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Virtue Rewarded: Handel's Oratorios and the Culture of Sentiment


Throughout the 1740s and early 1750s, Handel produced a dozen dramatic oratorios. These works and the people involved in their creation were part of a widespread culture of sentiment. This term encompasses the philosophers who praised an innate "moral sense," the novelists who aimed to train morality by reducing audiences to tears, and the playwrights who sought (as Colley Cibber put it) to promote "the Interest and Honour of Virtue." The oratorio, with its English libretti, moralizing lessons, and music that exerted profound effects on the sensibility of the British public, was the ideal vehicle for writers of sentimental persuasions. My dissertation explores how the pervasive sentimentalism in England, reaching first maturity right when Handel committed himself to the oratorio, influenced his last masterpieces as much as it did other artistic products of the mid-eighteenth century.

When searching for relationships between music and sentimentalism, historians have logically started with literary influences, from direct transferences, such as operatic settings of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, to indirect ones, such as the model that the Pamela character served for the Ninas, Cecchinas, and other garden girls of late eighteenth-century opera. Some scholars have cataloged musical features that comprise a sentimental style. Others have found philosophical, aesthetic, and historical links between sentimental culture and Italian and French opera, north German keyboard music, and the chamber music of Boccherini.

What has been curiously passed over is musical sentimentalism in England (site of so many of the culture's landmark products) and its influence on the country's most famous adopted son. My dissertation addresses this lack, focusing on relationships between oratorio, contemporary theater, and religious philosophy. In Part 1, "Sentimental Oratorios, Sentimental Heroines," I show that we can speak with confidence of a sub-genre of "sentimental oratorio" that can be defined through comparison with both the sentimental drama of Handel's London and the Italianate sentimental opera that other musicologists have identified as emerging in the last third of the eighteenth century. In addition, I demonstrate that it was not only the aesthetics of contemporary drama that affected the oratorios' libretti; the performance practices of the sentimental theater also informed their earliest realizations, with the expectations and demands that the theater placed on its personnel (particularly its women) affecting both singers and Handel's composition and revision processes for them. Part 2 discusses "Empathetic Men & Religious Sentimentalism," topics that have not yet been considered in any serious way by scholars of the oratorio. Handel's librettists James Miller (1703–1744) and Thomas Morell (1703–1784) were clergymen as well as men of the theater, and they aimed throughout their religious writing — including their texts for Handel — to inculcate virtue by privileging emotional over rational means. Both their devotion to the moral understanding of mankind's natural "sensibility" and the gentle men they created as heroes for their libretti influenced Handel's musical settings, which in turn reinforced their thematic and dramatic thrusts.

I use these perspectives to show that Handel's oratorios were situated at the intersection of the most current dramatic and religious trends of the mid-eighteenth century. Handel was sensitive to his Men and Women of Feeling; he adapted his oratorios to suit singers who specialized in sentimental dramatic "lines," and he displayed a keen understanding of his colleagues' attempts to move their spectators more than to astonish them, endeavoring that listeners' hearts (in Morell's words) "should be made better; moved with a compassion unknown before, and charmed with an opportunity of doing good."

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