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Thoughts on Handel's Theodora, HW 68

Still rose the morn; Security had lull’d

The scatter’d sons of vice in false repose,

Heav’n of its dread intent no portents gave;

…When, instantaneous, earth’s huge, cumb’rous mass

Heav’d, with strange pang, and deep resounds her groan.

Anon., 1750

Climate change events have produced some bizarre collateral effects in recent history, but none more so than the earthquake that struck London in the spring of 1750. This is how chronicler and satirist William Hone, writing 80 years later, described the tremors:

On the 8th of March, 1750, an earthquake shook London. The shock was at half past five in the morning. It awoke people from their sleep and frightened them out of their houses. A servant maid in Charterhouse-square, was thrown from her bed, and had her arm broken; bells in several steeples were struck by the chime hammers; great stones were thrown from the new spire of Westminster Abbey; dogs howled in uncommon tones; and fish jumped half a yard above the water. London had experienced a shock only a month before, namely, on the 8th of February 1750, between 12 and 1 o'clock in the day and at Westminster, the barristers were so alarmed that they imagined the hall was falling! (Alessa Johns, ed., Dreadful Visitations: Confronting Natural Catastrophes in the Age of Enlightenment).

Handel finished the oratorio Theodora on July 31, 1749, and its premiere was March 16, 1750 – eight days after the earthquake. The oratorio was a failure with the public and only played three times. It was also the least performed of all his oratorios, only once again revived in 1755. While there are various explanations, the most interesting, of course, is the earthquake, which could well have driven Handel's usual patrons from the city, and that not only because of imminent physical harm. London, in the grips of an evangelical revival under the influence of the Wesley’s, saw the tremors as the work of God; indeed, Charles Wesley was inspired to write in sermon 129:

Of all the judgments which the righteous God inflicts on sinners here, the most dreadful and destructive is an earthquake. This he has lately brought on our part of the earth, and thereby alarmed our fears, and bid us "prepare to meet our God!"

I am to show you that earthquakes are the works of the Lord, and He only bringeth this destruction upon the earth. Now, that God is himself the Author, and sin the moral cause, of earthquakes, (whatever the natural cause may be,) cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures.

It’s possible that the theme of the persecution and martyrdom of a Christian saint may have been too removed from the Old Testament narratives that Londoners had become accustomed to from Handel's dramatic oratorios, but only the most cynical would not have at least entertained the notion that an earthquake was a supernal judgment on this story of a heroine’s death and her converted lover.

“From virtue springs each generous deed” Septimius, Act III scene 5

Theodora was a 4th-century Christian martyr in Antioch during Diocletian’s rule. Didymus, a Roman officer who secretly converted to Christianity, protests the Roman prefect Valens who threatens death to all who refuse sacrifices for Jove. Theodora, a noblewoman, likewise defies Valens’ decree. Valens expresses astonishment at the Christian ethics of disobedience and condemns Didymus to “repentance or death.” Didymus justifies his stand, Theodora offers herself as the sacrifice for Didymus’ crime. Septimius comes to the conclusion that there is “virtuous courage” in the female sex in a recitative. In the long da capo aria Septimius presently sings is a beautifully crafted minuet, though righteous and elegant. He holds that “from virtue springs each generous deed,” and goes on to urge, “let justice for the hero plead,” and the only show of emotion – in sentiment or musical expression – is in the following “and pity save the fair.” Handel scholar Paul Henry Lang suggests that Handel did not care for the character of Septimius, that he wanted either a true Roman or an avowed Christian, and thus positioned him as detached, aloof. If he is correct, Handel’s music belies his inner discourse.

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