“It must be so.”
Those four words open the libretto of Handel’s biblical oratorio “Jephtha,” the composer’s last major work. But the words are more than part of a character’s scene-setting speech. They presage the themes of fate and resignation that course through the piece. Those ideas were also present in Handel’s own life during its composition, as the ailing composer’s body began to fail him even as he was at the height of his creative powers.
H&H is presenting two performances of “Jephtha” this weekend, having played it twice within the past week during a tour of California. The performances carry a deep historical resonance, as H&H gave the American premiere of the piece in 1855. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the Society has since left “Jephtha” unperformed since 1867.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” said artistic director Harry Christophers, from Berkeley last week. He’s not sure why it’s taken so long for the piece to reemerge in the H&H repertoire, but he sees it more broadly as part of the worldwide Handel revival that’s taken place over the last 10 to 15 years. Before that, Christophers said, “it was a bit like, everybody performed ‘Messiah,’ and if it was an opera, everybody performed ‘Giulio Cesare.’ ”
The “new lease on life” that’s been bestowed on so much of Handel’s oeuvre is driven in large part by the success of the early-music movement. “Handel, of all the Baroque composers, can sound the stodgiest with modern orchestras,” Christophers said. “But with the period instrument movement, the sound of the instruments, the music has really come alive.”
The story of “Jephtha” is drawn from the biblical book of Judges. The title character, a warrior, has been summoned to lead the Israelites into battle against the Ammonites. Though outwardly cocky, Jephtha is worried and rashly promises that, should he prevail, he will sacrifice the first person he sees. When he returns home after the victory, the person he encounters is his beloved daughter, Iphis. Horrified, he pledges to nonetheless honor his vow. Unlike the scriptural telling, the oratorio ends happily — or at least not tragically — when an angel intercedes to save Iphis. The catch, though, is that she must spend the rest of her life in a nunnery.
The depth of Handel’s genius can be seen in the two numbers that close Act 2. First comes Jephtha’s anguished-filled aria “Deeper, and deeper still,” in which he moves from grief to anger to bleak resignation. What’s amazing, Christophers pointed out, is the way Handel can capture the character’s mercurial shifts in mood, “sometimes in the space of two or three bars.” In the midst of the aria is a poignant echo of the piece’s opening words: “It must be so.”
What follows is the remarkable chorus “How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees.” Like several other choruses in the oratorio, it combines wildly varying stretches of music into a single movement: dark declamation, lilting nostalgia, a canon of long-held dissonances. It closes with a grim reaffirmation of the theme of acceptance: “Whatever is, is right.”
It was during the writing of this chorus that Handel made a note in the manuscript: “I reached here on Wednesday, February 13, had to discontinue on account of the sight of my left eye.”
“When he writes that,” Christophers said, “you do feel that he himself has submitted to his fate. He’s given in. And that’s the whole crux of the oratorio. And how incredible that that should happen as he’s writing [this piece].” He would struggle repeatedly with his eyesight during the remainder of the composition, and by the end he would be almost completely blind.
Since taking on the directorship of the Handel and Haydn Society in 2009, Christophers has put particular emphasis on the music of Handel, conducting the Society’s performances of “Messiah” every year and numerous smaller works on various programs. Next season closes with a performance of another oratorio, “Samson,” and he has plans for more.
Indeed, he talks with a kind of messianic zeal about just how intense a Handel performance can be. The starting point, he explained, is to remember that Handel was at heart an opera composer, whether the piece at hand is an opera or oratorio, and that means that text, narrative, and drama take precedence.
“I feel that too often in Handel we don’t pay enough attention to the texts and the drama, and that’s something that I’m trying to bring across,” Christophers said. “I hope that when you hear it in Boston, you’ll hear the chorus on another level now. They are really beginning to get around to my way of thinking that we need to be text-led. We have to allow the music to breathe. It sounds a very obvious thing, but breath needs to be a natural process that allows Baroque music in particular to have this natural ebb and flow, light and shade, that goes on the whole time.”David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.