Israel in Egypt, known as the oratorio of choruses, for Double Chorus.
Hola a todos. In video format, it’s hard to find a good performance of Händel’s Israel in Egypt, and there aren’t that many performances where everything is just right/polished especially from a choral perspective — since an oratorio is a symphonic choral work — but this performance below from Early Music Vancouver comes the closest to being ideal, even though it’s not quite a complete performance and they left out one of my favourite choruses (“The Lord Hath Given Strength Unto His People”). I watched other performances on U-toob and keep coming back to this one.
It also depends upon which version is being performed, either the 1739 or the 1756 version or a combination of the two, give or take this part or that part. There’s quite a bit of history about the piece:
Frankly speaking, Israel in Egypt (IiE) has been a mess of sorts following its first performance. It seems that the oratorio was not well-liked when it premiered in 1739, because those attending apparently didn’t like all of the choruses in the work. What? What’s wrong with people? Mi amigo/My friend said, “Oh so they preferred hearing screamers (he’s referring to the vocal soloists) who often mistake screaming for singing beautifully?” No one has said, but did this lack of interest and enthusiasm for the choruses in the oratorio have anything at all to do with the quality or caliber of the Chorus that performed the work for the premiere? Perhaps, but I don’t know what the state of the Choral Arts was at that time, since we don’t have any recordings from that period of music due to the obvious. Was the choral performance at that time as poor as your average podunk Church Choir? Did they have attention to detail? Were they concerned at all about perfect intonation and diction? And in the English-Anglican choral tradition, did the premiere feature a Choir of Men and Boys? Händel moved to London in 1712 which is 27 years before Israel in Egypt premiered. Nevertheless, after the first performance, Händel started changing IiE and began adding arias to it from other works to give the oratorio more solo material. IiE was originally in three parts. Then, when he revived the oratorio in 1756, he replaced the first part entirely — “The Lamentation of the Israelites” — which was mainly choral writing. Someone wrote that Händel’s audiences must have been desperately short of good taste if they couldn’t take Part I, which contained some of the composer’s very finest choral writing. Yes, there’s no accounting for good taste. Reminds me of today in the US and the decline of symphonic choral performances by major symphony orchestras. I’ll talk about that in a bit. But anyway, at that point of this revision, the oratorio became known by the second and third parts because of their thrilling-to-hear choruses. Oh so they liked those choruses? Maybe the public’s opinion of the choruses had changed by then. Part I at that point was mainly the “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline” that Händel had changed slightly, but the public didn’t have much interest in that. Part I was mainly replaced with an Overture which he took from his oratorio Solomon along with a chorus or two, such as the chorus “Your harps and cymbals sound” for Double Chorus from Solomon. I could keep going with more details, but I’ll cut to the bottom line these days: Those listeners who want to hear something close to the original IiE, say they listen to Part III first, then Parts I and II in that order. Today, it’s the abundance of choruses that carry the work if one has a superbly-prepared Chorus, which Early Music Vancouver most assuredly is. There is no definitive version of IiE today to my knowledge. Even as the composer, I don’t know that Händel could get away with all of that swapping and trading material from one oratorio to another today with the ludicrous copyright laws we have. Today, it depends upon who performs it as to what you’ll hear. The first parts of this performance by Early Music Vancouver I had not heard before. To get even more complicated, there’s also a version of IiE arranged by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy which begins with an Organ Prelude followed by a Trumpet Overture composed by Mendelssohn. Then things get more on track with the “original” Händel version with “Nun kam ein neuer König”/”Now Came a New King.” I don’t know why Felix decided to get involved in this mess but anyway, he did and came up with his own version.
Without confusing you any more, according to the late Christopher Hogwood (Founder of the Academy of Ancient Music), he said:
“…eventually it was Parts II and III of Israel in Egypt that survived (our present day Parts I and II, which begin so awkwardly with a recitative.” So, as for a “complete version” of IiE, I guess you’d have to have both versions at-the-ready. Messiah was his tenth oratorio and that premiered in 1742.
