Our music for this week is “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” the overture to Handel’s oratorio “Solomon.”
“Solomon” is based on the life of the Biblical character King Solomon and is taken from the books of 1st Kings and 2nd Chronicles. The music we hear represents the bustling of Solomon’s court in preparation for the queen’s arrival. The queen actually arrives later in Act III, but the overture has become one of Handel’s most famous melodies. In fact, it was played as the opening theme of the 2012 London Olympics.
Handel spent much of his life pursuing the Italian opera format, a genre he desperately wanted to introduce to his hometown of London. However, he was forced to give up after realizing that it simply wouldn’t catch on, as evidenced by the meager paychecks his operas brought in. He therefore switched his focus onto oratorios, a much more socially acceptable genre to the stuffy aristocrats of 18th-century England. It was also convenient because it allowed Handel to portray drama without actually putting characters on stage; this was important because here was a law in London during his lifetime that prohibited the representation of biblical characters through acting.
This overture is about as Baroque as it gets. As the opening to Act III, the primary theme is stately and broad, merging from a dotted rhythm to a fugue format. (Apparently, Handel received significant criticism for this theme when it was first performed because it was so remarkably similar to one of his contemporaries’ melodies that people thought he had copied it. Given his notorious reputation as a “borrower” of music, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had indeed purloined the melody from his colleague). The woodwinds are featured in conversation with the strings, and the melody is traded back and forth between instruments on a regular basis. Simple, precise, Baroque.