Program Notes

Coronation Anthems

Coronation Anthems

The year was 1727, it was early June, and George Frideric Handel had a problem. A newly naturalized British citizen, the 42-year-old native of Halle (near Leipzig in Upper Saxony) was the impresario and orchestra conductor of the Royal Academy of Music in London—not, as might be inferred, an educational institution, but rather an entertainment company, primarily in the production of operas and concerts. The success of that enterprise depended heavily on support from the royal family. And Handel had just been through a debacle which embarrassed not only himself, but the Prince of Wales—probably his strongest royal supporter. Handel had been conducting an opera, with the Prince among the audience, when two costarring prima donnas began fighting onstage. The rest of Handel’s opera season had been cancelled, and it was questionable whether he could re-establish performances the following year. He obviously needed to mend fences with the Prince.

Problems indeed. No one anticipated that one week later, the King of England, George I, would be dead, and the Prince of Wales would be George II.

Problems, especially as to relations with European monarchs, were not new to Handel. To his credit, he was astute at divining ways out of such scrapes; if nothing else, Handel was a survivor. Fifteen years earlier, he had overstayed, in England, the leave provisions of his contract with his then employers, the Elector and Electress of Hanover. To make matters worse, in July 1713, he supplied music for a thanksgiving ceremony celebrating the Treaty of Utrecht—a settlement not liked by the Hanoverians. They terminated his employment. But their children, Prince George Augustus and his wife, Princess Caroline, remained impressed by Handel’s skill at the harpsichord. Through the 1701 Act of Succession from Parliament, the unthinkable happened: The Elector of Hanover became George I of England. And now his son, the Prince of Wales, was to become King.

Not that Handel had let his disconnection from the Hanover Kapellmeister’s job keep him idle. As early as 1710 he was finding ways to impress the British monarch, then Queen Anne, last of the Stuart line. At New Years’, 1713, the Queen had honored him with a royal pension. And while he served the Queen, he appeased his former employers by supplying them information on the sickly Queen’s health—information obtained via his friendship with Abendroth, the royal physician, who was an aspiring composer. When George I ascended the throne in 1714, Handel was paid his unearned back wages from Hanover!

Handel’s friendship with the Prince of Wales should have been sufficient to put him in the royal family’s good graces. There was another problem; the Prince and his father squabbled at length for perhaps the first six years of George I’s reign. Handel walked a tightrope, supplying favors to both sides of the family, and keeping his peace. The strategy worked, and it probably did not hurt that Handel’s German background gave him some stature in the eyes of George I and the Prince —the king spoke no English and both disliked the people they ruled. On the other hand, Handel’s citizenship application in 1727 may have been a carefully timed attempt to demonstrate his loyalty.

When Prince George Augustus became King, Handel moved swiftly to seal his bond: Unbidden, he supplied four anthems for the new King’s coronation on October 11, 1727. Even here he faced problems: First, the ecclesiastical authorities wanted to supply words for his anthems. Handel demurred: The words he used, he said, were traditional from earlier coronations. His view prevailed. A further problem, probably in part because of the nature of the venue, resulted in a “wretched” performance at the coronation ceremony, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury; but the Archbishop may have tasted sour grapes after losing the earlier argument. Whether or not the performances were adequate, Handel, in typical fashion, found redeeming uses for the anthems. He added the first two to a revision of his oratorio Esther (the first English oratorio, originally composed in 1718) for a 1732 performance, and used the last two in a new oratorio, Deborah, premiered in 1733. And if staying power is proof of the worthiness of these anthems, consider that the first, Zadok the Priest has been sung at every British coronation since 1727, including that of Queen Elizabeth II in June of 1952. Fitting enough that the Chorus should perform these works in the fifty-first year of her reign.

The Chorus performed Zadok the Priest in 1995 and The King Shall Rejoice and Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened in 1986. The fourth coronation anthem, My Heart is Inditing was not programmed for this concert because of time considerations.

J. R. Fancher