Regarding Christopher Hogwood’s death: He died in Cambridge, England in 2014, fourteen days after he turned 73. He had recently separated from his partner, Anthony Fabian, who is a film director. How sad that he and his partner were not together when Christopher died. I read two obituaries from the UK of his death. Neither were obituaries written by the family but rather article-style obituaries written about his life as a musician, which by the way, he started out as a continuo player for Neville Marriner’s Academy and Chorus of St Martin-in-the-Fields. One obituary in The Guardian unfortunately kept both Christopher and Anthony in the closet as that publication just couldn’t bring themselves to mention his gay partner. According to them, Christopher was survived only by his sisters and brothers. Of course if Christopher had been straight, we would have read about his wife that he recently separated from as one of the survivors. The anti-gay double standards especially in obituaries. Or did they think that their readers would have a problem with their mentioning that Christopher was gay? It’s always good to cater to people’s prejudices and bigotry isn’t it? [sarcasm] And doesn’t The Guardian pretend to be “liberal” or “progressive?” I think so. Yeah well, those words have little real meaning these days. The other publication, The Telegraph, didn’t come across an anti-gay as they mentioned that Christopher had recently separated from his partner, Anthony Fabian.
As a musician, one of many ways I agree with Christopher Hogwood was that he didn’t put conductors up on a pedestal as I think many people unfortunately do. I’m not sure why people do that — brainwashing? — since conductors don’t play a note in a performance, unless they’re conducting from a keyboard. Conductors deserve the same respect as all other musicians in the performance — including the Chorus which usually gets the least respect as I think they are seen and heard by many in the audience as no different than one’s podunk Church Choir; the average person’s musically non-trained ear wouldn’t know choral excellence if they heard it! — even though no comparison can be made between the average Church Choir and a highly-skilled and well-trained Symphony Chorus. But most people have no clue of what is involved in being a chorister in an Orchestra Chorus or the audition requirements. But conductors are no different than the rest of us. I’m well aware that the Classical Music Snots, those arm-chair critics — who ruin classical music for a lot of people — worship, genuflect to and glorify and love to pretentiously name-drop the name(s) of their favourite big-named conductors. When I was in Orchestra Choruses, I didn’t see the conductor any more special than the rest of us, and most of them don’t act like they are either. They act like very humble and modest people. I’m of the opinion that conductors are over-rated, the same thing violinist Nigel Kennedy says. Christopher Hogwood recognised that his musicians often brought deep levels of understanding and experience to the Orchestra and he took the role of conductor more of that of a moderator, rather than an omnipotent authority creature at the podium. “I’m for democracy to the point of anarchy,” he once said. He felt that the idea of an autocratic conductor — I don’t like the term “maestro” as to me it sounds pretentious when, again, all of us trained musicians are equal on the performance stage — dictating performance practice to professional musicians was absolute nonsense to him. Other musical ensembles (including many not specialising in early repertoire) began to adopt a similar approach, which is good to hear.
As for Early Music Vancouver, these are all superb musicians consisting of the Festival Chorus and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra. I’m not usually into vocal soloists due to their overuse and reliance on vibrato, but my favourite soloist in this performance is the countertenor who did a splendid job with his part. He has an impressive well-blended vocal range. And, in this performance the soloists come from the Double Chorus which is one of the things I’ve repeatedly stressed should be the case and have requested with symphonic choral performances, not that they’ve read anything that I’ve written about that. With some of the soloists in this performance, they used their “solo voice” when soloists and their choral/chorister voice (no noticeable vibrato) when in the Chorus which sings with a straight-tone giving them perfect intonation. The conductor in this performance is interesting to watch and he conducts from the harpsichord, which I don’t think was mic’d.
Someone usually asks if I ever performed the work I’m writing about so I’ll talk about that: I always wanted to perform Israel in Egypt, but I never had the opportunity during my years with Orchestra Choruses. But I had the vocal score at-the-ready (Editions Novello) and was prepared to perform it whenever it was announced as part of the repertoire for the next choral season when I was a chorister in Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington or Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus or the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Margaret Hillis and Vance George, Chorus Directors). This has been one of my favourite choral works for decades mainly because of all the choruses in the work.
