People and Genres

27 The Bible as Musical, Oratorio, and Opera

In this chapter you will

  • begin learning about one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous contemporaries, George Frideric Handel
  • consider their very different careers as composers
  • learn what an oratorio is and why some of Handel’s were controversial in their day
  • situate Handel’s oratorios within the context of more recent works that may be more familiar to you

Introduction: Musical Entertainment Based on the Bible

George Frideric Handel lived at the same time as J. S. Bach. They were both born in the same year, 1685. Yet their trajectories, despite both pursuing careers in music, took them in significantly different directions, even though both interacted with the Bible extensively in their compositions. Bach was a church musician from a musical family. Handel was an entrepreneur who composed for performance in theaters and other secular venues.

Handel composed many different kinds of works, but he is especially famous for his oratorios, and those works also connect most directly with our interest in this book in the intersection of the Bible and music. An oratorio is essentially an opera without the acting. Different individuals nonetheless depict different roles. Ben Finane writes, “The roots of oratorio…stretch back to the settings of sacred texts in the Middle Ages as well as Medieval mystery plays, whose purpose was to provide education in key points of the Bible to a population that was largely illiterate or lacked access to the Good Book. Biblical texts were set to music and men were taught to sing them—chiefly to learn their verses.”[1] Oratorios were not always on sacred themes, of course, and those who are interested might wish to investigate what, if anything, apart from the words themselves, distinguishes religious oratorios from others.[2] Handel wrote quite a number both sacred and secular, and it is the biblical ones that will be our focus here, once we provide a bit more historical context.

Historically, in many churches, the visual arts had played an important role in conveying stories from the Bible to those who could not read them. Many Eastern Orthodox churches are literally covered with artwork in their interior, with icons focused on biblical stories and people as well as those from later in church history. Catholic churches will typically include statues, and many also include significant amounts of visual artistry of other types. Catholic churches and some Protestant ones may have stained glass windows. Some Protestant churches will have none of those things. The history behind these differences is not something we can explore here. It does, however, indicate how Protestantism may have created a space and a desire or need for musical artistry to replace the visual that certain theological stances rejected.

Cultures that valued biblical stories also created a space for performances aimed primarily at entertainment. If you watch the story of Jesus on television or in the cinema, however much it may perhaps connect with a personal faith that you have, the very nature of the venue and medium makes the experience and meaning different from what would be expected in a church or other religious setting. When religion and entertainment coincide, the result is not always welcomed by either the religious or consumers. You have probably encountered some examples in the news at some point of people objecting to a movie, song, or something else because of religion. They may complain that it promotes religion or that it denigrates it. These kinds of negative reactions to religion and entertainment joining forces have a long history.

Rock Operas and Musicals

You probably will not be surprised that controversy surrounded Jesus Christ Superstar. The rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber (discussed briefly in the preceding chapter) is known to many from the 1970s and found a new following more recently with the television version starring John Legend as Jesus. Its take on the story of Jesus is offered through the lens of Judas Iscariot (the disciple said to have betrayed Jesus) and so is controversial because of its story even apart from anything one might say about things like musical choices. Other modern depictions for the purpose of entertainment, such as the animated movie The Prince of Egypt, are less controversial in that sense. But they still raise questions about the use of the Bible for entertainment, the appropriateness of making money by telling stories from the Bible, and so on. Here is a clip from the movie The Prince of Egypt for those who may not have seen it.[3]

Controversies about sacred stories serving as mere entertainment are nothing new. Centuries ago, Handel faced objections from those who considered it inappropriate to have the words of Scripture performed on a secular stage. When studying music from the past, it can be helpful to think about the closest modern equivalents in order to better appreciate the role that music played in its own time and how music from our own era performs similar or different roles.

More on Handel’s Oratorios

Handel created quite a number of oratorios that retell biblical stories. These include the stories of Jephthah, Deborah, Samson, Solomon, and Athalia, as well as those of Susanna and Judas Maccabeus, which are based on texts from the Apocrypha or deuterocanonical books (i.e., those not found in most Protestant Bibles). The choice of attire and other aspects when these are performed today can create new layers of meaning, as for instance in this performance of Jephtha, which is based on a story in Judges 11.[4]

In the present day, it is not uncommon for an oratorio to be performed in a manner more like an opera and conversely for an opera to be performed as a concert without the theatrical element. If you read the libretto of Jephthah, which Handel set to music, you will see the great lengths to which it goes to make some kind of theological sense of this disturbing story of child sacrifice. You may wish to compare it with the concert aria “Jephthah’s Daughter” by American composer Amy Beach, which sets a French poem by C. L. Mollevant. That work focuses more on the tragedy of the situation as viewed from the daughter’s perspective.[5] The story of Jephthah is also given musical treatment by Giacomo Meyerbeer (Jephtas Gelübde), Giacomo Carissimi (Jephte), and Aharon Harlap (Bat Yiftach).[6] There is also a completely instrumental exploration of the story by Ernst Toch, which we discuss briefly in chapter 21 on biblical music without words.

