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Handel’s Unknown Oratorios

A look at some of Handel’s lesser-known oratorios, plus a featured release of Geminiani’s cello sonatas.

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painting of man clubbing a snake

Photo: Anonymous

"Hercules and the Hydra" as depicted by Antonio Pollaiuiolo (Galleria degli Uffizi). Handel composed two oratorios on the story of Hercules.

Can you name a Handel oratorio other than the Messiah?  It’s a bit difficult because its popularity casts a shadow on the nearly thirty other oratorios.  A quick scan of the list and you’ll notice that he often set the story of Biblical male figures. A notable one was Saul, king of Israel, whose jealousy of his successor David leads to his own undoing. 

Based on the Book of Daniel, Belshazzar, king of Babylon, is the title character within the story relating to the fall of Babylon and the freeing of the Jews.  You may be familiar with its librettist Charles Jennens, who also provided the text for Messiah.  The oratorio was premiered at the King’s Theatre in London on March 27, 1745.

The story of Hercules was so attractive that Handel composed two different oratorios on the strong man’s life.  The earlier one, simply entitled “Hercules,” includes a number of characters such as his second wife Dejanira.  As the saying goes, behind every man is a strong woman, like Dejanira, who takes a prominent role within the oratorio.

Premiered in 1744, Joseph and His Brethren takes place sometime after the title character’s brothers have sold him into slavery. Following the Biblical story closely, the oratorio comes to a happy conclusion with a brotherly reconciliation.

Our new release of the week comes to us from the Billiant Classics label.  Dutch cellist Jaap ter Linden and harpsichordist Lars-Ulrik Mortensen are featured in a program of Francesco Geminiani’s complete cello sonatas, op. 5.

Here’s a video of Les Art Florissants (William Christie, dir.) performing the overture from Handel’s  oratorio “Hercules”:


The music heard in this episode was performed by Concerto Köln, RIAS-Kammerchor, English Concert, Les Musiciens du Louvre, and the King’s Consort.

Francesco Geminiani: Sonata no. 3 in C major
Jaap ter Linden, cello, Judith-Maria Becker, continuo cello, Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord — Cello Sonatas Op. 5 (Brilliant Classics , 2008)
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George Frideric Handel: from Saul
Concerto Köln and RIAS-Kammerchor/Jacobs — Saul – George Frideric Handel (HMC , 2005)
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George Frideric Handel: from Belshazzar
The English Concert/Pinnock — Belshazzar – George Frideric Handel (ARCHIV , 1991)
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George Frideric Handel: From Hercules
Les Musicien du Louvre/Minkowski — Hercules – George Frideric Handel (ARCHIV , 2002)
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George Frideric Handel: from Joseph and His Brethren
The King’s Consort/King — Joseph and His Brethren - George Frideric Handel (Hyperion , 1996)
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Francesco Geminiani: Sonata no. 1 in A major
Jaap ter Linden, cello, Judith-Maria Becker, continuo cello, Lars-Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord — Cello Sonatas Op. 5 (Brilliant Classics, 2008)
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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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