March 2018

There is sprung up a light

st john’s smith square

Handel                 Chandos Anthem 10: The Lord is my light
Buxtehude          Magnificat
Handel                 Chandos Anthem 8: O come, let us sing unto the Lord

Kate Ashby soprano
Xavier Hetherington tenor
Bampton Classical Players, on period instruments

During the period August 1717- early 1719 George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) was the house composer at Cannons, the Middlesex seat of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and first Duke of Chandos. Brydges made his wealth as Paymaster-General during the War of Spanish Succession (before losing it in the South Sea Bubble of 1720), and much of it was invested in the rebuilding and furnishing of this Jacobean mansion, to which he added an extravagant private chapel. Brydges was a flute player and patron of the arts; he set up a kind of court, virtually unknown in England, with a private orchestra of 24 players presided over by Pepusch as Master of Music.

Handel’s eleven Chandos Anthems date from a time when the musical establishment there was relatively young and modest, and were first heard in the nearby St Lawrence Church, as the chapel was at the time unfinished. Their scoring is light, both instrumentally – two violins, oboe, bassi and organ – and vocally. It seems Handel was writing for specific voices, with 2-3 boys’ voices on the top line (set surprisingly low), no altos, two high tenor parts and basses. For modern SATB choirs this presents some problems – it sits low for altos (especially at baroque pitch) but high for both tenors and basses, and the earlier anthems are not set for altos at all. Perhaps for this reason they are not often programmed other than by specialist period performers.

The anthems are joyous, extended, multi-movement works, each opening with a short two-part (Largo-Allegro) Symphony followed by a number of leisurely arias and dramatic choruses. The texts are selected from the Book of Common Prayer as well as from the Psalms.

The tenth anthem, The Lord is my light, sets verses of Psalms 27, 18, 20, 34, 28, 29, 30 and 45, some in part and some with modified text, and contains some of the finest music of the time. The choruses are remarkably varied and full of vitality, vividly exploiting the text: the anxiety and disquiet of war, fluid semiquaver ‘praises’ and the starkly descending ‘They are brought down and fall’n’, along with the dramatic lightning and thunder of ‘For who is God but the Lord’, are great examples. Similar dramatic fervour is seen in the soprano aria ‘It is the Lord that ruleth the sea’, the orchestration of which depicts vigorously incessant waves in triplet quavers and downward leaps. The magnificent fugue, ‘I will remember thy name’, with its energetic, contrapuntal Amens, brings this fine anthem to a close.

O come, let us sing unto the Lord, the eighth anthem, is a setting of verses from Psalms 95, 96, 99, 103 and 97. The compelling Symphony contains music also found in an oboe concerto (HWV 302a) of around the same date as well as, in a modified form, the Trio Sonata in F (HWV 389). The opening chorus consists of a cantus firmus-like statement over a walking bass; an abrupt final cadence leads to an adagio in the tonic minor which forms a dramatic seven-bar coda. The chorus ‘Glory and worship’, one of Handel’s best, creates an impression of a complex counterpoint. ‘Tell it out among the heathens’ starts with a tenor solo before moving into an extended chorus, with declamatory ‘Tell it’ gaining urgency as they turn into elongated quaver passages; this urgency is highlighted by the early entry of the next voice at cadence points. Towards its end, the changing harmonies are ‘made fast’ through pedal points. ‘O magnify the Lord’ is scored largely for soprano solo and two violins only and is followed by two tenor arias – an elegantly expressive ‘The Lord preserveth’ and the wonderful word-painting in the relative minor of ‘For look, as high as the heaven is’. The final chorus consists of an upwardly-rising ‘There is sprung up a light’ followed by the ‘joyful gladness’ of the whole ensemble.

The length and unusual scoring of the Chandos Anthems have precluded their becoming part of everyday cathedral repertory but, as Simon Heighes writes, ‘the music – so brilliant and assured in style – is the very embodiment of Georgian grandeur and optimism’.

The charming Magnificat (BuxWV-Anh 1) has been long attributed to the composer Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707), organist at the Marienkirche at Lübeck, but is highly unlikely to be by him. It survives in one manuscript source only, which did not originally bear the name of any composer but to which Buxtehude’s had later been added, probably because the editor of the first modern edition (mistakenly) thought it was similar to a number of the composer’s other works. It is a delightful piece, which obtains striking results by way of enduring lilting melodies, simple harmonies, frequent hemiolas and a clear sectional structure. The scoring is for 2 violins, cello, bass and continuo; some editions add two viola parts but these are not in the original.