G.F. Handel, Chandos Anthems — Oct 2009

For this concert program: Details | Translations | Notes

Program Notes

George Frideric Handel was born in 1685, a felicitous year in which Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were also born. He died 250 years ago, in 1759. From Halle and later Hamburg, in 1710, after three years working and composing in Rome, Handel entered the service of the Elector of Hanover, Prince Georg Ludwig. Two years later without asking for the elector’s permission, Handel decided to establish himself in London. To Handel’s surprise, and perhaps chagrin, Prince Georg Ludwig, the closest Protestant relative of the dead Queen Anne, ascended the British throne in 1714 as George I. (There were more than 50 closer living relatives who were, however, Catholic.) So now Handel had a problem. Fortunately for him the new ruler appreciated talent where he saw it and forgave the composer, legend has it, after the latter composed his famous Water Music for one of the king’s parties on the Thames.

In London, Handel was mostly occupied with composing Italian operas, until the English stopped patronizing this extravagantly elaborate, often incomprehensible, loud, and wildly expensive form of entertainment in a foreign language. He also held other jobs. In 1717, at the age of 32, he entered the service of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and, from 1719, first Duke of Chandos, at Cannons, near London. Handel composed several works for the earl’s music establishment of singers and instrumentalists. [Ironically the supervisor of this ensemble was the very same J.C. Pepush who, together with John Gay, would compose The Beggars’ Opera in 1728, a ballad opera with familiar tunes (and in English), the success of which spelled the end of Handel’s Royal Academy of Music productions of Italian opera.] In particular Handel composed a series of anthems known later as the “Chandos” anthems and a magnificent Te Deum, in addition to dramatic works such as the masque Acis and Galatea, on a text by John Gay, and the earliest version of his oratorio Esther. Some of the anthems were revisions of earlier ones composed for the Chapel Royal, while others were later revised for the Chapel Royal, hence the letters “a” or “b” after the Handel-Werke-Verzeichnis (HWV) number of some of the pieces.

The Chandos anthems differ from Handel’s other church music in several respects. The earliest of the anthems do not call for violas or an alto part in the chorus. They are also comparatively more intimate and have the feeling of chamber music. They were probably performed in the earl’s private chapel, the little church of St. Lawrence in Whitchurch. The anthems are in multiple sections, similar to cantatas or Purcell’s verse anthems, alternating choral and solo movements, all with instrumental accompaniment of oboes, violins, low strings, and organ.

The most grandiose of the anthems is The Lord is my Light HWV 255. This piece is in 11 movements and is scored for a five-part chorus (with two tenor parts), three soloists (a soprano and two tenors), and an orchestra of oboe, violins, and continuo, plus two recorders (flauto dolce). (The latter are in only one movement, omitted from today’s program.) The anthem text is a compilation of psalm verses from The Book of Common Prayer, with occasional interventions by the composer to change or omit words, and a concluding “amen.” The opening movement is a typical French overture—a sinfonia in two parts, the first slow and majestic, dominated by dotted rhythms (long-short-long-short etc.), followed by a faster section in fugal style. This was the most common opening instrumental movement, and Handel used it in most of his operas and oratorios, as well as in all of the pieces on today’s program.

All other Chandos anthems have a chorus following the sinfonia, but HWV 255 has a tenor aria where the voice and the instruments (the same as in the sinfonia—oboe, two violins, and continuo) share the musical material, making it a delightfully homogeneous work. Mvt. No. 3 is a chorus, “Though an host of men,” in which contrasting themes weave in and out. One theme is in short notes, presented often with multiple parts in unison. The second theme, at “yet shall my heart not be afraid,” is similar to a chant in long notes. Mvt. No. 4 (omitted today), is a tenor aria with recorders, written earlier for the cantata Clori, mia bella Clori, and later reused in Deborah.

