December 2019

O sing unto the Lord

St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey

Henry Purcell                                    O sing unto the Lord
Dieterich Buxtehude                       Das neugeborne Kinderlein
G.F.Handel                                         Dixit Dominus

O sing unto the Lord is a relatively late work, dating from 1688. It shows Purcell at his most Italianate, with vigorous antiphony between voices and instruments, and between a prominent solo bass and the chorus. The piece opens with a Symphony for strings and continuo, with a chromatically expressive interlude between the celebratory opening and the imitative second section. The vocal writing opens with the solo bass and is followed by two lilting choral alleluias before arriving at an instrumental ritornello. The four-part verse Sing unto the Lord and praise his name leads straight into a declamatory Declare his honour. There follows a duet for soprano and alto, The Lord is great, and another string ritornello. The moving central section, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, opens with a hushed quartet before being taken up by the whole choir. A joyfully antiphonal Tell it out amongst the heathen, for bass and choir, leads to a final section of gentle Alleluias. Although the writing is overtly celebratory, behind it is the deliciously wistful quality which is a feature of so much of Purcell’s music.

Dietrich Buxtehude was born and educated in Denmark but became a citizen of Lübeck at the age of 30, when he assumed his lifelong post at the Marienkirche. His surviving choral works illustrate a moment of musical transition in the mid-17th century, utilising the strophic structure of Lutheran hymns and making a strong, consistent use of the basso continuo.

The text of Das neugeborne Kindelein, BuxWV 13, published by Cyriacus Schneegaß in 1588, appeared in seventeenth-century hymnals with various melodies, but Buxtehude disregarded them all and chose to set these four verses as a through-composed aria for four voices and instruments. The Lutheran verses have a simple radiance. Each is made up of four lines aabb, with an intervening instrumental ritornello, and Buxtehude uses baroque techniques – contrasting sections, dynamic shifts and instrumental interludes – to reflect each element of the text. In the first verse, the announcement of the recurrent ‘new’ birth of Christ, the words dominate, with the final line enriched through repetition and contrapuntal echo. The second verse is more vocally elaborate, with a florid imagery of angels singing in the sky. The third speaks of the battle against ‘Teufel, Welt und Höllenpfort’ (the devil, the world, and the doors to hell), the conflict heightened by instrumental interjections, and the fourth verse brings us to a realisation that the birth of ‘das Jesulein’ brings the possibility of human salvation.

Dixit Dominus is a setting of the Latin text of Psalm 110 and is part of the Catholic Vespers service. Handel’s 1707 setting was composed during his tour of Italy at the age of 22. The reason for its composition is unclear, as are the date and place of its first performance, but the use of a plainsong intonation – said to be for Easter – as a cantus firmus in both the opening and final choruses suggests that it may have been given in Rome on Easter Day. Another idea is that it might have been commissioned for performance at Vespers – together with other concerted psalm settings, antiphons and solo motets – on the feast of the Madonna del Carmine (16 July), although if so the service must have lasted several hours.

Dixit Dominus is divided into nine movements, scored for a five-part chorus and five soloists. Handel conveys the power of the assured, martial text through contrasts between movements as well as within each movement. In essence it is a grand concerto for voices and instruments, and Handel is pitiless in the demands he makes over the course of the eight movements: energy and breadth, agility and precision, declamatory vigour and lyrical expressiveness, all bringing a feeling of ebullience and breathless exhilaration. It has been interpreted as a Messainic prophecy of the birth of Christ, portrayed as an ancient high priest (Melchisedech) at the right hand of God and there are numerous examples of word painting, where the sound of the music imitates the imagery of the text.

The first movement begins energetically with cascading arpeggios in the strings, soon punctuated by the chorus’ assertive and triumphant repetitions of ‘Dixit’. The mood is one of assertive grandeur. An alto solo, Virgam virtuis, provides a serene contrast; it is followed by a gently florid solo for soprano which conveys a reverent and secure faith in the Lord’s protection. The fourth movement, Juravit Dominus, employs brilliant dramatic contrasts between the majestic opening phrase and the subsequent vigorous assertions. In the fifth, a descending phrase ‘secundum ordinem Melchisedech’ tumbles from one voice to another in a cascade, perhaps depicting the eternal nature of priesthood. Sharp accents in Dominus a dextris tuis, on ‘confregit’ (shatter), embody violence, whilst the staccato and percussive ‘conquasabit’ of Judicabit in nationibus suggest the destruction to be unleashed. There follows a brief respite in the hauntingly mysterious De torrente in via bibet, with fluid solo sopranos shimmering above a T and B unison. Dramatic energy returns in the jubilant Gloria Patri et Filio, with its intricate fugues, unflagging energy and leaping soprano propelling the voices to a final triumphant Amen.