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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Essential Handel

The King's Consort, Robert King (conductor) Detailed performer information
Super-budget price sampler — Download only
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: September 2005
Total duration: 76 minutes 0 seconds

This new budget-price compilation disc brings together twenty favourite tracks from The King’s Consort’s acclaimed Handel recordings. There are movements from recent releases such as ‘The trumpet’s loud clangour’ from An Ode for St Cecilia’s Day plus two tracks released for the first time on Hyperion—‘Largo’ from Concerto Grosso Op 3 No 2 and ‘Let the bright seraphim’ from Handel’s much-loved oratorio Samson.


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In the eighteenth century, just as in the centuries before, it was hard for a composer to make a living without royal patronage or a salaried post. Bach composed as part of his employment in a number of court and church positions, Vivaldi was a violin teacher in Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà and Purcell wrote his music whilst holding the post of organist at both Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal. Handel was never tied down in England by a formal salaried appointment, choosing instead a more independent but less secure lifestyle, putting on performances of his own operas and oratorios, taking the profits and suffering the occasional losses. He was not only a fine composer, but also an astute businessman and shrewd diplomat whose movements in aristocratic circles and friendship with nobility and royalty ensured continuing support for his work in London’s concert halls and opera houses.

During an astonishing compositional career that spanned more than fifty years Handel wrote in almost every genre; the result is a vast and rewarding corpus of operas, oratorios, odes, sacred works, cantatas, songs, concerti grossi, suites, concertos and sonatas. He exceeded the compositional output of both Mozart and Bach but, like them, his standards rarely slipped.

Overture from The Occasional Oratorio
1745 was not a good year for Handel. Part-way through his musical season finances were so bad that he was close to bankruptcy. In national politics a greater crisis was brewing. Whilst King George II was away in Hanover, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, landed with his army in Scotland and started to march south. The English army was hastily recalled from Flanders and moved northwards to confront the enemy. A patriotic fervour which had not been seen in the capital for many years ensued and Handel hurriedly created a new oratorio. The overture to The Occasional Oratorio is a strong one, whose opening Grave and fine ensuing fugue had probably been written for the 1744 revival of Deborah: the Allegro also contains a theme from the overture to Telemann’s Troisième production of the Musique de table.

Welcome as the dawn of day from Solomon
After the opening celebrations of Act I, Solomon welcomes his wife, Pharaoh’s daughter (not to be confused with the Queen of Sheba who does not appear until Act III), and promises her a new palace. We are left in no doubt as to the attraction Solomon feels for his queen and, to reinforce this feeling, Handel provides a hymn to their undying love. Set over a walking bass, ‘Welcome as the dawn of day’ is one of the composer’s most radiant duets, full of delicious interplay between the two soloists. The orchestral backing is beautifully judged, echoing the singers’ cooing ‘My Queen’, ‘My King’ in the violins in octave jumps, whilst enhancing the solo lines with glorious countermelodies.

The trumpet’s loud clangour from An Ode for St Cecilia’s Day
According to the dates on his autograph score Handel composed his splendid Song for St Cecilia’s Day in just ten days during September 1739 (the more usual title nowadays, An Ode for St Cecilia’s Day was only given in a publication of 1771). Inspired by John Dryden’s outstanding text of 1687, Handel produced a splendid ode in praise of both music and its patron saint; a first-rate succession of choruses and arias also brings fine obbligatos for many of the orchestra’s instruments, including lute, lute, organ, cello and violins. ‘The trumpet’s loud clangour’ is a dramatic celebration of the warlike qualities of the trumpet; with its opening dialogue between tenor and trumpet, a stirring timpani part and then the entry of the full chorus, this is one of Handel’s most exciting movements.

Un puro ardor from Cecilia, volgi un sguardo
Handel’s cantata Cecilia, volgi un sguardo was first performed between the two parts of the ode Alexander’s Feast at Covent Garden on 25 February 1736, when Handel’s setting of the Dryden text proved to be too short to make a full evening’s entertainment. The presence of an Italian cantata amongst an English-texted work can be explained by the fact that Handel’s leading soprano in 1736, Anna Strada del Pò, was Italian. In its first version the cantata gave the soprano only a recitative and a final duet. Strada was clearly unhappy with such a small part, so before the performance Handel added the aria ‘Sei cara’ which contains a glorious middle section, ‘Un puro ardor’, where the soprano floats her melody over ravishing string harmonies.

