Handel pp 182-208 | Cite as

New Sources for the Libretto of Handel’s Joseph

  • Duncan Chisholm


Considering that Handel composed Joseph and his Brethren in August and September 1743, at the end of a particularly fruitful period that also produced Messiah, Samson and Semele, it may seem surprising that the work has not been more often revived. One of the work’s central problems lies in the curious structure of the Rev. James Miller’s libretto. The action of the drama takes place in Memphis, but Act 1 jumps from prison to palace to temple; Acts 2 and 3 concentrate on Joseph’s residence seven years later. In Act 1, Joseph is still a callow youth; in Acts 2 and 3 he is a somewhat careworn governor. Act 1, filled with Egyptian extras, has a very public action; Acts 2 and 3 are for Joseph and his family and have the private atmosphere of closet drama. Act 1 takes place over some months; Acts 2 and 3 obey the classical unities and their action can be imagined to take place through one or two days.1


Fruitful Period Divine Simplicity Generalize Sentiment Prophetic Vision Sacred Lesson 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    A synopsis of Miller’s libretto is found in Appendix I.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    A lavish edition by the author appeared in print in A. Zeno: Poesie sacre drammatiche (Venice, 1735), 93–123. Zeno larded the margins with textual references to Genesis. Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (London, 1959), 400Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    see H. C. Lancaster: Sunset: a History of Parisian Drama in the Last Years of Louis XIV, 1701–1715 (London, 1945), 93–6Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Genest: Joseph (Paris, 1711), Discours de M. de Malezieu, p. viii. Châtenay was M. de Malezieu’s residence near Sceaux; often the duchess’s fêtes began there. Malezieu and Genest usually arranged the theatrical entertainments while Matho provided music.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    ‘P<sc>HARAOH</sc>:… with deep mystery, worship in him the Saviour of the World. C<sc>HORUS</sc>: O Joseph, glorious and fortunate symbol of Christ, who with the saved grain now indicates amidst wonderful omens the Bread of Life. And with his happy name announces his redemption to man and to the world.’ The same text was set in 1736 by Francesco Conti; it deals with some of the subject matter of Miller’s Act 1 but was not used as a source libretto by him. It is rather old-fashioned in structure and includes an extensive part for a narrator (testo).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, ed. S. Rolles Driver, A. Plummer and C. A. Briggs: Genesis, ed. J. Skinner (Edinburgh, 2/1930), 470Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    see Appendix IIGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    see Appendix IIIGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    GB-Lbm 20.e.10Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    The argument is put forward by Dean, p. 401; Christopher Hogwood: Handel (London, 1985), 193; and Jonathan Keates: Handel (London, 1985), 254.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Donald Burrows: London Handel Festival Programme (16–24 April 1983), 32Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Elizabeth Rowe: Works (London, 1750) (this also contains her husband’s works).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Richard Grey: Historia Joseph (London, 1739), prefaceGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Enquiry (London, c 1744), 37. The term (‘Father of his Country’) was a Roman honorific, usually applied to military victors but sometimes to senior statesmen; it was often used of both Georges.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    quoted in Otto Erich Deutsch: Handel (London, 1955), 585Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Royal Musical Association 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Duncan Chisholm

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