Program Notes for Handel in Rome

George Frideric Handel (23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759) was a German, later British, Baroque composer, who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, and organ concertos. Handel received musical training in Halle and worked as a composer in Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712; he became a naturalized British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced both by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and by the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition.

Within his first fifteen years in England, Handel had started three commercial opera companies to supply the English nobility with Italian opera. Musicologist Winton Dean writes that his operas show that “Handel was not only a great composer; he was a dramatic genius of the first order.” When Alexander’s Feast (1736) was well received, Handel made a transition to English choral works. After his success with Messiah (1742) he never composed an Italian opera again. Handel died in 1759, a respected and rich man, almost blind, and having lived in England for nearly fifty years. His funeral was given full state honors, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey in London.

Handel was esteemed by fellow composers, both in his own time and since.  Bach attempted, unsuccessfully, to meet Handel while visiting Halle. Mozart is reputed to have said of him, “Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt.” To Beethoven he was “the master of us all. . .the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” Beethoven emphasized above all the simplicity and popular appeal of Handel’s music when he said, “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”

Many of his works such as Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks remain steadfastly popular.  One of his four Coronation Anthems, Zadok the Priest (1727), composed for the coronation of George II, has been performed at every subsequent British coronation, traditionally during the sovereign’s anointing. Another of his English oratorios, Solomon (1748), has also remained popular; the sinfonia that opens act 3 (known commonly as “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”) was featured at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. With the revival of Baroque music and historically informed musical performance starting in the late 1960s, interest in Handel’s other works has grown as well.

Handel in Italy

In 1706 Handel travelled to Italy at the invitation of Ferdinando de’ Medici. De’ Medici, who had a keen interest in opera, was trying to make Florence Italy’s musical capital by attracting the leading talents of his day. Handel subsequently traveled to Rome and, since opera was banned (temporarily) in the Papal States, composed sacred music for the Roman clergy. 

Italy was the center of European music. One of the most notable traits of Italian music was the expressive style in which its composers wrote for the voice. Italian vocal writing was characterized by qualities of suppleness, expansiveness, flexibility, and lyricism. Handel would quickly master the art, and Italian opera would become the bedrock of his career. But in Rome, where he spent most of his time between 1706 and 1710, papal decrees had closed the public theaters since 1698; the ban was not lifted until 1709. Nevertheless, the musical styles of opera, barely disguised, were manifested in concert performances and in particular through the Italian cantata (motet).

The flexibility of Handel’s social and musical skills is demonstrated by the fact that he was engaged to compose music for the Roman Catholic liturgy within only a few months of his arrival in Rome. He was, of course, a staunch Lutheran and remained so all of his life, not even acceding to the requests by the British monarchs, later in his life, that he consider a conversion to the Church of England. 

Self-borrowing was common in Handel’s vocal and instrumental music.  The Dixit Dominus, for example, furnished music he later used in his oratorio Deborah (1733), and the “Qui habitare fecit” movement in Laudate pueri invites us to think ahead to the famous aria “Oh, had I Jubal’s lyre” in his oratorio Joshua (1748). Repurposing of that sort was common among many late-Baroque composers, but in Handel’s case, it is remarkable how easily music penned during his journeyman years in Italy could be fit into the pieces he composed many years later—a reflection of the exceptional mastery he had already achieved as an emerging composer in his early 20s.

Handel had an extraordinary ability to absorb disparate styles and refract them through the distinctive prism of his personal voice. An Italianate sound certainly informs all the pieces on this program, yet they also sound very much like Handel, memorable in rhythmic and melodic outlines, imaginative in deployment of voices and instruments, filled with specific character and musical surprise. 

The Carmelite Vespers

Handel’s music for the Carmelites is not a single unified work like an opera or oratorio (such as Messiah). In fact Handel was concerned with the business of writing a number of separate psalm settings, motets, and antiphons that were to be inserted into the Carmelite liturgy at the appropriate points. Much of the ordinary chanting at vespers and mass would be undertaken by the Carmelite friars with the choir and soloists singing the more elaborate settings.

There has been some debate among scholars as to whether Handel’s music was intended for first or  second Vespers or for the Mass. Some have even questioned whether the music was written for the Carmelite feast at all! However, the evidence provided by the latest scholarship points towards the conclusion that Handel did indeed write music for the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 1707 and that his psalm and antiphon settings were intended to be spread out between the various liturgies.

Nisi Dominus is a setting of the Latin text of Psalm 127. It was completed by 13 July 1707. It is scored for three vocal soloists (contralto, tenor, and bass), chorus, strings (including solo violin in one aria), with basso continuo. The bass solo (“Sicut sagittae”) is especially notable for its tone-painting: “flying” strings evoke the flight of arrows. The work’s final doxology (“Gloria Patri”) was thought destroyed in a fire in the 19th century, but it is now widely believed that the doxology setting intended for this work is one Handel composed that expands the texture to a double chorus and double string orchestra.

Laudate Pueri Dominum, another compelling motet, features a veritable catalogue of Italian musical forms, all masterfully employed by Handel. Each movement has a different texture, including ritornello form (first movement), trio sonata (“Sit nomen Domini” and “Qui habitare facit”), imitative polyphony (“A solis ortu usque”), concerto grosso (“Excelsus super omnes”), homophony (“Quis sicut Dominus”), continuo aria (“Suscitans a terra”), and the hybrid style of the final movement with its predictable return to the music of the first movement at the words “Sicut erat in principio” (As it was in the beginning).

Dixit Dominus: Handel’s lifelong reputation could have rested on the basis of this stunning and substantial motet alone, composed in 1707.  This is Handel’s earliest surviving autograph manuscript. The work is scored for five vocal soloists (SSATB), five-part chorus, strings, and continuo. It is likely that the work was first performed on 16 July 1707 in the Church of Santa Maria in Montesanto, under the patronage of the Colonna family. It is divided into eight movements, and the text is vividly set, each using contrasts between movements as well as within each movement. The piece contains numerous examples of word painting, where the sound of the music imitates the imagery of the text.

Handel’s music for the Carmelites has been an important re-discovery in musical scholarship. But Handel’s music is much more than an historical curiosity. Words have a compelling force. But when words and music come together effectively the human spirit can be moved.

~ Patricia Jennerjohn