Early music’s dramatic significance in Handel’s Saul
Posted by Melissa Wimbish via Oxford Journals
In Saul (1739) Handel evokes biblical instruments to make the Old Testament world of his oratorio vivid to his audience. The Harris family’s letters show that he did this very consciously. Besides the harp—David’s instrument—he evokes the sounds of the ‘timbrells’ (borrowing the Tower kettledrums to do so), the shalishim—his specially built ‘tubalcain’, used, like the shalishim, once only, when the women of Jerusalem welcome the victorious Saul and David—and the calls of the shofar, which he suggested with the trombone, then obsolete in England. His care and trouble in obtaining these effects enlarge our recognition of the imagination, aptness and specificity with which he used the orchestra to dramatize his texts.
Descriptions and illustrations of biblical instruments were available to Handel in the English translation of Augustin Calmet’s Antiquities Sacred and Profane (1724; 2/1725), and he could also have gleaned knowledge of the shofar from his Jewish subscribers, if not from first-hand experience. The ‘shofar calls’ suggest that ‘The Feast of the New Moon’ at which Saul tries to kill his own son is no ordinary festival but one of the most holy, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, an idea endorsed by reference to the librettist Charles Jennens’s secondary source, Abraham Cowley’s epic Davideis, in which the same scene appears and is described as occurring on Rosh Hashanah. Saul thus adds to the Handel oratorios which mark a Jewish religious festival: Esther, Athalia, Israel in Egypt, Judas Maccabeus and Joshua.