On the evening of March 16, 1750, the 64-year-old
Handel raised his baton in London's Covent Garden
playhouse to open the first performance of a new
oratorio. Unfortunately, the English public that night
was underwhelmed. Whether because they disliked
Handel's new kind of moralistic subject or feared that
week's London earthquakes, the first audiences for
Theodora were very thin. Some of Handel's friends
thought it his most "finished, beautiful, and labor'd"
work ever; nevertheless, it only ran for three
performances. Later generations have discovered and
rediscovered the emotional depth and intensity of
Handel's Theodora, now acknowledged one of his finest
oratorios. In it mingle his operatic gift for
characterization and his masterful hand in setting the
English language for its many choruses.
The subject matter of Handel's Theodora may have
surprised its first London audiences. This work is
nearly alone among his 22 English oratorios in having a
non-Biblical story, and is the only one set in
Christian times. The plot concerns two Christian
martyrs in Antioch during the persecution of
Diocletian. St. Ambrose first recorded the story of the
martyrs Theodora and Didymus; later English audiences
knew the tale through Foxe's Book of Martyrs, through
Corneille's play on the subject, and especially via the
novel by the eminent scientist and theologian Robert
Boyle. Handel's libretto came from the pen of Rev.
Thomas Morell (also librettist for his Judas Maccabeus,
Alexander Balus, and Jeptha).
Morell gave Handel an intimate and sentimental tale of
two Christian lovers who are faced with torture, rape,
and death for their faith; their steadfast hope in the
afterlife, and their love for one another, allow them
to triumph spiritually. Handel's music brilliantly
embodies their profound sense of hope despite the
violence and danger of the surface events. A bullying
Roman governor (Valens) threatens the heroine Theodora,
leader of the Antiochine Christians, with multiple
violation by his soldiers, and with all the torture
instruments of the Inquisition, if she refuses to
worship the Roman gods. In the end, both Theodora and
Didymus, a Roman soldier who supports free Christian
thought and tries to save her, are sentenced to death.
Yet the passionate uplift of Handel's music in their
arias and duets maintains a deep emotional sense of
hope. His choruses of Christians (which alternate with
choruses of vengeful pagans) both react to and
participate in the action, reinforcing the moral (or
amoral) choices of the main characters.
Although originally written for Chorus (SATB) and
Orchestra, I created this arrangement for Woodwind
Quartet (Flute, Oboe, Bb Clarinet and Bassoon).