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Scholarly research has so far failed to establish beyond doubt what prompted this composition, nor where or when it was first performed. The use of a plainsong intonation—said to be for Easter—as a cantus firmus in both the opening and final choruses suggests that the first performances may have been given in Rome on Easter Day in 1707, possibly at St John Lateran or in Cardinal Ottoboni’s palace. Others maintain that it was commissioned by Cardinal Colonna for performance at Vespers (together with other concerted psalm settings, antiphons and solo motets) on the feast of the Madonna del Carmine, which fell on 16 July. If there is any truth in this the service must have been quite a marathon, lasting ‘three whole howers at the least’, as Thomas Coryate discovered exactly a hundred years earlier when he attended Vespers at San Rocco in Venice. Handel’s psalm setting opens with a spacious orchestra introduction in G minor, with downward arpeggios in the first violins more characteristic of organ figuration than of string writing. The chorus enters weightily to underline the gravity of the Lord’s utterance. The soloists break out of the tutti with the injunction ‘Sede a dextris meis’ (sit thou at my right hand). Here we can see at work the concerto grosso principle which Handel was quick to learn from Corelli, then the leading exponent of instrumental music in Italy. Out of this simple but effective exchange of solo and tutti, and still more from the insistent rhetorical repetitions of chorus and orchestra, Handel constructs a movement of imposing grandeur. By reserving the big cantus firmus tune for the solemn pronouncement of the fate of the enemy, he compels us to sense the full weight and wrath of the Old Testament God.
Two solo arias follow, one with continuo, the other with orchestral accompaniment. The first, for mezzo-soprano, evokes the way the God of the Old Testament works furtively behind enemy lines through his secret agents. The second, for soprano, is a more florid and genial piece that reveals the influence of Alessandro Scarlatti, master of the solo cantata, in its elaboration and use of decorative coloratura. Blood and thunder return in the choral recitative ‘Juravit Dominus’, which breaks into an allegro movement with the choral shouts of ‘Non! Non!’ before sinking to a soft close. Then the double pattern of harsh, chromatic harmonies and swift-moving fugato is repeated with ever-increasing power, before the music finally dies away in a succession of bars marked piano, piano piano, più piano, pianiss., pianississ …
For the almost unsettable sentence ‘Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech’ (Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedech) Handel displays his easy mastery of counterpoint, a technique fully acquired before he set foot in Italy. It must surely have made a deep impression upon his Roman friends. Here was the ‘learned’ style of a northern composer, the ‘Saxon’ acknowledged for his superiority as an organist, allied to a wonderfully opulent and natural musicality. The sixth movement (‘Dominus a dextris tuis’) is the most boldly experimental, revealing Handel’s excited response to the rich possibilities offered by virtuoso singing (and playing) in several parts for building a choral drama. At the movement’s culmination—it is in three distinct segments—he gives drastic, pictorial expression to the destruction alluded to in the text by staccato reiterations of the word ‘con-quas-sa-a-a-a-bit’. Whether conscious or not, this is a throwback to stile concitato invented a century before by Monteverdi for conveying excitement, anguish and martial vigour. Managing to sound both naive and extravagant, it vividly conjures up the Lord’s legions moving into battle with the enemy. Handel was quick to absorb the current (and past) styles and to identify with local idioms without ever ceasing to sound exactly like himself. It is passages such as this, and similar ones in the contemporary works—psalms, cantatas and above all in Agrippina, the opera he wrote for Venice in 1709—that reveal the colossal impact of Italian music upon him in his early twenties: not just the music of the composers he encountered at first hand (Corelli, Pasquini, the Scarlattis), but that of more distant figures like Stradella, Legrenzi, Carissimi and even Monteverdi. The penultimate movement (‘De torrente’) is gentle and soothing, Vivaldi-like in its use of grinding harmony clashes, while the two soprano soloists appear to hover effortlessly above the quietly chanting men’s choir. The final Gloria is a tour de force, as large as anything in Bach’s B minor mass. It begins as a loosely constructed fugue on three subjects, one of which is the Easter plainsong theme heard in the first movement. The final section, ‘Et in saecula’, is built on a single theme with repeated notes and a conventional sequence, which eventually stretches the compass of the outer voices to almost two octaves: unrelenting, and not exactly vocal, but utterly brilliant. Despite the glorious music he would go on to compose in England it is baffling—and much to be regretted—that Handel never pursued this particular vein: nothing subsequently measures up in terms of choral daring and sheer chutzpah.
from notes by Sir John Eliot Gardiner © 2014
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