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Salve regina, HWV241

composer
author of text
Antiphon to the Virgin Mary from Trinity until Advent

 
This intriguing work for solo soprano, violins in two parts, obbligato organ and cello, and basso continuo dates from Handel’s earlier visit to Italy and was probably first performed on Trinity Sunday, 19 June 1707 in the Church of Santa Maria in Montesanto, Vignanello. Significantly, this was exactly one month before Dixit Dominus was first heard and the sharing of expressive styles and athletic, Italianate flavour is immediately evident. This text, among the most familiar in the Roman Church since it was written in the 11th century (probably by the monk, Hermann von Reichenau) is one of the four Antiphons to Our Lady, this one being used from the Saturday before Trinity Sunday until the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent. Besides concluding the recitation of the Rosary, it was, and still is, the final utterance of monastic communities at Compline before the Great Silence of the night. This might have had a significance in the way that Handel scores the music. It seems that he was not merely marrying words and music without an in-depth consideration of the words, previously unfamiliar to him, but without doubt known intimately to those who would hear his setting.

The essence of this prayer, known in English as 'Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy', is that of supplication, imploring Mary to be a divine mediator in our journey through life. The opening movement is itself full of devices which point to a deep sympathy by the composer for these sentiments. A pulsing, paired-note bass-line possesses something of the heartbeat, the inverted violin interjections with their repeated common notes at the top of the phrases suggesting the merciful Mother of Christ, while the soprano takes on the role of the voice of the person praying. Those very words, 'Mater misericordiae', are set with an anguished, chromatic pulling apart in tandem with the violins who adopt an almost vocal role. 'Ad te clamamus' moves into triple metre, yet the layout of the composer’s manuscript reveals a much broader sweep to the span of the music as he divides the material on the page not in groups of three but in a broader sweep of twelve beats to a bar. I acknowledge that this is no doubt to save ink, but the impression on the paper can influence the musician’s approach, whether or not the listeners are in the know. There is some remarkable melodic writing here and, to most ears, the juxtaposition of F sharp and A flat is a surprise. The actual word 'clamamus' ('we cry') comes with a gloriously sunny, major 4/2 harmony, radiating for a longer time than expected. The Italian, vocal style was well used to sighings of one sort or another but Handel was brave to set 'Suspiramus' with literal breathlessness, leaving complete silences which must have seemed most romantic in a sacred work. Cascading canonic texture among the violins and the voice are as the falling tears in the valley (also the soprano’s lowest note) and the desolation is echoed by the dwindling writing of the violins who merge into a unison, lonely, final note.

All is far from constant gloom as the 'Eia ergo' bursts into a section which is little short of a concertante movement with every combination of joyful interaction for solo organ, cello, the violins and the voice. How we are fortunate that George Frideric saw the need clearly to impress his patrons in a style which would have been entirely within their culture, but maybe exceeding their expectations. Again Handel surprises us, using economical but virtuosic forces, and doubtlessly enjoying his own organ showcase.

Nevertheless, the masterstroke is the engineering of the final, meditative section 'O clemens'. We are returned to the context of prayerful supplication in the manner of Handel’s Italian predecessors. The exuberance of the previous movement is pared down, as in the beginning, to a final, unison note.

from notes by Greg Murray © 2018

Recordings

Handel: Silete venti; Vivaldi: Nulla in mundo pax sincera
Studio Master: SIGCD537Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: Salve regina, mater misericordiae
Track 12 on SIGCD537 [3'01] Download only
Movement 2: Ad te clamamus
Track 13 on SIGCD537 [2'45] Download only
Movement 3: Eia ergo, advocata nostra
Track 14 on SIGCD537 [3'33] Download only
Movement 4: O clemens, o pia
Track 15 on SIGCD537 [1'34] Download only

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