George Frideric Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”

Saturday March 11, 2017
George Frideric Handel's

Fleeing oppression has been a recurring tragedy consistent with the human experience—throughout history and today. It seems particularly appropriate to perform a work based upon the plight of some of the earliest refugees whose story is told in the Old Testament.

Inspired by the powerful story of Handel’s dramatic ‘Israel in Egypt’, and its deep relevance to the refugee crises around the world today, Musica Sacra is pleased to announce that we will donate a portion of our ticket (10%) and merchandise (50% through March 11) sales to the International Institute of New England. The IINE is an organization whose mission is to invest in the future of our cities and towns by preparing refugees and immigrants for participation in the social, economic and political richness of American life through active citizenship.

Join us, our distinguished orchestra, and these acclaimed soloists: Doug Dodson, countertenor; Jonas Budris, tenor; Barbara Allen Hill, soprano; Ulysses Thomas, bass-baritone; Ian Pomerantz, bass-baritone; and Janet Ross, soprano.

This performance was staged in Cambridge, MA, at the First Church Congregational, on March 11, 2017, and again in Gloucester, MA, at the Gloucester Meetinghouse, on March 18, 2017.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

In today’s world, when so many people flee oppression, persecution, dire poverty, and the devastations of war in hopes of a better life, it seems particularly appropriate to perform a work based upon the plight of some of the earliest refugees. We know of these refugees because their sufferings and escape from the book named Exodus, a germinal part of the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Torah.

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The Israelites’ Exodus, from the Greek word for ‘going out,’ provided George Frideric Handel with material for his consummately dramatic oratorio Israel in Egypt. The sensational nature of that story—the trials set upon the Egyptians by God, the escape of the Israelites through the parting of the Red Sea, the drowning of the pursuing Egyptians, and the resulting occasion for exultation and praise—begs for musical amplification, and Handel delivers it in spades. The first half, with a separate movement for the description and effect of all of the plagues save two, provided Handel with supreme material to show his artistic chops. The entire second half of the work, consisting of hymns and paeans to God for His deliverance of the Israelites from bondage, allowed him many opportunities to compose anthems of praise. Because Handel chose to use the choral texture for most of his musical depictions, this oratorio is a choral-music-lover’s dream; among its thirty-five sections only eleven are arias, duets, or recitatives.

Israel in Egypt has taken many different forms in its 250-year existence. Originally, as he did with Messiah, Handel wrote it in three sections. He had completed a funeral anthem on the death of Queen Caroline in 1737 and, wanting it to reach a broader audience, incorporated it into a large-scale work by changing the text into a long lamentation on the death of Joseph, the beloved son of Jacob, whose sale into slavery by his jealous older brothers brought about the subsequent bondage of the Israelites in Egypt. With this as the first part of the oratorio, Handel next composed part three, Moses’ Song, and the second part, Exodus, last. Unfortunately for him, the oratorio thus presented in 1739 with those three parts had a tepid reception. For the rest of his life, Handel revised and edited Israel in Egypt in the unfulfilled hope that he would see it successfully received. We present the version based on his second performance, in which he omitted the first part to begin the oratorio with Exodus. This change creates a relentless driving force that carries the work from first chorus to last. How ironic that the two movements composed to give a home to the piece he wanted to have heard more widely have become the form of the oratorio most widely performed today!

Israel in Egypt bears many similarities to the Messiah. Charles Jennens provided the librettos to both. The libretto, rather than being loosely based upon the Biblical story, is relayed through paraphrases and direct quotes from Biblical verses. Each of the two oratorios tells the story central to its respective Biblical testament; Israel in Egypt recounts that of the Hebrew Bible: the story of the Exodus, or the Jews’ departure from Egypt. In another similarity, unlike Handel’s other oratorios, or unstaged operas, Israel in Egypt and the Messiah, written four years later, have no specific dramatic roles for soloists. There is no Moses or Pharaoh, no Jesus or Mary. Rather, choral movements provide the dramatic impetus to the story. Choral movements abound in each, but particularly in Israel in Egypt; Exodus has only two short recitatives and one aria.

There are musical similarities between the two works as well. One of the ways in which Handel, like Bach, could compose so prolifically was by borrowing and adapting music from prior compositions. Musical bits of Israel in Egypt show up later in the Messiah; there is a harmonic sequence limned by the chorus within And with the blast of Thy nostrils that Handel quotes literally in his Hallelujah Chorus. In addition, he unabashedly borrows the thematic material from the opening of The People Shall Hear for Messiah’s Surely he hath borne our griefs.

