HANDEL: Dixit Dominus / Salve Regina / Nisi Dominus
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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Latin Church Music
Handel's father was in his sixties when his son George Frideric was born. Anestablished barber-surgeon at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels nearHalle in Germany, he was detemtined that the boy should follow a similarlyrespectable calling and set him to read civil law. Handel's extraordinarymusical talent became increasingly apparent, his father was forced to relent andallowed him to study music under Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the organist andchoirmaster of the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle.
From Zachow Handel received a thorough, yet catholic musical education. Hestudied both Italian and German music, becoming familiar with the melody-ledstyle of the former and the more contrapuntal cast of the latter. He learnedabout secular and sacred music, both instrumental and vocal, carefully copyingscores from Zachow's own collection into a manuscript book which he kept withhim for the rest of his life. He also became a highly proficient organist,harpsichordist and violinist and, at the age of seventeen, he was appointedorganist and choirmaster of Halle Cathedral. For a year he combined theposition with study at Halle University, but all the time he was dreaming ofanother kind music. For of all the musical forms he had explored under Zachow,one had held a particular fascination for him - opera.
In the summer of 1703, the lure of the opera-house became too strong toresist. It drew him away from the city of Halle to Hamburg-the so-called Veniceof the Elbe. Here Handel was engaged in the opera orchestra as a violinist andthen a harpsichordist. While he played the music of others, he also composedthree operas of his own, Almira, Nero and Florindo which werestaged between 1705 and 1708. By the time the last two were being performed,however, Handel had left Germany and was happily ensconced in the warm South,pursuing his quest for true Italian opera in the country of its birth.
In 1707 Rome, unlike the rest of Italy, was an operatic desert, the Popehaving issued an edict forbidding the production of musical drama in the city,following a carnival scandal in 1677. Sacred music was important, however, and,unsurprisingly, Handel's Roman patrons were some of Italy's leading churchmen,the Cardinals Colonna, Pamphili and Ottoboni.
As organist and choirmaster in Halle Cathedral five years earlier Handel hadalready gained a reputation as a musician. In his subsequent operaticcompositions he had familiarised himself with a more Italian style. His facilityin bringing these two musical languages together in sacred music impressed hispatrons and commissions for a series of Latin church pieces quickly appeared. Ofthese works, composed between April and July 1707, the first was a setting ofPsalm CIX (Psalm CX in the Lutheran numbering), Dixit Dominus and thelast, that of Psalm CXXVI (Psalm CXXVII in the Lutheran numbering), NisiDominus. In between came several sacred anthems and cantatas including asetting of the hymn Salve Regina.
It now seems highly probable that the psalms and the Salve Regina wereall first performed on 16th July 1707 at a special service of Vespers for theFeast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Madonna del Cannine, in the Church ofSanta Maria di Monte Santo, under the patronage of the Colonna family.
The score of Dixit Dominus is dated April 1707 and is Handel'searliest surviving autograph. This most magnificent of his psalm settings openswith an impressive chorus contrasting an imitation plainsong cantus firmus melody(introduced by the sopranos at the words donec ponam) with a polyphonictexture presented by both the chorus and the orchestra. Two relatively serenesolos for alto and soprano are followed by another monumental choral sectionwhich includes many exciting passages of word-painting and vigorous fugalwriting. In the soprano duet De torrente melting suspensions in the vocallines are set against a simple accompaniment of gently repeated chords in thestrings. The psalm ends with an appropriately expansive Gloria into whichHandel reintroduces the can/us firmus of the opening chorus with thewords sicut erat in principio. The work ends with a spirited fugal Amen.
In May 1707 Handel took up residence in the palace of the Marchese, laterPrince Francesco Maria Ruspoli. From the Ruspoli archives we learn that on 30thJune 1707 a music copyist, Antonio Giuseppe Angelini, was paid for copying theviolin and cello parts of the composer's cantata for soprano and strings, SalveRegina. The score of this smaller-scale work was removed from Italy toBerlin at some stage during the eighteenth century and was published byFriedrich Chrysander in the nineteenth. The work is in three movements. Based onthe Marian anthem with its supplicatory text, the opening and closing sectionsare slow and reflective and frame a brilliant and vigorous allegro (Eia Ergo).
Never one to shrink from borrowing a good tune in time of need, Handel made useof an aria from Janus, an opera by his erstwhile Hamburg colleagueReinhard Keiser, to set the words ad te clamamus.
The last of Handel's psalm settings included here, Nisi Dominus, wascompleted on 13th July 1707, as the date on the original autographconfirms. A string arpeggio figure reminiscent of that at the beginningof the 1727 coronation anthem Zndok The Priest introduces a unisonintonation of the opening words of the psalm by all the singers. This soon givesway to a more polyphonic treatment of the text. After this initial movement, theremaining verses of the psalm are all set as solos, the most original being thealto aria Cum dederit. With its gentle repeated upper string chordaccompaniment this movement provides an echo of the De torrente duet fromDixit Dominus. In the Gloria Handel writes for eight voices in adouble chorus and (uniquely in his output) a double string orchestra. Againblock harmonies contrast with polyphonic writing. The arpeggio movementand unison chant of the opening movement are heard again in sicut erat inprincipio and the movement ends typically with a fugal Amen. ThisHandel later re-worked for the closing moments of The King Shall Rejoice -one of his English Coronation anthems
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble was founded in 1987 by David van Asch with theidea of complementing the a cappella work of the vocal quartet TheScholars. This latter group, consisting also of the soprano Kym Amps, countertenor Angus Davidson and tenor Robin Doveton, has had worldwide success duringthe last twenty years. The members of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble are allspecialists in the field of baroque music and play original instruments (orcopies) using contemporary techniques. Singers and players work together withouta director to produce their own versions of great baroque masterworks such asBach's St. John Passion, Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, Purcell'sThe Fairy Queen and Handel's Messiah and Acis and Galalea, allof which have been recorded for Naxos. Performances of The Scholars BaroqueEnsemble have been acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps because theartistic aim of the ensemble goes far beyond that of so-called 'authenticity' ;more important is the clarity and vitality achieved by the use of a minimumnumber of players an