HANDEL: Coronation Anthems / Silete Venti

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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Coronation Anthems • Silete Venti

Maurice Greene was appointed organist and composer to the English Chapel Royal on 4th September 1727, just as preparations for the coronation of King George II were beginning in earnest. Five days later, however, it was announced that the recently naturalised German-born composer George Frideric Handel had already been commissioned by the monarch-in-waiting to write the new music for the coronation service. A further week and a half later the running order of the coronation service was finalised: this gave Handel precisely two weeks in which to bring his four new anthems to performance (we must assume that he had already done a significant amount of work on them by this stage). As things turned out, the coronation was postponed by a week because of the danger of the River Thames bursting its banks at Westminster. Eventually, however, on the wet morning of 11th October, George II was crowned to the accompaniment of Handel’s four new anthems and other music stretching back over a century and a half by Purcell, Blow, Child, Gibbons, Farmer, and Tallis.

One of the musical mysteries surrounding the coronation of King George II is how the choir ever made itself heard above the sound of the orchestra. Handel specified 47 singers (exactly, as it happens, the number used on this recording) yet an article in the Norwich Gazette of 14th October 1727 stated that there were four times the number of instrumentalists as singers (on this recording there are half as many). Maybe this was why William Wake, the Archbishop of Canterbury, described the performance of The King shall rejoice as "the anthem all in confusion: all irregular in the music".

The actual order of the coronation service is a matter of some speculation although it seems likely that the first of Handel’s anthems to be performed was The King shall rejoice, the very subject of Archbishop William’s criticism. Handel assembled the text for this anthem from Psalm XXI as it appears in the Book of Common Prayer. Strings and oboes are soon joined by trumpets and drums in preparation for the choir’s jubilant entry. As so often with Handel the word painting is simple but effective: the word ‘rejoice’ is set expansively and melismatically while the words ‘in thy strength, O Lord’ are set solidly and homophonically. There follows a lilting triple-time movement which shows the king to be ‘exceeding glad’ in a contented and reserved manner rather than in the ebullient manner of the opening movement. The choicest music is saved for the words ‘of thy salvation’ where Handel uses chains of suspensions to lend a rather archaic, ecclesiastical air to the proceedings. The contrapuntal third movement is introduced by a blaze of glory and thereafter the movement reflects on ‘the blessings of goodness’. Such goodness is ultimately rewarded by the appearance of a golden crown that dazzles with the reappearance of the brass instruments. The fourth movement opens with mock seriousness, but an embryonic fugue is quickly kicked into touch by a surprise tutti entry. The most memorable gestures of The King shall rejoice are the diaphragmatic belly-laughs with which Handel periodically decorates the final syllable of the word ‘Alleluia’.

The celebrated Zadok the Priest was performed second as an accompaniment to the anointing of the new monarch. The text (from the First Book of Kings) was lifted from the 1685 coronation service of King James II, where it had been sung to a setting by Henry Lawes (in fact Lawes’s rather unmemorable anthem had originally been written for the even earlier coronation of King Charles II in 1661). By contrast. Handel’s hushed arpeggiated opening, the almighty choral entry, the incomparably jaunty subsequent rejoicing, the clamour of ‘God save the king’, and the repeatedly alternating Alleluias and Amens make this a spectacular and inimitable work. Little wonder, then, that Zadok the Priest has been performed at every British coronation since 1727.

The third anthem was probably Let thy Hand be strengthened whose text (from Psalm LXXXIX) had been set for the 1685 coronation by Dr John Blow. Handel’s setting is grander than Blow’s, although it eschews trumpets and drums. The first movement allows its ‘right hand’ to ‘be exalted’ with Baroque poise and gentility, while the second movement’s ‘justice and judgement’ have a sternly antique flavour. The final movement is a beautifully controlled ‘Alleluia’. It is typical of Handel the craftsman that, at the moment when the new monarch was ritually enthroned in Westminster Abbey, this Alleluia should rely solely on sound contrapuntal technique and intuitive note-spinning rather than on grand gesture and bluster.

The last of Handel’s coronation anthems to be performed was My Heart is inditing whose text is taken from Psalm XLV and from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. This anthem accompanied the coronation of George II’s wife, Queen Caroline. My Heart is inditing differs from the other three anthems in that it is a verse anthem rather than a full anthem: after the orchestral introduction four solo voices sing music that is eventually repeated (with slight variations and embellishments) by the choir. The second movement deals with kings’ daughters and is a study in Baroque femininity, graceful and coquettish. In similar vein, the third movement contrasts the transparently textured demure queen with the lasciviously dense king’s pleasure. After these gender stereotypes, the fourth and final movement unites kings and queens as nursing fathers and nursing mothers respectively, although Handel still cannot resist giving the highest choral note to the kings rather than to the queens. In spite of the fact that Handel’s music still speaks to us with disarming directness, one frequently has to remind oneself that this music is 275 years old.

Three years before the coronation of King George II, Handel wrote the Latin motet Silete Venti (Be silent, winds). Clearly the motet was designed to be sung by an operatic soprano and it demands carefree virtuosity backed up by a solid vocal technique. The orchestra begins in the manner of a French overture, slow, stately, homophonic music in dotted rhythms. From the outset Handel toys with his audience by introducing three unpredictable piano moments. A whirlwind fugue follows which the soloist eventually silences in no uncertain terms with her demonstrative entry: sweetness ensues and peace reigns. The second movement is a da capo aria in which Handel portrays the ecstasy that is the love of Jesus. The short third movement is a heartfelt recitative that leads to the fourth movement where the opening storm has been replaced by a pastoral reverie. The central section of this da capo aria, however, again sees the winds summoned up, although now they are gentle breezes rather than violent squalls. The final movement is a quirky and wholly virtuosic Alleluia which brings this remarkable motet to a sparkling conclusion.

Jeremy Summerly

Disc: 1
Silete Venti, HWV 242
1 Zadok the Priest, HWV 258
2 And all the people rejoiced
3 God save the king
4 Let thy Hand be stengthened, HWV 259
5 Let justice and judgement
6 Alleluia
7 The King shall rejoice, HWV 260
8 Exceeding glad shall he be
9 Glory and worship
10 Alleluia
11 My Heart is inditing, HWV 261
12 Kings' daughters
13 Upon thy right hand
14 Kings shall be thy nursing fathers
15 Silete Venti, HWV 242
16 Dulcis amor
17 O fortunata anima
18 Date serta
19 Alleulia
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