Henry Purcell, 1659-1695
Welcome to All the Pleasures, Z339
Henry Purcell was born near the end of a tumultuous period of English history. The country had been torn apart by a Civil War that resulted in the beheading of Charles I in 1649, followed by the founding of the Commonwealth headed by Oliver Cromwell. Many musicians fled to the Continent during the Civil War, and the Puritan Cromwell dissolved the cathedral choirs and banned public entertainments. When Charles II came to the throne in 1660 ushering in the Restoration, he took steps to bring music back. He was influenced by the way artists, writers, and musicians were encouraged in the French court where he spent much of his exile; the string orchestra in Louis XIV’s court was emulated by Charles II at court and cathedral. Italian music and musicians were also influential in English culture, going all the way back to the sixteenth century. A significant result of the effort to revive music in Restoration England was the reconstitution of the cathedral choirs at Westminster Abbey and elsewhere. While adult choristers could easily resume their duties in the choir, it was necessary to rebuild the boys’ section of the choir from scratch. In addition to the talent available in London, promising boy choristers from provincial churches were ‘pressed’ into service at the Chapel Royal and a choir school was reinstated for their training.
Henry Purcell was the beneficiary of this system. His father was a professional musician who secured a place as a tenor in the newly reconstituted choir of the Chapel Royal at Whitehall. At the age of seven or eight young Henry became a member of the Chapel Royal choir and remained there until his voice broke in 1673. Thereafter he assumed various duties at the Chapel Royal and studied composition with John Blow, who held the combined posts of choirmaster and organist at Westminster Abbey. In 1679 he succeeded Blow as organist at the Abbey, and proceeded to write numerous compositions from the 1680s until his death. His music varied from songs for solo voice, anthems for the Chapel Royal and Abbey, instrumental music for the court, to odes celebrating various events such as the King’s annual return to London after his summer stay in Windsor and, later, birthday odes to Queen Mary from 1689 until her death in 1694. He also wrote several operas beginning with his most famous, Dido and Aeneas.
In 1683 Purcell, with a group of professional and amateur musicians, formed a Musical Society to honor Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, on her feast day of November 22. Welcome to All the Pleasures was Purcell’s contribution as the inaugural ode that year. The text is by Christopher Fishburn, an amateur poet and composer who was the nephew of architect Sir Christopher Wren. The multi-movement work contains a mixture of short solos, choruses, and instrumental interludes. It begins with an orchestral overture in the French style of slow and fast sections (such as Handel’s overture to Messiah). Notable is the alto solo, “Here the deities approve,” which is constructed over a bass ground (a three-measure melodic pattern repeated throughout the movement). The chorus is often treated contrapuntally, especially in the last movement where at the end the voices drop out one by one until only the basses are left to conclude the work.
Many notable composers contributed to this annual Cecilian festival, which included another contribution from Purcell in 1692, Hail, Bright Cecilia. John Blow contributed an ode and Te Deum in 1695, but the festival was dampened by Purcell’s death the day before on November 21, 1695. He was buried in Westminster Abbey near the organ he had played for over fifteen years. His tombstone bears an eloquent epitaph: “He is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded.”
George Frideric Handel, 1685-1759
Let God Arise, Chandos Anthem #11, HWV 256a
Handel was born in Halle, a town in central-eastern Germany not too far from Leipzig, where Bach spent the last 27 years of his life. His father, a successful barber-surgeon, wished his son to pursue a career in law. When young Handel showed exceptional musical talent, his father relented and allowed him to study with Friedrich Zachow, the local organist, who gave him an excellent musical education. Handel excelled at playing the harpsichord, organ, and violin, as well as at composition. Zachow allowed him to study musical scores in his library, and Handel learned the styles of German and Italian composers. At the age of eighteen he moved to Hamburg to perform in its opera house, first as a violinist and then at the harpsichord from which he would direct the orchestra. He also composed his first three operas there. Hamburg, as a port city, was very cosmopolitan, attracting foreign visitors, including those from London and Italy. After a few years in Hamburg and intrigued by Italian opera, he travelled to Italy to learn, compose, and perform for several years. While there he absorbed the Italian style, as exemplified by his Dixit Dominus, completed in Rome in 1707. Handel stayed in Italy until 1710, when he was appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Hanover in Germany. However, he soon took a leave of absence for London, attracted by the prospect of producing operas there. He would make frequent visits there until he settled in England permanently when Elector George of Hanover became King of England as George I in 1714.
