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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL: Music for the Chapel Royal
This recording restores some of Handel’s finest but least-known music to the choir for
which he wrote it and to the building where he performed it, probably for the first time
since his own performances there. Forming one of the most impressive areas of Baroque
music, Handel’s English church music spans his entire active career in London, from his
first anthem composed soon after his arrival, to his last works nearly forty years later.
Most of it was stimulated by Handel’s creative contact with the English Chapel Royal, a
group of professional singers in a different tradition from the opera stars with whom he
worked in the theatre.
By Anthony Clarke
Here’s a splendid idea. Take four magnificent choral works by Handel, which have been rarely performed since their composition, and place them in the setting for which they were written—the chapel inside St James’ Palace. The Chapel Royal itself is not a place, but rather the term given to the collective of people, most importantly the choir, which is entrusted by the queen to perform these works. But because of primacy through age and usage, the term is also given to the actual St James’ Palace chapel. It is in this chapel that Handel would have heard these works performed for the first time. And it is in this setting that Naxos has gained permission to have these works performed and recorded. The setting gives a wonderful translucency of sound and a natural warm ambience to these pieces for choir and soloists. Handel’s anthems ‘Let God Arise’, ‘I Will Magnify Thee’ and ‘O Sing unto the Lord’ are performed with a chamber orchestra and organ. In a markedly different mode, the most sustainedly beautiful of these pieces, ‘As Pants the Hart’, is performed accompanied by continuo alone—the only one anthem Handel composed in this manner. The boys and gentlemen of the choir are fine indeed—as one would suspect when sighting the name James Bowman among its members. This is an intensely beautiful recording of rarely-heard compositions by Handel, and the history of its choir and of its natural setting just adds to the magic of this disc.
By David Denton
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Music for the Chapel Royal
This recording restores some of Handel's finest but least-known music to the choir for which he wrote it and to the building where he performed it, probably for the first time since his own performances there.
By Handel's day the Chapel Royal was already an ancient and famous musical institution. It emerges from the mists of history alongside the Christian Kings of England, the earliest records speaking of its having existed before the Norman Conquest. During the 200 years before Handel all the greatest names of English music worked there, including Fayrfax, Cornyshe, Tallis, Tye, Byrd, Gibbons, Weelkes, Morley, Purcell and Blow as well as many others. By Handel's time the glory days perhaps were over, but this German composer and his German monarchs certainly provided the English Chapel Royal with one magnificent last hurrah before the long slide of English music into proto-Victorian dullness began.
The term "Chapel Royal" is strictly a collective for the body of clergy, musicians and vestry officers attached to the Royal Household, and its function today is the same as it was in Handel's, and indeed in Cornyshe's day: to sing the regular services in the Chapel of whichever Palace the monarch wishes, and to accompany the monarch to major state services and other events elsewhere as commanded. The Chapel Royal is in one sense not therefore a place at all: in 1715 the Sub-Dean of the Chapel Royal called St Paul's Cathedral "the King's Chappell upon this occasion" when the King attended a service there with his own Chapel in attendance. This leaves little doubt that the monarch's own establishment is the senior partner on these occasions, not the host Cathedral, and this pecking order is equally clear from the records of events such as Coronations, where the music was always under the direction of the Chapel Royal choirmaster and those musicians who were members of both the Chapel and the Abbey choirs (like Purcell) would always perform in their Chapel capacity, providing deputies for their Abbey employment. Slightly confusingly, the chapel inside St James's Palace is, as the oldest Royal chapel in continuous use, referred to by tradition as The Chapel Royal. The Chapel Royal (people) became based here in the Chapel Royal (building) in 1714, shortly after Handel's association with the institution began, and services are now sung here and at the Queen's Chapel just outside the Palace. Handel knew and worked in both places, and most (probably all) of the music on this disc was performed by him in the Chapel Royal at St James's where this recording was made. His Chapel Royal choir was a little bigger than it is today (perhaps 12 boys and 12 men, compared with 10 boys and six men today), but were he to attend a service at St James's tomorrow the choir (complete with distinctive State uniforms introduced a few decades before his arrival), the building, the liturgy and (at least some of the time) the music would be thoroughly familiar to him.
