March 2013

The ways of Zion do mourn

Funeral music for the Duke of Marlborough and for Queen Caroline

Bononcini When Saul was King over us 
Handel The ways of Zion do mourn

Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) arrived in London from Rome in the autumn of 1720 to take up his post as one of the composers for the newly-formed opera company, known as the Royal Academy of Music, which had opened earlier that year.  He was respected as one of Europe’s foremost musicians, composing regularly for the Academy where his works dominated the first two seasons.  It is perhaps not surprising that when John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, died in June 1722, Bononcini should have been asked to write music for his funeral, particularly since the then Dean of Westminster had Jacobean leanings and the alternative composer, Handel, had close links with the Hanoverian court.  A public rehearsal of Bononcini’s anthem and other music was held in the Henry VII chapel on 7 August, with the funeral taking place two days later.  It was a very grand occasion; the anthem was performed by ‘38 pieces of music and as many singers’, all Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal; the cost of the funeral amounted to an astronomical £5,265, for which Bononcini received the sum of £100, a very high fee indeed for such a short composition.  The final chorus, ‘Howl, o ye fir trees’ is the most notable movement, with moving descending phrases on ‘for the cedar is fall’n’.

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was born in Germany but became a British citizen in 1727.  He was one of the greatest vocal and instrumental composers of the baroque age and was a cosmopolitan and eclectic artist.  The ways of Zion do mourn was composed for the funeral of Queen Caroline, consort of George II. The daughter of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Caroline was born in 1683 and grew up in the court of Sophie Charlotte; she married the electoral prince, Georg August, in 1705. Handel composed a set of Italian duets for her following his appointment to the post of Kapellmeister to the Elector in Hanover, and became music master to her daughters after her eventual arrival in London.  On her death Handel lost a longtime friend and intimate patron.  Caroline was widely regarded as an accomplished musician and intellectual, and her letters to her former tutor and friend Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz later instigated the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, a famous debate touching on issues of theology, physics, and philosophy. On November 20, 1737 Handel received a commission to compose her funeral anthem to a text compiled from the Books of Lamentations and Job by Edward Willes, the sub-dean of Westminster Abbey. At the funeral, which took place on December 17, “…the great Bells of the Cathedral of St. Paul and of many Churches in London and Westminster were tolled. And the Tower Guns kept firing all the while, at a Minute’s Distance between each.”  The chorus consisted of men from the choirs of the Chapel Royal, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and St George’s Windsor, together with boys from the Abbey and the Chapel Royal: an estimated 180 performers in total.

The text forms a cohesive narrative that describes the subjects’ sorrow, the queen’s virtues, and hope for the future. Handel responds with equal complexity, incorporating a variety of emotions into his musical reading. Mourning and sorrow are the predominant feelings in the opening chorus. Handel’s gentle approach to the text is particularly noteworthy: while the words provide ample opportunity for vivid depiction, he carefully avoids melodrama by letting one or two phrases inspire motives (for example, ‘her people sigh’) that subsequently pervade the entire section. A more reflective mood is heard with ‘When the ear heard her’ and ‘She deliver’d the poor’, where elegant melodies and upbeat tempi contrast strikingly with the powerful repeated interjections of ‘How are the mighty fall’n’.  ‘Their bodies are buried in peace’ simultaneously portrays the paradoxical states of eternal peace and life, while the people later ‘show forth their praise’ in resolute counterpoint. Grief and adoration ultimately give way to faith in ‘The merciful goodness of the Lord’, in which the chorale-like musical texture takes the work to its close. In 1739 Handel re-used the whole anthem as part I of his oratorio Israel in Egypt; material from two of the choruses appear (with different words) in the Foundling Hospital Anthem, whilst the opening chorus inspired Mozart’s setting of the Introit in his Requiem.