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My heart is inditing

    at St John's Smith Square

    With the City of London Chamber Players. Handel’s Dixit Dominus and verse anthems by Purcell

Handel: Dixit Dominus
Purcell: My heart is inditing
Purcell: O God, thou hast cast us out
Purcell: O Lord God of Hosts
Purcell: Remember not, Lord, our offences
Purcell: Let mine eyes run down with tears

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Henry Purcell: verse anthems
Tonight we feature five anthems by Henry Purcell, England’s greatest composer of the Baroque, perhaps our most gifted composer of any time. Four of these anthems date, in all probability, from 1679-82, when Purcell was an organist at Westminster Abbey and probably also a singer in the Chapel Royal, to which he was appointed on a permanent basis in 1682.

These anthems, all relatively early works, owe a significant debt to Purcell’s grounding in the English church music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, also Locke and Lawes. In many senses these early works, whilst seeming to us more contemporary than, say, some of the later theatre music or church music, are in fact more conservative in late 17th century terms, owing more to earlier music than newer French or Italian styles. This is, however, precisely what many of us most enjoy in Purcell, in particular the dissonances and intense harmonies wrought by his near archaic and expert understanding of counterpoint, almost as extraordinary here as in his viol fantasias, also written at around this time.

Blow Up the Trumpet is perhaps the earliest of these pieces, its 10 independent vocal parts making it amongst the most ambitious of Purcell’s early anthems. Like many of Purcell’s more extended sacred works, it is a ‘verse’ anthem, combining extensive passages for solo voices with a light organ and string accompaniment, interleaved with choral passages. 0 God, Thou Hast Cast Us Out and 0 Lord, God of Hosts throw the emphasis less on the verses (though the latter anthem’s “Turn us again” is a particularly delightful example of Purcell’s verse writing at its best) and more on a busy, dense counterpoint for choral forces, particularly in the motets’ final stages.

Let Mine Eyes Run Down with Tears is perhaps the most expressive, and ultimately impressive of all these works, the writing for individual voices showing some influence of recitative, and an early flowering of Purcell’s consummate mastery of English word setting (note his simple, yet effective handling of a single word, “remember”, in the final verse).

My Heart is Inditing, composed for the coronation of James 11 and his Queen and performed in Westminster Abbey on 23rd April 1685, is an extended verse anthem written to combine three forces, the choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, with the company of 24 violins that the chapel used to accompany anthems when the King was present. It is Purcell’s longest and grandest ‘symphony’ anthem, opening with a lengthy instrumental ritornello which recurs in the centre of the piece. In between, Purcell’s sumptuous part writing extends to as many as twelve individual voices, and includes some of his most expressive verses. The anthem’s text, set again in revised form by Handel for the 1727 coronation, marks the coronation of the Queen, which on this occasion happened at the same time as that of the King. It is difficult now not to view the text’s imprecations for the queen’s fecundity without a certain detached irony. Her very success in this matter, in contrast with previous Stuart consorts, was a major contributory factor to James’ downfall in 1688, and the subsequent long twilight of their Catholic, Pretender descendants.

Handel: Dixit Dominus
Handel was twenty-one when, in 1706. he arrived in Rome. He was not to leave until 1709. Quickly he was in demand, first as an organist, then as a composer of secular cantatas for the wealthy Marquis Francesco Maria Ruspoli, and from early 1707 as composer of sacred music for Cardinal Carlo Colonna, an important supporter and funder of the Carmelite order in Rome.

Handel was in Rome both to practise his art and also to learn. He seems to have assimilated the techniques of contemporary Italian style with little effort. Writing music for the Catholic Church would also have been a new experience for a North German protestant from Halle, yet his precocity faced few obstacles here, either. Dixit Dominus, it would appear, can lay claim to being Handel’s first piece of Latin church music, and as such, is in itself a remarkable achievement. Completed in April 1707, it is setting of Psalm 110, often used as the opening psalm in a Vesper sequence, which would typically have formed the basis of services at great festivals of the church (Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers opens with a setting of this psalm also). This has led some scholars to link the work with other sacred music Handel wrote in 1707 for the Carrnelite Order, in particular the psalm setting Nisi Dominus, another psalm suitable for vespers. All this music may have been performed on July 16th 1707 at the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, held in the church of S. Maria di Monte Santo.

Each of Dixit Dominus’ nine movements or sections is strongly charactered, reflecting a powerful combination of Italian techniques and textures that owe much to Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti and other contemporaries with Handel’s own strong, very German grounding in counterpoint. What is perhaps most unusual is the sustained intensity of the work, its coherent large-scale organisation of movements, and the extended structures within those movements. This is especially true of the virtuoso prelude and fugue that forms the work’s conclusion, a fiery precursor of the great oratorio choruses still thirty years in the future.

Dixit Dominus is a young man’s work, in every sense. There is little of that relaxed grandeur that is so typical of his English music. There are also perhaps a few miscalculations, chiefly of vocal scoring: we must presume his original cast of singers had voices of steel, and nerves to match! Amongst Italian choral works of the late Baroque, however, it can claim few peers: it stands as a lasting annunciation of a great talent.