“Israel in Egypt”: A Handel oratorio propagandizes for colonialism and war
Los Angeles Master Chorale performing Handel's "Israel in Egypt," Kevork Mourad, visual artist. The plague of flies and lice | Patrick Brown

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC), one of the premier cultural organizations in this city, has a multi-year “Hidden Handel” project to perform all the oratorios (and there are many) that are not the perennial Messiah. Some of his oratorios are highly pictorial and descriptive, with named characters speaking, lending themselves in modern times to effective quasi-operatic stagings by creative directors.

Israel in Egypt (Feb. 11), however, has no named characters as such and is all narrated from an omniscient point of view. Its “wall-to-wall choruses,” almost thirty of them, as Artistic Director Grant Gershon pointed out in the “Listen Up!” pre-concert talk, speak for the masses in one voice without individuated personality.

The libretto is composed entirely of texts taken from the King James Bible, possibly assembled by Charles Jennens, who four years later performed the same job on Messiah.

To enhance the performance, LAMC invited the Syrian-born, culturally Armenian artist Kevork Mourad to contribute imagery projected onto a large screen at Walt Disney Hall. Some of his drawings he had prepared in advance—scenes of war, destruction, escape, Middle Eastern architecture—and he also produced other drawing as the concert progressed. Mourad is known worldwide as a sort of artist in residence with Yo-Yo Ma’s traveling Silk Road Ensemble, also creating work on the spot in response to the group’s multicultural musicians.

“This story is very familiar to me because of my Armenian background,” says Mourad of this 3000-year-old tale. “My ancestors were forced to leave their homes 100 years ago and were welcomed by the Syrians. And now this has happened to the Syrians: almost half the population has been forced to leave their homes. So there are three layers to this story for me.”

The Syrian refugee crisis, in the words of Jean Davidson, President and CEO of the LAMC, in a welcome statement in the program, “brings this piece into sharp contemporary focus at a time when displacement and humanitarian crises are all too common.”

“What humans do to destroy themselves”

Part I of the oratorio is a short symphonic overture by way of setting the mood, followed by five choruses of lamentation relating to the death of Joseph in Egypt. Although there were grumblings against the Hebrew foreigners in their midst, the Egyptians supposedly enjoyed peace and prosperity with the Jewish presence.

It was only after the new pharaohs came along who did not remember Joseph that the real trouble started, leading into Part II: The Exodus. Much of this section is taken up with the plagues that God visited upon Egypt because he would not let the enslaved Hebrews go. Some of them are actually a little humorous, especially when combined with Mourad’s visual commentary. The jumping frogs put the audience in a happy mood. The flies and lice darkening the sky were accompanied by buzzing helicopters, adding a current touch. It didn’t matter whose helicopters where and when: They were surely a pestilence.

Says Mourad: “I see the plagues as what humans do to destroy themselves. The idea of plague in our day is the destruction and catastrophe facing our own civilization, through wars and nonstop conflict. The story is so powerful and you can see it happening again through our own technology, our greed, our choices to destroy our own civilization and heritage.”

After the final plague, the slaying of the Egyptians’ first-born, the Hebrews left (as I’ve heard it described, “the first walk-out strike in history”). God leads them out like sheep, and Handel has a repeating baa-baa pattern in the music to paint the picture. Mourad’s Hebrew hordes trudge off toward the left of the screen; if I were advising him, I would have had them march right, i.e., east out of Egypt, given the way we are accustomed to looking at maps.

The text strangely includes the brief mention in the Bible, “He brought them out with silver and gold,” with no further enlargement on this subject, though it’s an interesting one that has long baffled many students of the Bible. If the Hebrews were in such a rush to leave Egypt that they didn’t even have enough time for their bread to rise (thus: matzah), they did somehow have time to steal the silver and gold from the Egyptians? We are often given the answer, It was just retribution for the centuries of enslavement. But what were they going to do with it? Eat their manna on golden plates? My own theory is it’s inserted there to explain how the Hebrews had all this bling in the desert so they could melt it down and fashion it into the Golden Calf later on in the story.

And then of course the Great Work: God allowing the Hebrews to safely traverse the dried-up Red Sea, and then, when Pharaoh’s army and horses pursued them, to close up the waters and drown them all so that “there was not one of them left.”

Before I continue, I must remark that there is in fact still no historical or archeological evidence, outside the Biblical account, that any of this ever happened, or even that the Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt at all, an admission gradually making its way into rabbinical circles, though not universally amongst the general public. The Exodus is the foundation myth of the Jewish people, so even Jews who realize it’s just a legend without any reliable sourcing still cling to the idea that it is nevertheless a singular paradigm for all liberation struggles.

The printed program for the concert contains an essay by Thomas May, program annotator for LAMC, “Slavery, Plagues, and Restoration,” which opens with a quote from Artistic Director Grant Gershon: “I’m struck by how the Exodus story has spoken to so many different peoples over the last three millennia—especially today, with so many refugee crises and displaced peoples. To me, the heart of the Exodus story is this miraculous and unique restoration of a people to their homeland.”

I’ll come back to that point shortly, but let me continue with the oratorio.

“Horse and rider into the sea”

Part III is Moses’ Song, although there is no voice or role for Moses himself. Finally now we get some real solo arias, and they are glorious; but still it’s mostly choruses. As they unfolded I thought to myself, Why one chorus after another that keeps coming back to the drowning of the Egyptian army? Could it be that over 150 years later—in the years between 1588 and 1739—the English were still using this Biblical text to celebrate their victory over the Spanish Armada? Maybe so: It was after all the single most significant moment, if you have to choose one, to signal the decline of Spain as an empire and the rise of England—and that was still a couple of decades before the first settlement at Jamestown, Virginia.

