Home > Free Essays > Religion > Literature on Religion > “Esther” by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend

“Esther” by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend Essay

Exclusively available on IvyPanda Available only on IvyPanda
Updated: Oct 7th, 2020


The genre of an oratorio is believed to have emerged from the sacred Latin texts, which gave the baroque composers room for interpretation of Biblical stories. The stories could be easily staged because they possessed all characteristics of a play: there was a powerful narrative, drama, and conversation that could be transformed into an operatic dialog. George Frideric Handel was proliferating in the genre in Georgian-era England.

Although he is better known for his “Messiah” (1741) and some other creations based on Greek and Roman mythology, “Esther” is credited as the first-ever oratorio written in English1. The present work is an attempt to delve into the biblical story of Esther as represented in the eponymous Handel’s oratorio. It provides a short account of the story’s and the opera’s contents, analyzes the role of music as a depicter of the composer’s perception, and demonstrates how Handel changed the original story’s perspective to create a message of his own.


In the Bible, the conflict unwinds from the moment when King Ahasuerus summons his wife Vashti to entertain his guests. The queen refuses to come, and the wise thinker’s advice the King to dispose of her and find a new woman. The king’s choice falls upon Esther, a Jewish orphan from a Persian settlement of exiles. After Esther becomes the king’s wife, her caretaker Mordecai reveals a plot to the king but is never rewarded for his effort.

The grand vizier Haman orders Mordecai to bow to him, and the Jew refuses. Haman asks the king’s permission to expel and obliterate all the Jews. When Esther learns about it, she decides to ask the king for her people, although she must not appear before him unless summoned, for fear of death. The king is amused at her courage, and Haman is overjoyed by the feast Esther has organized. He orders to erect gallows to execute Mordecai, but the king remembers the Jew was left unrewarded. He orders that Haman’s property be taken away from him and given to Mordecai. At the second dinner, Esther uncovers her Jewish identity and accuses the vizier of mischief. The king orders to hang Haman and appoints Mordecai to his place2.

Handel’s “Esther”

There were a few notable changes the composer brought to the original legend in terms of the plot itself, the libretto, and the message conveyed by the oratorio.


Handel has shortened the legend: his “Esther” only hosts one banquet in Act 3, where the oratorio’s climax moment occurs. Secondly, the composer paid greater attention to the scene of Esther’s scorn on Haman. Additionally, the libretto itself bears a certain influence of some of the notable poets of the time, like Pope, and carries many allusions to other biblical legends like that of Moses. What is the most notable, the composer put a special emphasis on Mordecai’s religious motives when refusing to prostrate himself before the vizier.

The Bible text does not offer any explanations for Mordecai’s actions, while Handel suggests an epic solution and entwines the motives of religious martyrdom into the text. Another noticeable discrepancy is that the Biblical legend praises Esther’s beauty on equal terms with her virtue, while Handel does not stress the woman’s physical appearance at all. To Handel, Esther is the embodiment of purity and spirituality, which is another factor to serve the composer’s purpose.

The change of perspective went in line with how the English public regarded the biblical plot at the time. The fact that “Esther” was written in English helped popularize it and further push the allegory of the Jewish and the Anglicans as a God-chosen people3. Unlike previous authors (such as Racine, for instance), Handel demonstrates the strength of the nation by eliminating the tragedy factor altogether4. The coronation of Esther as the Queen is met by joyful choruses praising the victory of virtue over brutality. The libretto features numerous occasions of prayer to Jehovah, which speak of vengeance to the foes and the good overpowering the evil.

Musical features

The musical features the oratorio possesses make the religious motives all the more visible – paradoxically, perhaps, since they are more evident in Handel’s version than in the Scripture itself. Because the listeners were supposed to be familiar with the legend, the logical sequence of events does not appear to be duly considered. The main characters appear closer to the end of Act 1, and Handel’s interpretation of the sacred text is, after all, quite frivolous.

However, despite the arguable comprehensibility of the plot, the musical arrangement is quite compelling. The choral writings like “Ye sons of Israel” in the first act are not only written with mastery but also bring the central issue of the play closer into focus5. Another tool of concentrating the listeners’ attention on the subject of religiosity is the pizzicato string accompaniment in the “Tune your harps” piece in the same act. The libretto runs with a call to molder the idols into pieces, and the strings help create the graphic effect of stone figures being shattered. The inclusion of these pieces, as well as the coronation anthems, help convey the message that Handel felt was missing in the original text.


As emphasized before, the composer changed the structure of the plot and altered the biblical text to suit the purpose of his own. This purpose was largely stipulated by the socio-political situation he lived in. The patriotic inclinations of the English called for an oratorio that emphasized nationalistic motives so that the public could relate and get inspired6.

