is surely one of the most moving works in Handel’s whole output. He took great care over it, spending a full 65 days in its composition (compared with the amazing 24 days for Messiah and 27 days for Israel in Egypt.
Charles Jennens, had presented Handel with a libretto, perhaps for Saul in 1735. But it was on 26th July 1738 that the 53-year-old Handel actually started work on Saul, the day after hearing there were not enough subscribers for a proposed opera. Oratorios were so much cheaper to stage than operas.
In Saul, as in his next oratorio Israel in Egypt, the chorus plays a major role as the People of Israel. Apparently the public of the time did not particularly like massive choruses, preferring simpler airs; but in the longer term the choruses have proved to provide some of the most powerful and poignant moments in the piece, as in the Envy chorus and the funeral lament.
The public didn’t appreciate the more imaginative orchestra either. They were used to an orchestra of just strings, oboes and continuo; in Saul there were also trumpets, trombones, kettle-drums (borrowed from the Tower of London), flutes at one point and a carillon. This carillon was played with a keyboard, and was in effect forerunner of the celeste. It was, according to Jennens, one of Handel’s maggots.
Saul was first performed in January, 1739 at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. It proved to be one of his most popular works, being performed six times on the trot during its first season.