Georg Friedrich Handel: Esther (1718/1720)

Masque in six scenes. Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes.

Megillah Project 2021!

This was the first Oratorio written in English, although it is based on the 1689 French play Esther by Jean Racine. Apparently Alexander Pope is one of the librettists. What a lovely way to celebrate Purim!

Esther Denouncing Haman (Boo!) Ernest Normand.

SETTING: Persia, circa 470 BCE. Esther (soprano) is the queen of King Ahasuerus (tenor) and cousin of Mordecai (tenor). Meanwhile the dreaded Haman (boo-bass) orders the systematic murder of all the Jewish people, not realizing that Esther is a girl with a secret!



0: The overture * is in three movements and rather ordinary for the time period, albeit seven minutes long. The first is tranquil, the second is more severe although never more than forlorn. The third is jovial.

8: Pluck root and branch from out the land The first number * ironically goes to Haman (boo!) as he plots out a pre-Holocaust upon the Jewish people, including the destruction of Israelite temples. No age nor sex will be spared (the chorus makes sure you know this!).


12: Tune your harps to cheerful strains Oddly the most famous solo number in the show goes to an unnamed tenor Israelite *** as he prays that idols be moulded into dust. It has a beguiling accompaniment: pizzicato strings and a wondering oboe solo. The chorus of Hebrews might be in bondage, but the scene consists of three joyful hymns to G-d.

17: Praise the Lord with cheerful noise The next number is a harp and string accompanied aria for a soprano Israelite woman **.

23: Sing songs of praise, bow down the knee Another tenor Israelite sings a more sobering (but dramatic) hymn ** with what (probably on accident) sounds rather a lot like the song of the Second Woman in Dido and Aeneas.


30, 32: Ye sons of Israel mourn/O Jordan, Jordan, sacred tide A sober chorus of Jews, certain that they will never return to Eretz Israel *** is framed by the comments of an alto Priest ** and an ode to the Jordan River. Watch out for the reprise of the chorus.


41: Dread not, righteous queen, the danger And now that you are probably wondering where the plot went (we have been in tableau mode for half an hour) we finally come upon Esther and Mordecai. He tells her not to fear her husband the King (as to come before him without invitation, even for the Queen, means death), but rather only G-d should be feared ***.

45: Tears assist me, pity moving Esther prays to G-d for strength **. A sweet number. The Israelites end the scene petitioning the Almighty for deliverance effectively.


51: Who calls my parting soul from death? Ahasuerus spares Esther and they embark on an unusual event: a duet *** with a striking string accompaniment.

54, 61: O beauteous queen, unclose those eyes!How can I stay when love invites? He asks her why she has come to him in a tender aria ***. Esther invites him and Haman (B00!) to dinner in recitative and he accepts in another lovely (this time more cheerful) aria ***.

65: Virtue, truth and innocence The Israelites pray that Esther will succeed and they will all be spared from death **. The Priest returns (to a bit of Hark the Harald Angels) and then a return of the chorus.


74: Turn not, O queen, thy face away The second of three arias for Haman (bOo!) as he tries to slither into the good graces of Esther * (it doesn’t work, but the accompaniment is rather good). Esther has already revealed everything to Ahasuerus in the previous recitative (somewhat anti-climatically?).

76: Flatt’ring tongue, no more I hear thee! Esther refuses to hear him ** and Ahasuerus has him arrested.

81: How art thou fall’n from thy height! The third (and best **) of the three Haman (boO!)arias as he realizes that his jealously and ambition has gotten him to no good.

86: The Lord our enemy has slain The finale *** is a chorale with chorus overlapping soloists (an alto, Esther and Mordecai, two basses) joyously singing of their deliverance and salvation in proto-Messiah fashion.


So the best features are the choral and tenor work (both Mordecai and the bacchanalic Ahasuerus). The orchestration is rather rich for the early 18th century. The plot moves slowly: the first four scenes are roughly half the total running time with the last two (where most of the story actually takes place) makes up the other half. After an orchestral prelude of proto-Wagnerian length the basic premise is introduced with Haman (BoO) ordering the extinction of Israel, but then we have half an hour of filler chorusing alternating with arioso. Most of it is lovely, but we do not even meet the title character until forty minutes into the work. The plot finally comes back for around thirty minutes and then we go back into choral dreamland again, and then the last scene consists of essentially a rinse and repeat of this. Nevertheless, this is a rather brilliant work and very much looking into. I have definitely been too harsh on 18th century music and this is probably an unusual entry from me given my tendency to review 19th and early 20th century works. Alpha plus.



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