During Handel's lifetime, Judas Maccabaeus was one of the most popular of all his oratorios. Following its hugely successful first performance at London's Covent Garden theater on April 1, 1747, the work was subsequently revived during Handel's oratorio seasons every year until his death in 1759, with the single exception of 1749. Yet the oratorio has its genesis in one of the bleaker periods of Handel's life. In 1745 he was forced to abandon his Covent Garden season for lack of support, and he was also in ill-health. Notwithstanding, Judas Maccabaeus was begun in the fall of that year. The work was temporarily laid aside in favor of The Occasional Oratorio, quickly composed and drawing heavily from preexisting material, as Handel's loyalist contribution to the fight to put down the serious Jacobite revolution launched by the Stuarts. Only after the threat of the rebellion's success was lifted following the bloodily conclusive battle of Culloden in April 1746 did Handel again take up the score, completing it on August 11.
With its warlike story of the triumph of a Jewish hero over invading forces, Judas Maccabaeus formed the ideal victory celebration, and was overtly planned as such by Handel and his librettist, the Rev. Thomas Morrell. Indeed the latter designed his book as "a compliment to the Duke of Cumberland upon his returning victorious from Scotland." Its main source is the first book of Maccabees, which appears in the Apocrypha. The oratorio falls into three acts, the first of which opens after one of Handel's finest overtures, with the mourning of the Israelites lamenting the death of Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabaeus and the leader of Jewish resistance to the invading Syrians. This somber opening sequence includes one of Handel's most famous arias, "Pious orgies," with its mournful tones underpinned by dark bassoons. The Israelites are galvanized by Judas, and the remainder of the oratorio is dominated by a militaristic triumphalism illustrated through some of Handel's grandest and most stirring choruses, among which "Sound an alarm" (Act Two) and "Sing unto God" (Act Three) are notable examples. At the end of the oratorio the exploits of Judas and his forces ensure a peace guaranteed by Roman power, a moment celebrated in one of the oratorio's few moments of repose in "O lovely peace," the lovely pastoral aria sung by the Israelite Woman.
The famous number "See the conqu'ring Hero" is often associated with Judas, but was in fact originally composed for the oratorio's close relative, Joshua (1747); it was only later added to the present work. In keeping with the mood and scale of the work, Handel's lavish scoring includes trumpets, horns, and timpani in addition to the flutes, oboes, and the usual complement of strings. There are solo parts for soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, and two basses in addition to the usual four-part chorus. Judas Maccabaeus is one of the few oratorios to have remained popular from Handel's day through to the twenty-first century. A singular hit with the Jewish population of London at the time, it remains a celebration of the Feast of Hanukkah, which commemorates the events it depicts.