Thinking back on it now, I didn’t get to perform several of the symphonic choral works I really wanted to do, such as Mendelssohn’s Elias/Elijah. Well, we performed that at the Conservatory where I trained and I served as rehearsal piano accompanist for that, but I wanted to perform it with a major Orchestra Chorus in the Kennedy Center or in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall. But that didn’t happen, and that’s the way that goes sometimes. I also didn’t have the opportunity to perform another favourite which I was also prepared for, Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton. A chorister can be waiting around for years waiting for one of their favourite choral works to come along again in the repertoire and finally be selected by the Chorus Director or orchestral management. Or, one will hear from other choristers, “We just did that a couple of seasons ago.” Translation: So we won’t be doing it again soon (for maybe 5-10 years). With the exception of course being the — what has become — ubiquitous and perfunctory performances of Händel’s Messiah as well as Beethoven’s Ninth. The latter ends every season at the Tanglewood Music Festival.
As for other symphonic choral works I always wanted to do, we performed Beethoven’s Ninth when I was a chorister with the Choral Arts Society of Washington and also the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. I believe the Orchestra for the Kennedy Center performance was the National Symphony Orchestra if my memory serves correctly. I would love to have sung the Ninth with the University of Maryland Chorus — they owned that piece — it was their signature piece so much so that The Maryland Chorus, as they were also known, was invited to perform the Beethoven over 38 times over the decades with the Kennedy Center’s resident Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, and touring national and international orchestras during their legacy. I don’t know that any other Orchestra Chorus can say that about that piece. Here’s one of their reviews of their performance, you might be interested in reading:
National Symphony Orchestra and the University of Maryland Chorus
“…an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was presented to an overflow audience Saturday night at Wolf Trap. This excellence, however, was a last-minute development, and primary credit goes not to the National Symphony, which was the orchestra for the occasion, but to the University of Maryland Chorus, which came to the orchestra’s rescue. The Chorus—one of the best—celebrated its 20th anniversary and its 36th Beethoven Ninth by singing the final movement as well as I have ever heard it sung, live or on records.”
Source: The Washington Post Classical Music Reviewer: Joseph McLellan
Yes, the superb University of Maryland Chorus always “stole the show” when I heard them perform Beethoven’s Ninth on a couple occasions. They brought chills up and down my spine and tears to my eyes — they were amazing — when of heard their absolute choral excellence, once at Wolf Trap (a choreographed version with the Maurice Béjart Ballet) and in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Unfortunately, the Ninth was not part of our repertoire the season I sang with The Maryland Chorus. Wouldn’t you know it!
Maryland Händel Festival (MHF), 1981 – 2001
Official Chorus: University of Maryland Chorus
Official Orchestra: Smithsonian Chamber Players
After I left the District of Columbia and moved to San Francisco, about eight years later the University of Maryland Chorus and Smithsonian Chamber Players performed Israel in Egypt at the University of Maryland as part of the annual Maryland Händel Festival (MHF) which was founded and led by Dr Paul Traver, one of the finest choral clinicians around in his day. Dr Traver founded the Maryland Händel Festival in 1981 and the Festival ended in May of 2001 with the University of Maryland Chorus’s performance of Jephtha. As I’ve written before, Dr Traver was one of two Chorus Directors who left the most lasting impression on me. A wonderful musician and human being. I will always fondly remember him. He was so down-to-Earth despite all of his accomplishments, especially with The Maryland Chorus (as they were also known).
With the MHF, which was at the College Park campus (the same campus as with the University of Maryland Chorus), Dr Traver’s goal — which he accomplished — was to perform all of the Händel oratorios in the order in which they were composed and as Händel first presented them. One of the goals of the MHF was “to focus attention on the unjustly neglected musical masterpieces.” Händel composed 27 oratorios (that includes revisions to a couple of them), so the boy was busy composing you could say. Well, there were no phones in Händel’s day for him to become addicted to or distracted by, fortunately. So he got something worthwhile accomplished in his life, as opposed to wasting his life endlessly texting on a phone as most people do today. How many people of his caliber are there these days? (Silence.)
