George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) | Overture to Act I of Saul, HWV 53

Baroque composer George Frideric Handel was born in Germany in 1685 to Georg Händel and Dorothea Taust. Handel’s father, who was sixty-three when his son was born, was an eminent barber-surgeon who had served two royal courts. Handel’s first biographer, John Mainwaring, later wrote “he had discovered such a strong propensity to music that his father, who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. He strictly forbade him to meddle with any musical instrument but Handel found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep.”

Though German-born, Handel had been a resident of London since 1712 and had become quite successful with the British public as a composer of Italian operas. While composer-in-residence to the Duke of Chandos from 1717 to 1719, Handel was able at last to gain some experience setting English texts to music, and among other vocal works he composed church anthems and two stage works, Acis and Galatea and Esther. Around 1731, a performance of Handel’s Esther was given in London without the composer’s participation and was well-received, so Handel decided to revise it and present it at the theatre where his Italian operas were being performed. The Bishop of London, having learned of this plan, refused to allow a drama based on a Biblical story to be presented as a stage work with actors and so the composer presented it in concert form instead, giving rise to the form that came to be known as the English oratorio. The idea caught on, and Handel composed a number of oratorios for the English public, the best known of these being Messiah (1741), with a libretto by Charles Jennens.

Handel’s three-act dramatic oratorio Saul also featured a libretto by Jennens and was premiered at the King’s Theatre in January of 1739. The story, which Jennens lifted from the First Book of Samuel, details the relationship of the first king of Israel with David, his eventual successor; and follows its course from one of admiration to envy to pure hatred, ultimately leading to the monarch’s downfall.

As this was a departure from his Italian operas, Handel felt the freedom to conceive Saul on the grandest possible scale, making use of a large orchestra with instrumental effects that were quite unusual (if not unknown) for the time: among these the use of a carillon, a specially built organ (for him to play during the work), trombones (which were not standard in orchestras of the time), kettledrums (which had to be borrowed from the Tower of London!), extra woodwinds (for the ‘Witch of Endor’ scene), and solo harp. Handel drove Jennens to distraction with what the dramatist considered to be unnecessary extravagances, quipping at one point that the composer must surely be “overstock’d with money”.

The overture to Act I of Saul is a model of Baroque balance and lightness and provides the listener with no hint of the sonic surprises that lie ahead. It is a substantial introduction to the work in four parts:

* Allegro (4/4; two oboes, strings, and pianoforte)
* Larghetto (3/4; add bassoon, divide second violins and add organ, cembalo and theorbo)
* Allegro (4/4; same instrumentation as the beginning, with organ)
* Andante larghetto (3/4; same orchestration as the beginning)

The fourth and final section is statelier in measure and sets the tone for the drama to come.