G.F. Handel’s Oratorio Israel in Egypt

It’s hard to imagine a grander retelling of the Passover story than G.F. Handel’s Oratorio Israel in Egypt, first performed April 4 1739. Assuming that this date is given according to the Julian calendar then in use in England, the opening was about a week before Passover. The oratorio was not as popular as some of Handel’s other works, and underwent a certain amount of change; the original version started a little earlier in the story.

As it is almost always performed today, the libretto is nearly entirely passages from Exodus and from Psalms 105-106, with the first part drawing from Exodus and Psalms, focusing on the Ten Plagues, and the second part a setting of Ex. 15 1-21, the “Song of the Sea” chanted by Moses and the Israelites at the shores of the Yam Suf, usually translated “Red Sea,” and by Miriam with the Israelite women, singing and dancing.

In 1982, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra recorded a performance on the shore of the Red Sea. Of course, the location was not in the West of the Sinai Peninsula, close to the Nile Valley and the seat of the Pharoahs: the performance was not at the Gulf of Suez, the arm of the Red Sea leading to the Suez Canal, and not in the marshland in the north-west part of Sinai, along the Mediterranean, sometimes identified as the likely model for the Biblical Yam Suf.  Rather, it was in the Eastern part of Sinai, overlooking an island with a castle built by Saladin, called Iy ha-Almogim “Coral Island” in Hebrew, but Jazirat Far’un“Pharoah’s Island” in Arabic. 

The performance was conducted by noted Scottish conductor John Currie (Currie came to Los Angeles in 1985 to succeed Roger Wagner as director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale). Singers from from the Scottish National  Chorus and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus came to sing the Oratorio; the video prepared by the Israel Broadcasting Company accompanies the overture with images of the singers arriving—and then swimming in the Red Sea near Coral Island.

The scenery is spectacular; the video pans Saladin’s castle and its island, the mountains and desert in the area, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan across the Sea, less than six miles away. It’s possible that some of the long shots to the Southeast reach the Saudi Border, about six miles further south.  The cameras caught the ferry going back and forth to the Island, and a beduin camel caravan moving south along the shore.

And the singing is stunning as well.

There are several versions of this recording available on line. As far as I can tell, all the versions with Hebrew subtitles are about 45 minutes long—meaning that the recording was edited presumably for Israel Television—but all the versions with English titles are about an hour and a quarter or so. The Oratorio was sung in English, but the biblical verses flashed on the screen help! According to the information about the VHS recording, the actual published recording of the performance is about 90 minutes—I have not been able to peruse the VHS for this note.

I tried to find out whether the full oratorio was one that had been frequently sung in Hebrew, especially in the days of the Mandate and early State, when quite a few Biblical oratorios were translated into Hebrew and performed. (Fordhaus Ben-Tzisi was a major proponent of these Oratorios). In this case, there is very little translation to do—almost all the text is just the Biblical verses. I also looked into whether the Palestine Philharmonic (Predecessor of the Israel Philharmonic) included it in its concert program in Cairo—the PPO was able to travel to Cairo in those days and performed in Cairo and Alexandria in January 1937 shortly after its debut performance in December 1936. It was not on the program. (Programs: http://www2u.biglobe.ne.jp/~toshome/main/maestro/PS/MT-PSO.html, a site dedicated to the conductor of the Orchestra’s first performances, Arturo Toscanini).

I cannot find whether anyone mounted a  performance of the work overlooking the Red Sea, at Suez or along the Suez Canal, or anywhere else along the Red Sea. The answer was not readily available. Readers: if you happen to have any information, please do not hesitate to write me!

The full roster of soloists, producers etc. for the 1982 performance is included in http://www.worldcat.org/title/israel-in-egypt/oclc/26280289 – this is the OCLC-World-Cat record, set up in such a way that you do not need library access to read it, although you probably would need library access to order the VHS copy on ILL. The World Cat version of this note mentions the involvement of Yehuda Fikler, a leading figure in the Jerusalem Symphony and in the recordings it made for the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Presumably the arrangements needed to bring these forces together took several years. If the negotiations started before 1979, it’s possible that at the early stages of the project no one suspected that Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat would conclude peace between Israel and Egypt in 1979, and that 1982, this would be part of the last remaining strip of land that had not yet been returned to Egyptian control—and that this area too would come under Egyptian sovereignty not long after the performance.

There are a couple of videos and audio-only readily available on the web. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3g_nBthyQI&list=PLEPlvogVxH8V39a0sXuq-delNO-pjF5X4 – full performance, with English title pages for texts. Length: 1:17:27 (The VHS is 90 minutes, or 1:30).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCOROhkLWt8 This is the Israel Broadcasting version with titles in Hebrew. It is an edited version of the concert—only 45 minutes long. This is one of many historic performances gathered on http://www.4law.co.il/shosh1.html

– full performance, with English title pages for texts. 1:17:27

Hag Kasher ve-Sameah

Seth Ward

Associate Lecturer in Islam and Judaism

Religious Studies Program, University of Wyoming



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One Response to G.F. Handel’s Oratorio Israel in Egypt

  1. drsethward says:

    the link in the post to the longer version of the concert at Coral Islan / Jazirat Far’un is down, but this one works:

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