Handel’s Esther: a woman, genocide, and an oratorio

Known as the first English oratorio, Esther is a compelling work not only for the beauty of the music, but also the relevance of important issues in the narrative: a young woman, chosen for her beauty, becomes queen and accepts the task of averting genocide of her people. How does knowledge of the Jewish story inform a performance of the oratorio today? How does Handel’s music enhance the libretto? Issues of gender, sexuality, and power are present in the story and in the libretto.

Handel, while knowledgeable in the Christian Bible and English culture, would have had little or no contact with Jews or the Jewish tradition. His libretto was based on an English translation of Jean Racine’s play Esther, and Jewish musical idiom is not surprisingly absent from Handel’s score. But Handel’s music is highly effective in creating mood, dramatic motion, and emotional and intellectual depth barely evident in the relatively thin libretto. Irony, humor, conflicted emotions, and exaggeration – all clearly evident in the Jewish book – are clear in the score, along side obviously Christian elements. Terrifying anger, heart wrenching emotional tension and unexpected moral reflection are among Handel’s musical contributions that serve to amplify the many conflicts in the story.

Studying and teaching this piece offers opportunities to address cultural issues and how they relate, including women as objects and tokens of power, racism and genocide, retaliation and reconciliation, even the Esther’s controversial presence in her king’s court. As we approach the 300th anniversary of the first version of the work, this session discusses contemporary relevance of the story and the dramatic effectiveness of Handel’s score.