Thomas Hengelbrock

Handel: Israel in Egypt

2021 festival: Thomas Hengelbrock and his Balthasar Neumann ensembles perform Handel’s mighty oratorio. Available until 16. May 2022.

Bloody water, frogs, hailstones and impenetrable darkness: Thomas Hengelbrock sees »Israel in Egypt« as Handel’s most avant-garde work. With its vivid style and gripping choral scenes, the oratorio seems predestined for performance by conductor Hengelbrock and his Balthasar Neumann ensembles, who are known for their uncompromising interpretation of every detail of music and text alike. They are performing this mighty work as part of the Hamburg International Digital Music Festival – together with outstanding vocal soloists from the choir. A detective story on the concert platform!

Note: All Hamburg International Music Festival 2021 concerts are available to stream free of charge. Once premiered, each concert stream can be accessed for the whole festival period.


»Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived!«

Ludwig van Beethoven

An overview of all 2021 festival concerts.

Thomas Hengelbrock Thomas Hengelbrock © Maxim Schulz
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor Balthasar-Neumann-Chor © Maxim Schulz
Thomas Hengelbock, Balthasar-Neumann-Chor und -Ensemble Thomas Hengelbock, Balthasar-Neumann-Chor und -Ensemble © Maxim Schulz
Musikerin aus dem Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble Musikerin aus dem Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble © Maxim Schulz
Thomas Hengelbrock Thomas Hengelbrock © Maxim Schulz
Einstimmen Einstimmen © Maxim Schulz
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor Balthasar-Neumann-Chor © Maxim Schulz
Noten Noten © Maxim Schulz


Balthasar Neumann Choir and Soloists
Balthasar Neumann Ensemble

direction Thomas Hengelbrock


George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Israel in Egypt, HWV 54 / Sinfonia, Exodus, Moses (1738)

Duration: 85 minutes

About The Artists

Thomas Hengelbrock – direction

Thomas Hengelbrock
Thomas Hengelbrock © Florence Grandidier

Balthasar Neumann Choir

Balthasar Neumann Choir © Florence Grandidier

Balthasar Neumann Ensemble

Balthasar Neumann Ensemble © Florence Grandidier

An experiment goes wrong :Handel: Israel in Egypt

Too many choruses. Not enough arias. Too solemn. Not operatic enough. London music lovers were definitely not amused when George Frideric Handel’s latest oratorio, »Israel in Egypt«, was premiered on 4 April 1739 in the Haymarket Theatre. Yet Handel had enjoyed great success with four other oratorios in the preceding years. The Old Testament stories, sung in English and including magnificent choruses, seemed to appeal to the audiences. What was different this time?

George Frideric Handel 1741 (painting by Thomas Hudson)
George Frideric Handel 1741 (painting by Thomas Hudson) © Wikimedia Commons

The people as protagonist

Several things, actually. For a start, the new oratorio didn’t tell the story of individuals, but of an entire people – the people of Israel and their escape from Egyptian slavery, including the ten Plagues of Egypt described in the Book of Exodus. Thus it is only logical that the musical emphasis should be on choruses. In Handel’s previous English-language oratorios on the other hand –  »Esther«, »Deborah«, »Athalia« and »Saul« – there was still the accustomed alternation of elaborate arias that express feelings with recitatives, more spoken than sung, that serve to develop the plot. Choruses are an element in these works as well, but they are not the main focus. Unlike in »Israel in Egypt«: the 25 musical numbers of the two-part version that is usual today include no more than four arias, two recitatives and two duets. Everything else is sung by the chorus.

Expressionistic sounds

The musical resources that Handel chose to use are equally unusual. Instead of the stylised expressions of feeling customary in the 18th century, in »Israel in Egypt« Handel opted for sounds that were nothing short of expressionistic, especially when depicting the Plagues of Egypt. The unrestrained harmonies used to portray the three days of darkness that came over the land, the whining and buzzing of the gnats and lice, the instrumental hailstorm unleashed on the audience – some people must have thought they were experiencing the plagues described in the Bible themselves. And even if Handel’s audience was getting a little tired of the opera at this time, all this experimentation seems to have been too much for most of them.

handgeschriebenes Notenblatt, Händel: Israel in Egypt (Autograph), Stelle »He sent a thick darkness«
»He sent a thick darkness« from Handel’s manuscript of »Israel in Egypt« © The British Library

Opera or oratorio?

