Episode 1: Handel's Judas Maccabeus

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Beethoven’s variations on the chorus, “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes,” from Handel's Judas Maccabeus
Eaken Piano Trio
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Here’s a piece of classical music that’s become associated with Chanukah for both obvious and completely unintentional reasons. The music is from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus, which, like Chanukah, tells the story of the victorious uprising of the Jewish people against the Greek king Antiochus, who had forbidden Jewish religious observances, mandated the worship of Greek gods, and defiled the Temple. Judas Maccabeus led the band of Jewish fighters that defeated Antiochus.

After the victory, the Temple was cleansed, but there was only enough oil to keep the Temple’s ritual lamp lit for one day. However, the oil for lasted eight days, and that is the miracle celebrated as the Festival of Lights. So, the subject matter of Handel’s oratorio is the obvious reason for its Chanukah association. But if you’re now expecting a big reveal about a Handel-Jewish connection, well ... sorry, but there isn’t one. See, Handel didn’t write the oratorio for any religious purpose at all. He wrote it to celebrate an English military victory. The best-known musical moment associated with Judas Maccabeus is the chorus, “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes,” and that moment is probably even better-known in a non-Handel form. Beethoven liked that chorus so much that he wrote variations on it. Here’s that set of variations now, played by the Eaken Piano Trio.

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  • This recording is courtesy of Naxos of America