June 2015

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Summer music in the garden

G.F. Handel Chandos Anthem 10: The Lord is my light
F.J. Haydn: Missa Sancti Nicolai

Handel’s eleven Chandos Anthems were written for James Brydges, the first Duke of Chandos, who made his fortune as Paymaster-General in Marlborough’s Wars and maintained a musical establishment in his household at Canons Park, Edgware.  Although the nature of Handel’s connection there is not entirely clear, the quantity of music composed for the Duke suggests that he was essentially a Composer-in-Residence in the period 1717-18.  It seems the resources there, initially at least, were modest: in many of the scores from the period both altos and violas are largely absent and the anthems have a delightful chamber music quality.  The Lord is my light, the 10th anthem, is set for SATB chorus and an orchestra of violins, bassi, organ and a single oboe; the alto chorus parts are low and might have been sung by tenors at the time.

As with the other anthems it is an extended, multi-movement work, opening with a brief two-part overture and followed by a leisurely succession of arias and choruses.  Too long for liturgical use, the anthems nevertheless achieved a measure of popularity in their day as concert and ceremonial pieces.  The Lord is my light is set to verses from the Prayer Book versions of Psalms 27, 18, 20, 34, 28, 29, 30 and 45 and contains some of the finest music of Handel’s first English decade, with striking solos and remarkably varied choruses, all full of inner vitality and textual imagery.  Of particular note is the composer’s depiction of quiet prayer – ‘One thing I have desired of the Lord’ – and the tempestuous oceans ‘It is the Lord that ruleth the sea’ as well as a nobly yet joyously affirmative final ‘Amen’.

Haydn’s St Nicolas Mass dates from 1772, and was probably written for the name-day of Prince Nikolaus von Esterházy (6 December).  The work belongs to a distinct type of mass – the missa pastorale, often associated with Advent – with simple melodies, lilting metres and a propensity for the upper parts to move in parallel thirds, depicting musical images of the pastoral nativity and of obesiance and with the aim to comfort rather than uplift.  The opening and closing movements are in 6/4, an unusual metre in the Classical period, and the key, G major, provides a gentle sonority.  It is scored for SATB soloists and choir, strings (though the viola only has two short sections with an independent part), oboes and horns.