and their significance for the oratorio’s meaning.
  • Shaw, Watkins, and Graham Dixon. “Handel’s Vesper Music.” Musical Times 126 (1985): 392–397. Considers additional manuscript evidence for the context in which Handel’s Latin psalms may have been performed.
  • Smith, Ruth. Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A seminal study of the intellectual context of Handel’s Israelite oratorios.

Deborah W. Rooke