A set of four choruses follows. First, No. 5, “I will offer in his dwelling,” is a fugal movement with beautiful vocal flourishes at the word “praise” passing from one part to the next. After the voices are done, the instruments remind us one more time of the “praise” passage before the final cadence. Next, the central movement of the piece, the chorus No. 6, “For who is God,” is the most pictorial movement, where the trembling of the earth is powerfully portrayed by instruments and voices alike, as is the thunder: first by the bass section alone, thrice, separated by lightning in the other parts. Ever the dramatist, Handel could not resist following the words “and destroyed them” with the most dramatic possible thing: silence—nothing—for almost a bar and a half, including a fermata (a lengthening of the note or rest at the performer’s discretion). Mvt. No. 7, a chorus in a backward-looking style, has a chromatic fugal subject that perfectly conveys the text “they are brought down [big downward skip] and fall’n.” The last chorus of this set, No. 8, “O praise the Lord,” returns to a more modern style and a faster tempo.

Movement No. 9, “The Lord is my strength” is an aria for tenor, with the instruments providing very lively and propulsive accompaniment. Notice how Handel highlights the words “song” and “praise.” The strength and assertiveness of the following soprano aria, No. 10, “It is the Lord that ruleth the sea,” contrasts with all that came before. The orchestral bass provides a running flow of fast eighth notes (the sea waves), under the other instruments with four notes per measure, all dramatic downward leaps. The soprano joins in turn one or the other texture. Handel, the consummate operatic master, sets the idea of “ruling the sea” as a forward moving continuum of fast notes, while “for ever” is stated multiple times and with notes that last much longer than anything else (forever). The concluding rousing chorus is the richest. It starts with a slower (andante) section of imitative entrances on “Sing praises,” followed by a fast fugue at “I will remember thy name.” The movement concludes with an exciting and energetic amen, initially only in the lower parts under a soprano in long notes for “world without end,” a motive reprised later by the basses and finally by the inner parts. Handel liked this latter movement enough to reuse both the whole and parts of it at least twice later.

The other three anthems on today’s program are more modest in scale but not in quality. Each starts with a sinfonia, and choruses and arias alternate to a total of seven or eight movements. All three have the same orchestration as HWV 255, i.e., two violin parts, one oboe, and continuo. O Sing Unto the Lord a New Song HWV 249b is scored for three-part choir (STB), as is I Will Magnify Thee HWV 250a. The former, HWV 249b, starts right after the sinfonia with a movement featuring a solo soprano, accompanied by the oboe and choir. The movement concludes with a short instrumental ritornello and is followed immediately by No. 3 “Declare his honour unto the heathen,” for chorus and orchestra. This rambunctious page of music concludes with a majestic grave (slow tempo section) punctuated by dramatic stops and starts, to underscore God’s greatness and power above all other gods. Next, No. 4 is a tenor aria, accompanied by strings, violone, and continuo, on “The waves of the sea rage horribly.” Not surprisingly, the instruments have vast moving lines up and down depicting the waves chasing each other; the voice joins in, only to retreat in the end to let the instruments make the concluding statement of the power of the Lord (the violins) over the rage of the sea (bass instruments). A dancing duet for soprano and tenor follows; No. 5, “O worship the Lord,” is in triple meter, with violins and organ obbligato. Though it starts as a fugal movement, the dominant texture is a series of sequences with chains of suspensions (where one voice approaches the other creating a dissonance, then the former moves to a consonance, only to be chased again by the other). The final two choral movements bring this anthem to a happy conclusion over busy textures (the sea again) and playful exchanges among the voices, but not without a final slower statement.

