Handel at the peak of his art

Interview with William Christie

By Octave 03 January 2018

© Oscar Ortega

Handel at the peak of his art

Founder of the Arts Florissants, pioneer of the rediscovery of Baroque music, the Franco-American conductor William Christie is the architect of one of the most remarkable musical adventures of the last thirty years. Currently conducting Jephtha at the Palais Garnier, he spoke to us about Handel’s oratorio.

Can you situate Jephtha within Handel’s career?

William Christie: Jephtha marks both the end and the culmination of Handel’s career. Whilst working on his oratorio the composer was struck with blindness, which obliged him to stop work for several months. Handel was a public figure and news of the tragedy quickly spread throughout London: a composer who could no longer compose. I think most musicians and musicologists agree that this oratorio represents the summit of his art from both a musical and dramatic point of view.

The theme of a father forced to sacrifice his daughter to honour a vow made to heaven seems rather archaic to us today. What can Jephtha have to say to our era?

In the Bible, Jephtha sacrifices his daughter. In the oratorio, in the end she is saved thanks to the intervention of an angel: in European intellectual circles during the Enlightenment, the idea that someone could be killed in that fashion was inacceptable. One sees this in Mozart’s Idomeneo. Handel was above all a great humanist, in the tradition of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The most moving passages in Jephtha are those in which the composer comments on the biblical tragedy. He goes to great lengths to lay bare the father beneath the warrior chief, – a father devastated at the idea of sacrificing his daughter.” His moments of bravura are always tinged with melancholy, incertitude, incomprehension… In Theodora, which is also one of his last compositions, Handel had already shown his extraordinary capacity for empathy with human suffering.
“Handel takes particular care to lay bare the father beneath the warrior chief, – a father devastated at the idea of sacrificing his daughter.”

Handel devoted his life to composition, beginning with opera seria and finishing with oratorio. What, in your view, constitutes the difference between the two genres?

Being an oratorio does not make Jephtha any more contemplative or any less dramatic than an opera seria. On the contrary. For me, what really distinguishes oratorio is the presence of one essential element of the genre, totally unknown in opera, or nearly so: the chorus. This is without doubt the most striking element for the listener. And the choral passages in Jephtha are among the monuments of Handel’s career. They are as stunning as those in Bach’s B minor Mass, and for the same reasons: incredibly sophisticated writing coupled with gripping theatricality.

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