Monday, December 21, 2009

PA Arts Monday - Georg Frideric Handel, the First Ecumenical Composer

The London from which Handel created most of his wondrous art was the most religiously tolerant city in the world at that time.

17th Century England had seen the great Civil War, the Cromwellian Commonwealth and scores of thousands of deaths in religious wars and disputes.

The 18th, the century in which Handel composed music in England from 1710 to 1752, still struggled over religious rights of those not adhering to The Church of England. But Handel's London sheltered Christian religious dissenters from Europe (many on their way to the American colonies), Catholics and Jews.

From day to day, Handel wasn't a notably religious person. None of his Italian language operas - unlike Verdi's, for instance - touch upon biblical subjects. But his great late creations, the mature English language oratorios are on biblical subjects, most taken from the Old Testament.

Many think that
The Messiah was Handel's first oratorio. It wasn't. It was his first huge blockbuster oratorio. Its success, coupled with Handel's frustrations over the costs of mounting staged operas (oratorios have no costumes, sets, expensive special effects and even more expensive Divas) led him to devote most of the energy of the last 15 years of his creative life to the composition and production of oratorios.

Up until Handel's oratorios, no composer had created masterpieces that might inspire Catholics, Protestents and Jews alike. But Handel's Old Testament oratorios did just that. He even went further in the oratorio, Judas Maccabeus, which recounts the events that led to the contemporary celebration of Hannukah.

Here's the duet and Chorus, Hail, Hail Judea, Happy Land:

Handel's most successful ecumenical oratorio was Israel in Egypt. Here is the chorus, Sing Ye to the Lord:

One might say that the ecumenism of Handel transcended his life in ways he couldn't have known. My favorite over-the-top version of his most famous oratorio movement, the Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah, is this rendition by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, representing a religion that didn't yet exist when Handel penned the masterpiece:


Anonymous said...

The evidence might show Handel recognized religious diversity, but ecumenical is perhaps inapt to describe the breadth of Handel's recognition of religious diversity.

Ecumenical, as an adjective, is meant to refer to the Christian church. It references the differences of the multitude of Christian churches or denotes some kind of unity between the many separate Christian churches.

As your examples show, Handel went beyond limiting his work to strictly religions based on Christianity, hence the term ecumenical becomes not quite descriptive of his overall recognition of religious diversity beyond just the differences or unity within the various Christian churches.

Ecumenism, again, might not ought to be the word you should attach to denote something that goes far beyond what defines ecumenism.

One ought not to assign qualities to words that haven't heretofore been the accepted descriptive qualities of those words.

That kind of thing can lead to imprecision and we don't need more of that.

It might seem that I may be splitting hairs, but words have specific meanings, they aren't interchangeable with words that mean something entirely different. Words are like a loaded gun, one should know what they are about before anyone starts playing with them.

It's a great piece and recognizing Handel's embrace of diversity makes for an enlightening topic for those who may not have considered it before.

I like the post, it's just the indeterminate choice of a word or two that jumped out.


Philip Munger said...


I'm not a Christian, but I once was.

"Ecumenical" is a living definition and shouldn't be limited to the terms of those who indulge in the fantasies of cloistered beliefs.

Anonymous said...

a 'living' definition?

Is that where you can make all words mean whatever you want them to mean?

I know a few wingers who would like you to offer up their defense when they work their deceptions.

Philip Munger said...


Living definitions as in before one of the religions cited in the article above existed, ecumenism would not have included Mormonism, but after that religion was invented, efforts to consolidate it into efforts to bring so-called Christians together would include them also, so the definition would now have to include Mormons.

Some, though, with interest in ecumenism might not consider Mormons as Christians, so for them the definition of what that means would not have changed.

I'm not a Christian, so I view these efforts differently than many Christians might. For instance I think of Jesus as a radical rabbi who sought to change Judaism, not to start 37,000 (in a couple days, there will be 37,001) versions of Christianity, and if I wish for efforts at uniting what is good amongst Christian and somewhat related religious organizations to occur, I am perhaps hoping for something quite different from what a person who believes in Christ and all that entails might hope for.

Makabit Bat Guriel said...

Jesus never said he was going to change Judaism, you need to do a little reading Gusty.
You can start with Matthew and work your way through what Jesus taught.
He said he wasn't here to change a damn thing! He was pissed at those not following it like every other person (Prophets) that came before him.
And he preached buying of those "stay alive with a .45" things.
He knew Jews had to fight to survive.

Anonymous said...

Tending to prefer personal preferences for altering traditional and commonly held definitions most often leads to unspecific language that doesn't convey your message uniformly to your readers.

Rather than attempt to redefine ecumenism, you would more clearly state your meaning by using specific terms which already describe what it is you're trying to convey.

As your personal preference denotes, you're referring to a concept of described much more distinctly by the term inter-faith pluralism.

As you readily admit, your use of ecumenism leaves your readers to accept or reject your choice of terminology.

By using terminology that doesn't offer conflicting and contrasting definitions, (by not relying on 'living definitions' ), you more efficiently and effectively convey the exact meaning you intend, without having to make allowances for contradictory perceptions of what you may be trying to convey.

It's a simple rule, say precisely what you mean and it won't be mistaken or misunderstood for something you had no intention of saying.

One can hardly credibly accuse others of abuse of language, such as implying one speaks a form of word salad if the accuser is apt to turn around and promote and attempt to justify his own brand of word salad.

Philip Munger said...

"One can hardly credibly accuse others of abuse of language, such as implying one speaks a form of word salad if the accuser is apt to turn around and promote and attempt to justify his own brand of word salad."

Great comment. Can't wait to see Palin herself indulge in defending one of her many re-definitions in live time at her facebook page.


Meanwhile, I think I'll get back to transcribing the chorus "Oh Filial Piety!" which concludes the fist act of Handel's "Samson," for brass quintet.

Cool piece. Definitely not note salad.