In a year of Handel celebration and many new recordings, this is a welcome addition to the discography. Stephen Layton, the Academy of Ancient Music, the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a stellar group of soloists—in fact, the best in solo Handel singing that this country has to offer—present a disc of three of the Chandos anthems which is sure to achieve the same critical and public acclaim as the recent.
Here we have the composer at his most English and most gently appealing. Written for the musical establishment of the first Duke of Chandos, these anthems set texts taken from the Psalms, mainly the old version of the Psalter as preserved in the Book of Common Prayer, but also the metrical versions of Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, first published in 1696. The anthems have no direct models in English church music, but follow the form used by Handel for his Latin psalm settings, with a mixture of movements for solo voices and choruses. The expressive range of the solos is remarkable, and in the choruses Handel seizes every opportunity to create grand effects with modest means.
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Handel came to London late in 1710 primarily as a composer of Italian opera, and he quickly demonstrated his abilities in that capacity with the successful production of Rinaldo in February 1711. He was, however, no less skilled in the composition of choral music for the church, which he had practised and refined during his early training under Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow at Halle. Though none of Handel’s works from that early period has survived, we can guess at their quality from his earliest known choral compositions, the settings of the three Vesper Psalms written in Rome in 1707—particularly, of course, the spectacular Dixit Dominus. Opera, written almost entirely for solo voices at the time, did not provide opportunity for choral writing, so it is not surprising that once Handel had reached London he sought to supplement his operatic work with contributions to the English church repertory. He made contact with the musicians of the Chapel Royal, and wrote his first English anthem, As pants the hart (HWV251a), for them around 1712. In 1713 he provided expansive settings of the Te Deum and Jubilate for the Thanksgiving service at St Paul’s celebrating the Peace of Utrecht, gaining public recognition as a composer of ceremonial church music, and he wrote another Te Deum setting (the so-called ‘Caroline’ Te Deum) and an anthem for the new king George I the following year. Meanwhile he continued to produce Italian operas for London, but although the form was gaining popularity (in spite of much waspish criticism), the productions were not well organized, and came to a temporary halt in 1717.
In the summer of that year, after the famous event in July when a royal party sailed down the Thames to the accompaniment of the Water Music, Handel joined the household of James Brydges, then Earl of Carnarvon, but who later acquired the title by which he is generally known, the first Duke of Chandos. Brydges had amassed a considerable fortune while acting as Paymaster General during the War of the Spanish Succession, and was using it to build one of the most opulent mansions in Britain on his estate at Cannons, near Edgware. While it was not unusual for a nobleman to mark his status with the building of a grand mansion, Brydges was unique in also providing Cannons with its own establishment of resident musicians, with Johann Christoph Pepusch as their director. Handel became a composer-in-residence, not salaried but probably rewarded financially from time to time, with a special brief, it seems, to compose church music.
The purpose-built chapel attached to Cannons itself was not completed until 1720, and until then services were held in St Lawrence Whitchurch, a small church adjoining the estate which the architect John James remodelled for Brydges’ family use in 1715. (It still survives today, almost as Brydges left it, with its baroque decor and its organ sensitively restored.) For performance in this building, Handel composed the eleven works generally known as the ‘Chandos anthems’ (though the term ‘Anthems for Cannons’ is preferred in scholarly circles) and yet another setting of the Te Deum. None of these works can be precisely dated, but they were almost certainly all composed between August 1717 and the summer of 1718. In March 1718 Handel also produced the first of his two great dramatic works of the Cannons period, the masque Acis and Galatea. The second, the oratorio Esther, was probably written a little later, though the exact date and place of its first performance are still unknown. Cannons itself had a remarkably short life. The massive upkeep it required, coupled with Brydges’ disdain for financial prudence, ensured that on his death in 1744 the estate was deeply in debt. Within three years the house had been demolished and the contents of the estate (fortunately it did not include St Lawrence’s) all sold off by auction. A few remnants survive (notably the decor of the Cannons chapel, transferred to the church of Great Witley in Worcestershire), but Handel’s music is perhaps the most potent memorial of his patron’s transient grandeur.
The Chandos anthems are all composed for solo and choral voices with accompaniments for strings (without violas), solo wind instruments (mostly oboe and bassoon) and organ continuo. Their texts are taken from the Psalms, mainly the old version of the Psalter as preserved in the Book of Common Prayer, but also the metrical versions of Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, first published in 1696. The anthems have no direct models in English church music, but follow the form used by Handel for his Latin psalm settings, with a mixture of movements for solo voices and choruses, not that different from the German church cantata. In six of the anthems, probably the first to have been composed, the choral voices are in three parts (treble, tenor and bass), while the other five mostly have four-part choruses, with the second vocal line being written for low alto or high tenor. It is probable that all the anthems were originally performed with quite small forces, with perhaps only three or four trebles on the top choral line and just one or two singers on each of the lower parts, but Handel’s scoring is spacious, and is as effective with small forces in a small building like St Lawrence’s as with larger forces in a big church or concert hall. Some of the musical material has origins in earlier works, notably Dixit Dominus and the Brockes Passion (probably composed in 1716), but it is always fully reworked to suit its new context. The expressive range of the solos is remarkable, and in the choruses Handel seizes every opportunity to create grand effects with modest means. Though Handel never performed the anthems himself after his time at Cannons, he adapted some of them for use by the Chapel Royal, and re-used a few of the vocal movements in later works, particularly the oratorios of the 1730s. Movements from the instrumental sonatas or overtures that begin most of the anthems were also re-used, notably in the Opus 3 concerti grossi (1734) and the Opus 5 trio sonatas (1739).