In July 1717 Handel joined the household of James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon (who in 1719 became the First Duke of Chandos), at his country estate of Cannons, nine miles from London. Handel’s official title was composer-in-residence. Brydges was in the process of converting the Elizabethan manor house into a stately example of Palladian style architecture. In 1717-18 Handel wrote twelve sacred works for Brydges: a Te Deum and eleven anthems setting various Psalms. The anthems have been commonly referred to as Chandos Anthems, although since Brydges did not become the Duke of Chandos until after Handel left, they are often called Cannons Anthems. The musicologist Graydon Beeks notes that the anthems show the influence of the cantatas of Handel’s early teacher, Zachow, but are more closely related to Handel’s own Italian psalm settings and to the English verse settings of followers of Purcell.
Let God Arise, Chandos Anthem #11, is a multi-movement work setting verses from Psalms 68 and 78. It uses a mixture of solos, duets, and choruses with an instrumental introduction. The scoring reflects the small forces at Handel’s disposal, consisting of violins (but no violas), oboe, and basso continuo (cello and organ), SATB soloists and chorus. It exhibits Handel’s growing mastery in setting the English language. The many contrapuntal moments for chorus and orchestra show Handel’s interest in fugal composition in this period. Handel employs some notable text painting, such as on the word “scattered” in the opening chorus (ending with a quote from Dixit Dominus) as the voices literally scatter. Another example is the setting of “fallen” in the penultimate chorus, “At thy rebuke, O God.” The work ends with a double fugue on the text “Blessed be God, Alleluja.”
Antonio Vivaldi, 1678-1741
Gloria, D major, RV 589
Antonio Vivaldi is best known for his concertos, the most popular of which is the Four Seasons. He wrote over 550 compositions in this genre. Lesser known is his output of operas and sacred choral works; there are only about 50 known works in the latter genre, of which this Gloria is the most well-known and beloved. The reason for this disparity is the circumstances of his employment at Venice’s Ospedale Pietà. There were four ospedali (charitable orphanages associated with hospitals) in Venice at this time; they all specialized in musical training of young abandoned or orphaned girls. Unless they married or entered a convent, many of the women in the ospedali stayed there for the rest of their lives. The excellence of music-making attracted visitors to Venice and served as a fund-raising enterprise for the ospedali. The Pietà was the largest ospedale in population and thus had the most girls and women to draw upon for its orchestra and singers. Vivaldi was initially hired there in 1703 as maestro di violini (violin master) and was later promoted to maestro di concertanti (concert master), whose responsibilities included composition of instrumental music. He remained there for most of his career except for brief visits to other European cities to produce operas he had written. Responsibility for choral works at the Pietà fell to the maestro di coro (choral master); Vivaldi was only able to write choral music during vacancies of this position. The period 1713-1719 was one such time, when it is believed that he wrote most of his sacred vocal works including the Gloria.
The Gloria is one of at least three that Vivaldi wrote, and is thought by scholars to have taken the place of a complete mass setting, “the representative composition for a festive mass,” as the musicologist Helmut Hucke termed it; the rest of the mass would have been read by the priest. This particular Gloria sets the text in twelve separate movements (so-called cantata-style) which alternate between choral settings and solo arias or duets. Each movement manages to convey the meaning of the text, such as the exuberant opening movement, the pensive, imitative setting of “Et in terra pax,” and the more operatic, penitential nature of “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” set for alto soloist and chorus. The work is scored for SATB chorus, SSA soloists, oboe, trumpet, strings, and organ. The inclusion of a trumpet in the first and last movements lends a celebratory air to the work. The Gloria concludes with a return to the opening music in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” followed by a fugue on “Cum sancto spiritu”, a reworking and simplification of a fugue by the Venetian opera composer Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, active in the years 1685-1715.
Vivaldi’s music fell out of favor after his death, and was only revived in the twentieth century. In the 1920s a major discovery of several manuscripts in a Turin library included that of this Gloria and other choral works. The Gloria received its first modern performance in 1939 and has been popular ever since. It has been utilized in six movies since the 1980s including Shine and Nixon.
Program Notes by Robert Acker and Alison Bleick. Used by permission.