Jonathan Rhodes Lee (Music) has just published a chapter in The Heroic in Music (Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell Press). This volume traces the intersection of the poetics of heroism and musical works from the Middle Ages through the 21st century. Lee contributed the book’s chapter on the 18th century, a period that scholars have often deemed an "age without a hero." This is particularly true of the era’s poetry, prose, and drama, which scholars describe with phrases like "antiheroic propaganda campaign," with references to the "disappearance of heroic man," and with assertions such as, "All heroism becomes problematic (. . .) ineffectual and anachronistic’ in this literature."
Lee’s essay demonstrates that the most important English-language musical works of the mid-century, Handel’s oratorios, complicate the literary history described above. The oratorios provide useful illustrations of two contrasting modes of heroism, encompassing both a familiar "action heroism" and what writers in the 18th century specifically called "Christian heroism," reflecting various political and religious contexts. These contexts, of course, influenced Handel’s musical decisions, leading to distinctive sounds of heroism to match the dramatic models that his librettists offered.