Handel ‘I will magnify thee’ and ‘Anthem for the Chapel Royal of George I’
Handel ‘Anthem on the Peace
Albinoni ‘Oboe Concerto in D Minor Op 9 No 2’
Handel ‘Dixit Dominus’
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)
and probably the work of his teacher Francesco Durante (1684-1755)
Scholars suggest that the glorious Magnificat long attributed to Pergolesi is, in greater probability, the work of his tutor Francesco Durante. It is likely that the former’s tragically early death from tuberculosis and the resultant disorder of his personal papers have, between them, conspired to make the job of the musical detective even more challenging than normal! What is certain is that Pergolesi crammed an amazing amount into so brief a professional career. What survives for posterity, whether or not actually all his work, is often of great beauty of expression and sometimes of haunting pathos. Of several operas, only really the intermezzo La Serva Padrona enjoys regular modern performances. Stravinsky transformed themes from a delightfully mellifluous trio-sonata for use in his Pulcinella ballet suite and church musicians have for centuries been drawn to the visionary and powerful setting of Stabat Mater for two upper voices and strings at Lent and Passiontide.
As in Vivaldi’s Gloria later in the programme, Pergolesi regains his opening music later in the Magnificat to obtain a neatly cyclic formal reprise. In both Magnificat and Gloria Patri (the first and last movements of tonight’s opening work) the first tone melody for Magnificat is deployed as a cantus firmus – most notably by sopranos and tenors. This is the same melodic material that Monteverdi uses in his celebrated six-part Magnificat. Pergolesi’s is a more modest essay than Monteverdi’s, yet combines the more ancient church style and the style gallant of the Neapolitans in a remarkable fusion of expressions.
The opening movement, at 76 bars the most extensive in the setting, incorporates the text of the canticle as far as the line And holy is His Name. The scattering of the proud – Fecit potentiam – is introduced by a short duet for soprano and alto (Et misericordia eius – And His mercy is on them that fear Him). Though Fecit is, basically, chordal in utterance, there is some bravura work of great brilliance for the bass choristers. A strongly fugal Deposuit follows – here the music is alternately gravely academic and gently lilting with an energetic string inverted dominant pedal lending drama to the final instrumental ritornello. The expressive tenor and bass duet Suscepit Israel is plain and melismatic by turn. Gloria Patri is preceded by a strongly resonant Sicut locutus est. At Gloria itself, the home key of B flat is regained (this passage might be by Monteverdi himself) and the more modern style gallant final section brings this superb festal setting of Magnificat to a resounding conclusion.
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The origins of this Anthem, as with two others, may be found within the corpus of the famous set of Chandos anthems written by Handel between 1717 and 1718. The composer returned to these pieces to draw upon material for the three so-called Chapel Royal Anthems – though much of it was re-composed rather than just taken from one work to another with little or no adjustment. Interestingly, one movement in I will magnify Thee, the concerted section for soloists and chorus beginning with the words Glory and worship are before Him, is common to the Anthem on the Peace composed and compiled as late as 1749.
I will magnify Thee was first generally available to modern English choirs in a pioneering edition by the great Handel authority Professor Donald Burrows issued by the Church Music Society in 1984 as the Society’s contribution to the Handel Tercentenary commemoration the following year.
From the richness of the solo writing for alto and baritone, it must be presumed that Handel had particularly fine soloists available to him at the time of the first performance. I will magnify Thee, like its two Chapel Royal companions, was almost certainly devised by Handel for the first Chapel Royal liturgy attended by the monarch on those occasions when the King had returned from Hanover to London. The favoured date for the first hearing of I will magnify Thee is 5 January 1724.
Handel returned to the music of I will magnify Thee more than once in later life, and re-utilised portions of the piece in his oratorio Belshazzar.
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Antonio Vivaldi (1676-1741)
It seems scarcely credible to the contemporary music-lover or music-maker of today that by far the greatest part of Vivaldi’s extensive compositional output was comparatively unknown just half a century ago. With the exception of Bach’s famous transcriptions of orchestral concerti grossi for organ or harpsichord solo (and in one notable case for four harpsichords and string orchestra), Vivaldi’s music was confined to the library shelf rather than the concert platform. Not for him some latter-day Mendelssohn who (almost single-handedly) instigated the momentum behind the immense 19th century revival of the sacred music of Bach.
