The festival theme: “Heroes and Redeemers”

Entitled “Heroes and Redeemers”, the Handel Festival and Leipzig Bachfest are jointly placing the focus on what remains the Halle-born composer’s most famous work: Messiah. This oratorio will be performed at the festival in three different versions or arrangements: besides Handel's original London version, visitors also will be familiarised with the little-known German version by Johann Gottfried Herder, as well as a Messiah in the Caribbean musical style that will celebrate its European premiere in Halle. In many other performances at the 2021 Handel Festival, the story of Jesus’ life, or passages from it, will be told in music. The music festival opens with Handel’s Brockes Passion, in which Jesus appears not as a hero triumphing over death, but as a patient man through whom humanity is redeemed of its sins.

Jesus the Redeemer is frequently also seen as a hero, conquering death and sin. Building on this, the festival theme encompasses other settings of Christian heroic tales, such as that of the martyr Theodora, or Judas Maccabeus (sadly, the performance has been cancelled owing to the coronavirus), who was portrayed in the history of literature and art of the early fourteenth century as one of the "Nine Worthies" (cf. the French epic poem Les Voeux du Paon by Jacques de Longuyon, from 1312, or pictorial representations, such as that in the Hanseatic League Hall in Cologne City Hall).

The list of these Nine Worthies includes not only Jewish heroes from the Old Testament, but also heroes of antiquity, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. These often feature as protagonists in Baroque operas –including those by George Frideric Handel. This is why, in some of the concerts in the 2021 Handel Festival, we will be taking a closer look at these heroes (concerts Alessandro amante and Giulio Cesarea Baroque hero). Rounding out this programme are other heroic stories, such as that of the legendary Persian king, Xerxes.

Not least, with its theme of Heroes and Redeemers the Handel Festival also aims to reflect upon modern hero-worship: it seems to be a phenomenon of the times that people in various societies around the world choose to follow those politicians who, by providing simple answers to complex issues, appear as energetic “heroes”, as “redeemers”, saviours, almost, from confused fears, while the more measured forces who aim for compromise and strive for consensus are met with great scepticism. In contrast, Baroque opera shows that even the most famous heroes and statesmen only become true heroes when they show greatness by not persisting in a simplistic, black-and-white way of thinking, but show virtues such as generosity and forgive even the worst offences. Only then do they become heroes and prove themselves worthy of their office.                         

Clemens Birnbaum