So what was it that led London theatregoers to suddenly lose interest in opera? There are two theories:

Theory no. 1: A new audience. Supporters of this theory believe that, thanks to increasing wealth and education, the British middle class was now discovering opera, which had hitherto been the domain of the aristocracy. But the middle class didn’t speak Italian, and also preferred more familiar material than the amorous royal intrigues of Italian opera, which prompted Handel to adapt to the taste of his new audience.

Theory no. 2: A new political situation. According to this theory, the audience for opera or oratorio was still the same, but the concertgoers wanted to hear and see different material. The likely reason lay in the political conflict smouldering in the 1730s between Great Britain and France/Spain, triggered by issues of power in the overseas colonies and commercial advantages accruing from trading with them. As a result, the French, the Spanish and other Catholics were unpopular in Britain at the time. At the end of 1739, not long after the first performance of »Israel in Egypt«, this conflict escalated in the so-called »War of Jenkins’s Ear« against Spain; hostilities lasted until 1742. It’s perfectly feasible that the British aristocracy saw it as a patriotic duty to favour English-language works.

Unexpected competition

Whatever the reason, it is a fact that the popularity of Italian opera waned, at least for a while. Opera impresario Handel was obviously affected by the change in taste. And his situation was aggravated further by the fact that his Royal Academy of Music gained a competitor in 1732, the Opera of the Nobility. The two rival opera companies struggled to exist alongside one another for a few years, before they both had to declare bankruptcy in 1737.

Das King’s Theatre  am Haymarket. Gemälde von William Capon, 1783. Mehrere stuckbesetzte Häuserfassaden nebeneinander. Titel: The Old Opera House
King’s Theatre at Haymarket, 1783 (painting by William Capon) © Wikimedia Commons

Bankruptcy – and a new start

But Handel was not to be discouraged so easily. Although the ruin of the Royal Academy crippled him financially, he set up a new opera company the same year. After another slack season, he decided to switch to the oratorio genre in the autumn of 1738, with which he had already enjoyed great success in 1732/33. The composer’s decision seemed to bear fruit: his new oratorio »Saul« was a considerable hit in January 1739. He then stared work on »Israel in Egypt« with delay, once again looking for ways to captivate his audience with new forms and types of expression – with the results described above.

Belated fame

After the first performance was a flop, Handel subjected the new oratorio to a fundamental reworking. He cut the entire first part from what was originally a three-part work, adding arias and tightening the choruses. But the desired success failed to materialise: »Israel in Egypt« was only performed a few more times up to the composer’s death. Not until the 19th century were the tables turned: today, »Israel in Egypt« is one of Handel’s most important and best-loved oratorios, and is given regular performances by amateurs and professionals alike.

Text: Juliane Weigel-Krämer
Translation: Clive Williams


Note: We recommend setting your browser to 100% for optimal viewing of the libretti. Zoom in and out with the keyboard shortcuts [Ctrl]+[+] and [Ctrl]+[-].

Supported by the Kühne Foundation, the Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media, Stiftung Elbphilharmonie and the Förderkreis Internationales Musikfest Hamburg

Mediatheque : More stories

Concert Stream: Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth

Available from 27.9.: François-Xavier Roth and his orchestra Les Siècles combine Mozart’s Salzburg sounds with Ligeti, whose 100th birthday we mark this year. The star guest is Alexander Melnikov.

György Kurtág: Every note in the right place

Late fame through polished and radically reduced music: About the composer György Kurtág.

Tube Talks

A ride on Europe’s longest escalator takes two and a half minutes – more than enough time to ask a few soul-searching questions.