Handel's association with the Chapel Royal began early in his residence in England, and was clearly an important factor in establishing him in English musical life and in the favour of the monarch and court. As Pants the Hart, HWV 251awas the first anthem he composed for the Chapel Royal. Written probably between December 1712 and May 1713 it is (with its partner HWV 251d) Handel's only anthem with accompaniment for organ and basso continuo alone, and was written not for a grand public occasion like the other anthems in this collection, but for use in the regular routine services of the Chapel Royal. It is significant that soon after the introduction of this work to the Chapel Royal repertoire Handel received his first pension from Queen Anne: £200 per annum. The music of this anthem then begins a journey through his creative processes which as much as any other work illustrates the extent to which Handel was prepared to borrow, steal and reinvent existing music to suit new occasions and new requirements. The second version, HWV 251b, was written for Cannons in 1717, adding an orchestra. 1720-1722 saw the appearance of HWV 251d marking Handel's return to active participation in the life of the Chapel Royal. This is another continuo-only anthem, and there is no direct evidence that it was actually performed: Handel almost immediately made a fourth version, HWV 251c, with orchestra again, perhaps suggesting that he only became aware of the need for orchestral accompaniment once 251d was complete. A fifth version, HWV 251e, followed a full quarter of a century after the first, in 1738, for a benefit evening at the King's Theatre, Haymarket.
The third version, HWV 251d, is recorded here, along with two movements from the first, HWV 251a. Like 251a, 251d marked the beginning of a period of work with the Chapel Royal for Handel. And like its earlier stable mate it seems to have led directly to royal favour: Handel's second pension, granted to him as "Composer to the Chapel Royal" followed soon after its composition, in 1723. (Interestingly, Handel also began his work at Cannons with his second setting of this same text – it seems to have become a totem with him to begin each new phase of anthem composition with a version of this work.) This second pension brought Handel's total annual income from court pensions and his position as Music Master to the Royal Princesses to £600 – a very considerable income. Various explanations have been offered as to why he was put on a pension rather than a salaried position like other Chapel Royal musicians. One is that the two posts of Composer to the Chapel were already taken (by Croft, Handel's sometime nemesis, and Weldon), but this does not explain why Handel did not then proceed to the salaried post on Croft's death in 1727 (the place went to Maurice Greene). Another explanation offered is that Handel as a German citizen could not according to the Act of Settlement hold a court position; but surely this could have been got around – there had after all been a great many foreign musicians on the royal pay-roll for centuries. Perhaps another explanation is that Handel was simply not the man to be employed and told what to do by anyone, monarch, dean or anyone else. Famously his own man, he brought his stubborn determination and self-will to everything he did – choice of texts (Burney famously quotes him receiving the Bishops' instructions regarding the texts for the Coronation anthems with the muttered riposte "I have read my Bible well and shall choose for myself"), choice of performers, circumstances and style of performance, and every aspect of his own career. He was the world's first professional freelance composer (and remained the only one to make a success of it for another century), and he was very good at it. As a pensioner, rather than an employee, he had no superiors and no fixed duties: he could contribute as an when it suited him, using the opportunities it afforded him to write the music he wanted to write and thereby gain favour with the monarch and recognition from the public. This is exactly what he did, entirely on his own terms, and he did it brilliantly.
