This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Getting a Handel on Hanukkah*

Unlike the episodes from Jewish sacred history that were familiar to Christians because of their inclusion in the Bible, the Hanukkah story has left few traces in the artistic traditions of Western civilization.

A notable exception is G. F. Handel's oratorio "Judas Maccabeus," which celebrates the victories of the ancient Jewish loyalists against their pagan foes. That grand work continues to enjoy enormous popularity over the years, and one of its themes, "See the Conquering Hero Comes," has been adopted by Jews as a veritable Hanukkah melody; though, if the truth be told, it did not appear in the original version of "Judas Maccabeus," but was grafted subsequently from Handel's later oratorio about Joshua.

That Handel and his audience should be familiar with the exploits of Judah Maccabee need not surprise us, since the Books of Maccabees were included in the "Apocrypha," the additions to the ancient Greek Bible translations that were in use among ancient Egyptian Jews, but which were ultimately excluded from the official Hebrew canon. The Apocrypha were still in widespread circulation among Christians in Handel's time, as were the historical chronicles of Josephus Flavius, who provided a detailed history of the Maccabean uprising.

Nevertheless, it is not immediately apparent why crowds of gentile concert-goers should have been interested in an ancient Jewish struggle for religious liberty.

The answer to this question requires some knowledge of the events that were taking place in Britain at that time when Handel was composing "Judas Maccabeus."

Supporters of the deposed dynasty of King James had recently mounted their final and most serious attempt to regain the throne. Charles Edward Stewart, the "Young Pretender," had recently returned to Scotland from his French exile and had gathered around himself an army of Scottish highlanders, determined to recapture the throne from Handel's patron George II whose German-born father had brought him to England from the old country.

In 1745, "Bonnie Prince Charlie" began a victorious campaign from Scotland through to England, and his forces seemed unstoppable. For a while it appeared that London and the English heartland would fall to the Stewart forces. The tide was turned in April 1746, when the Duke of Cumberland routed the Jacobite armies in the ruthless massacre at Culloden Moor.

The bitter civil war called for inspiring patriotic music, an art in which Handel excelled. While he may have had little enthusiasm for the ancient Jewish successes over Antiochus Epiphanes, Handel saw in that exploit a fitting paradigm for England's recent deliverance from a grave threat.

The oratorio's tone of pompous nationalism would bring it enduring appeal in Germany, though under the Nazi regime, not surprisingly, its title character had to be camouflaged as "Wilhelm von Nassau."

For all its success, there are few critics who would rank the magisterial strains of Judas Maccabeus among Handel's finest works. In actuality, the composer himself openly shared that negative assessment.

He had recently introduced some changes to his method of financing his projects. Initially, Handel had sold subscriptions, which required the subscribers to commit themselves to several performances, a system that allowed him considerable independence in maintaining artistic standards.

Recently, however, the diminishing popularity of his operatic productions had impelled him to market his wares more directly. Now, if he was to be financially successful, he would have to cater more flagrantly to the lower esthetic standards of popular tastes, a fact that is very much in evidence in "Judas Maccabeus."

The hasty quality of this oratorio is evident from the German-born composer's bloopers, originating in misunderstandings of some of the more difficult English words in the libretto, which he could not be bothered to look up in the dictionary.

Although he did not compose "Judas Maccabeus" for a Jewish audience, nor with any thought of the Hanukkah festival, the oratorio achieved immediate popularity among England's small Jewish community, which totalled no more than seven thousand souls at that time. In spite of their small numbers, Handel recognized that Jewish patrons of the arts made up a substantial proportion of its audience. This phenomenon inspired Handel to compose a series of additional oratorios devoted to Jewish heroes, including Solomon, Joshua, Susana and Jephtha.

Thus, though Handel might originally have envisaged Judah Maccabee as a pageant of English patriotism, rather than as a source of Jewish national pride, in some ways "Judas Maccabeus" can justifiably be considered a work of Jewish art.

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, December 10 1998, p. 24.

  • Bibliography:
    • Dean, W. (1959). Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques. New York, Oxford University Press.
    • Hogwood, C. and A. Hicks (1984). Handel. London, Thames and Hudson.
    • Lipman, V. (1972). England. Jewish Art and Civilization. G. Wigoder. New York, Walker. 2: 7-51.
    • Young, P. M. (1949). The Oratorios of Handel. London, D. Dobson.