I find Israel in Egypt more rewarding to listen to than the Messiah because of the drama inherent to the tale. Handel’s musical settings bring out the emotions inspired by the events related in Exodus and Moses’ Song; they even allude to some that at first consideration are not evident. As Handel interprets it, it becomes a psychological dissection of the story as well as a recounting. All in all, it’s a thrilling ride.


Tenor Recitative: (Elijah Blaisdell, tenor)

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph; and he set over Israel taskmasters to afflict them with burdens, and they made them serve with rigor. (Exodus 1: 8, 11, 13)

This straightforward recitative, with text from the beginning of Exodus, sets the stage for the action to begin. As you may know from reading the end of Genesis in the Bible, the early years of the Jews’ exile in Egypt were good ones, since Joseph helped the Pharaoh avoid the tribulations of his people by correctly interpreting his dreams. The fact that this movement opens with a recitative rather than an orchestral prelude, as happens in most of his other oratorios, reflects the fact that Exodus originally followed a first part, rather than being it.

Alto Solo and Double Chorus (Doug Dodson, countertenor)

And the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and their cry came unto God. They oppressed them with burdens, and made them serve with rigor; and their cry came up unto God. (Exodus 2: 23; Exodus. 1: 13)

Handel interrupts the opening solo’s reiteration of the word “sighed” with “sighing” chords in the orchestra later quoted by the chorus. The opening statement, lugubriously slow and in the key of C minor, conveys the depressed state of the Israelites, and the word “sighed” lasts a full beat of a dotted half note, conveying a mood of dejection. The faster countersubject in contrast illustrates their rigorous labor during their servitude. Handel juxtaposes it with the sighing chords, but this time their length is shortened, thereby changing the mood to one of anguish.

Tenor Recitative: (Elijah Blaisdell, tenor)

Then sent He Moses, His servant, and Aaron whom He had chosen; these shewed His signs among them, and wonders in the land of Ham. He turned their waters into blood. (Psalm cv: 26, 27, 29)

The text, from Psalm 105, retells the beginning of Exodus and brings the narrative to the beginning of the plagues.


They loathed to drink of the river. He turned their waters into blood. (Exodus 7: 18; Psalm cv: 29)

The opening fugal subject is extremely unusual for its time. Downward leaps by the interval of a seventh are interspersed with upward leaps of octaves and sinuous minor seconds and thirds. Through the large ungainly leaps resulting in non-consonant and therefore ugly intervals Handel creates a lurching line that depicts not only the unsteady footing caused by nausea but also a situation that would induce nausea. The countersubject, a melisma, a long melodic phrase on one syllable, for the first syllable of waters, weaves up and down by stepwise motion to depict the waves of the appalling rivers of blood.

Alto Aria (Doug Dodson, countertenor)

Their land brought forth frogs, yea, even in their king’s chambers. (Psalm cv: 30)

He gave their cattle over to the pestilence; blotches and blains broke forth on man and beast. (Exodus 11: 9, 10)

The figures of arpeggiated dotted eighths followed by sixteenths in the violins represent the leaping of the frogs.

Double Chorus

He spake the word, and there came all manner of flies and lice in all their quarters. He spake; and the locusts came without number, and devoured the fruits of the ground. (Psalm cv: 31, 34, 35)

What wonderfully descriptive music Handel writes for this text! The movement opens with the men in unison intoning “He spake the word” in solemn quarter notes on a single note, thereby embodying the voice of God. They are answered by the women’s voices singing “and there came all manner of flies” in short busy notes accompanied by extremely fast stepwise rising and falling thirds in the violins; the busy rhythms in the treble register create a musical representation of the buzzing of the flies. Handel then repeats “he spake the word,” and this time the women sing “and there came lice in all their quarters.” With this repetition of “He spake the word,” Handel alludes to the multiple acts of creation in Genesis; this time, however, the acts are not constructive, but destructive. After a third statement of the men followed by the women conjoining their prior statements, the texture shifts from one call and response, that of a static bass line and busy treble line, to another one of two equal choirs of mixed voices. At the end of the movement, Handel halts the momentum thus built up with the choirs’ truncating the opening line to “He spake;” this calls attention to the final visitation to the Egyptians by the devouring locusts.

