The Reception of Handel's Oratorios and British Self-identity 1760 – 1837

by Adam Shoaff

Institution: University of Cincinnati
Department: College-Conservatory of Music: Music History
Degree: MM
Year: 2012
Keywords: Music; Handel; oratorio; British nationalism; reception; Handel Commemoration; Concerts of Ancient Music
Record ID: 1938878
Full text PDF: http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=ucin1337100859


This thesis examines the role that Handel’s English oratorios played in the formation of British national identity during the country’s rise to imperial power in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Among the first works to enter the concert canon of Western musical classics, the oratorios achieved their endurance in part because a unique mixture of political events and religious movements within British society allowed the oratorios to be heard as allegories of the nation itself. While the popularity of Handel’s oratorios within his lifetime has been amply documented, my research finds that the connection between Handel’s oratorios and national self-image long outlived the composer, largely because of the oratorios’ ability to reaffirm Britain’s imperial identity in continually changing historical contexts. This study contributes to the understanding of Handel oratorio reception because it provides insight into the various political, religious, social, and artistic phenomena that shaped British perceptions of Handel and his work after the composer’s death. In particular, it situates the oratorios within Britain’s various political and religious debates of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It also examines the mythologizing efforts of Handel’s various biographers. Additionally, this thesis explains the importance of the provincial choral festivals, Handel Commemorations, and Concerts of Ancient Music for oratorio performance both within London and outside the capital. Finally, it relies on primary-source materials (concert programs, journal articles, and Charles Burney’s account of the 1784 Handel Commemoration) to survey the subtle changes over time in Britain’s treatment of the oratorios. The emerging picture shows that Britons prized the oratorios as more than great musical works. For nearly a century after the oratorios’ composition, Britons valued them as stories of themselves.