November 2009

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2009 anniversary composers

Purcell O sing unto the Lord; Jehova quam multi sunt hostes mei; Hear my prayer
Haydn The Mermaid’s Song; Fidelity
Rheinberger Abendlied
Mendelssohn Ave Maria
Handel The King shall rejoice

Henry Purcell, born in 1659, began his musical training as a boy chorister of the Chapel Royal in a period that, post-Cromwell, was bursting with musical creativity.  When his voice broke at the then early age of 14 he was apprenticed to John Hingeston, the organ tuner at Westminster Abbey, and he also had lessons from the organist John Blow, forging a connection with the Abbey that would last for the rest of his life.  His first official post, at 18, was that of ‘Composer-in-ordinary to the Violins’, the court string orchestra; in 1769 he became in addition Organist of the Abbey and produced over the next five years some 150 anthems and services in addition to composing music for the theatre.  In 1682 he became, again in addition, an organist at the Chapel Royal – all in all a considerable workload.  Some of his men were extremely good singers and the composer’s writing is evidence of fine adult voices in all sections as well as some excellent young trebles.  There is also some evidence – notably from some uncharacteristically low writing in some of his works – that pitch was perhaps surprisingly higher than we are accustomed to today.  O sing unto the Lord is a relatively late verse anthem, Italianate in character, with a prominent solo bass and vigorously antiphonal choral writing.  The writing is celebratory, but with a contrasting atmospheric central section and an overall air of wistful serenity.  Jehova quam multi sunt hostes mei is scored for five voices, with extensive solo passages for tenor and bass.  A Latin setting of psalm 3, it may have been composed for the Catholic chapel of Queen Catherine.  Hear my prayer is believed to be a fragment of a full anthem for eight unaccompanied voices; it sets the shortest and most melancholy of texts as a vocal crescendo which builds inexorably from the simplest of opening lines to a massive discord, before finally dying away. The chromatic harmonies give the work a power out of all proportion to its length.

Joseph Haydn (d 1809) composed twelve Canzonettas, including The Mermaid’s Song and Fidelity, during his stay in London from 1794-95.  They are set to original English texts, of a rhapsodic and elegiac fervour, by Anne Hunter, to whom they are dedicated.  Canzonettas are vocal works with piano accompaniment, designed to be performed in the home: the Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon described them as ‘… technically easy songs which could be sung at sight by any educated music-lover and played on the piano a prima vista by the average lady of musical inclination’, although I am not sure if tonight’s perfomers would recognise this description!

Josef Rheinberger (b 1839) lived and worked in Munich, becoming an organist, composer, teacher and conductor and, in 1873, Kapellmeister to the court at Munich. Abendlied combines academic mastery of contrapuntally-influenced voice writing with Romantic expressiveness to memorable effect.  Felix Mendelssohn (b1809) was deeply affected by the music of Beethoven and Weber and also touched by the emergence of a new Romantic aesthetic, although the roots of his style lay in the 18th century.  His Ave Maria dates from 1830 and is an eight-part setting with organ accompaniment.  The motet opens with a soaringly melodic tenor solo, replied to by the chorus, then proceeds to a movingly pleading Sancta Maria over an agitated organ pedal accompaniment, before a sixteen-part restatement of the opening theme; the clearly balanced themes and symmetrical phrase structures remind the listener of the Viennese classical style which the composer so admired.

George Frideric Handel (d 1759) was one of the greatest composers of the baroque age. Born in Germany, he became a British subject in 1727. The coronation of King George II and Queen Caroline took place in October 1727 ‘with great magnificence, the queen being ablaze from head to foot with jewels, most of them hired’.  The musical aspect of the service was dominated by Handel’s four orchestrally-accompanied anthems, of which The King shall rejoice is the third.  Notes taken during the service by the Archbishop of Canterbury suggest that the music did not go entirely smoothly, possibly because of confusion between rival Orders of Service, possibly because of poor sightlines between the performers, and indeed possibly because of a poor-quality choir.  The performance of The King shall rejoice was dismissed by the Archbishop: ‘The Anthem in confusion: All irregular in the Music’, although it fared better than I was glad, which ‘was omitted and no Anthem at all Sung…by the negligence of the Choir of Westminster.’  The music is ceremonial rather than profound, but the spaciousness, energy and architectural splendour of this very public utterance was exactly appropriate and has never been surpassed in its kind – as confirmed by the use of one or more of these anthems at every subsequent British coronation.