Double Chorus

He gave them hailstones for rain; fire mingled with the hail ran along upon the ground. (Psalm cv: 3; Exodus 9: 23, 24)

The drama in this piece begins in the calm orchestral preamble: repeated long chords over fourteen measures on a single C major chord become increasingly frenetic by means of the rising tessitura of the chords and quicker note values. Finally, upon reaching a high register, the violins play descending scales to make a musical depiction of the descent of the hail. I’m reminded of a house fire I once witnessed. At first it was very benign: just a mattress smoking in an alley. Within an hour, however, firemen were on top of the building trying vainly to slow the devastation by hacking holes in the roof.


He sent a thick darkness over the land, even darkness which might be felt. (Exodus 10: 21)

Handel equates darkness with silence in his setting of this text, and he intrudes upon the silence with his music as little as possible. Two compositional devices accomplish this, one of them being homophonic chords, in which vocal parts intone the text as one, in a low register, which keep the texture as simple as possible. The other device appears later in the movement; Handel breaks up the text and its vocal line into short phrases uttered by one vocal part at a time, as though they hesitate to interrupt the silence.


He smote all the first-born of Egypt, the chief of all their strength. (Psalm cv: 36, 37)

Handel does not shrink from the brutality of this act within his music. The violins form chords that slash the silence at every other beat, driving home the unrelenting harshness of the murder of all of Egypt’s first born and the violence perpetrated upon them. The use of stretto, a compositional device of overlapping the fugal subject among the parts, towards the end of the movement underscores the harshness, as does the swapping of roles of the orchestra and chorus with which the movement begins.


But as for His people, He led them forth like sheep: He brought them out with silver and gold; there was not one feeble person among their tribes. (Psalm lxxviii: 53; Psalm cv: 37)

The contrast of this movement with the prior one is stunning; Handel replaces the d minor tonality with D major and the duple meter with a triple meter. The major key, triple meter, and musical motifs identify the movement as a pastorale; a musical form associated with shepherds and embracing their characteristics of rustic simplicity. Handel includes a purely instrumental pastorale in his Messiah as the introduction to the section in which Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. The pastorale here, inspired perhaps by the line “he led them forth like sheep,” suggests the departure of the Israelites from their urban captivity into the wild. The music’s simple lightheartedness embodies their glad relief at escaping both their bondage and the disasters visited on the Egyptians to gain their emancipation. Additional characteristics of this movement identifying it as a pastorale include the parallel thirds in the themes of the instruments; the use of a drone, or long note, in the bass; and the echoed repetition of short phrases. These conventions have a long history in Western European music, having been developed in Italy for use in services for Christmas in the mid-17th century.


Egypt was glad when they departed, for the fear of them fell upon them.

Clearly Handel has compassion for the Egyptians as well as the Israelites, as manifested by the minor tonality and the fugal subject in the longer note values of the stile antico. These devices interpret the Egyptians’ gladness as relief that their travails at the hand of the Israelite god are at an end. The dotted figures on the phrase “for the fear of them fell upon them” renders a musical trembling to represent the body’s physical response to fear.

Double Chorus

He rebuked the Red Sea, and it was dried up. (Psalm cvi: 9)

Handel divides the sentence He rebuked the Red Sea and it was dried up into two parts, both sung homophonically by eight-voice choir. He sets the first phrase in a forte dynamic and a high vocal tessitura so that the sound is overwhelming. The next phrase is sung in a low vocal tessitura at a piano dynamic. This contrast has two effects. The first phrase represents a wall of water and the second phrase represents its drying up. In addition, the first phrase sounds more like the voice of God in his command, while the setting of the second phrase suggests the awe among the Israelites that such an impossible thing could happen.


He led them through the deep as through a wilderness. (Psalm cvi: 9)

As with so many of his fugal movements in this oratorio, Handel provides both a subject in longer note values and a countersubject in faster note values. The subject line of quarter notes rises by stepwise motion only to fall a seventh on the word “deep.” It then resumes its stepwise rise from where it landed until it frisks on eighth notes to accompany the words “as through a wilderness.” Handel not only illustrates the word “deep” with the fall of the seventh, but he also creates a faltering in the line that suggests a losing of the way. The continuing scalar rise then conveys a second try and the faster eighth notes provide a fanfare in celebration of having traveled safely through the waters.


But the waters overwhelmed their enemies, there was not one of them left. (Psalm cvi: 11)

Handel portrays a feral exultation among the Israelites as they witness the unbelievable and horrific fate of the Egyptians. He achieves this effect of frenzied exuberance by breaking up the text, so that “not one” is constantly reiterated like a cry of wild victory, reminiscent of an underdog sports team’s reaction in prevailing against an undefeated rival. At the same time, this fragmentation conveys their ferocious glee, creating the breathlessness that intense incredulity at unexpected good fortune induces.