The texts of all Handel's settings of As Pants the Hart are the same. He seems to have found this text in John Church's 1712 publication Divine Harmony, a word-book of anthems currently in the repertoire at the Chapel Royal, where they are linked to a lost musical setting by Dr John Arbuthnot, who was Queen Anne's doctor and clearly a musical amateur (a common aspiration for an educated gentleman – Samuel Pepys tried his hand at composition under the guidance of Chapel Royal composers William Child and Christopher Gibbons). The text opens with verses from Tate and Brady's well-known metrical version of Psalm 42, reverting at verse 2 to the Prayer Book text (Handel makes a slightly different selection of verses from Arbuthnot's). Typically, Handel names the soloists for whom he was writing, giving a fascinating insight into the strengths of his particular singers and Handel's sensitivity to individual performers, particularly when music composed for one singer is re-written later for another. In HWV 251a of 1713, the singers are Mr Hughes (Alto I), Mr Elford (Alto II), Mr Wheely (Bass I) and Mr Gates (Bass II). The treble soloist is always referred to simply as "The Boy". Elford also gets the odd little aria and recit (in that order) which form movement 2, with its unusual written-out right-hand organ part, and the duet with "The Boy". Several changes occur between this version and the 1723 HWV 251d. Handel's command of English, never great, had slightly improved: in the earlier setting Elford is called "Eilfurt", and the word "pants" comes out as "paints" throughout. This is corrected by 1723. Elford died in 1714, so in the 1723 setting his music is allocated to Mr Bell, a new second movement appears (for Mr Hughes) and the treble/alto duet becomes a duet for the two altos Hughes and Bell. This duet had already been re-composed for the Cannons setting 251b, and appears again in the second orchestral version 251c in very similar form except that Mr Bell, oddly, seems to have made the career move from singing alto to singing tenor more or less overnight (he is also named elsewhere as a bass – clearly a versatile man to have in your choir). Hughes' solo Tears are my daily food makes typically operatic use of reported speech at "where is now thy God?", a quartet of soloists spitting the accusation in Hughes' ear as he muses on his fate. This dotted figure actually appears first as orchestral music in 251c, but is so well suited to these words that Handel may have thought of it in vocal terms first. Of such was his genius. The choruses are based on those of 251a with some tightening of counterpoint and some transposition. The whole is a beautifully paced and varied setting of a carefully-chosen text, showing consummate contrapuntal skill (one pair of parallel unisons notwithstanding) and Handel's unsurpassed human sympathy for the human voice and the human heart.
O Sing unto the Lord HWV 249awas Handel's next anthem (as opposed to liturgical settings such as the Te Deum) for the Chapel Royal, and his first for a national service of Thanksgiving. These events had become an increasingly regular part of the Chapel Royal's life since the first one, held to mark the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Under William III they were often held to mark the success (or to give the public the impression of success) of that year's military campaigns. Queen Anne's reign saw the service marking the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 among others, but by the time of George I's accession political and public pressures were moving against foreign wars and the Thanksgiving services took on a different character, being used to mark the arrival of the king and other members of the Royal family from their native Hanover, and to celebrate the king's safe return to London after his periodic trips back to Hanover throughout his reign. There are two such occasions which may have seen the premiere of O Sing unto the Lord. 26 September 1714 was George I's first Sunday in London after his ceremonial entry into his new capital earlier that same week:
"On Sunday morning last, his Majesty went to his Royal Chapel at St James's;…Te Deum was sung, compos'd by Mr Hendel, and very fine Anthem was also sung"
(The London "Evening Post", 25-28 September 1714)
Another paper makes equally frustrating reference to the anthem without saying what it was:
"Mr Handel's Te Deum…was very excellently perform'd there, as was also a very fine Anthem"
(The "Weekly Packet", 25 September - 2 October 1714)
A few weeks later, on 17 October, another service was held to mark the safe arrival of the King's daughter-in-law and granddaughters:
"On Sunday [17 October] the Prince and Princess of Wales accompanied the King to the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, where Te Deum, with another excellent thanksgiving piece with music composed by the famous musico Mr Händel, was sung on account of the joyful arrival of the princess of Wales and the young princesses"
(reported by the London correspondent of the "Hamburg Relations-Courier")
Te Deum had become the canticle of choice for national celebrations, particularly since Purcell's grand setting in D, and there is evidence (based on the orchestration, similar idiosyncratic spellings in both scores and the type of paper used) which links O Sing unto the Lord with Handel's setting of the canticle composed for Princess Caroline. In any event, this is Handel's first independent church anthem with orchestral accompaniment, and very probably the first orchestral anthem ever heard in the Chapel Royal at St James's Palace where this recording was made (Purcell's Chapel Royal was based at Whitehall Palace until the fire there in 1698).
The text of O Sing unto the Lord is from Psalm 96. Again, Handel seems to have found the text in Church's Divine Harmony, where it features as the text to an anthem by Weldon, and once again Handel slightly changes the selection of verses taken from the Prayer Book to increase the dramatic possibilities. Once again some of the soloists are named: Elford, the lower of the two altos, takes the first movement. The second does not bear the soloist's name, but the higher-pitched alto writing makes Hughes the more likely. The following recit and aria were written for bass Thomas Baker, clearly quite a singer: the recit has a two-octave range. This movement is strikingly Purcellian in feel: the vivid vocal writing recalls Purcell's for that other celebrated Chapel Royal bass John Gosling (still nominally on the payroll); the ground-bass played tasto solo at the start is far more of a feature of Purcell's work than Handel's; the little string playout at the end, the strings unusually not having featured before in the movement, could be a sailors' hornpipe from Dido and Aeneas. Purcell famously set this text himself: could Handel be making musical homage to his Chapel Royal predecessor here? The fifth movement wrings splendidly dramatic effect from the division of the text into two sections, and the final movement is a brief blaze of D major, the only appearance on this disc of trumpets. The effect is of a grand accumulation of texture and mood, though the trumpets do commit Handel to ending the anthem in a different key from the one in which he began: two of the four anthems on this disc have this slightly eccentric feature.
