Judas Maccabaeus

By Byron Adams

Seven years after Handel’s death, one of his Coronation Anthems—possibly Zadok the Priest—was performed by a massed chorus and orchestra at the rededication of the Grand Synagogue on Duke’s Place in London on August 29, 1766. The London Chronicle reported that this event was presided over by “the Chief and other eminent Rabbis belonging to the Portuguese Jewish nation” and prayers in English were offered for the Royal Family. One hundred and ten years earlier, Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, who evidently believed that the English were one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, formally readmitted Jews into Britain, ending a banishment that began in 1290 with King Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews. By the time that Handel settled in England in 1712, Jews were allowed to own property and Jewish brokers traded on the London Exchange. In 1738, the Jewish population of England numbered approximately 6000, many of whom lived in London. While antisemitism was undoubtedly woven into the fabric of eighteenth-century British life, steady if incremental progress was made toward greater legal and, to some extent, social acceptance.

Despite continuing prejudice against them, English Jews, notably the Sephardic financier Samson Gideon, evinced staunch loyalty to the Crown in 1745 by providing financial stability for both the British government and economy during the anxious weeks during which George II’s son, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, rallied the military response to a Jacobite revolt in Scotland led by the Stuart claimant to the British throne. At the start of the rebellion, Charles Edward Stuart, known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” and his army had won two battles. However, the Duke of Cumberland defeated the Scottish troops at the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746; the rout was so brutal that he won the sobriquet “Butcher of Culloden.” Capitalizing upon the mood of national deliverance, Handel composed his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus during the summer of 1746 and premiered it to ecstatic acclaim on April 1, 1747. The librettist, Rev. Thomas Morell, recalled, “the plan of ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ was designed as a compliment to the Duke of Cumberland.”

Morell based his libretto on the story of Yehuda HaMakkabbi, a Jewish military hero whose name was Anglicized as “Judas Maccabaeus,” over the pagan Seleucid Empire. (In fact, while the libretto of Judas Maccabaeus is predominantly by Morell, there are several textual interpolations by Samuel Humphreys, who had provided libretti for three of Handel’s earlier oratorios.) As chronicled in the Apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees, the Seleucids were defeated after a bloody and protracted war. In 164 BCE, Judas and his forces retook Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and rededicated the altar, events that are celebrated during the festival of Hanukkah and mentioned prominently in the oratorio. Morell and Handel created a work in three parts: after a solemn overture, the people of Israel bewail their plight, but Judas inspires them to resist. In the second part, Judas voices concern that Israelites will ascribe the initial victories to themselves rather than to God, but he rallies the people in the face of renewed danger.; The final part depicts the Israelites’ final victory and the rejoicing of the people when liberty and peace are restored.

Anglican audiences of 1747 were enthralled by Judas Maccabaeus for reasons beyond its moving and stirring music. They identified with the Israelites, as their own Protestant “true religion” had recently been menaced by “false gods,” in this instance by the ardent Catholicism of the Stuart pretender. Handel cannily abandoned the concert subscription system for Judas, instead offering walk-in admittance to Covent Garden for the public, including a contingent of enthusiastic Jews. While the exact number of Jewish attendees is unknown, they certainly came back repeatedly to the six 1747 performances of Judas.

Some recent musicological scholarship has claimed that Handel’s most popular oratorio, Messiah (1741), contains antisemitic musical and textual tropes, but these assertions have been convincingly refuted by John H. Roberts and others. One of the most thorough explorations of Handel’s relationship with Judaism is Alexander L. Ringer’s 1964 essay “Handel and the Jews.” Ringer, who founded the musicology department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explores the composer’s interaction with English Jews. He points out that Halle, the town in which Handel was born and attended school, was home to an offshoot of Lutheranism known as “Pietism.” In contrast to unbending Lutheran orthodoxy, Ringer observes that Pietists “pleaded for a Christianity of mercy,” and that “religious tolerance was inseparable from the spirit of Halle Pietism.” Ringer argues for a view of Handel’s essential tolerance based on the Pietism of his childhood and youth.

Ringer further notes that in “the wake of the success of ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ [Handel’s} business dealings with the Jewish merchants of London increased markedly.” Thomas Morell attested that Handel was well aware of the tastes of his Jewish audience. In a letter written a decade after the composer’s death, Morell quoted Handel’s ruefully witty remark after the 1750 failure of his oratorio Theodora: “The Jews will not come to it (as with Judas) because it is a Christian story; and the Ladies will not come, because it [is] a virtuous one.” (To recoup his fortunes after the disappointment of Theodora, Handel organized a successful performance of Judas Maccabaeus that incorporated “Artillery Kettle Drums” borrowed from the Ordinance Office of the Tower of London.)

Later in his essay, Ringer writes, “The role played by the Jews of London in securing ultimate victory [over Bonnie Prince Charlie] … was so outstanding and universally recognized that, possibly for the first time in modern history, a Jew was asked to join the delegation that presented the City’s congratulations after the cessation of hostilities.” Ringer continues, “The Jews themselves, it would seem, received ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ in precisely this spirit; for never before, indeed never again, did their attendance and enthusiastic support of a Handel work reach similar proportions.” Ringer asserts that the Jews of London “knew well what they owed him … his life’s work had opened up new opportunities for them, socially as well as politically … indeed, it was as subscribers to Handel’s concerts that they became active patrons of music in England.”

by Byron Adams, Emeritus Distinguished Professor, University of California, Riverside



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Judas Maccabaeus