Handel “Israel in Egypt”, part 1

This is a 2 part short write up about the fantastically free event offered today at MIT. The colloquium, which I just attended, is discussed here. I’ll write about the 2nd part after the free concert tonight by the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus. As listed in the calendar, the program for the colloquium includes:

Colloquium on George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt (oratorio).
Moderated by Ellen T. Harris, Class of 1949 Professor of Music,
the pre-concert conversation will explore themes of liberation from authoritarianism and slavery in the story of Exodus.
Panelists: Peter Temin, Professor of Economics: The Biblical and Historical Exodus;
Sandy Alexandre, Associate Professor of Literature: The Exodus story in modern America and the Civil Rights movement;
Ellen Harris: The context of Handel?s Israel in Egypt;
Harry Christophers, Artistic Director, Handel and Haydn

This for me is a very nice event that offers an overview of Handel’s work “Israel in Egypt” as well as some background history from different perspectives.

The first speaker, Prof Peter Temin, gave a short slide show asking the main question: Is the exodus a historical event? or was it just a biblical story? These are some of the key points in his short talk (you could view it as an extended summary, using almost 90% his words, not mine):
1) From the biblical point of view, it’s a story to unite people.
2) From the historical point of view, there was not really one big event of Jewish population movement out of Egypt
3) There are many issues in regard to The Exodus referred to in the book of genesis. First, there was the timing issue: when exactly did it take place? During the Bronze Age or the Iron Age? Those who support the exodus can point to the evidences of (a) a climatic event in the 13th century (during Bronze Age) when the Nile river dried up and created red algae (red “blood” in the 1st plague), (b) algae led to frogs (2nd plague), (c) dead frogs led to insect infestation which led to lice and flies (3rd and 4th plagues), (d) eventual diseased livestocks and boils as results of lice and flies (5th and 6th plagues). (e) Then there was a volcanic eruption which led to rain which could lead to hail (7th plague), (f) the high humidity in Egypt combined with hail could lead to locusts (8th plague), and (g) the ash caused darkness and in combination with humidity and others caused fungus growth in wheat supply (9th and 10th plagues). (Did you know about these plagues already? this was my first time ever learning about this, quite fascinating 🙂 ).
4) For (3) to happen, you need a lot of if-might have been-could have, etc. So, The Exodus is unlikely an actual event, but rather a great creation story to highlight the values of endurance and offer hopes for the oppressed people. We should see it as great literature, although the historical debate will continue.

That was pretty fascinating, as i said again! didn’t realize there’s such a story in the bible.

The second speaker, Sandy Alexandre, offered an example of “exodus”: the exodus of ~7millions African Americans out of the rural south to the north and midwest between 1916-1970. Her talk highlights “exodus” as a common theme in society, with the oppressed migrating in mass away from oppression and tyrany. In this case, the blacks were escaping lynching, poverty, discrimination in the south in hope to arrive in a promise land with better job, freedom to vote, education for their children. We sat through Jacob Lawrence “The Great Migration Series” paintings (the version which he narrated in a book for children) . A wonderful series indeed, depicting the continuous “and the migrant kept coming” theme, highlighting that even though the promise land was not exactly paradise, the exodus continued. Prof. Alexandre drew our attention to how the “stick” depicts masterless exodus where every man/woman is a his/her own master (unlike the Israeli’s exodus where Moses, with his way of holding the staff, commanded the entire people).

on left: Jacob Lawrence' painting. on right: Charles Heston's Moses

And that, some how, led us to Händel!
So, what did Händel or Britain have to do with Israel or Egypt? I was wondering about this myself as i heard about the various plagues. Prof Ellen Harris walked us through Händel’s artistic situation, something to do with coronation anthem for queen Caroline and what he wanted to do with the piece. First, he tried to put it in some celebration and the idea was shot down, then he had several more attempts before putting it in as part one of “Israel in Egypt”. The composition of the piece took place around the year 1736 when an Englishman was captured at sea by the Spanish, had his ear cut off, and came back to report the tyranny to the British parliament. This infuriated the British and gave them another justificiation to go to war with Spain. But their conflict with Spain had been going on for a while already, with the main issue lies in the fact that the Spanish instead of British had control of the sea. In the end, Britain did declare war on Spain and won the control of the sea. This of course is reflected in “Rule Britannia”:

Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves.”

in which “slaves” is referred to (the fear of) being slave to the Spaniards.

“Israel in Egypt” has three parts: the coronation anthem, the plagues and exodus, and Moses song. After the first few performances, the first part was removed for some reason. As a result, for a long time, the piece was thought to only have two parts. This puzzled many people greatly because the 2nd part begins with a recitative mentioning the death of Joseph (who’s Joseph?? and why doesn’t the piece start with a chorus like most of Handel’s work??) . A musician (i will get his name at some point) even proposed a 1.5 min organ introduction before the recitative, claiming that if Handel were still alive he would agree fully to it (update: at this point, we got to hear the fantastic organ in Kresge auditorium. I had always thought it was just for decoration, absssolutely greeeeat sound, amazing). It was much later that the first part was put back in, so we will tonight hear the work in full.

Lastly, there was some reference to Johann Pachelbel’s “Christ lag in Todesbanden” in Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”. I didn’t know the piece before, but it sounded so beautiful during the talk, i’m including it here as a glimpse to what hopefully to come in the concert.

here’s part 2.
ciao for now from the Kresge Oval.