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Transculturation in 18th Century England: Oriental Influences in Handel’s Belshazzar


Written in 2013, for SFUHS’s Western Civilization course.

Transculturation in music is more than just novel sounds and unusual instruments. It mirrors the societal zeitgeist – the economic connections, political motivations and social influences present at any moment. Late 18th century England was a small island nation in the process of building the largest empire the world has ever known. The country served as the hub of global trade and was tangled in a web of political alliances. In other words, it was a prime location for the exchange of cultural ideas. During this period, music on the British Isles was dominated by Italian operas and English oratorios. George Friedrich Handel (1785 – 1759) is synonymous with British music of this era; a prolific, virtuoso composer, he wrote over 42 operas and 29 oratorios as well as a plethora of other smaller works.[1] One of his acclaimed works, the 1745 oratorio Belshazzar, taps in to the contemporary social and political influences and masterfully incorporates elements of Oriental culture. Composed during, what Winston Dean–a prominent Handel historian calls– “the peak of Handel’s creative life,” this oratorio masterfully taps into spirit of the time and renders a biblical story into a novel and insightful piece. [2] The transculturation apparent in Belshazzar reflects the exchange of important cultural values. It demonstrates London’s growing fascination with the Orient due to expanding economic ties. It expresses the investment and mercantile interest of the directors of The Royal Academy of Music. Finally, it reveals Occidental society’s attempt to reinforce the tenets of western culture by comparing them to negative stereotypes of the east.

Contemporary London’s fascination with the East, as reflected in Handel’s Orientalist operas (specifically Belshazzar), was the result of growing international trade and greater political interaction between the East and West. During this time, the rise of joint-stock companies led to the emergence of a strong middle class in Britain. Joint-Stock companies are organizations in which the investors’ capital is pooled in a common fund; this allows the commercial risks to be spread across multiple shareholders and limits the liability of any investor to the amount of his investment. This economic structure allowed for an explosion of commercial ventures, with the East India Trading Company as perhaps the most famous, but also including the Royal Music Academy itself. [3] The economic growth sparked by these new companies fostered a substantially greater global competition. During the 17th century, economic rivalry grew between European nations as well nations within the Orient. In the West, European competition for a monopoly of trade came to a head in 1728 with the Ostend Incident. The Imperial Ostend Company was a Flemish private trading enterprise that competed fiercely with the traditional colonial trading companies such as the East India Trading Company. In 1728, what is known as the Ostend Incident occurred; Britain exerted political pressure on the Flemish government and ultimately caused the company to be dissolved.[4] In the East, the competition was intense as well, European efficiency of the industrial system quickly reduced production costs below those of Oriental competitors. However, the cheap labor of the East negatively affected artisans of the West as well.[5] In the early 1700’s, the British parliament attempted to impose a ban of imported materials such as wool and silk, but these measures could not restore prosperity to the local workers.[6] All of these various events resulted in an England intensely curious about the East.

The interests of the directors of The Royal Academy of Music also influenced the subject of Handel’s Orientalist operas. These interests were motivated by many factors, including the possibility of economic gain, the opportunity to combine professional interest with cultural interests, elevating social status and the possibility of influencing political opinions about the East. By supporting the opera, the directors stood to gain economically, socially, and politically. Evidence suggests that many made their decisions largely on the basis of financial self-interest.[7] The directors were typically businessmen actively engaged in investment, government, and international trade (often with the East Indies) and the dramatic music of the time mirrored these interests. Several of the directors were invested in economic ventures in the Orient supplying a possible motivation for the encouragement of orientalist operas.[8] The director’s social motivations played a factor as well: being on the board of such a company, resulted in a higher social status due to its connection with the arts and culture. And political interest controlled decisions.

Though the prospectus for founding the Royal Music Academy promised financial rewards, in reality little profit was made and when the company was shut down 1728, the Royal Academy of Music was clearly a financial sinkhole. Yet during the Ostend incident, the Royal Music Academy remained open, even with extremely heavy loses, because of its ability to influence public opinion: librettos were carefully chosen to cultivate a specific image of the East and sway the Parliament’s votes. [9] Clearly, the directors of the Academy had means and motive to influence Handel’s operas and chose to exercise this power for their financial, social, and political benefit.