Zadok the Priest
The Hanoverian King of England George I died on 11 June 1727 and his only son was proclaimed king three days later by the Privy Council. To crown England’s new King George II a magnificent coronation service full of pomp, ceremony and fine music was required, and on 9 September the newspapers announced that ‘Mr Hendel, the famous Composer to the opera, is appointed by the King to compose the Anthem at the Coronation which is to be sung in Westminster Abbey at the Grand Ceremony’. Handel actually wrote not one but four new anthems for the occasion, of which his undoubted masterpiece was one which has been repeated at every subsequent crowning of a British monarch, his setting from the Old Testament’s Book of Kings, Zadok the Priest. Its opening instrumental prelude, commencing with a whispering arpeggionic piano, is brilliantly orchestrated to create an inexorable crescendo. The first chorus entry must have raised the hairs on every neck in the abbey.

Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay from The Choice of Hercules
The ‘Musical Interlude’ The Choice of Hercules was first performed at Covent Garden on 1 March 1751 as ‘an Additional New Act’ to the ode Alexander’s Feast. Nearly three-quarters of the score had been reworked from the music Handel had written for a production of Alceste. That play was never staged, and the libretto disappeared; both Handel’s music and Servandoni’s scenery were recycled. The new Interlude was a simple allegory, with the young Hercules drawn in two directions. On the one hand Pleasure offers him an easy life, with cool fountains, shady bowers, music, feasting and coyly-phrased suggestions of possible amorous dalliance. Tempted by this, on the other hand Hercules hears the admonitions of Virtue, by whom he is eventually won over, especially by the promise of immortality. Pleasure and Virtue both present their cases at some length, but when Hercules does eventually have his say, Handel presents him with an aria which is a gem. The strings represent gentle breezes, over which the alto floats an exquisite melody.

Allegro from Water Music
On 17 July 1717 most of London’s dignitaries and nobility were summoned by King George I to a spectacular outdoor event on the River Thames; a grand party was held on the river in Chelsea, and the guests were treated to a musical feast performed by some fifty musicians. The music had been composed especially for the occasion by Handel, and was so admired by the King that he demanded the hour-long suite, later to be known by the title of Water Music, be repeated three times. The Water Music may have started life as two orchestral suites or concertos, to which Handel added colourful movements with horns and trumpets. Indeed, the inclusion of two baroque horns was the first known instance of Handel’s writing in London for the instruments.

As steals the morn upon the night from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato It was under the influence of an important group of Handel’s friends, centred around the philosopher James Harris and including Charles Jennens (later the librettist of Messiah), that Handel came to set the poetry of John Milton. Jennens helped to prepare the libretto for L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, with the first two parts adapted from Milton’s two complementary poems L’Allegro (‘The Merry Man’) and Il Penseroso (‘The Thoughtful Man’), respectively celebrating the different joys of two opposed personalities. Handel’s major addition to the libretto was the inclusion of a final section to unite the two poems into ‘one Moral Design’. The closing duet is one of Handel’s greatest, with Jennens taking an image from the speech by Prospero in The Tempest which begins ‘The charm dissolves apace, And as the morning steals upon the night, Melting the darkness …’ Over gently undulating strings two duets unfold, one for solo oboe and bassoons, the second for soprano and tenor soloists, whose lines combine and intertwine ecstatically.

