Judas Maccabaeus - G F Handel (1685 - 1759)

The oratorio was written in 1746, five year after 'Messiah', when Handel was 61, and was first performed in London at the Covent Garden Theatre the following year. It owes its inception to the victory of William, Duke of Cumberland over Charles Edward Stuart the Pretender at the battle of Culloden on 16th April, 1746, and was planned as a compliment to the Duke upon his victorious return from Scotland.
The oratorio relates to the period 170-160BC when Judea was under occupation by the Seleucids (a dynasty of Hellenistic kings ruling throughout Asia Minor, Syria and Persia). In 167BC the new Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, set about the destruction of the Jewish religion, Worship of Zeus took place in the Temple, and observance of the Sabbath and adherence to Jewish laws was forbidden. Every settlement was ordered to worship Zeus and other foreign deities. While some Jews refused to abandon their faith, the threat of persecution meant that inevitably many obeyed the new laws. In the town of Modein, within 20 miles of Jerusalem, an old priest, Mattathias, became so any at seeing a Jew about to obey an order to offer pagan sacrifice, that he killed him, together with the official which had been sent to the town to ensure that the sacrifices were being carried out. Mattathias then had the pagan altar pulled down. This action led to the priest and his family taking to the hills where they gathered together others who were willing to fight for their faith.  
Handel's oratorio is in three parts and describes the changing moods of the people as the fortunes of the Jews vary, feeling sometimes dejected, sometimes jubilant.
Part 1 commences with the people mourning the death of Mattathias, their leader. However his son Simon tries to restore confidence by reminding them that thay are the people chosen by the great I AM. Following prayer their hopes are revived and Simon calls them to arms - "Arm,  arm ye brave". Simon's brother Judas Maccabaeus takes on the roll of leader, and inspires thoughts of liberty through victory - "Lead on, lead on!" - but victory through the power of Jehovah - "Hear us, O Lord".   
Part II commences on a victorious theme - "Fallen is the foe". The people are full of joy for their country - Hall, Judea, happy land", but Judas is conscious that it is easy for them to claim victory all for themselves - "How vain is man who boast in fight". News comes of defeat to the Seleucid commander Gorgias. Immediately the sounds of victory give way to wailing and dejection - "Ah! wretched Israel!" - but Simon again tries to restore their morale, and Judas takes up the battle cry - "Sound an alarm" , but Simon brings the peoples attention again to the power of their God. The polluted altars must be destroyed, the lure of false religions must be resisted - "We never will bow down".    
Part III commences with the cries of victory - "See, the conquering hero comes" and a hymn of praise to God. Just as Judas' fortunes were at their lowest point, a messenger announces that Rome, ever willing to discomfort the Seleucid empire, are willing to form an alliance with Judas - "Peace to my countrymen, peace and liberty". The people sing praise to God - "To our great God be all honour given", and are confident that peace at last will come to their country - "O lovely peace". The oratorio ends with the triumphant chorus "Hallelujah, Amen".

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