After 1714 social and political pressures connected with a falling-out between King and Prince of Wales pushed Handel away from court. In 1717 he began work for James Brydges, later Duke of Chandos, at his house Cannons in Middlesex. Two of the four anthems on this disc began life in the Chapel Royal and were then recomposed as anthems for Cannons (and in the case of As Pants the Hart subsequently recomposed again for the Chapel Royal); the other two, I will magnify Thee HWV 250band Let God arise HWV 256bwent the other way round, beginning as Cannons anthems and being recomposed later for the Chapel Royal.
In January 1715 State Thanksgiving services were finally discontinued. They began again in 1720 in their new role as celebrations of the King's safe return from trips to Hanover, but for the first two Handel was himself abroad and the music was composed by Croft. After 1720 Croft appears to fall out of favour much as Handel had done after 1714, and Handel, aided by a rapprochement between King and Prince, was back in active participation at the Chapel Royal. Between 1722 and 1727 Handel's music was used at each Chapel Royal Thanksgiving service for the King's return. He composed six new works for these services after 1720, including the two remaining anthems on this recording.
It has always been (and still is) part of the Chapel Royal composer's role to write pieces marking the various events in the life of his sovereign. The attentive listener can perhaps hear varying levels of sincerity and enthusiasm in these encomiums across the centuries according to the character of the individuals concerned and the health or otherwise of the working relationship between musician and monarch. Handel certainly gave of his best to these pieces, though perhaps sensibly he chose texts of a general character rather than potentially limiting the scope of his imagination by honouring the King directly as other Chapel Royal composers had done. There is no doubt that crossing the Channel safely was an occasion for thanksgiving: on one occasion early in his reign George I was forced ashore at Rye in Sussex by a violent storm, the weather so bad that he could not leave the town for several days. He was put up by the Mayor, James Lamb, in his brand new Lamb House (still the grandest house in the town and later home of Henry James). While he was there Lamb's wife gave birth to a baby (perhaps inspired by the joint shock of a fierce storm and the unexpected appearance of the King in her spare room), and the enforced royal house-guest stood godfather to the new arrival. The silver dish given by the King to his new godchild is still on display at Lamb House. Such were the journeys marked by the Thanksgiving services.
It is impossible to be sure exactly which anthem was sung at which Thanksgiving service during this period, but Professor Donald Burrows suggests 5 January 1723/4 as a possible date for the performance of I will magnify Thee HWV 250band 16 January 1725/6 for Let God arise HWV 256b. Unlike the other two anthems on this disc, these two were conceived and began life at Cannons, reaching maturity in these later versions for the Chapel Royal.