Handel reflects exoticism mainly through the subject matter but also with the musical elements of the oratorio. The biblical story that the oratorio is based on describes the king of Babylon, Belshazzar, enjoying sybaritic festivities while the city is laid siege to by the Persians.[10] Though the music of Belshazzar might not sound as exotic as would be expected from the subject, Handel incorporates several distinct elements that emphasize the significance of the Orient. In his letters to Charles Jennens (1700 – 1773), Handel discusses his sentiments about the oratorio saying “It is indeed a noble piece, very grand and uncommon; it has furnished me with Expressions, and has given me Opportunity to some very particular Ideas…”[11] And indeed he does include many strange, novel elements. For example, voice is used as an arbitrarily exotic device. [12]The melismatic coloratura passages (the series of short nonsensical notes) convey an ungainly and primitive effect, which contemporary listeners would associate with the subject matter. Belshazzar is a prime example of, what Ralph Lock would call, the “All the Music In Full Context” paradigm.[13] The exoticism is conveyed through the context and aided only slightly by musical cues.

The depraved Eastern Tyrants depicted in Belshazzar and in many other Orientalist operas are symbolic of societies that have rejected Occidental tenets and mores. In contrast, the oriental influences in Handel’s operas are used to convey the importance the moral ideas and constructs of Western civilization. Belshazzar is portrayed as a self-indulgent tyrant; Winston Dean described his court as a “riot of oriental color – wives, concubines, astrologers and all.”[14] Operas and dramatic oratorios such as Belshazzar reinforced the contemporary ideological system. At the time in England, the growing middle class, including entrepreneurs made possible through joint stock companies, was challenging traditional social structures. Musical works of the time strived to uphold duty, self-sacrifice, and other professed ideals. These ‘occidental’ values are contrasted in Belshazzar with the depraved values of the East. Handel emphasizes the cliché of a Middle Eastern Sultan enjoying a life of excess and pleasure through the musical elements and the lyrics of Belshazzar’s aria ”Let the deep bowl thy praise confess.” He imagines himself as a god while he drinks excessively: “Another bowl! ‘Tis gen’rous wine, Exalts the human to divine.”[15] The rising vocal scale on “Exalts…” parallels Belshazzar’s claim of rising to godhood. His opening words in this aria (“Another Bowl”) are a cry of overindulgence. [16] It is repeated four times, with each reference echoed by the oboes. These reiterating instrumental phrases allow the listener to visualize Belshazzar’s behavior: grabbing and guzzling one cup after another. Ultimately, Handel’s portrayal of Belshazzar not only reinforces oriental stereotypes but also fortifies the importance of occidental social, political and religious traditions. This negative depiction reveals how the influences of the East were used to extol English (and Western) society.

Ultimately, Handel’s Belshazzar exemplifies the social, political, and economic relationships of its time. England’s intense interest in the East is portrayed through both the subject matter and the musical variations of the piece. And beyond the superficial biblical story, Handel conveys a subtler message of Western nationalism and identity by juxtaposing the values of the stereotyped East with those of the idealized West.[17] Europe’s interest in the Orient really stems from its citizens’ desire to understand Western culture. Contemporary scholars explored this in a binary way, comparing the Orient to the Occident. Responding to the desires of his audience, Belshazzar makes clear the superiority of the civilized West over the depraved and barbaric East.


[1] Anthony Hicks, “Handel, George Frideric, §10: Oratorios and musical dramas,” in Oxford Music Online, accessed March 27, 2013,

[2] Winston Dean, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1959), 435.


[3] Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, “New Light on Handel and the Royal Academy of Music in 1720,” Theatre Journal 35, no. 2 (May 1983): 149-152.

[4] Gerald B. Hertz, “England and the Ostend Company,” The English Historical Review 22, no. 86 (April 1907): 255-260.

[5] John E. Orchard, “Oriental Competition in World Trade,” Foreign Affairs 15, no. 4 (July 1937): 708-710.

[6] Ralph Davis, “English Foreign Trade, 1700-1774,” The Economic History Review, n.s., 15, no. 2 (1962): 286.

[7] Milhous and Hume, “New Light on Handel,” 149-167.

[8] Elizabeth Gibson, The Royal Academy of Music (1719-1728): The Institution and Its Directors (New York, London: Garland, 1889), 24-33.

[9] Ellen T. Harris, “With Eyes on the East and Ears in the West: Handel’s Orientalist Operas,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36, no. 3 (2006): 423.

[10] “Handel’s Oratorios,” Handel’s Music, accessed May 5, 2013,

[11] Erich H. Muller, ed., The Letters and Writings of George Frederic Handel (London, UK: Butler and Tanner, 1935), 52.

[12] Ralph P. Locke, “A Broader View of Musical Exoticism,” The Journal of Musicology 24, no. 4 (2007): 501.

[13] Locke, “A Broader View of Musical,” 478.

[14] Dean, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques, 440.

[15] Charles Jennens, Let the Deep Bowl Thy Praise Confess

[16] Ralph P. Locke, Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 92-93.

[17] Elissa Hope Keck, “William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast: Orientalism and the Continuation of the English Oratorio” (master’s thesis, University of Tennessee, 2010), 5-7.


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