November 12-14, 1982


by Howard Serwer

With the performance of the 1718 version of George Frideric Handel's Esther, the Maryland Handel Festival begins a very ambitious undertaking; we hope to perform, year by year, in order of composition, all of Handel's English oratorios. It was, after all, Handel who invented the genre and brought it to a perfection which some have approached but none have equaled. This great cycle, which will take about fifteen years to complete (the number is a little uncertain because there are works which some call oratorio and others say are not oratorio), will show the composer moving increasingly away from the manner of Italian opera and towards a style suitable for English singers and audiences.

The labor attendant on such an enterprise is huge. One example will suffice: except for Messiah and one or two other oratorios, performing materials (individual parts for the singers and players) are almost nonexistent. Almost no original parts survive, and even if they did, most modern players could not use them. To be sure; all of the oratorios have been performed in modern times on various occasions and in various places. Materials used in these performances, even if identified and located are of limited usefulness because they are often heavily edited in a manner inconsistent with our present understanding of how Handel's music should be performed. To fix such materials represents almost as much work as copying out completely new parts.

The colossal amount of work (to say nothing of the expense) is justified, we think because Handel's music in general, and his oratorios, in particular are some of the great monuments of our culture. Inexplicably, most of them have been neglected, and we hope to remedy that neglect. At the same time, we shall continue to perform representative works from other genres practiced by this great musician. Following last year's formula, we have included one of Handel's great ceremonial works, the Dettingen Te Deum; a sampling of orchestral works from his Opus 3, some of his solo keyboard music, and at the request (as they would have said in Handel's time) of "certain persons of quality," chamber duets.

The more we study Handel's music and the more we examine his scores -- and our Coopersmith Collection holds microfilms of virtually all of his autographs -- the more we are impressed with the sheer genius of the man. His scores are not pretty -- after all he was not a professional music copyist -- but they give evidence that some of his greatest melodies, his most breathtaking musical ideas were written down, melody first, then bass, and finally inner parts, with little or no hesitation and with very few corrections. Yet Handel was something more than a musical genius; he was also a professional performer and business man with an account with the Bank of England, a house in Mayfair, and a circle of devotees who stood by him in times of difficulty. Whether for princely patrons or for his increasingly-beloved English public, Handel wrote for his audience but never down to them. In everything he did, he seems to have been aware that his livelihood depended on the quality of the music he composed and the performances he produced. In this, the second year of The Maryland Handel Festival we hope we can emulate the master.

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