It turned out I was not far off in my musings. Thomas May quotes musicologist Christopher Hogwood, whose analysis of this oratorio situated it in the contemporary “belligerent political mood, as both Whigs and Tories, poets as well as politicians, pressed for a war with Spain.”

Aha! One of the duets in Israel in Egypt is between a bass and a baritone (Chung Uk Lee and David Dong-Geun Kim respectively), who sing “The Lord is a man of war” (Exodus 15:3). How’s that for a compact example of anthropomorphism of your deity? So Handel’s (and his librettist’s) purpose is nothing less than to link the Biblical victory of God and the Hebrews over Pharaoh’s army to the current purpose of taking down tyrannical, benighted Catholic Spain. It would not take too much longer, historically speaking, for Spain’s empire to crumble: The Latin American countries declared independence in the first decades of the 19th century, leaving only Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines under continued Spanish rule. By then Britain was indisputably the “monarch of the seas.”

If you’re going to war, it’s always a good idea to have God on your side—whichever side you’re on! “Thy right hand, O Lord, has dashed into pieces the enemy.” “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods?” (So they admit, there are other gods.)

It’s not coincidental that this oratorio premiered at the King’s Theatre in London on April 4, 1739, during the Lenten season, which was of course also the Passover season, when the Exodus story is highlighted.

During this period of Handel’s life, opera was deemed too decadent for the British taste (and especially during the solemn Lenten weeks), so the composer, ever on the lookout for his financial wellbeing, turned to oratorio, many of which became successful. Not all (such as the 1736 Alexander’s Feast), but most of them are based on Biblical themes, a project that attracted investment and attendance from London’s small but influential Jewish merchant class, beginning with the oratorio Saul, composed the previous year.

Led by Miriam and the women, the Hebrews sing and dance and play the timbrels to celebrate the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, “horse and rider into the sea,” a reaction later generations of Jews found problematic. According to the Talmud, God commanded them to stop, asking, “How can you sing as the works of my hand are drowning in the sea?” In other words, the Egyptians were God’s children also: It is one thing to celebrate your freedom and a victory over a despot, but unseemly to be joyous over so many people’s deaths.

These moral questionings long preceded Handel’s oratorio, but there is no room for such theological nuances here.

“Canaan shall melt away”

The Exodus story becomes, in the warmonger’s eyes, Biblical and tribal justification for later colonization, pacification, “civilizing,” or what we would call today Occupation. The Hebrews achieve their freedom by dominating another people who did them no wrong. “My lust shall be satisfied upon them,” God states: “All the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away” in this land “which thou hast purchased.” “Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance,” in the place you have chosen to dwell in, “the sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established” (all quotes from the oratorio).

This kind of ethnocentric theology has come under increasing scrutiny now that we fully understand that the Canaanites of old are indeed the ancestors of the Palestinians of today. With their settlement of lands in the West Bank, today’s territorial expansionists in Israel are truly in the business of making the inhabitants “melt away.”

As Prof. Richard Falk says of the establishment of Israel in 1948: “The Palestinian people have been made to pay the price for the crimes of the Nazis.” Is it any different to ask—even of a fictional, though culturally imperative story—if “the Canaanites have been made to pay the price for the crimes of the Pharaoh?”

How was this night different from all other nights?

Several LAMC programs have featured the music and the voices of Black America—their recent “Wade in the Water” concert, for example. Look at the LAMC website and you’ll see African-American singers’ faces prominently featured, as if to say, This is the master chorus of all of L.A.’s diverse people.

Sunday night’s program lists 79 choristers singing in Israel in Egypt, which conforms to my rough count of the personnel on the risers. There were a few Asian Americans among them and, judging from last names, a smattering of Latinos. But this night was different from all other nights: Looking out over the lineup of singers—and the orchestra as well, I might add—I could not discern a single African-American person. This night the LAMC looked virtually all palefaced.

Now I am speculating here, but is it possible that Black singers in the LAMC “took a knee” for this performance? Did they understand the theology of Occupation enough to say, Not in my name, not in my God’s name, not with my voice?

Did they interpret the emphatic empathy expressed for Syrian exiles and refugees as studied silence about the Palestinians, about whose lives, land and dispossession the oratorio literally speaks? Did they hear this 18th-century glorification of war as an unexamined, uncritical endorsement of today’s saber-rattling and preening over the size of nuclear buttons?

Maybe I’m projecting my own issues, and I’ll own that. I may be totally misreading the apparent absence of Black singers on stage, and I certainly make no claim to speak for anyone other than myself. But these are serious questions. In trying to contemporize Israel in Egypt for today, the LAMC, with its artistic director, its program notes, and the Syrian-Armenian artist, redirected the focus entirely outside of Israel/Palestine, which sadly continues to be the taboo topic in America. A conscious decision? I don’t know.

In no way am I saying, or would say, that Israel in Egypt should not be performed. There’s some heavenly music in it, and it’s an important precursor to later works. But the context for this problematic work, subject to pointed discussion on musical, historical, political, theological and territorial grounds, has to be more transparent. Vague references to the generalized global exile and refugee experience simply looks like ignoring the highly localized issues that are sitting right under our noses in the text itself.

I do not minimize the difficulty of having those conversations, but they cannot be swept under the rug forever.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.