Double Chorus

And Israel saw that great work that the Lord did upon the Egyptians; and the people feared the Lord,


…and believed the Lord and His servant Moses. (Exodus xiv: 31)

These two movements together call to mind a verse anthem of Purcell: a form comprised of a short homophonic introduction followed by a section of imitative counterpoint. I find it very interesting that Handel ends the Exodus with this somber movement. Its sobriety, a result of a c minor tonality and slow note values, has many implications. It creates a prayerful atmosphere; it also refers to the emotional and physical exhaustion of the Israelites after their ordeal, much like Jacob’s exhaustion after wrestling with the angel. Most surprising, however, rather than emphasizing the Israelites’ salvation at the hand of their god, Handel in his music conveys their realization that a god able to wield such deadly power over their enemies is indeed a god to be feared.

Moses’ Song

Double Chorus

Moses and the children of Israel sung this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying:

Double Chorus

I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea. (Exodus xv: 1)

The brief movement opening Moses’ Song sets the stage for one of the most thrilling fugues ever penned by Handel or any composer. As with so many of his fugal movements in this oratorio, Handel has a subject that is grand and sweeping and a countersubject that is fast and, in this case, ebullient, as befits the text: “he hath triumphed gloriously.” The elongated line setting the text “I will sing unto the Lord” consummately embodies a hymn to God, especially at the end of the movement, when Handel combines stretto with another fugal compositional device known as augmentation, in which a voice part, in this case the bass, declaims the subject in longer note values.

Duet (soprano 1 & 2) (Barbara Allen Hill and Janet Ross, sopranos)

The Lord is my strength and my song; He is become my salvation. (Exodus xv: 2)

This lovely, if nonspecific, duet praises God. Handel worried that a dearth of arias and duets for soloists caused this oratorio to be poorly received; every revision he made tinkered with the number and placement of the solos.

Double Chorus

He is my god, and I will prepare Him an habitation; my father’s God

Double Chorus

And I will exalt Him. (Exodus xv: 2)

Handel repeats the verse anthem format of homophonic introduction followed by contrapuntal texture. He fosters a sense of exultation by developing the musical material more extensively than he does in some of his earlier movements and also by the snappy dotted rhythm in the second iteration of I will exalt him, which implies jubilation.

Duet (bass 1 & 2 ) (Ulysses Thomas and Ian Pomerantz)

The Lord is a man of war: Lord is His name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath He cast into the sea; his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea. (Exodus xv: 3, 4)

This movement represents the only aria calling for a bass soloist, and Handel writes it for not one, but two. Whatever financial constraints Handel may have been under, he apparently did not want to sacrifice the effect of consummately virile strength that this scoring would convey. In addition, his downward scalar melismas marvelously illustrate the casting of the Egyptians into the sea. This is a text that could have ended Exodus in a choral setting, thereby creating a very different mood.


The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone. (Exodus xv: 5)

The music in this movement expresses a wonderful serenity, achieved through slowly moving harmonies and a slow tempo. The falling line of the melody represents the distance from those at the surface of the water who relay the scene and those at the bottom. It brings to my mind an image of the Israelites looking down through calm waters at the Egyptians peacefully at rest—a rest which the Israelites have escaped for the moment, but which in their awe they sense will ultimately welcome them and all of us after the turbulence of life.


Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power; Thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy. (Exodus xv: 6)

Double Chorus

And in the greatness of Thine excellency Thou hast overthrown them that rose up against Thee.

Double Chorus

Thou sentest forth Thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble. (Exodus xv: 7)

Handel creates the celebratory nature that dominates the first part of this three-part section by using a C major tonality, a high tessitura of the vocal parts, a brisk tempo, and exuberant thematic material. In the second part, just eight measures long, the chorus declaims the text in the relative minor of a. There is a wonderful dissonance on the word greatness that calls attention to it and makes it musically great. This second section acts as a closure to the first part and an introduction to the third part, a fugue written in the key of a minor with the tempo alla breve (half note receiving the beat). In Handel’s original score, the trombone parts are appended at the end of the manuscript. We don’t know whether he planned to include them all along or added them later for additional color, but their entrance coinciding with the entrance of the second chorus masterfully embodies the wrath of God in the orchestral timbre. This three-part section is the sort of ending to Exodus I would have expected, interpreting the wrath of God as unequivocally good for the Israelites.