That’s one of my complaints about that warhorse Messiah being dragged out every holiday season on cue at the neglect of other so many beautiful symphonic choral works. Can we please give this oratorio a rest? No, I’m afraid not. That’s not going to happen because the sheeple need their traditional fix of Messiah per tradition and I suspect that’s the main reason it continues to be dragged out every holiday season during Advent. It’s rarely performed during the Twelve Days of Navidad/Christmas (25 December through 5 January). It predictably brings in dinero/money whereas other symphonic choral works would not most likely. And by the way, the oratorio is called Messiah, not The Messiah. That mistake has been made now for decades by some people who don’t know any better, including some recording companies and a few music publishers. I won’t name names. But no, there’s no “The” in the title as you can see on this vocal score: Here is a picture of the Editions Novello authentic performance edition vocal score used by respected Orchestra Choruses. Give it time to load, por favor/please.
The last I heard and I think it’s now more true than it was, especially here in the US, we’re down to only three symphonic choral works that the public-sheeple will support: The perfunctory Händel’s Messiah in December, Beethoven’s Ninth and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. That’s it. Oratorios and other symphonic choral works? They’re now relegated to history and dusty archival library shelves. Retired, in basic language. Instead, the public’s addiction-interest and distraction today is all about: “Where’s my phone?” screamed in panic-stricken mode and on the verge of having a stroke. “Why did you forget to charge my phone?! It’s my entire life. Without my phone, I’m nothing; I can’t live or exist.” Yes, that’s about the extent of it. Pathetic really. Yes, these days one’s dopamine-inducing phone is like the adult pacifier, isn’t it? It’s a person’s entire life. Their only friend in the world in some cases. That addiction is right up there with their other addictions: coffee and cigarettes, and often they have all three addictions going at the same time with two hands. One wonders if evolution will lead to humans growing a third arm/hand? But hopefully these lobotomised phone zombies with no life of their own are considerate enough of others to turn that phone off before a performance of Händel’s Israel in Egypt. Although they weren’t performing IiE, I read that conductor Gustavo Dudamel stopped a performance of the Los Ángeles Philharmonic because someone’s phone addiction was disturbing their performance. Using my search engine, I found that other conductors have stopped performances due to people’s phone addiction disturbing the performance. What pathetic people that cannot be without that phone. Culo. They need to see psychological help for their addiction, but of course they won’t because most refuse to admit they have an addiction in the first place. It’s called Denial. Then those who do admit they have the addiction, find it funny and just laugh it off. They don’t possess the maturity to realise it’s a serious addiction.
Mi amigo/My friend watched this performance by Early Music Vancouver with me and he was fascinated with parts of the text, such as in the chorus, “He Spake The Word” — and as I told him: there is no US “r” sound in the word “Word”; in other words all the text should be pronounced in British/Queen’s English — with “flies and lice” where one can hear the flies buzzing around in the music texture played by the first violin section when the Chorus sings that text each time. He also liked the “fire mingled with the hail” and “the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” He was fascinated by a horse and his rider being thrown into the sea. This is some wild stuff we’re talking about here! Well, there’s a lot of wild stuff and violence in that bible.
This is not at all a criticism, but I might have added a couple more sopranos to each Chorus so that they had more than 3 sopranos for each Chorus. That’s a bit thin for a soprano section although their soprano section performed admirably. From watching them, they had 3 choristers in most sections. And a countertenor in each of the alto sections.
As you’ll see the Chorus is split because this is an oratorio for Double Chorus where one Chorus often answers the other. Listen for that. The cameras also often show the viewer which Chorus is singing at the moment and then flips over to the other Chorus.
I wanted to hear other performances by the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and the Festival Chorus, but unfortunately, the last time I checked according to their U-toob channel they haven’t performed anything together since, at least that they’ve uploaded to U-toob. That’s a shame. Such highly talented and superb musicians It’s almost as if this performance were a one-time thing for this Chorus. Most, if not all, of the choristers are professional singers and by that I mean they come from artist management companies. I didn’t take the time to check each one but of the names I checked from their credits at the end of the video, they list an artist management site as their contact information, such as one of the superb tenors Jacques-Olivier Chartier. He has a lovely soloist voice too. I suspect this was a one-time thing because — I’ll take a guess — all the chorister musicians and orchestral musicians were paid, and that can be very expensive when one is dealing with artist management and their fees. Chau.—el barrio rosa
Here’s their performance: