G.F. Handel, Sacred & Secular — Oct 2010

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—and died in 1759. He was from Halle, and later Hamburg, and in 1710, after three years working and composing in Rome, he entered the service of the Elector of Hanover, Prince Georg Ludwig. Two years later, during one of his visits to London, he decided to establish himself in that city, without asking the elector for his leave. 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 relatives who were Catholic, and therefore, pursuant to the 1701 Act of Settlement, ineligible for the throne.) Fortunately for Handel, potential backlash was averted because the new king appreciated talent where he saw it and forgave the composer—as legend has it, after Handel 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 elaborate, extravagantly expensive, loud, and often incomprehensible form of entertainment in a foreign language. He also held other jobs. In 1717 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 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 production of Italian opera. In particular, Handel composed a series of pieces 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 a masque version of the later oratorio Esther. (A masque was a type of English court light opera.) Some of the anthems were revisions of earlier ones composed for the Chapel Royal, while others were later revised for the Chapel Royal.

The 12 Chandos anthems differ from Handel’s other church music in several respects. For example, the earliest of them do not call for violas or an alto part in the chorus. The anthems are more intimate, evoking a chamber feeling. They were probably performed in the Earl’s private chapel, the little church of St. Lawrence in Whitchurch. Like other anthems by Handel, these are in multiple sections, not unlike cantatas, alternating choral and solo movements, all with instrumental accompaniment of oboes, violins, low strings, and organ.

Last October the Bach Choir performed a selection of Chandos anthems: the grandiose The Lord is my Light, HWV 255, and the intimate O Sing Unto the Lord a New Song, HWV 249b, I Will Magnify Thee, HWV 250a, and Let God Arise, HWV 256a. Today’s concert features choruses from the anthems My song shall be alway, HWV 252, O Come let us sing, HWV 253, and O Praise the Lord with one consent, HWV 254.

The program includes two choruses from My song shall be alway, HWV 252, for SATB and instruments. In the first chorus, “Righteousness and equity,” the counterpoint of the parts is strikingly beautiful, especially when three parts in rhythmic unison are set against one moving in a different rhythmic pattern. The second chorus, “Thou art the glory of their strength,” is a rousing alleluia in triple meter.

From O Come let us sing, HWV 253, the choir performs three choruses. “O come let us sing unto the Lord” starts in the so-called ancient style, dignified and austere in contrast to the lively “modern” baroque concertato style, only to give way to a fast choral rejoicing. The initial declamation for the invocation to “Come let us sing unto the Lord” returns within the lively texture. The movement concludes with a stately hymn-like section that moves from A major to A minor. The next chorus, “Glory and worship are before him,” sounds remarkably similar to the “Glory and pow’r” chorus from Messiah. Finally the chorus “There is sprung up a light for the righteous,” though it sits fairly low for the voices, is a typically Handelian piece of excited rejoicing, with many repetitions of a melodic figure that seems to mimic laughter.

The first of four choruses from O Praise the Lord with one consent, HWV 254, starts with an instrumental sinfonia that presents the musical material later explored by the voices. Particularly notable is the fugato at “and magnify his name,” aptly drawing attention to the piece’s central theme. The next chorus, “With cheerful notes let all the earth,” also begins with an orchestral introduction. In the second, faster section Handel contrasts a motive in long notes for “sing solemn hymns” with a motive in fast notes for “let all inspir’d with godly mirth.” He then combines the two motives to great effect. “Ye boundless realms of joy” is a somewhat restrained chorus of exaltation, with low vocal textures and contrapuntal play of the parts, most likely not to spoil the impact of the concluding “Alleluia” that follows. In this alleluia, Handel again contrasts a running part with chords in the other parts, a characteristically lively juxtaposition. After developing this blend for a while, he introduces a second motive—wavelike movement between neighboring notes—and then alternates in rapid succession between these two figurations, to a conclusion that leaves the energized listener craving more.

The Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76, is a cantata. A cantata is a multi-movement work for voice(s) and instruments, most often on a secular topic such as love, and in the vernacular. There is, of course, a repertoire of sacred cantatas (chiefly those of J. S. Bach), but the genre is usually associated with non-sacred texts. Handel wrote a number of Italian cantatas. This one, in English, is on an ode by John Dryden (1631–1700) celebrating the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia. The piece has 12 movements, including an instrumental overture and solo movements for tenor and soprano. Following the overture, the Choir presents the third movement, “From harmony, from heavenly harmony.” In it the four-part choir expounds the merits of celestial harmony with a brisk but intricate accompaniment by the oboes and strings. As in most of Handel’s works, here too one can pick out close correspondences between music and words, and instances of musical symbolism. For example, at the words “through all the compass of the notes” the voices alternate in singing octave scales while the strings run the gamut in fast notes. Similarly, at the repeated words “from harmony to harmony,” the music shifts keys (and thus harmony) at each successive iteration.

Acis and Galatea, HWV 49, is a pastoral opera or masque intended for courtly entertainment, which Handel also composed while at Cannons. Like the Chandos anthems, this piece too lacks an alto part (substituting at times three tenor parts, which the Choir redistributes among altos and tenors) and a viola part. The work’s purpose is to celebrate rural life, nature, and simplicity. The main characters are the shepherd Acis and the semi-divine nymph Galatea. They are joined by the one-eyed monstrous giant Polypheme. Following the opening sinfonia, the Choir performs four choral movements, some scored for four vocal parts and others for five, all with instrumental accompaniment. The first chorus conveys the pleasures and happiness of life by the spritely movement of the parts, which repeat each phrase multiple times. Next, “Happy, happy we,” is almost giddy in its peroration on the word “happy” in an accelerated siciliana rhythm of 12/8, with its distinctive lilt. ”Mourn all ye muses” is a slow chorus, more intimate, alternating serene passages with more dissonant “cries and groans.” Finally, “Galatea, dry thy tears” concludes this sampling from the masque. It features lovely lines for the violins accompanying mostly chordal choral movement. Of course Handel could not resist musically imitating the idea of “murmuring,” which he sets with dotted rhythms suggesting half-whispers.

The Ways of Zion do mourn, HWV 264, is a majestic funeral anthem composed in 1737 for the death of Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, the wife of Britain’s King George II . Handel may well have been at their wedding in 1705 in Hanover. Caroline was a vibrant, intellectual, and smart woman, and is remembered as one the most influential consorts in British history. The text of the anthem is from a variety of biblical sources, mainly Lamentations, Job, and Ecclesiasticus. “Their bodies are buried in peace” begins slowly, in F minor, with the instruments providing a commentary on the solemn lines uttered by the choir. After this hymn-like section, the key changes to F major and the tempo increases, at “but their name liveth,” where chorus and instruments engage in lively interchange at the word “name.” After one more iteration of the hymn and minor key, the final allegro returns to the major and to more vibrant rhythms. “The people will tell,” starts out as though it were another hymn-like number, but after four short bars it turns into a rousing laudatory fugue.

In this concert the Bach Choir presents a variety of works and styles by the great master, a German who lived most of his adult life in England and was famous in his time chiefly for his Italian operas. The program is evenly balanced with secular and sacred pieces, with a preponderance of joyful movements, as befits the inaugural concert of our celebratory 75th season. In the more intimate Chandos anthems we can admire the ingenuity and artistry Handel employed to compose for the limited forces available to him. In the more grandiose secular pieces, Handel the bon viveur shines through. In between we can place the pastoral happiness of Acis and Galatea. We hope you enjoy hearing this all-choral program as much as we enjoy singing it. Handel is always a pleasure.

—Copyright © Alexandra Amati-Camperi, 2010

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