Sunday, August 01, 2004

David His Ten Thousands Slew

I can very enthusiastically recommend the recent recording of Handel's oratorio Saul, conducted by Paul McCreesh. Indeed, if you aren't familiar with Handel's work apart from "Messiah," this is the place to start; there's hardly a weak number in the piece, which starts just after David kills Goliath, and focuses on King Saul's pathological jealousy of David, which leads to his destruction when he drives David away (making him unavailable to help him fight the Philistines). Musical highlights include the third-act scene with Saul, the Witch of Endor and the ghost of Samuel, and the closing funeral scene for Saul and Jonathan.

Like most of Handel's oratorios (but unlike "Messiah"), "Saul" is a dramatic work that happens to be performed in concert rather than staged; it's written like an opera, and indeed is more dramatic than most of Handel's actual operas. That's largely due to the contributions of Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens, an interesting guy for whom I can't seem to find a webpage; he was an independently wealthy man who passed his time pursuing an interest in Shakespeare (he edited somewhat eccentric editions of five Shakespeare plays), politics, and music. He provided Handel with the librettos of "Saul" and "Belshazzar," and also compiled/arranged the libretto of "Messiah."

To follow up on my previous post about librettos, Jennens' libretto for Saul is a great example of operatic libretto writing, even though it's not technically for an opera. In adapting the Biblical story, Jennens picks the elements that lend themselves to the creation of drama in music. So whereas the librettos for Handel's Italian operas left all the drama to the recitatives and used the arias for generalized commentary on the situation (I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm vengeful), the arias in "Saul" actually move the drama forward and give the composer the opportunity to show characters thinking and acting, not just reacting. Here's the way Jennens adapts the key moment of the story, when the people's praise of David sets off Saul's jealousy:

Welcome, welcome, mighty king!
Welcome all who conquest bring!
Welcome David, warlike boy,
Author of our present joy!
Saul, who hast thy thousands slain,
Welcome to thy friends again!
David his ten thousands slew,
Ten thousand praises are his due!

23. Accompagnato

What do I hear? Am I then sunk so low,
To have this upstart boy preferr'd before me?

David his ten thousands slew,
Ten thousand praises are his due!

25. Accompagnato

To him ten thousands, and to me but thousands!
What can they give him more, except the kingdom?

26. Aria

With rage I shall burst his praises to hear!
Oh, how I both hate the stripling, and fear!
What mortal a rival in glory can bear?


That's hardly great verse, but it is superb libretto writing -- concise, clear, setting out character and situation in a few broad strokes, and with cues for dramatic effects in the music. There are opportunities like this throughout the libretto, and Handel responded with one of his very best scores. I don't know whether "Saul" has ever been staged -- some of Handel's other oratorios have been, with some success -- but if a director could solve the problem of what to do with the chorus (which, this being still an oratorio, comments on the action rather than really participating in it), it might work.

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