Handel’s musical retellings of stories such as those of Judas Maccabeus and Susanna, considered alongside the ones that are about stories found in Protestant Bibles, raise the question of whether audiences may respond to the same work differently depending on whether they view it as “biblical” or not. Either way, most oratorios use libretti that are not exclusively composed of biblical text and thus at the very least expand on and supplement the Bible.[7] This is all the more true when the story is told not just set to music but with songs placed on the lips of characters. Anyone who has seen a musical knows that it is not simply the same thing as telling a story. A movie that is not a musical will still be full of music. The fact that characters sing makes a difference. What happens to a biblical story when it is given that sort of treatment? One might perhaps place most oratorios under the heading of “biblical Apocrypha” just like the many ancient texts we have that expand on biblical narratives.

The libretto for Handel’s Israel in Egypt, on the other hand, is drawn almost entirely from the biblical text, unlike many of the others. You may find it interesting to compare it with the more dramatized explorations of biblical stories by Handel on the one hand and the modern exploration of the same story in The Prince of Egypt on the other. What if anything is different other than the style, reflecting differences between the musical languages of the eighteenth century and today? Have a listen.[8]

It is hard for modern listeners to imagine that a work such as this could have been controversial and met with opposition from religious people in England. For many, bringing sacred Scripture into the secular venue of the concert hall was strictly taboo.

Handel reused and incorporated some existing music into this new work. Of course, Bach did the same thing, most famously with “O Sacred Head.” That was church music being used in other church music, however. The reuse of music, both one’s own and that of others, is nothing new, nor has it ceased. Alfred Newman incorporated music by Handel and also Verdi at key moments in his score for The Greatest Story Ever Told, from which we shared a video clip in chapter 26 about Passions. In all sorts of ways, music sometimes makes connections between different musical works as well as with life and experiences outside the story being told.

The next chapter will discuss Handel’s most famous work, the Messiah. For now, listen to it. It is a long work, not always performed in its entirety, and offers an interesting combination of texts from all over the Bible. The very famous sections that just about every reader will recognize may take on a different meaning when heard in the context of the whole, just as these texts may take on new meanings when arranged in this manner.[9]

For Further Reading

Aaron, Clarissa E. “A Story of Feminine Sacrifice: The Music, Text, and Biographical Connections in Amy Beach’s Concert Aria Jephthah’s Daughter.” Seattle Pacific University Honors Projects 72 (2018).

Block, Adrienne Fried. Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867–1944. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Leneman, Helen. The Voice of Judith in 300 Years of Oratorio and Opera. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.

Rooke, Deborah W. Handel’s Israelite Oratorio Libretti: Sacred Drama and Biblical Exegesis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Shapiro, Alexander H. “‘Drama of an Infinitely Superior Nature’: Handel’s Early English Oratorios and the Religious Sublime.” Music & Letters 74, no. 2 (1993): 215–45.

Webb, Ralph T. “Handel’s Oratorios as Drama.” College Music Symposium 23, no. 2 (1983): 122–44.


  1. Ben Finane, Handel’s Messiah and His English Oratorios: A Closer Look (New York: Continuum, 2009), 26.
  2. The first secular oratorio we know of is Claudio Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda from 1624.
  3. Licensed by Universal to the Movieclips YouTube channel.
  4. Ivor Bolton conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester. Soloists are Topi Lehtipuu, Carolyn Sampson, Ann Hallenberg, and Andrew Foster-Williams.
  5. There are many other musical treatments of the story of Jephthah’s daughter, including those by Michel de Monteclair, Luis Cepeda, Ruperto Chapí, Elma Ehrich Levinger, Lucien Haudebert, and Lazare Saminsky.
  6. Harlap, like many of the composers mentioned in this book and here in this chapter, has explored many more biblical stories than we can mention here. The composer’s website has much more that is worth exploring.
  7. There are many oratorios and other works based on stories in the Apocrypha, such as Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans.
  8. The SCM Chamber Choir and SCM Early Music Ensemble, conducted by Neil McEwan, perform G. F. Handel’s Israel in Egypt on October 14, 2016, at Verbrugghen Hall. Shared on YouTube by the University of Sydney.
  9. Live performance at the Sydney Opera House by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Christmas Choir and Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Brett Weymark. Shared on YouTube by ABC Classic.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book