Handel's Coronation Anthem: "Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened"
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 11, 2017
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
SMF Baroque Players and Chorus
Carsten Schmidt, conductor
video by Stewart Searle
About the Music
Over the years we’ve heard a great deal from George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) on the stages of the SMF, including several fully-staged operas. Handel was perhaps the most well-known musician across Europe in the mid-18th century. Born in Halle in central Germany, young Handel received only modest compositional lessons. This was very much the era of “on-the-job training,” especially for church musicians, and Handel would continue to self-instruct as he came into contact with more diverse styles in Rome and Venice. Even after he crossed north over the Alps in early 1710, Handel continued to think and create in the Italian style. He took a post at Hanover in Germany, but left for his first visit to London before the end of the year. He received permission from the Elector of Hanover for a second English tour—and never went back to Germany.
As fate would have it, his old employer in Hanover eventually became King George I of England in 1714. Handel smoothed the day of reckoning by writing the dazzling Water Music at the king’s request. They would reconcile, and a decade later in one of his last official acts, the king would bestow English citizenship upon Handel. Within the month Handel returned the kindness by composing a set of glorious anthems that served the coronation of George II in October 1727.
These Coronation Anthems, of which Handel composed four, utilize massive orchestral and vocal forces. He responded to the grandness of the occasion and the setting (i.e., Westminster Abbey) by writing music that is bold, buoyant, and extroverted. The first anthem performed that day in 1727 was “Let thy hand be strengthened.” The work’s opening movement sets the first line of the text as a vibrant march in G major. Handel varies the texture to enliven the single message, using both virtuosic polyphony and stately homophony (voices moving at the same rhythm) to express God’s majesty. The mood changes drastically with the E-minor, triple rhythm Larghetto. Reaching back to a more antique sound—using long note values and biting dissonance, like frequent 7-6 suspensions—Handel makes the body of the text sound heartfelt and imploring. Out of this somber realm we step into a radiant Hallelujah, a form of vocal writing that Handel mastered on countless occasions. Repeated over and over, the single word “hallelujah” eventually becomes almost secondary in significance. Having internalized its meaning, we are pulled inexorably onward by the brilliant compositional style.
(c) Jason Stell, 2017
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