Indeed, in Handel’s presentation, the concepts of religion, spirituality, self-defiance, sacrifice, courage, and patriotism become more evident than in the Bible. This is seen in the libretto and the music that adds up to the overall effect.

The confrontations between Mordecai and Haman become more dramatic, as well as Esther’s sudden revelation of her Jewish origins. There are some motives of Mordecai as an allegory of Moses – a patriotic legend, as it were. Esther is seen praying for divine assistance when appearing before the king (an action that could cost Esther her life), which calls to mind the image of martyrdom for her people’s sake and even allows to draw a parallel between Esther and Christ.

Experts emphasize that, although Handel did allow himself freedom of interpretation, he never made a comedy out of the tragedy. He merely shifted the dramatic focus from a single person’s power being tested in the crisis to the fate of a whole nation7. He depicted how the nation submitted itself to the power of god and won the battle over god’s enemies. Such a message cannot be regarded as an oversimplification of the biblical plot, although one has to admit that the legend of Esther in Handel’s presentation had its big moment with the public.


The oratorio has become a momentous significance in the course of Handel’s career as a composer8. Its success can be explained primarily by the composer’s sensitivity to what the public wanted, as well as his musical mastery proper perception. He had predicted that the public would enjoy a familiar subject visualized and allocated it in such a manner that it could relate. This was precisely why Handel changed the perspective, adding the motives of religion and nationalism, and this was the prerequisite of such elements as the coronation anthems and the very fact that the oratorio was written in English. All these factors constituted the success of “Esther” and paved the path for an English oratorio as a genre.


To reiterate, the fact that “Esther” was written in English was not the only reason it was so vastly popular. The composer used the biblical text but altered it to suit the public’s inclinations at the time. He created a story canvas that was driven by the zeitgeist and the relevant historical events that took place (e.g., the Gunpowder plot failure and some others), and used the musical features to sustain this perspective. The journey of “Esther” from the biblical text to an English oratorio ends up with a demonstration of providential goodwill to the chosen nation, which served the pride of the British and kept them firm in their belief that God took pride in them as well.


Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

“George Frideric Handel – Time­Line.” University of Toronto. 2016. Web.

Harris, Ellen T. Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Lang, Paul Henry. George Frideric Handel. North Chelmsford: Courier Corporation, 2012.

Parker, Mary Ann. “Reception of Handel operas, then and now.” University of Toronto Quarterly 72, no. 4 (2007): 850-857.

Rooke, Deborah W. Handel’s Israelite Oratorio Libretti: Sacred Drama and Biblical Exegesis. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2012.


  1. Donald Burrows, Handel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 83.
  2. Deborah W. Rooke, Handel’s Israelite Oratorio Libretti: Sacred Drama and Biblical Exegesis (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2012) 25-37.
  3. Mary Ann Parker, “Reception of Handel operas, then and now,” University of Toronto Quarterly 72, no. 4 (2007): 850.
  4. Deborah W. Rooke, Handel’s Israelite Oratorio Libretti: Sacred Drama and Biblical Exegesis (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2012) 25-37.
  5. Ellen T. Harris, Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) 210-219.
  6. Paul Henry Lang, George Frideric Handel (North Chelmsford: Courier Corporation, 2012), 277.
  7. Deborah W. Rooke, Handel’s Israelite Oratorio Libretti: Sacred Drama and Biblical Exegesis (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2012) 25-37.
  8. “George Frideric Handel – Time­Line,” University of Toronto. Web.
This essay on “Esther” by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.
Removal Request
If you are the copyright owner of this paper and no longer wish to have your work published on IvyPanda.
Request the removal

Need a custom Essay sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

801 certified writers online

Cite This paper
Select a referencing style:


IvyPanda. (2020, October 7). "Esther" by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend. https://ivypanda.com/essays/esther-by-george-frideric-handel-biblical-legend/


IvyPanda. (2020, October 7). "Esther" by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/esther-by-george-frideric-handel-biblical-legend/

Work Cited

""Esther" by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend." IvyPanda, 7 Oct. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/esther-by-george-frideric-handel-biblical-legend/.

1. IvyPanda. ""Esther" by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend." October 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/esther-by-george-frideric-handel-biblical-legend/.


IvyPanda. ""Esther" by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend." October 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/esther-by-george-frideric-handel-biblical-legend/.


IvyPanda. 2020. ""Esther" by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend." October 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/esther-by-george-frideric-handel-biblical-legend/.


IvyPanda. (2020) '"Esther" by George Frideric Handel: Biblical Legend'. 7 October.

Powered by CiteTotal, automatic citation generator
More related papers