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Saul appears to have begun with the 18th-century equivalent of a cold call, when Charles Jennens, a wealthy landowner, sent Handel a libretto for an oratorio in July 1735. Handel had known Jennens for years and was on friendly terms with him, unlike most of Jennens’ social circle, who found him overbearing and called him “Suleyman the Magnificent.” Handel wrote back that he was setting off on a trip and hadn’t time to give the text “the attention it deserves” but “what I could read of it in haste, gave me a great deal of satisfaction.” He also wrote that there were no firm plans for the next theater season, “but it is probable that some thing or other may be done” with the libretto.

If, as is likely, Jennens’ libretto was indeed Saul, Handel didn’t get around to doing some thing or other with it until July 1738, when the opera company he was to direct closed after years of cutthroat competition with a rival company that had folded the previous year. The writing was on the wall for the London Italian opera business, and Handel immediately began composing Saul, his fourth Englishlanguage oratorio.

Handel’s audience would have known the basic Biblical story of Saul and David, though the details might have been unclear, as is the story itself. The First Book of Samuel was likely compiled from several sources, and reads in places like the work of a committee that never met. For example, in the space of a few paragraphs, David is introduced for the first time no less than three times, something Jennens cleaned up in his libretto. (Jennens kept another plot hole: Saul trying to kill David with his spear and then expressing anger and surprise later when David doesn’t show up for dinner.)

But an English person who could afford a ticket to a Handel oratorio would have known that the prophet and priest Samuel, the last of the “judges” who ruled ancient Israel, reluctantly gave in to demands to establish a monarchy, and plucked out of obscurity for the role an equally reluctant Saul, whose only apparent qualifications were that he was handsome and very tall.

Saul proved a forceful governor and capable military commander, but Samuel continued to give Saul orders and expect obedience. When Samuel said God commanded Saul to annihilate the Amalekites, and Saul failed to kill their king, Samuel announced (many years prematurely) that Saul’s reign was over. God then directed Samuel to anoint David, Jesse’s eighth son, as king, which Samuel did in the presence of David’s brothers and no one else, so that for years Israel would have two anointed kings, and almost no one, least of all Saul, knew it.

David was brought to the royal court to sooth Saul’s dark moods by playing the harp, and killed the Philistine Goliath to become more popular than Saul, driving Saul to homicidal envy and David into exile in the countryside, where he commanded followers who evaded Saul’s soldiers while they lived as brigands, raiders and even, for a while, mercenaries in the service of the Philistine king. David became king when Saul died in battle.

Jennens’ libretto leaves out much of the story, including David’s anointing and brigand years, which did not fit Jennens’ themes of a blameless David and a Saul destroyed by jealousy. It also leaves out David’s marriage to Abigail during those years, which did not fit the love story between David and Saul’s daughter Michal. Jennens visited Handel in September 1738, when he was finishing the oratorio, and wrote to an aristocratic friend that Handel’s head was “more full of maggots [i.e., whimsical fancies] than ever.” One was a “very queer instrument,” a set of bells played from a keyboard, with which “he designs to make poor Saul stark mad.” Indeed they do, accompanying the women who arouse Saul’s envy with their praise of David’s military prowess.

Handel uses a lavish palette of instrumental color for striking effects elsewhere as well, among them David’s harp; the otherwordly bassoons heralding the entry of Samuel’s ghost; the blazing brass in a half-minute-long Symphony representing Saul’s last battle; and the alto and tenor trombones playing the famous Dead March in unison with the first and second violins, respectively, creating a gentle but slightly unfocused sound, as if seeing the dead king through tears. – Howard Posner