The last oratorio Handel composed before getting completely blind. His own fate as illustrated from the Bible. Jephtha becomes the general of the Israelite army on the promise to become the political leader of the Israelites after his victory over the Ammonites, and on the vow that he will sacrifice to God the first person who will greet him after his victory. The beginning is somber because it starts with the famous words "It must be so!" but also because it starts with Zebul, Jephtha's brother, a bass that makes that somberness deep and disquieting. Then Storge, Jephtha's wife, comes with a long dirge, a lamentation against war, ,the war Jephtha is going to join to win "liberty, life and love", a trinity that is more like a hope that cannot be fulfilled, that can only be longed for, lamented for and upon. Her being a mezzo soprano adds to that gloom hanging over the oratorio from the very start. And Hamor amplifies this feeling with another consonantal trinity "drives darkness and despair". The first ray of real hope, if not joy yet, is the duet of Iphis and Hamor, the soprano and the alto, who find some communion in their expected happiness after the victory that should guarantee the freedom of Israel and their happy marriage. But Jephtha and his vow re-plunges the oratorio into dire and bleak somberness, while Storge is fearing some dreadful future. And the first act closes on this gloomy fearful atmosphere that is hardly pushed aside temporarily by Iphis and the final chorus that sings the trust the Israelites have in Jephtha and the victory that will be brought to the army by God himself. The second act is that of the victory. So it starts on a joyful tone with a long chorus of Israelites praising the victory, and an aria by Hamor singing his love and imminent satisfaction. It is all amplified by Iphis getting ready to greet her victorious father with a trinity of instrument, "a lute, a harp and a flute". Jephtha glorifies his victory and a chorus comes to amplify that praising of that victory worked pout by God himself. And the first one to come and praise her father is Iphis, Jephtha's daughter, with her mother and a chorus of virgins. And Iphis is the first to praise her father. There Jephtha's vow explodes like thunder. "Open thy marble jaws, o tomb". Jephtha descends into a lamentation that sounds like a Tenebrae. Zebul adds some darkness but the real horror explodes with Storge, Iphis's mother. Hamor then proposes to take Iphis's place. The quartet that follows is poignant. Ebul, Storge, Hamor ask for sparing Iphis but Japhtha has to respect his vow to God. And what must be becomes in Jephtha's words " her doom is fixed as fate". Iphis then accepts her fate to consolidate Israel's freedom. Her resigned dirge is beautiful with dignity. The final chorus of the second act laments on God's decrees and that decree is "Whatever is, is right". Absolute submission to reality because it is all God's will and decision. At this moment Handel seems to project his own getting blind onto the whole creation. Can we consider God is that cruel and that vain? And yet Handel brings some joy-sounding music to this fateful submission that makes the final sentence so much more dreadful. The third act starts with the sacrifice and Jephtha puts his vow and the victory and peace in perspective. It is God's decision and this has to be accepted and his tone changes to a tone of willful elation. Iphis adds a touch of humble resignation, full satisfaction in submission. The symphony cuts this atmosphere with a music of pure pleasure. And that break brings the divine intervention of the angel that we all expect and are waiting for. The divine intervention that stops the sacrifice and justifies the vow as a test on Jephtha's faith. The angel is a soprano and the very transfiguration of Iphis. The music is clear and even crystalline contrasting against the back drop of an organ continuo. The price to pay for this divine salvation is for Iphis to remain a virgin for life. The bargain, because it is a bargain since there is a condition that could be refused, is at once accepted by Jephtha and the priests in total submission to the God of Israel. The music after the praises from Zebul and Storge, becomes really clear and joyful with the duet of Iphis and Hamor later joined by Storge, Jephtha and Zebul. Hamor resigns himself just like Iphis does; She resigns all of her Hamor-side to heaven and becomes a virgin. Hamor in the very same way resigns all his Iphis-side to heaven and accepts her to be a virgin till the end of her life. The final chorus is, by the music and the singing, a festive gay and joyful celebration of this happy ending of sorts. Handel accepts his fate but this oratorio is one of the most somber he has ever composed, and being the last we will not know what music he could have composed afterwards.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines