Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Case of Mr. Handel

First of all, my apologies for the very light blogging recently. A combination of things have held up new posts, among them the fact that four guys with hammers are pounding on my ceiling most days as they are building another level above me. This makes blogging, or even coherent thought, difficult. So I am spending a lot more time in my office, which is a little less conducive to blogging. Also, I have been involved with a new piece for orchestra I am working on.

But I got a good suggestion from a commentator so here we go: the case of George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759).

When I was in first year music at university, the professor teaching music history told us a terrible joke about Handel that I am afraid I have remembered ever since: One hoary old orchestral musician speaking to another: "Last night I dreamed I was playing Handel's Messiah and suddenly I woke up and, by God, I was!" I'm afraid that for many years I had the tendency to always fall asleep whenever I heard the Messiah--except if I were actually singing in the chorus!

Handel, one of the most famous Baroque composers, was born in what is now Germany, but at the time was the Duchy of Magdeburg in the Holy Roman Empire. His early education was in Hamburg and later in Florence and Rome. In his later 20s he became resident in London and spent the rest of his career there enjoying the patronage of Queen Ann, a couple of Georges, and members of the nobility. From the death of Henry Purcell in 1695 to the career of Edward Elgar in the very late 19th century, the most important composer in Great Britain was undoubtedly Handel, a non-native.

In 1727, for the coronation of George II, Handel was commissioned to write four anthems, since known as the Coronation Anthems, on a translation of the traditional antiphon Unxerunt Salomonem. This text has been used for English coronations ever since, believe it or not, the coronation of King Edgar at Bath Abbey in 973! Prior to Handel's a setting by Henry Lawes had been used. But since 1727, every coronation of an English and later, British, monarch, has used the first Coronation Anthem of Handel, titled Zadok the Priest. As it displays some of Handel's best qualities, his broad strokes and monumental solidity, let's have a listen.

The very traditional British are also using the same chair for coronations that they have used since the coronation of Edward I in 1308!

Other very famous pieces by Handel written for the British monarchy include his Water Music, written in 1717 for performance on a barge on the Thames to accompany George I as he traveled from Whitehall up the Thames to Chelsea. This is a suite of typical Baroque dances including the very British hornpipe but also minuets, airs and bourrées as well as movements with just tempo indications. Again, it is music perfectly suited to the occasion and it has been popular ever since. Here is a performance of all three suites of the Water Music by John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists:

The strengths of this music are simplicity, clarity and perfection that does not overtax the listener. In the same genre is his Music for the Royal Fireworks, commissioned by George II in 1749 to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. This was again intended for performance in the open air and is a suite for wind band and kettledrums. Here is the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Raymond Leppard:

The first rehearsal, for which the ticket price was two shillings and six pence, was attended by twelve thousand people, resulting in a three hour traffic jam on London Bridge. That gives you some idea of how enormously popular Handel's music was.

Handel was also extremely successful as a composer of oratorios and opera. The Messiah is popular not only in Great Britain, but one of the most-performed and famous pieces of choral music. It was premiered in 1742 and its success caused Handel to focus thereafter on choral music in English and away from Italian opera. This is the Choir of King's College, Cambridge (full credits in the clip):

But we should not leave Handel without some mention of his operas, which were very successful, both in Italian and English. Perhaps his most successful and considered the best of the pastoral opera genre is his Acis and Galatea. In 1788 Mozart even made an arrangement of it. As Wikipedia notes:
As is typical of the genre, Acis and Galatea was written as a courtly entertainment about the simplicity of rural life and contains a significant amount of wit and self-parody.

Acis and Galatea seems to have never left the repertoire. Here is a complete performance with Joan Sutherland in the lead, conducted by Adrian Boult:

Handel also wrote an enormous amount of instrumental music including a number of suites for harpsichord. Here is one of the most famous of these, the Suite No. 5 in E major, nicknamed "The Harmonious Blacksmith" because it ends with a set of variations on a theme later given this title. This suite, along with seven others, was published in 1720.

So there you have it. Three great Baroque composers were all born in the same year, 1685: George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.

Oh, and today is Beethoven's 245th birthday!


Marc Puckett said...

If I had to choose one secular vocal work to keep with me on a desert island, it'd be Acis and Galatea. I'd be tempted to choose it, anyway.

Marc Puckett said...

Just listened to the first ten minutes of Mozart's KV 566 version of it. It's as if we're in a parallel universe or dimension-- the same with his version of Messiah. Can't imagine wanting to sit down and listen to the M. rather than the H. itself, except as an exercise, I suppose.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, that is high praise indeed. I realize that, for some reason, I have never listened to the Mozart arrangements. I really must!