An extraordinary series of seemingly chance occurrences in the early years of the 20th century combined to provide a catalyst for the rejuvenation that has now placed Vivaldi’s music among the most performed in the Italian Baroque. To the music librarian of the City of Turin belongs the distinction of having been instrumental in locating the huge corpus of manuscripts and printed editions whose publication has enabled us all to enjoy the large corpus of cantatas, oratorios, operas and – above all – concertos: concertos for every conceivable instrument and instrumental combination, too!
At least two settings of Gloria in excelsis Deo survive in Vivaldi’s hand, though the Cum Sancto Spiritu fugue is common to both (at least in outline). Interestingly, this movement appears to have been a transcription by Vivaldi of earlier music by Ruggieri. Our Gloria this evening (RV589 in the latest cataloguing) is by far the best known of all Vivaldi’s sacred works – a tally probably including two sets of Vesper Psalms besides these festal, cantata-like Glorias.
Vivaldi’s early upbringing was centred upon the Church and its music. Born into the family of one of the most distinguished members of the orchestra of St Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, the young Antonio is alleged to have played in that august ensemble as early as the age of ten. His later sacred music was produced as the result of his long connection with the famous Venetian Ospedali which comprised elements of children’s home, public school and convent. Besides making music for their liturgical worship services, concerts by the young ladies were a valuable source of income to the institutions that sustained them during their formative years. The vocal and instrumental dispositions of this evening’s Gloria all point to its having been composed for performance at Vivaldi’s Ospedale della Pieta probably around 1715.
Though much of the music of RV589 is wonderfully ebullient in style, some of the quieter compositional techniques deployed are just as powerful in their effect. Possibly the most remarkable is the second movement – And on earth, peace: here are spectacular suspensions, harmonies shot through with magically-wrought chromatic linkage, all achieved with the slenderest of thematic material (just three motifs in contrasting rhythmic layout each a mere bar long).
The work as a whole unfolds with the typically Vivaldian octaved bass used both as a recurrent ostinato between which to set the delightful arabesque-like flourishes of the melody instruments and as hypnotic and energetic underpinning of the straightforwardly homophonic choral material. The magical Et in terra pax is succeeded by the celebrated Laudamus Te. Here, the brilliant weaving of the two vocal lines makes much use of suspension and antiphony, each singer vying with the other for the honours. Vivaldi achieves a finely-judged contrast between the light-hearted gaiety of this movement and the sonorous splendour of the succeeding Gratias which follows. In the latter setting, the choir projects the verbal phrase twice; the first instance concludes on a discord, and the second on a dominant chord of the following Propter magnam gloriam, the first of the work’s two fugues.
The slenderest of musical textures are used in the central movement of the work, the ecstatic Domine Deus for solo soprano with oboe obbligato and continuo only. The lilting triplets lead, seemingly effortlessly, into the bouncing full chorus that follows. Here Vivaldi relies for much of the powerful projection of his verbal text on a two-part choral texture superimposed upon the energetic accompaniment for the full strings. Listen particularly for the emphatic reprise of the Holy Name (Jesu Christe) at the final utterance – a masterstroke, this. A single mezzo soprano is contrasted in vivid relief with the full chorus in the setting of Domine Deus Agnus Dei which follows. Here the soloist is accompanied by continuo cello and keyboard, full string provision being kept for the choral responses. There is a litany-like fervour to this fabulous music. The composer returns with his quasi-chorale homophony for the choral Qui tollis which forms the ninth of the twelve movements – the second portion is in a more lively triple rhythm that finds still fuller expression in the glorious Qui sedes for solo mezzo soprano (the last of the work’s solo numbers).
A cyclic unity is achieved by means of the shortened reprise of the music with which Gloria as a whole had begun. Quoniam is heralded by a reduced version of the opening fanfare of the work. Much brilliance is provided by the re-introduction of trumpet and oboe into the string and continuo texture and all forces combine in the brilliant final fugue with its imitative instrumental interludes more than casually reminding performer and listener of the same compositional device used to equally telling effect by Handel in his Amen chorus at the conclusion of Messiah.
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The eponymous “Peace” of Handel’s Anthem on the Peace was that of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, signed late in 1748 and, eventually, proclaimed in London in 1749 (exactly a decade before the composer’s death). The Anthem is contemporary with the Musick for the Royal Fireworks devised for the subsequent celebrations in the English capital city; these were delayed until the onset of better weather in the Spring. Handel drew on material from earlier works including the Occasional Oratorio and the superb Chapel Royal Anthem I will magnify Thee.
