In 1712, a Hamburg city councillor and poet, Barthold Heinrich Brockes, published an oratorio libretto: The Story of Jesus, Suffering and Dying for the Sins of the World. The text proved hugely popular, and a number of settings were composed, most famously by Telemann and Handel. Scandinavia’s leading period instrument ensemble Concerto Copenhagen perform Handel’s setting of what became known as the Brockes Passion over the Easter period in Denmark, Germany and Holland. Lars Ulrik Mortensen, Concerto Copenhagen's Artistic Director, tells us about one of Handel's less well-known works.

Caravaggio: The Crowning with Thorns ( Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
© Public Domain | Wikipedia

JS: This is a big project, with a cast of soloists from across Northern Europe, and concerts in several countries – can you start by telling us a bit more about it?

LUM: The Brockes Passion fits very well with Concerto Copenhagen’s philosophy, which has – as one important aspect – the performance of unjustly forgotten musical works, both by familiar and lesser-known composers, in a way which enhances our understanding of a particular musical period or personal musical style, not in a museum-style fashion, but in a way which makes the music immediately moving and relevant for an audience of today. Furthermore, unlike Handel’s later oratorios, the Brockes Passion was written specifically for a North German performing tradition, i.e. not for a choir but for an ensemble of soloists, and this gives us the welcome opportunity to work with a group of world-class soloists, many of whom we have loved to perform with for many years.   

The Brockes Passion isn’t performed very often these days: what attracted you to it?

I have “lived” with the work for the better part of 25 years, but this is the first time I have performed it. Traditionally, in much of the Handel literature of today, the Brockes Passion is not ranked among his masterpieces, but I have never quite understood why! To me, Handel here displays not only his incredible range of musical expression, but he also, importantly and unusually, uses and colours his own native language to reach an artistic level which I think far surpasses other contemporary settings by, for example, Telemann and Mattheson.

Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducting Israel in Egypt, 2016
© Christoffer Askman

Handel was already well established in London when he wrote the Brockes Passion. Why did he choose at this stage in his life to write a German oratorio, for a German audience?

It is very true that in the light of Handel’s further career and activities the Brockes Passion stands out as a kind of exception. But let us not forget that at the time of composition (1716-17) Handel’s future in England was by no means assured, and composing a major work in his native language for a major German cultural center may well have seemed a very astute “job application”. Furthermore, Handel was undoubtedly deeply moved by the expressiveness and strength of Brockes’s poetry: its unexpected immediacy and very colorful language made a huge impact on an 18th-century listeners, and Handel clearly felt this to be an ideal vehicle for his own musical powers.

Bartold Heinrich Brockes, by Dominicus van der Smissen (Kunsthalle, Kiel)
© Public Domain | Wikipedia

The libretto doesn’t hold back on graphic details when describing pain and suffering. How does Handel respond to this explicitly gruesome text? And how do you go about presenting this to a modern audience?

For these very reasons, Brockes’s libretto has often had a bad press, and even in supposedly well-informed present-day writings about this Passion one often finds anything from slight unease to downright condemnation of its seeming literary excesses. I personally have no such qualms – we are after all squarely in the Baroque period! – and my own approach will rather consist of trying to fully unleash the raw and realistic drama of Brockes’s and Handel’s vision: fire and fury, shock and awe, pity and compassion, joy and sorrow.

There are soloists named as “Daughter of Zion” and the “Faithful Souls” -- what is their role in the piece?

In music of the Baroque period it was a common and important constructional principle to employ “commentators” or “interpreters”, who would explain the implications or the meaning of the unfolding dramatic story to the individual listener. Almost every single dramatic point in the story triggers a reaction from a Daughter of Zion or a Faithful Soul. I personally do not think that these roles are necessarily singer-specific, so in the course of the Passion we hear individual voices expressing personal statements which should all invite an equally individual reaction from each single listener.

Is the Brockes Passion really an opera in disguise? Could you envisage it being staged?

I have frequent issues with staged versions of sacred Baroque music (come to think of it, also often with operas as well!), the reason being that one specific visual representation may well limit the scope of the single listener’s own interpretation. With the Brockes Passion I strongly feel that the music and text alone should be sufficient to move the audience wherever they may want to go.

Concerto Copenhagen in Israel in Egypt, 2016
© Christoffer Askman

Handel famously recycled his music – are there any familiar tunes to listen for in the Brockes Passion?

It is a well-known fact that throughout his career Handel regularly recycled or recast musical ideas, sometimes – on the macro-level – an entire aria or chorus and sometimes – on the micro-level – a particular melodic or harmonic “tag”. The Brockes Passion is no exception, and Handel connoisseurs will undoubtedly recognize many such re-workings, especially in regard to compositions from that particular period like the oratorios Esther and Deborah. Sesto’s famous aria from Giulio Cesare, “Cara speme”, also makes an appearance here.  

What for you are the highlights of Handel’s Brockes Passion?

It is difficult to know where to begin, as almost every single number in the Brockes Passion is a vivid example of Handel’s extraordinary ability to represent almost any human emotion musically. Judas’s self-loathing “Heul, du Fluch”; the earthquake after the death of Jesus; and the crowd’s ferocious threats on Golgotha are undoubtedly dramatic highpoints, but, for me, the inconsolable compassion of “Brich, mein Herz”; the light of life being extinguished in “Was Wunder, dass der Sonnen Pracht”; the throbbing bassoons in the pitch-dark warning to mankind “Die ihr Gottes Gnad’ versäumet”; and the quiet prayer for and peace and mercy in the final chorale “Ich bin ein Glied” are among the most haunting examples of Handel’s musical art.

Article sponsored by Concerto Copenhagen