War Horse - Dartmoor, 1912 John Williams
From Genesis to Judges, there's hardly a story in the books of the Old Testament which hasn't inspired an opera or oratorio, or a verse that hasn't been set to music. Here are 10 to get to know better.
Rossini's three-act opera premièred in March 1818. Nine years later, Rossini revised the work with a new title - Moses and Pharaoh, or The Crossing of the Red Sea - and added a ballet. Many consider the second version, along with William Tell, to be among Rossini's greatest achievements. In true operatic fashion, Rossini introduced a love story between Pharaoh's son and an Israelite girl.
The staging of this opera about the first man in the Bible was beset with difficulties. Initially scheduled to be performed at the Paris Conservatoire, it was dropped in favour of another work. The composer published a critique of the Conservatoire and was fired. Eventually, he was able to mount a production of the opera at the Académie impériale in Paris on 21 March 1809.
Based on Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges, Samson et Dalila is the only opera by Saint-Saëns that is regularly performed. Two of Dalila's arias are particularly well known: "Printemps qui commence" and "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix" ("Softly awakes my heart").
After Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798, all of France was intrigued by this ancient land and its stories. Méhul’s opera was a critical success and in 1810 it was awarded a prize for the best piece staged by the Opéra-Comique in the previous decade. It was rarely staged however until there was a new French production in Paris to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989.
Benjamin Britten may have written the popular musical setting of Noah’s ark in Noye’s Fludde in 1957, but 127 years earlier, Donizetti had a go with Il diluvio universale – “The great flood” – based on texts by Lord Byron and Padre Ringhieri. For its planned premiere during Lent to be accepted, it had to be given to the church censors in the form of an oratorio. It wasn’t a huge success and disappeared for a century and a half, only to be revived in 1985.
Saul og David by the Danish composer Nielsen tells the Biblical story of Saul's jealousy of the young David, taken from the Book of Samuel. The opera is one of Denmark's most important musical works for the theatre but it is difficult to stage as the really dramatic episodes are often separated by longer, less interesting sequences. The choral scenes are certainly among the opera's highlights.
The French-Jewish composer Milhaud wrote David in 1954 as a personal tribute to the State of Israel for the 3000th anniversary of King David’s founding of Jerusalem. The opera was first performed in Jerusalem, and then staged at La Scala, Milan.
The opera which is considered to have permanently established Verdi's reputation as a composer, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered, and subsequently exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The best-known number from the opera is the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, which is an all-time Classic FM Hall of Fame favourite.
The Old Testament Book of Ruth tells the story of the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, a significant event in Jewish and Christian history because it marked the founding of the house of David, from which Jesus came. Lennox Berkeley was a lifelong Christian, who converted to Roman Catholicism. At the premiere, Boaz was sung by Peter Pears and the conductor was a young Charles Mackerras.
One of Handel's successful early oratorios, premiered in March 1733, is based on stories found in the Book of Judges. The Israelites have been subjugated for 20 years by the Canaanites, when the prophetess Deborah foretells the death of the Canaanite commander Sisera at the hands of a woman. The Israelites go to war against the Canaanites and win. And sure enough, a woman assassinates Sisera as he sleeps in her tent.