The Ooratorio Judas Maccabeus stands at a crossroads where the history of England and Handel’s personal history intersect. 1745 was a difficult year for Handel and England. Handel lost his popularity, aficionados of his operas did not like his oratorios, his many fans began to manifest a lack of interest in his works and so the number of listeners who came to his concerts decreased. His annual concert series has been reduced from 24 concerts to 16 only. An attempt to maintain the original number of shows would have ended in bankruptcy. Handel was quite depressed with the new situation. In the summer of that year Handel became ill and went out to the countryside to recover.
The drama that took place in the country at that time was several times more acute. The rulers of England of the early 18th century tried in every way to establish Anglican rule in the country. The culmination of processes was the “glorious revolution” following which Prince William of Orange was proclaimed King of England and James II the Catholic fled to France. Following the revolution, the king approved the “Declaration of Rights”, which explicitly stated that a Catholic would not be able to rule in England. The Catholic Scots led by the descendants of King James II tried to take over the kingdom. Their first attempt in 1715 failed. In the meantime, England and Scotland became a unified country, the United Kingdom, an action that ostensibly reduced the ability of the rebels. Despite this in 1745 Charles Edward, son of James II, landed at the head of a rebel army in the British Isles and succeeded in advancing within Scotland. The timing was excellent, King George II stayed in Germany, the English army was in Flanders and the rebels advanced into England. After the rebels did not enjoy the support of the inhabitants and their sources of supply dwindled, the English army under the command of the Duke of Cumberland arrived. In a fierce and brutal battle near Culloden in Scotland, the rebels were defeated and the status of the House of Hanover in Britain was guaranteed.
Concurrently, Handel was trying to recover from the mental crisis he was in. He began composing Judas Maccabeus but did not finish composing the work. He was busy preparing oratorios for a concert series in February 1746, preparations that included a recycling of excerpts from early works. It was only after the final victory at the Battle of Culloden that Handel became convinced that it was time for a victory oratorio. He returned to the score of Judas Maccabeus and continued to work on it during the spring and early summer months and in August the work was completed.
Handel opened the new concert season of 1747, while relinquishing the subscription system and tickets were sold on a free seat basis. Judas Maccabeus was first performed on April 1st, to great acclaim. Handel’s pocket was refilled with cash. After the third performance, Handel had a net profit of £ 250, after paying to all participants. In the next season he earned £ 800 from six performances. Handel’s victory was not measured in monetary terms alone, it had political and social consequences. Socially, this was the first time that the middle class could be present at concerts along with the upper classes of British society. Politically, the piece landed at the right time to unite all the political factions in England (apart from the relatively small number of supporters of the Jacobite rebels, who wanted to set James back on the throne), admirers of the Duke of Cumberland, the commander who brought victory and prided themselves in comparing him to Judas Maccabeus.
One last comment on “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes”. The oratorio opens with the death of Matthatias. The entry of his son, Simon, meant to encourage the people, is a turning point following which Judas Maccabeus is invited to stand at the head of the rebels. Later on the oratorio reports the battles of the Maccabees against Apollonius and Seron that end in the victory of the Greeks. Battles against Gorgias the messenger of Antiochus, specifically in Emmaus, the gathering in the Temple, thanksgiving to the Heavens and following the information regarding Judas’ victory at the battle of Emmaus, all establish the status of Judas. During thanksgiving prayers news is received that Rome, the rising force, secures protection for the people in Zion against future attacks. We now know the worth of those promises. The famous chorus “See the Conqu’ring Hero comes” was not included in the original version of the oratorio. It originally belonged the oratorio Joshua. When Handel saw the acclaim to which the chorus won from the audience, he moved it to the less popular oratorio and established it forever as part of Judas Maccabeus.
Author of the article: Yossi Schiffmann
Drawing: Gustave Doré