I will magnify Thee retains only its first and last movements from its Cannons pair, the last movement largely unaltered, the first completely rewritten from a three-part "chorus" to become an alto solo (for the higher of Handel's two alto soloists, Mr Hughes) with a ritornello for oboe and strings. The middle four movements are all derived from three other Cannons anthems, giving this piece four parents in all. The second movement duet provides a detailed insight into Handel's recreative processes. The music of this duet rather confusingly comes from the appearance of the same text in the Cannons version of O Sing unto the Lord (for the Chapel Royal version of which Handel composed a new and completely different setting). The Cannons duet was for treble and tenor in B flat major. Handel re-writes it for his alto Hughes and his bass Wheely, both clearly men with good high ranges, but not quite able to maintain the original part writing even with the downward semitone transposition. Handel inverts the parts, giving the original treble music to the bass, the tenor to the alto, the whole wrapped in a halo of strings playing the opening vocal phrase as a kind of chorale-ritornello at various points throughout. It is a typically original touch, and as so often with Handel it is hard to believe that this unutterably gorgeous piece of music represents a re-writing of earlier music: uniquely among the great composers his ideas sometimes seem to grow and mature each time he re-visits them. The third movement, Glory and Worship, again takes a Cannons chorus and re-scores it, this time for the rather odd layout of seven-part voices, four solos and three tutti. As elsewhere in these works, the solos are not really independent solo lines, rather a means of varying the texture within the choir. Typically, Handel often doubles a solo line with a chorus line of a different voice part (treble solo with chorus alto, tenor solo with chorus bass), suggesting a concern principally for choral sonorities, especially across the two sides of the Chapel. The fourth movement tightens up the structure of yet another Cannons original. Handel replaces his original setting of the word "can't" with "cannot": perhaps someone pointed out the inadvisability of slang in church anthems. This is one of several examples on this disc of a movement in two sections, each setting a different piece of the text to different music, the two themes being combined together at the end. This is a technique Handel was to develop further in his oratorios, and lends splendid weight to the endings: the dominant pedal in this movement must be one of the longest Handel ever dared. The fifth movement is again one of those re-workings of a Cannons movement which makes the modern listener wonder if it would not have been easier simply to start again and write a new piece: major becomes minor, chorus becomes solo, only occasional musical phrases are retained. Finally Wheely is allowed to show off a few more top F sharps before the chorus bursts in with dramatic shouts of "Amen" and a magnificent final fugal section. Again it is perhaps the sheer variety and inventiveness of the conception which is so impressive and satisfying.
Let God arise has the fewest movements of these pieces- just four. Like O Sing unto the Lord it can be paired with a setting of the Te Deum, this time the setting in A. Both are short – perhaps the King had had a bad crossing and wanted his Thanksgiving kept brief. The first and last movements are again adapted from the Cannons setting of the same text. The first movement is in two distinct sections, the second of which, a splendid triple-time depiction of the ungodly flying before the Lord, is largely unchanged from Cannons (though "flee" becomes "fly" for some reason). The first section is more substantially altered, and has a number of highly distinctive features: the first chorus entry comes not on the first beat of a bar but on the third, starting with the dominant chord of a perfect cadence. The downward quaver figure scattered through the parts and the theatrical scales and rests to mark the dispersal of his enemies is one of those musical devices which the Baroque composer seems obliged to use for texts of this kind – compare the similar effects at dispersit superbos in Magnificats by both J.S. and C.P.E. Bach – but is great fun none the less. The second movement is entirely new. It is not really a duet at all but two arias joined together. They are in different keys but share musical themes and textual ideas. Wheely, the high bass, gets a wider range the Hughes, the high alto. The third movement, a genuine duet for the same singers, is another wholly original conception: the swinging bass-line is almost a mediaeval pendulum bass, the voices and instruments, including a bassoon obbligato, putting a swaying descending semiquaver figure over the top. The changes of tonality are also strikingly modern – the unprepared shifts from A minor chords to F major chords, using the note A as a pivot, could be Schubert. The last movement joyously combines a long-note theme (derived from the ancient Non nobis tune, used before by Handel) with a rapid fugue in quaver runs. This technique appears several more times in Handel's later work, for example in the chorus I will sing unto the Lord in Israel in Egypt, where the full theatrical possibilities of this combination of different kinds of tune are thoroughly exploited.
Handel composed several more works for grand, public Chapel Royal events in the two decades following 1727, returning to composition for the regular, more private services of the Chapel in the last years of his working life. His association with the institution thus lasted some four decades, the whole of his working life in England. The Chapel Royal had always been, and still is, a community of musicians working together, and Handel clearly knew and admired his singers at the Chapel well. Many of them worked with him elsewhere: then, as before and as now, they were part of a close-knit professional circuit of singers, performing with other London choirs as regular members or as deputies, and as soloists in oratorio and opera. The Chapel Royal, its history, its traditions, its buildings, its place at the heart of the British court, its personnel, provided Handel with a constant throughout his life on which he could draw for inspiration and musical comradeship. Some of the fruits of that remarkable relationship are on this disc, music of unequalled variety, vigour, vitality and sheer beauty. The music is a lasting testament not just of the man who wrote it, but of the men and boys who sang and played it, and the institution which nurtured it. We can only hope Handel would have been pleased that this music has come back home.
The writer acknowledges with gratitude the help of Professor Donald Burrows, whose Handel and the English Chapel Royal (OUP 2005) has been the source of much included here and will be a valuable resource for those who seek further information.
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HANDEL: Music for the Chapel Royal