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Handel and Haydn Festival

November, 2018

Program Notes by Sanford Dole

This weekend’s concert set marks the beginning of Bay Choral Guild’s 40th season. Wow! We continue to be an integral part of the thriving choral music scene in the Bay Area, and I am proud to be a part of the group’s vitality as we present a wide range of styles each season.

To kick off this celebratory season I decided to harken back to the ensemble’s roots as the Baroque Choral Guild, as we were known from 1979 to 2006, and present two 18th-century masterpieces for chorus and orchestra, with trumpets and drums a-blazing. We are excited to have the period-instrument specialists of the Jubilate Orchestra joining us as well as four exquisite vocal soloists.

Josef Haydn served nearly 30 years as the Kapellmeister for the court of Esterházy, until the court decided to cut way back on its musical staff. He was awarded a substantial pension, and now free to pursue other opportunities, he made sojourns to England.  There he became responsible for producing a concert series, which included his own compositions—the twelve “London” symphonies as well as much chamber music. But the terms of his pension stipulated that he compose a new mass every year to honor the name day of the Princess Marie Esterházy. The last six masses composed by Haydn between 1796 and 1802 were created to fulfill this obligation. Of these, the “Lord Nelson” Mass is the most famous.

The Mass was composed over a six-week period in the summer of 1798, in time for a premiere on the birthday of the princess, September 8.  Haydn catalogues it as “Missa in Augustiis” or Mass in Time of Distress. It was a time of great anxiety in Europe, as Napoleon Bonaparte and his French armies occupied much of Austria. There was great fear, after news spread that Bonaparte’s fleet had escaped the British blockade, that he would take control of the entire Mediterranean and monarchies would be imperiled. So when Admiral Nelson was able to corner and destroy Bonaparte’s fleet near Alexandria at the Battle of the Nile, much relief was felt across Europe. It is not certain how this Mass became known as the Lord Nelson Mass, but one story is that news of Lord Nelson’s victory reached Esterházy on the day of the premiere. The title became firmly fixed when in 1800, Nelson himself visited the Esterházy court, accompanied by his mistress, Lady Hamilton, where they met the composer. It is very probable that the Mass was performed to honor Nelson during his visit, along with a brief cantata, Lines from the Battle of the Nile, which Haydn composed for Lady Hamilton.

As he began work long before any news of Nelson’s victory arrived, Haydn set the Mass in the dark key of D minor, making it his only mass in a minor key. In the opening Kyrie the low trumpet fanfares are foreboding. Things brighten up as the Christe moves to F major. It is here that we first encounter the virtuoso soprano solo part. The Gloria, as befits the text, is most cheerful. The Credo begins with an austere canon between sopranos and tenors, singing in unison, and altos and basses, also in unison. This leads to an exquisite Et incarnatus est followed by an intense Crucifixus. After the Sanctus comes the remarkable Benedictus, a movement of exceptional emotional and dramatic intensity. It is here that Haydn returns to the dark D minor tonality heard in the Kyrie, with trumpets and timpani again playing a prominent role. The Agnus Dei, sung by soloists only, is followed by an extended Dona nobis pacem. In contrast to the usual supplicatory prayer, this final movement is very florid, typical of Haydn at his most exuberant.

A little more than a half-century earlier, another military victory was celebrated with a musical composition. On June 27, 1743, the British army led by King George II assisted Austrian forces in defeating the French at Dettingen, Bavaria, during the War of Austrian Succession. This battle would mark the last time a British monarch would personally lead troops into battle. A thanksgiving prayer was issued to be read in all churches on Sunday, July 17, 1743. That same day George Frideric Handel seized the initiative by commencing work on a large-scale Te Deum.

Judging from its extended form, the spacious style of choral writing, and opulent scoring, it seems the composer expected that a large-scale thanksgiving service would be held in St Paul’s Cathedral, with his musical setting of the Te Deum at the heart of the occasion, as had been done in 1713 after the Peace of Utrecht. If so, Handel miscalculated. The Battle of Dettingen was more of a skirmish, not a grand conclusion to the prolonged war. The King was in no rush to return to England, and when he finally did, in November, there was a series of delays, including the death of Queen Caroline. The premiere finally took place in the Chapel Royal at St. James’ Palace on November 27, five months after the Battle of Dettingen. It must have been jarring to hear this large-scale work in the intimate confines of the Chapel, rather than in the grand, open spaces of St. Paul’s.

The Dettingen Te Deum is the fifth of Handel’s settings of this ceremonial text, and by far the longest and most lavish, requiring a full orchestra, including three trumpets (the first time he had ever gone to this extreme), five-part choir, and three soloists. The work consists of 15 short choruses and solos, most of which are jubilant and triumphant. Interspersed with these are more plaintive movements, some very tender, that provide a respite from the martial trumpets and drums. There are plenty of ceremonial choruses in D major, in part due to the valveless trumpets, but no two movements are exactly alike. The music takes the listener through meticulously crafted contrasts, and it bears the hallmark of the composer’s characteristic versatility. One moment to listen for is a quote from one of the Coronation Anthems that Handel had composed for King George II when he ascended the throne. The most famous anthem, Zadok the Priest, is clearly referenced in the middle of the fifth movement, at the words “…the world doth acknowledge thee the Father of an infinite majesty.”  It seems Handel was paying homage to the sovereign!

We thank you for helping us celebrate our 40th season!  We hope to see you again in March, when we present something completely different: a sublime program of sacred a cappella choral music from Russia.