About this Recording
8.553208 - HANDEL: Dixit Dominus / Salve Regina / Nisi Dominus
English 

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Latin Church Music

Handel's father was in his sixties when his son George Frideric was born. An established barber-surgeon at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels near Hallé in Germany, he was detemtined that the boy should follow a similarly respectable calling and set him to read civil law. Handel's extraordinary musical talent became increasingly apparent, his father was forced to relent and allowed him to study music under Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the organist and choirmaster of the Liebfrauenkirche in Hallé.

From Zachow Handel received a thorough, yet catholic musical education. He studied both Italian and German music, becoming familiar with the melody-led style of the former and the more contrapuntal cast of the latter. He learned about secular and sacred music, both instrumental and vocal, carefully copying scores from Zachow's own collection into a manuscript book which he kept with him for the rest of his life. He also became a highly proficient organist, harpsichordist and violinist and, at the age of seventeen, he was appointed organist and choirmaster of Hallé Cathedral. For a year he combined the position with study at Hallé University, but all the time he was dreaming of another 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 to resist. It drew him away from the city of Hallé to Hamburg-the so-called Venice of the Elbe. Here Handel was engaged in the opera orchestra as a violinist and then a harpsichordist. While he played the music of others, he also composed three operas of his own, Almira, Nero and Florindo which were staged 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 Pope having 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 Hallé Cathedral five years earlier Handel had already gained a reputation as a musician. In his subsequent operatic compositions he had familiarised himself with a more Italian style. His facility in bringing these two musical languages together in sacred music impressed his patrons and commissions for a series of Latin church pieces quickly appeared. Of these works, composed between April and July 1707, the first was a setting of Psalm CIX (Psalm CX in the Lutheran numbering), Dixit Dominus and the last, that of Psalm CXXVI (Psalm CXXVII in the Lutheran numbering), Nisi Dominus. In between came several sacred anthems and cantatas including a setting of the hymn Salve Regina.

It now seems highly probable that the psalms and the Salve Regina were all first performed on 16th July 1707 at a special service of Vespers for the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Madonna del Cannine, in the Church of Santa Maria di Monte Santo, under the patronage of the Colonna family.

The score of Dixit Dominus is dated April 1707 and is Handel's earliest surviving autograph. This most magnificent of his psalm settings opens with an impressive chorus contrasting an imitation plainsong cantus firmus melody (introduced by the sopranos at the words donec ponam) with a polyphonic texture presented by both the chorus and the orchestra. Two relatively serene solos for alto and soprano are followed by another monumental choral section which includes many exciting passages of word-painting and vigorous fugal writing. In the soprano duet De torrente melting suspensions in the vocal lines are set against a simple accompaniment of gently repeated chords in the strings. The psalm ends with an appropriately expansive Gloria into which Handel reintroduces the can/us firmus of the opening chorus with the words 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, later Prince Francesco Maria Ruspoli. From the Ruspoli archives we learn that on 30th June 1707 a music copyist, Antonio Giuseppe Angelini, was paid for copying the violin and cello parts of the composer's cantata for soprano and strings, Salve Regina. The score of this smaller-scale work was removed from Italy to Berlin at some stage during the eighteenth century and was published by Friedrich Chrysander in the nineteenth. The work is in three movements. Based on the Marian anthem with its supplicatory text, the opening and closing sections are 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 use of an aria from Janus, an opera by his erstwhile Hamburg colleague Reinhard Keiser, to set the words ad te clamamus.

The last of Handel's psalm settings included here, Nisi Dominus, was completed on 13th July 1707, as the date on the original autograph confirms. A string arpeggio figure reminiscent of that at the beginning of the 1727 coronation anthem Zndok The Priest introduces a unison intonation of the opening words of the psalm by all the singers. This soon gives way to a more polyphonic treatment of the text. After this initial movement, the remaining verses of the psalm are all set as solos, the most original being the alto aria Cum dederit. With its gentle repeated upper string chord accompaniment this movement provides an echo of the De torrente duet from Dixit Dominus. In the Gloria Handel writes for eight voices in a double chorus and (uniquely in his output) a double string orchestra. Again block harmonies contrast with polyphonic writing. The arpeggio movement and unison chant of the opening movement are heard again in sicut erat in principio and the movement ends typically with a fugal Amen. This Handel later re-worked for the closing moments of The King Shall Rejoice - one of his English Coronation anthems

Antony Miall

The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble was founded in 1987 by David van Asch with the idea of complementing the a cappella work of the vocal quartet The Scholars. This latter group, consisting also of the soprano Kym Amps, counter tenor Angus Davidson and tenor Robin Doveton, has had worldwide success during the last twenty years. The members of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble are all specialists in the field of baroque music and play original instruments (or copies) using contemporary techniques. Singers and players work together without a director to produce their own versions of great baroque masterworks such as Bach's St. John Passion, Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, Purcell's The Fairy Queen and Handel's Messiah and Acis and Galalea, all of which have been recorded for Naxos. Performances of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble have been acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps because the artistic 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 minimum number of players and singers to a part (often only one), a common practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Close the window