I Will Magnify Thee HWV 250a, also scored for a three-part choir, follows the sinfonia with a vigorous chorus with orchestra, in which long virtuoso runs by voices and strings underline the word praise, the strings separating the vocal segments as well as concluding the movement. The tenor aria that follows is omitted from today’s program. The next movement, No. 4, “One generation shall praise,” is a fugal chorus with many runs and virtuoso passages for both voices and instruments to heighten the impact of the concept of the Lord’s power. Mvt. No.5 is a peculiar aria for tenor and strings. The text speaks of the difference between the Lord preserving all that love him versus scattering all the ungodly. Handel portrays the two contrasting concepts with two contrasting musical images. The movement starts with a sweet adagio for the saved, followed by a furious allegro full of unruly runs and rests to illustrate the scattering. Once the two have been convincingly presented, he does it all over again, with another adagio and a longer version of the allegro. The next two movements are also arias. No. 6, for soprano and orchestra, is in a lilting triple-meter. The instruments start with a ritornello in which the violins carry on an animated dialogue. When the voice joins the ensemble, so does the oboe, doubling the soprano throughout. The satisfying musical setting and the resolution of many dissonances eloquently portray the idea of fulfilled desire. Finally the last air is slower, for tenor and strings, but still in triple meter. The tenor line is extremely virtuosic, with lengthy runs signifying happiness. The instruments play a ritornello at the beginning and end of the movement as well as in the middle, ushering in a section where the strings are silent and the tenor expounds the concept of blessedness. Following without break, the next movement, No. 8, “My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord,” is for choir, orchestra, and solo tenor. The tenor starts the piece with choral soprano and bass parts interjecting amens. After the tenor finishes the text, the chorus and all instruments start the most vivacious passage yet on the word “amen.”

Let God Arise HWV 256a is scored for a standard four-part choir. After the instrumental sinfonia, the instruments start the next chorus with a lively and virtuosic ritornello. When the voices enter, they initially interject chords against the exciting motion of the strings. When the voices finally join in the texture and runs of the strings, it becomes apparent that the fast figure in thirds portrays all along the “scatter’d.” The second part of the movement is a fast triple-meter section dominated by the figure for “flee”: a descending passage tossed from part to part. The next two movements are an aria for the tenor and strings (No. 3 “Like as the smoke vanisheth”) and an aria for the soprano and full orchestra (No. 4 “Let the righteous be glad”). Both are highly elaborate. The tenor begins, as the instruments at the beginning of the movement, with a figure of long ascending notes and a quick dramatic descent, portraying smoke rising and vanishing. When the text speaks of “driving” (them out) the music is a set of runs over a wide range, first in the strings then the voice. The soprano aria also displays elaborate flourishes (here for “rejoice”), after the instruments start the movement with a long set of interweaving figures. The last four movements are all for chorus. No. 5, “O sing unto God,” is a long chorus in compound meter (12/8, which translates to four sets of three quick notes per measure). Handel also uses this fairly unusual meter in HWV 255 (Mvt. No. 10). In this movement, No. 5, this ultimate dancing meter (used often in jigs) illustrates the “sing” of “O sing unto God.” Next, No. 6, “Praised be the Lord,” is an accompagnato, meaning recitativo accompagnato, i.e., a narrative number usually set for solo voices. In this case it is a bit of a misnomer, since there is no narration whatsoever in this short section. Perhaps Handel wanted to emphasize its gentleness and the importance of the words. Mvt. No. 7, “At thy rebuke, O God,” is ripe with musical images and striking figures, most prominently at “both the chariot and horse are fall’n,” where all voices in turn sing first long sets of descending skips, going from the top of the range to the very bottom at “fall’n,” and then descending scales. The concluding chorus starts with a striking unison of all voices and strings for “Blessed be God,” and goes straight into the most festive alleluia.

In this concert we hear a sampling of Handel’s more intimate church music and appreciate the great variety of styles in his music. We can also admire the ingenuity and artistry employed to compose for the limited forces available. Incidentally, there are also quite a few pieces by Mozart without violas; perhaps violas were harder to come by at the time. More than anything, these anthems allow us a glimpse at the opera composer, from the pyrotechnics and emotion he required of his singers, to the musical depiction of single words or pointed concepts. The lighthearted and operatic flavor of Handel’s music stands in stark contrast to the pervasively serious and complex church music of comparable purpose composed by his Lutheran contemporary J.S. Bach. Though Handel’s appointment to the service of the Duke of Chandos lasted less than two years, it provided fertile ground for his musical expression. We present here some of the fruits, with which to mark the 250th anniversary of his death.

—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, 2009

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