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Gewalt—Bedrohung—Krieg: Georg Friedrich Händels Judas Maccabaeus, edited by Dominik Höink and Jürgen Heidrich.  Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2010.  242 pp.  €39.00.


This essay collection arises from events organized by an interdisciplinary “Cluster of Excellence” at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, marking the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death. It is ambitious, on three counts. It is—so far as I know—the first book-length volume to be genuinely devoted to a single Handel oratorio (rather than to the subject of a Handel oratorio, or a Handel oratorio and its forebears). It is entirely by German scholars, but it tackles the English oratorio by Handel that most closely, most intricately and most opaquely engages with British politics. And its subject is an oratorio that in musical circles notoriously represents the Third Reich’s attempts to “Aryanize” art.

Handel’s Judas Maccabeus (1746), based on a compression of Macc. 1:2–8 with elements from Macc. 2 and Josephus, was written (as the libretto’s dedication makes explicit) to celebrate the defeat of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745–46, the final armed attempt in Britain to remove the ruling Protestant Hanoverians and restore the exiled Catholic Stuart monarchy. The British—like other Protestant nations—were well accustomed to the analogy of themselves with the chosen people of the Old Testament, a repeated theme of Handel’s oratorios. In applying the history of the Jewish revolt against the Seleucids to factious Britain and its enemy France, the librettist of Judas Maccabeus, Thomas Morell, an eminent biblical and classical scholar, structured the oratorio on elaborate and neat parallels (see the article on the oratorio in the Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia, 2009).

The complexity of its back story, its precise but understated topical references, and the universality of its exhortations to integrity, courage, freedom, religious faith, religious observance, unity, and peace have made Judas Maccabeus vulnerable to misunderstanding and over-simplification, as is sadly obvious in the volume under review here.

None of the eight authors appears to have grasped the oratorio’s full meaning, although many of them cite the English scholarship which has made it available. Failure to recognize the work’s centrally placed emphasis, on self-reproach for collapse following the assumption of self-sufficiency, has enabled generations of performers and commentators seeking to annex the work for national self-glorification to ignore the equation, essential to Old Testament Israel and to the majority of eighteenth-century Britons, whereby safety and survival depend on correct religious faith and observance. The removal of Jewish, even religious, references and of all traces of humility from the many successive nineteenth- and twentieth-century German translations and arrangements, acknowledged by the contributing authors here, has left detrimental traces in modern German scholarship, to judge by the number of contributors who describe Judas Maccabeus as simply ‘the victory oratorio’ (most damagingly, Jürgen Heidrich).

Anyone who can read English and has ears to hear would do better to listen to a CD whose liner note includes Morell’s original libretto—not the libretto printed in this volume, a late variant used by Handel in 1758, when he was no longer making his own arrangements of his works, and taken from the 1866 edition by Friedrich Chrysander. None of the authors seems to be aware of the good and cheap Novello edition (1998) by Merlin Channon, which explains Handel’s progressive alterations, and cites Morell’s explanation for the story’s compression; this matters when the issue—as in several essays here—is the dramatic structure and sense of the text.

Much of the book is a cento of recent studies in English. Trying to come up with new interpretations leads some of the authors wilfully to ignore perfectly serviceable existing readings and strain credulity (Heidrich); or to reproduce the existing readings without referencing them in the very sources they dutifully footnote (Iris Flessenkämper does both); or to betray ignorance of current scholarship (Heidrich). The book illustrates the usual pitfall of interdisciplinary writing, scholars being understandably shaky on alien ground, which for these authors seems variously to include the original libretto, the creators’ biographies (Flessenkämper), the knowledge and expectations of Handel’s audience (Johannes Schnocks, comparing the source material and the libretto), and Handel’s compositional procedures (Heidrich’s groundless assertion that Judas Maccabeus was conceived as part of a series), not to mention faulty transcription of, or over-reliance on, others’ work (Gabriele Müller-Oberhäuser—a medievalist—on the libretto in the context of English literature). Of these four authors addressing the original libretto and its music, Flessenkämper will be the most useful to German readers, providing an impressively thorough and balanced summary of the history, ideologies and historiography of eighteenth-century Britain.

After the first 100 pages the book becomes more worthwhile, at least for the reader who is interested in the oratorio’s German reception, though the inclusion of Andrea Ammendola’s minute account of the reworkings by Fortunato Santini is explicable only as local piety: Santini’s fabulous library of musical MSS was acquired by Münster. (Anyone interested in its Handel material would gain more from H. J. Marx’s account in Handel Collections and their History, ed. T. Best, 1993.)

The progressively more upsetting narrative is traced by Dominik Höink for the nineteenth century in journal literature and by Sarah Grossert and Rebekka Sandmeier in arrangements to 1945. What emerges, though the point is almost buried in excessive yet frustratingly incomplete detail in Grossert’s and  Sandmeier’s chapter on arrangements 1772–1939, is that crude reductions of Judas Maccabeus to battle scenes and victory celebrations in the cause of German nationalist self-glorification have a long history. The reworkings increasingly display a sickening combination of delight in warfare for its own sake with hysterical claims of foreign victimization, both absent from the original. (Regrettably Grossert and Sandmeier muddy the water by comparing twentieth-century versions of the libretto not with Morell’s original but with earlier German versions.) Sandmeier’s chapter on the many performances of Judas Maccabeus in Germany 1933–45 shows the oratorio being both further corrupted by National Socialists into a vehicle for warmongering racial triumphalism and cherished by the Jüdische Kulturbünde, where it figured in their debates about the existence and identity of Jewish music. The fugitive nature of Kulturbünde history makes this probably the most original as well as the most distressing part of the book.

The notes are incomplete, the bibliography is skeletal, the index is of personal names only. The contributions originating in student dissertations needed much more pruning. But even a flawed performance can spark ideas, and Johannes Schnocks prompted one which merits mention in Shofar. He points to the frequent allusion, in the words and music, to the sounding of the trumpet (notably in the famous aria “Sound an alarm”). He doesn’t make the point himself, but it strikes me as very likely that the scholarly Morell was referring to the shofar.

Ruth Smith

English and Music Faculties

Cambridge University