Double Chorus

And with the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea. (Exodus xv: 8)

Once again, Handel writes inspired music to depict the Israelites’ recap of the events whereby they escaped across the Red Sea. The stepwise ascent through an octave ended by the drop of a fourth or fifth making up the first theme represent respectively the inhale and exhale, the inhale interrupted briefly by a melisma of 16th notes to both depict and set the word “blast.” The next theme, set to “the waters were gathered together,” starts with a melodic undulation suggesting water and the repetition of one note to represent the water gathering together. The third phrase, “the floods stood upright as an heap,” has two settings. In the first one the line rises to express the waters rising. The second expression reiterates the same tone in relatively slow quarter notes; one sees the water standing up, row upon row, as sheaves of wheat. The final phrase, “the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea,” also has a unison intonation, this time low in the bass range, the lowest register in the choral sound. Handel then resets the same text to a line of falling thirds, which stop on the word “congealed”: a musical cascade whose unison ending represents the congealing.

Tenor Aria (Elijah Blaisdell, tenor)

The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them. (Exodus xv: 9)

Another wonderfully descriptive aria. The fast tempo and declamative singing, where each syllable gets only one note, and the reiterations of each short clause portray the singer as breathless from both physical exertion and frustration.

Soprano Aria (Barbara Allen Hill, soprano)

Thou didst blow with the wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus xv: 10)

The accompaniment to this aria by wind instruments as well as their long flowing lines do a wonderful job of musically depicting the wind’s blowing. The soprano’s imitation of these long flowing lines is interrupted by large descending intervals setting “they sank.”

Double Chorus

Who is like unto Thee, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? Thou stretchest out Thy right hand:

Double Chorus

…the earth swallowed them. (Exodus xv: 11, 12)

Handel once again makes use of the form of the verse anthem, with a homophonic introduction followed by a fugue. This time the introduction ends with elongated note values: a stretching of the tempo to allude to the stretching out of God’s right hand.

Duet (alto and tenor) (Doug Dodson, countertenor, and Elijah Blaisdell, tenor)

Thou in Thy mercy hast led forth Thy people which Thou hast redeemed, Thou hast guided them in Thy strength unto Thy holy habitation. (Exodus xv: 13)

Handel uses two musical ideas in this duet. The first theme, a descent of a fifth in a minor tonality by stepwise motion in slurred eighth-note groupings of two, is a musical manifestation of mercy. The second theme starts with stepwise motion of a rising sixth in quarter notes, suggesting God’s sure guidance of the Israelites.


The people shall hear, and be afraid, sorrow shall take hold on them, all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away, by the greatness of Thy arm they shall be as still as a stone; till Thy people pass over, O Lord, which Thou hast purchased. (Exodus xv: 14, 15, 16)

Handel composes this movement as though it were three movements, each with its own theme and character. The dotted rhythms of the orchestral accompaniment and largely homophonic texture of the opening section convey the power of God, which inspires fear. The melting away of the inhabitants of Canaan is depicted in the second section with a melisma of a falling third on the word “melt.” In the final section the hitherto minor tonality gives way to the major: a musical metaphor of the sun breaking through after the storm to represent the ease of the Israelites’ inhabiting the land of Canaan. I would draw your attention to the fact that Handel once again makes use of a strong dissonance to set the word “greatness.”

Alto Aria (Doug Dodson, countertenor)

Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which Thou hast made for Thee to dwell in, in the sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established. (Exodus xv: 17)

The promise of the Israelites’ safe arrival in the promised land is assured in this beautifully placid aria.

Double Chorus

The Lord shall reign for ever and ever. (Exodus xv: 18)

Tenor Recitative (Elijah Blaisdell, tenor)

For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the Lord brought again the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea. (Exodus xv: 19)

Double Chorus

The Lord shall reign for ever and ever. (Exodus xv: 18)

Tenor Recitative (William Hudson, tenor)

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: (Exodus xv: 20, 21)

Soprano Solo and Double Chorus (Melanie Germond, soprano)

Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea. (Exodus xv: 21)

Handel, having associated the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea with their safe arrival in Canaan in the prior movements, uses the recitatives to return to the events of the Israelites’ escape. Each recitative is heralded and answered by jubilant homophony setting “the Lord shall reign for ever and ever.” The third time we hear it, Handel has it answer Miriam’s supplication to sing to the Lord, for “the horse and his chariot hath He thrown into the sea.” From there Handel artfully segues back into the fugue with which he opened Moses’ Song, providing a musical symmetry to Moses’ Song, as well as a grand ending.

© 2017 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.