One, if not two, of the glorious movements in the Anthem on the Peace will be familiar to lovers of his immortal oratorio Messiah. The anthem concludes with the central section of the final chorus, Worthy is the Lamb (beginning from the imitative Blessing, and glory – with verbal text differing slightly from that in Messiah).
The anthem begins with a lyrical duet and chorus – How beautiful are the feet – which has been used occasionally by enterprising groups since its inclusion in the trail-blazing edition by the late Watkins Shaw published in 1958. The duet and the succeeding chorus replace in Messiah the more usual siciliana aria and more prosaic E flat chorus Their sound is gone out).
In the anthem, Handel prefaces the flowing duet with a sinfonia of pathos and dramatic rhetoric.
At the heart of the work is a lovely air and chorus The Lord hath given strength unto His people. The anthem was first performed at the Chapel Royal, St James, on 25 April 1749 at a service of Thanksgiving for the Peace of Aix attended by the King and the Royal Family. Further performances included at least one for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital. Published by Novello in 1981, the work was revived by Professor Donald Burrows over thirty years ago and has since been recorded a number of times, perhaps most notably by the Academy of Ancient Music. Leeds-based St Peter’s Singers have given a number of very successful performances of the work over the years; it is believed that the work is being heard in Sheffield for the first time this evening, along with the Anthem for the Chapel Royal in part one of tonight’s concert.
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Allegro e non presto
Without doubt, Tomaso Albinoni was one of the very greatest composers of the Italian baroque – a musician who contributed particularly to the development of the concerto form and one whose essays for oboe and orchestra are among the loveliest such expressions in the repertoire; it may well be that Albinoni was the very first composer to write solo concerti for the oboe. His most famous “work” is perhaps the noble fragment of a Trio Sonata that the Italian 20th century musical scholar Remo Giazotto bequeathed to us as “Albinoni’s” Adagio for strings and organ. In actual fact, the piece is far more Giazotto than Albinoni!
Few would dissent from the notion that this evening’s concerto in D minor published in Amsterdam in 1722 is its composer’s finest work for solo instrument and orchestra.
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Dixit Dominus, written by its creator in the Spring of 1707 for the Festival of Our Lady of Mount Carmel held each July in the magnificent Roman basilica of Santa Maria di Monte Santo, is by far the best-known of Handel’s so called Italian Vespers. The work came to prominence in Britain during the 1950s following its appearance in the Bärenreiter Halle Handel Edition and, particularly, through the means of an iconic LP performance under the direction of Sir David Willcocks recorded in the Chapel of King’s College Cambridge by the College Choir with the English Chamber Orchestra and a galaxy of soloists headed by Teresa Zylis-Gara, Dame Janet Baker, Martin Lane, Robert Tear and John Shirley-Quirk. It was without any doubt the sheer energy and kinetic rhythm of this single performance that attracted so many choirs and orchestras to the piece, kindling in them a determination to strive towards matching the quality of what must be one of the very finest recordings of all time.
The story of Handel’s sojourn in Rome is well-known enough. Leaving his native Saxony at the age of 22, he achieved immediate fame in Italy; authorities tell us that he made the move to try his hand at opera composition. Nothing proved easy, as the papacy forbade opera performances by means of a bull. And so the young Lutheran set to with a will to write sacred choral music under the notable patronage of no less than three Cardinals and a Marquis. His fame as an organist spread widely, following an invitation to give a performance on one of the city’s finest instruments. Maybe he might convert to the Catholic faith? – not according to Handel’s earliest biographer, John Mainwaring:
‘As he was familiar with so many of the Sacred Order, and of a persuasion so totally repugnant to theirs, it is natural that some of them would expostulate with him on that subject. For how could these good Catholics be supposed to bear him any real regard, without endeavouring to lead him out of the road to damnation? Being pressed very closely on this article by one of these exalted Ecclesiastics, he replied that he was neither qualified, nor disposed to enter into enquiries of this sort, but was resolved to die a member of that communion, whether true or false, in which he was born and bred.‘
The expression of the component movements of Dixit Dominus is so exquisite in its textures, contrasts and simple beauty, surely indicative of the fact that the huge technical abilities and virtuosic bravura of the Italian singers of the day must have impressed Handel deeply for him to devise such challenging vocal lines secure in the confidence that they would be delivered with the appropriate vocal and choral panache for the piece is, simply stunning in its impact.
The work is widely regarded as the earliest of his many choral tours de force. On his first visit to England in 1829, Mendelssohn asked to see the manuscript and is reported as having kissed it before replacing it on the library shelf.
The work was commissioned from Handel by Cardinal Colonna.
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