The three anthems recorded here are all from the later group with four-part choruses. The texts of O praise the Lord with one consent are taken from three psalms (135, 117 and 148) in the metrical versions of Tate and Brady. No opening Sonata is provided, but the first chorus has an unusually long orchestral introduction by way of compensation. The trebles alone enter with the first four notes of the opening theme, and the other voices join in on the words ‘with one consent’, a naïve but amusing touch. The theme itself resembles the first phrase of the tune ‘St Anne’, first printed in England in 1708 and now best known as the tune for Isaac Watts’s hymn ‘O God, our help in ages past’. (It also appears in J S Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat, BWV552.) However, Handel had already used a similar idea in the opening Sonata of his cantata Tu fedel? tu costante?, composed in Rome in 1707, so the resemblance to the hymn tune is probably coincidental. Three vocally demanding solos follow, the first two (in minor keys) providing the contrasts in mood that Handel always seems anxious to maintain throughout the anthems. The last of the group, ‘That God is great’ for bass, is a reworking of a solo in the Queen Anne Birthday Ode. In the following chorus, ‘With cheerful notes’, Handel boldly uses diminuendo effects to suggest voices rising to heaven. The last solo, ‘God’s tender mercy’, again in a minor key, becomes a highly personal acknowledgement of divine compassion. Major keys return for the final pair of choruses, and the anthem is brought to an exciting close with a combination of ideas finally settling into a triumphant peal of Alleluias.
Let God arise opens with an exceptionally fine Sonata, with a lyrically flowing first movement and a brilliant second section in which running semiquaver figures persist throughout. The text is selected from the belligerent Psalm 68, with the effective interpolation of a verse from Psalm 76 for the chorus ‘At thy rebuke, O God’. The war-like mood is set immediately in the first chorus, where instruments and voices all strive to imitate the scattering of the enemies. A couple of ideas from Dixit Dominus are thrown into the mix: the first section ends abruptly with the choral voices breaking up, as in the ‘Implebit ruinas’ section of the Latin psalm, and the continuation takes its cue from the next section of the psalm (‘Conquassabit capita’), greatly expanded and enlivened by newly added cross-rhythms. In the solo ‘Like as the smoke vanisheth’ Handel manages to find musical ideas to convey the notions of vanishing and driving away, and to combine them skilfully in a unified texture. ‘Let the righteous be glad’ is an especially delightful solo, in which a memorable motif later used by Handel in the motet Silete venti and in Semele makes its first appearance. The chorus ‘O sing unto God’ is rather oddly set in a minor key with a theme dominated by running triplets, but the movement soon develops into an impressive musical structure. A slow and solemn section prepares for the exhilarating setting of ‘At thy rebuke’, and the final movement, with its Alleluias pitted against a theme in long notes, both echoes the opening movement of Dixit Dominus and anticipates the most famous chorus of Messiah.
The opening Sonata of My song shall be alway will probably be immediately familiar, as it was used in its entirety in the Concerto grosso in G major, Op 3 No 3. (The second section is based on an idea from Handel’s Birthday Ode to Queen Anne.) In the first vocal number (all the texts are selected from Psalm 89) Handel ingeniously combines two ideas from earlier works: the orchestral introduction is taken from a chorale setting in the Brockes Passion, while the choral intonation in octaves on the words ‘The heav’ns shall praise thy wondrous works’ is derived from the ‘De torrente’ movement in Dixit Dominus. The solo tenor enters with an accompanied recitative, of which there are only a few examples in the anthems, and continues with a more orthodox solo dominated by angular rhythms in the accompaniment. This, and two other movements of the anthem, are reworkings of movements in the ‘Caroline’ Te Deum in D major (HWV280) of 1714. (In some sources of the anthem a trio follows at this point, but it is almost certainly an interpolation by another composer.) Handel sets ‘The heav’ns are thine’ as a contemplative duet for alto and bass, perhaps surprisingly, but it has an appropriate sense of awe and makes an excellent contrast to the rhythmic vigour of the chorus ‘Righteousness and equity’ that follows. The last solo, ‘Blessed is the people’, and the short concluding chorus are the other movements derived from the Te Deum.
Anthony Hicks © 2009
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