La Réjouissance from Musick for the Royal Fireworks

In October 1748 the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle brought to an end the War of the Austrian succession. It was a war which England had entered with some reluctance, and from which she gained very little, but she had acquitted herself fairly honourably. In November, bands of workmen began to erect an enormous wooden structure in Green Park, 410 feet long and 114 feet high, which was to be the basis of an enormous fireworks display. By February 1749, when peace was officially declared, the ‘machine’ was almost completed, and Handel was commissioned to supply suitable music; fireworks experts were engaged from Italy. Negotiations between Handel and the authorities representing the king eventually settled on a large ‘outdoor’ orchestra which contained nine trumpets, nine horns, twenty-four oboes, twelve bassoons (including a contrabassoon), three pairs of kettledrums and an unspecified number of side drums. Handel could hardly have produced for the eighteenth-century ear a more stately way of expressing a nation’s rejoicing.

In Jehovah’s awful sight from Deborah

Deborah was Handel’s second oratorio. The Israelites, twenty years in captivity, are told by the prophetess Deborah that the Canaanite commander Sisera will die at the hand of a woman. The two sides go to war, the Canaanites are duly defeated and Sisera fulfils the prophecy after fleeing from the battlefield by seeking sanctuary with the beautiful young heroine Jael, who gives the exhausted commander sanctuary, seduces him and, while he sleeps, kills him. Before battle commences Sisera tells Deborah that the Israelites have no chance of winning; Deborah furiously responds that he will soon know what it is like to have God as a foe. The aria ‘In Jehovah’s awful sight’ is a masterpiece, with slow repeated chords from the strings and two high bassoons set against the solo lines of Deborah and an oboe. Deborah warns that tyrants who ‘place in vanity their trust’ are but dust in the sight of God.

See, the conqu’ring hero comes! from Judas Maccabaeus
The national political situation in 1746 which brought about the rapidly-assembled Occasional Oratorio resulted in Handel putting aside Judas Maccabaeus part-finished—perhaps fortunately as it turned out, for that season saw a worrying lack of interest amongst his regular concert audiences. Only after the battle of Culloden in April 1746 did confidence return. Handel was now sure that a celebratory oratorio, especially one with the topical draw of a victorious warlike hero, would be suitable and returned to his score. What became its most famous chorus, ‘See, the conqu’ring hero comes!’ was actually first heard in Joshua the next year, and its huge success in that work ensured its inclusion in revivals of Judas Maccabaeus ever after. Handel’s victory procession is headed by a ‘Chorus of Youths’ (accompanied by organ and two horns), followed by a ‘Chorus of Virgins’ (a pair of flutes and organ). For the third verse the whole choir and orchestra, complete with military drummer, combine in a stirring march.

Eternal source of light divine from Birthday Ode for Queen Anne
Handel’s Birthday Ode for Queen Anne was most probably written for performance on 6 February 1713. The work was a substantial one, with nine movements containing a variety of solos, duets and choruses. But it was in the opening section, clearly influenced by the music of Purcell (whose work Handel much admired) that the composer produced his most inspired writing. For the famous alto Richard Elford and an obviously fine trumpeter, supported by sustained string chords, he provided a ravishing movement which ranks amongst his finest.

Largo from Concerto grosso, Op 3 No 2
Handel’s six concerti grossi, opus 3, first appeared in print in 1734, a time when the composer’s finances were in a particularly poor state. His operas were no longer drawing the crowds and a rival opera company was attracting his former audiences and poaching many of his star singers. The publisher John Walsh had met with success in printing the concerti grossi of Geminiani, Corelli and Venturini, and in publishing six concertos by Handel intended to do the same again. The music was mostly recycled movements from operas, oratorios and anthems; there is even a theory that Handel may not have known Walsh was going to publish the works—musical piracy was rife in the eighteenth century. The second concerto in the set contains a ravishing Largo movement, with repeated chords in the upper strings and arpeggios from two cellos accompanying a solo oboe’s glorious melody.

Or let the merry bells ring round from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato
The score of L’Allegro is one of Handel’s richest, with an unusually generous allocation of obbligatos for a wide variety of orchestral instruments including horn, oboe, bassoon, flute and organ. To end Part One, and only in a last-minute revision inserted in 1740, Handel produced a joyous setting for the words ‘Or let the merry bells ring round’, with its imitations of English church bell ‘change-ringing’ given to a carillon (a glockenspiel with an ingenious action which allows it to be played as a keyboard instrument). After such scurrying activity Part One ends softly as the population, exhausted after their ‘sunshine holiday’, fall into their beds and are lulled to sleep by ‘whisp’ring winds’.

