The Sunday Section: Music - 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' and George Frideric Handel

There are only a handful of pieces by Handel that I’m familiar with. Of those, I can never decide which is my favourite – ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ or ‘Zadok the Priest’. As the first classical piece I heard on my birthday was ‘The Arrival…’, I shall highlight that today.

Georg Friedrich Händel - Thomas Hudson.jpg

'Georg Friedrich Händel' ~ Thomas Hudson

Although German by birth – he was born Georg Friedrich Händel in Halle, in the Duchy of Magdeburg (a province of Brandenburg-Prussia) in 1685 – George Handel is best known for his work in Britain where he had established his reputation through his Italian operas.

He settled in London in 1712 and became a naturalised British subject in 1727. He started 3 commercial opera companies in England, all within 15 years, so the English nobility could enjoy Italian opera. Following his success in 1742 with ‘Messiah’, an English-language oratorio, he turned to composing solely in English and never performed an Italian opera again. When he died in 1759, the almost-blind Handel was given a funeral with full state honours; he is buried in Westminster Abbey.

One of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, his most popular works, apart from ‘Messiah’, includes ‘Water Music’ and ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’. He composed four ‘Coronation Anthems’, of which ‘Zadok the Priest’ is the one performed at every British coronation since that of George II, for whose coronation the music was composed.

The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ is a short passage from the English oratorio, ‘Solomon’, composed in 1748. It is based on the biblical stories of King Solomon. ‘The Arrival…’ has become famous in its own right, and was featured at the London Olympics in 2012.

Act 1 of ‘Solomon’ begins with the king and his people celebrating the consecration of the Temple he has built in Jerusalem, and the king rejoicing in his wedded bliss. Act 2 tells of the famous biblical story of the two women claiming a single baby as her own. When Solomon orders the baby split in half to settle the case, the real mother begs him not to and hands the child to the other woman, as Solomon knew the real mother would.

'The Judgment of Solomon' - Nicolas Poussin

Act 3 is to do with the state visit from the Queen of Sheba. Although not named, the queen is famous in history and literature. All that is known of her is that she visited Solomon, flaunting her wealth at his court. She came as his equal, a royal ruler in her own right. The kingdom of Sheba is believed to be based on the ancient civilization of Saba in South Arabia. Woman rulers at that time were not uncommon; queens from the 8th and 7th centuries BC are listed in Assyrian inscriptions.

'The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon' ~ Edward Poynter

In the Bible, it says that the Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem “with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones … Never again came such an abundance of spices” which she gave to Solomon. She came “to prove him with hard questions”, and he answered all to her satisfaction. They exchanged gifts and she returned to her land. And, frustratingly, nothing more is said of her; nothing more is known of her.