Sadly – indeed, astonishingly – Solomon is only very rarely heard; not until 1972 was a complete account given at the Three Choirs’ Festival, for instance (though “selections” had been presented once before at the 1904 festival.
Leeds-based St Peter’s Singers – founded in 1977 – presented an account fairly early on in that chamber choir’s annals at a time when a very talented young countertenor, Ian Nicholls (a former Parish Church chorister), was a full-time member of both the Church Choir and the Singers.
Sheffield Bach Choir’s selection for October 2012 omits one or two numbers found in the usual choice of movements printed in the standard vocal score issued by Novello, but re-instates two or three movements for solo bass not supplied in the printed copy.
Additionally, following the example of famous Handelian experts musicologist Basil Lam, and conductor Denys Darlow, the very final chorus The name of the wicked shall quickly be past is omitted, and the duet for Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Every joy that wisdom knows) is placed previous to the resonant chorus Praise the Lord with harp and tongue which gives the work a splendid conclusion. To include every single number in the composer’s score would take between two and two thirds and three hours. Though some omissions are, in consequence, inevitable, it is our hope that no omission will involve any of the most magnificent music in the work.
Handel’s Solomon by the great Handelian Scholar Dr Harold Watkins Shaw, OBE
Within their externally uniform framework of recitative, aria, and chorus, Handel’s many concert oratorios encompass much variety of type. By exception, one, and one only, Messiah is devotional and reflective. Others, such as Samson, are dramas which, though not staged in the composer’s lifetime, were recognised by Handel’s earliest biographer, Mainwaring, as “plainly in their nature to be acted”. Solomon is not dramatic in the sense of having a plot and developing action, but is rather a sort of pageant, and could be presented as such on the stage. Act I first calls up before us the ceremonial inauguration of the new Temple, and then proceeds to deal with the love and married bliss of Solomon and his Queen. Act II is devoted to the famous episode of Solomon’s wisdom as declared in his judgement between the two harlots who both claim the one child. Act III provides a picture of fair and prosperous state presided over by a wise and just ruler, whose splendour is admired by the visiting Queen of Sheba. During the course of it, a short masque is provided for the visitor’s entertainment in the five numbers following Solomon’s recitative Sweep the string.
Most of this has biblical authority behind it, but only the episode of the two women is taken from the First Book of Kings; the picture of Solomon as wise, religious, and prosperous is derived chiefly from the First Book of Chronicles, which, unlike Kings, passes over his less admirable traits. In calling the Queen of Sheba by the name Nicaule the anonymous librettist reveals his indebtedness also, for this part of his book, to Josephus. For the love scene in Act I the librettist is alone responsible.
At the first performance in 1749 the part of Solomon was taken by a woman, Signora Galli, who was celebrated also at that time as an interpreter of the contralto solos in Messiah. Handel performed it three times in that season. But, if we are to judge by the fact that he did not repeat it whole until just before his death ten years later, it did not arouse the popularity of, say, Samson, Judas Maccabeus, or, after some hesitation, Messiah. This seems surprising, for the music contains some of Handel’s most renowned morceaux: the sinfonia which, though Handel’s intentions as to its place are uncertain, now forms a ceremonial opening to Act III, and has therefore come to be dubbed The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba; the two lovely arias, What though I trace and With thee th’unsheltered moor I’d tread, in the love scene; and the most ravishingly beautiful chorus Handel ever wrote, the so-called Nightingale Chorus, May no rash intruder. Less celebrated, but magnificent in its expression of love torn by anguish, is the wonderful aria Can I see my infant gored, in which the true mother yields up her child rather than have him killed.
In depicting the splendour of Solomon’s wisdom and achievements, Handel makes extensive use of the chorus, often sumptuously in eight parts, sometimes in five, and only once in four parts. The orchestra, too, is large and elaborate. His instrumentation is not only used to add splendour to the big choruses; it is also used in delicate and subtle ways, for example the opening of Zadok’s aria Beneath the vine, where the texture is lightened by silencing cellos, bassoons and double basses.
©Note by Dr H Watkins Shaw OBE, reproduced from the 1972 Worcester Festival, is reproduced by kind permission of his Literary Executor and of the Three Choirs’ Festival.