Solemn March during the Circumvention of the Ark from Joshua
The oratorio Joshua was the third of Handel’s four ‘warlike’ oratorios, and was first performed at Covent Garden in March 1748. The story is a splendidly bloodthirsty one, and repeated the successful formula—a Jewish hero triumphing in battle over his adversaries—that had been so successful in Judas Maccabaeus the year before. The librettist Thomas Morell condensed the campaigns against Jericho, Ai and the five kings into one dramatic block. At the start of Act II Joshua has been laying siege to Jericho for six days; Handel adapts a movement from Muffat’s Componimenti to depict seven priests with ramshorns leading the Ark of the Covenant around the besieged city, before its dramatic fall, in a march of great solemnity.

Hark! hark! he strikes the golden lyre from Alexander Balus
Completed in 1747, Alexander Balus was heard just three times, with a single, much altered, performance in 1754. Alexander concludes a pact of friendship with the Jews, having killed King Demetrius of Syria in battle; Alexander seizes the throne, recovers the lands that had been taken and sends messengers to Ptolemy the Egyptian king, offering a treaty of friendship and proposing that Ptolemy’s daughter Cleopatra should become his wife. Cleopatra’s entrance brings one of Handel’s most exotic orchestrations, similar to the sensuous ‘eastern’ sounds that he had employed in Giulio Cesare. ‘Hark! hark! he strikes the golden lyre’ employs a wonderfully imaginative pool of sound, created by its scoring for harp and mandolin, a pair of flutes, both pizzicato and arco strings, bassoon and organ.

To God, our strength, sing loud and clear from The Occasional Oratorio
Another jewel from The Occasional Oratorio, the opening of ‘To God, our strength’ harks back nearly thirty years to the delicious opening to the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, ‘Eternal source of light’, with its high trumpet sustained by slow-moving strings. This time Handel answers the trumpet with a solo oboe, and the two wind players engage in a private duet before the solo bass presents a glorious melody. At ‘Prepare the hymn’ the music moves into a more steadfast, processional mood, with Handel introducing the Lutheran chorale melody ‘Ein feste Burg’. The build-up is marshalled magnificently, with the theme given first to the bass soloist before it is taken up by the full chorus, complete with ringing trumpets and timpani, who celebrate in rousing style.

Oh liberty, thou choicest treasure from Judas Maccabaeus
Judas Maccabaeus was a terrific success at its first performance, and proved to be one of Handel’s most successful oratorios. During his lifetime there were at least fifty-four performances, of which he conducted thirty-three, and the oratorio was included each year except 1749 in Handel’s Covent Garden programme. In Act I, more for musical contrast than for dramatic necessity, comes a series of four ‘liberty’ airs, the first of which, ‘Oh liberty, thou choicest treasure’, is scored for solo cello and continuo; the tutti strings join in for the affectionate playout.

Let the bright seraphim from Samson
Samson, with its text by Milton, was Handel’s biggest oratorio, and was hugely successful in its first six performances in 1742, containing inspired writing for both the chorus and the soloists. ‘Let the bright seraphim’ has become its best-known solo movement, with Handel’s triumphant vision of the heavenly host blowing their celestial trumpets. As Horace Walpole wrote in 1743: ‘The Oratorios thrive abundantly—for my part, they give me an idea of heaven, where everybody is to sing, whether they have voices or not.’

Kings shall be thy nursing fathers from My heart is inditing
The last of Handel’s four anthems for the spectacular coronation of 1727, My heart is inditing, took the traditional text for the coronation of a queen, ‘My heart is inditing’. In the final movement, king and queen alternate, with a masculine, forthrightly stepping motif for ‘Kings shall be thy nursing fathers’, and a more domestic counter-motif for ‘and queens thy nursing mothers’ before the stateliness of the occasion reasserts itself, the trumpets and drums enter, and the anthem ends in a blaze of glory with Handel’s choral-writing and orchestral accompaniment at their most convincing and magnificent.

Robert King © 2005

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