MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

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Religious Music in the Baroque II: Handel and the Oratorio
In these pages we are discussing religious music in the Baroque period.

Part I discussed J.S. Bach and the Cantata.

Here in Part II we'll turn to George Frideric Handel and a sort of hybrid of sacred music and popular entertainment called the oratorio.

Assignment #29 asks nine questions about both parts. Link will open in a separate tab.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759)

Most music people would tell you that there are two major composers of the Late Baroque, J. S. Bach and Handel. Because I am such a Bach-head I've shortchanged Handel a little in this class, but now is his time.

Handel is an interesting doppelgänger (or "evil twin") to Bach. He was born in the same year, in another German town fairly close to Bach's birthplace. However, the two men's careers are very, very different.

We know that J. S. Bach stayed close to home and lived a quiet life making religious music. Handel wanted to get out and be famous, however, and the way to do that was to become an opera impresario. As a teenager he was already making operas and moving in aristocratic circles in Hamburg, and by 21 he was in Rome, Italy.

Handel's Opera

Handel wrote 42 operas in his lifetime, and some of them are occasionally performed here in New York. (They aren't considered opera classics because, well, they are Baroque operas, so they are long and meandering and not that fun to watch.) It is more common to hear a few "greatest hits" arias presented out of context, like this one, which appears in Almira [1705] and Rinaldo [1711].

England and the Oratorio

In 1712 Handel settled permanently in England, and for this reason he's considered an honorary English composer. (Some would even rank him as the greatest English composer of all time, which is kind of ironic.) He continued to produce operas in Italian (which was considered the "correct" language) but he eventually realized that what the people really wanted were oratorios in English.

An oratorio is like a stripped-down opera with no characters, costumes, scenery, or acting. Instead, there is just a lot of singing! There is an orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists, and over the course of an hour or so they tell a story, usually a biblical one.

The Messiah [1741]

Let's start with something that you've definitely heard before:

This is the "Hallelujah" chorus from The Messiah, an oratorio that recounts the life of Jesus from birth to death and resurrection. This bit celebrates the idea that Jesus has become the true ruler of the world.

You may know that The Messiah remains a very popular work, especially around Christmas time, when it is considered a holiday staple like The Nutcracker. People pay to go to karaoke-like "sing-along" performances, where the audience brings their own sheet music and sings back at the stage.

Here is a short clip from a Messiah sing-along in Toronto:

Sacred Music or Pop Culture?

Oratorios were not meant to function as part of an actual church service, like a Palestrina Mass or a Bach Cantata. This was popular entertainment, a money-making venture that took the place of Handel's less profitable operas. As such, it is similar to the religious-themed entertainment that we sometimes see today, like the occasional religious movie that Hollywood still makes from time to time. (The last one that I can remember being noteworthy was Darren Aronofsky's Noah [2014], which grossed $362 million.)

Handel's oratorios became very popular indeed, earning performances that drew the largest musical audiences anyone had ever seen. He died a very wealthy and successful man.

(Since this is Baruch College, some of you might be interested to read an account of Handel's investing prowess. Basically, he played the market perfectly, investing early in the South Sea Company, which subsequently blew up, and he got out at the right time. Here's a more academic source on it.)

Israel in Egypt [1739]

Actually, The Messiah is not my favorite Handel oratorio, so I don't want to spend a lot of time on it. Instead, I am going to make a hipsterish substitution and talk about Isreal in Egypt.

This is a passage from the Hebrew Bible. The Isrealites are being held captive in Egypt. Moses says "Let my people go" and the Pharoah says no. According to the story, God afflicts Egypt with ten plagues.

Handel writes an aria or chorus for each plague, and he packs each one with lots of tone painting. You remember what this is - it's when the composer tries to depict something from the real world with his musical notes. Lets check out a few plagues.


Here the figure in the strings seems to depict frogs jumping around.

Track Links: Apple Music Naxos YouTube Spotify


For the plague of locusts (which the text refers to as "flies") Handel has two different things going on. The setting of the text "He spake the word..." is very loud and massive, to depict the voice of God. With "...and there came all manner of flies" the chorus sings high and small, and the strings buzz with a rapid line of sixteenth notes. It is very obvious what is going on.

Track Links: Apple Music Naxos YouTube Spotify


OK, this is the best one. Supposedly Egypt was cursed with pitch-black darkness for three whole days. What is this going to sound like? I like to make the class guess before we play it. If they get stuck, I ask some leading questions:

Is is going to be fast or slow?

Is is going to be loud or quiet?

It is going to be major or minor?

Do you have the answers? Let's play the movement and see if you are right.

Track Links: Apple Music Naxos YouTube Spotify

Overall, you can see how Handel is using the music to tell the story, and the result is sometimes very cinematic. This is an opera without any scenery or acting, so the music itself has to be entertaining. I think the "Darkness" movement is the sort of thing that transcends its specific moment in history and still sounds amazing today.

Assignment #29

Back to Part I: J. S. Bach and the Cantata

Assignment #29 asks nine questions about both parts. Link will open in a new tab.

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