Notes by Bruce Lamott
Tonight’s program draws together two audiences: the British court celebrating Queen Anne, bringer of peace on earth, and you, the American audience celebrating our exploration of outer space. The means of these celebrations is similar–soloists, choir, and orchestra musically illuminating texts by contemporary and historical authors in a multi-sectional work generically called “ode” or “oratorio.” Just as Handel’s audience eagerly anticipated hearing his new work for the first time, we look forward to the debut of the first oratorio by one of America’s preeminent composers. Both composers write in the musical language of their time, and both elicit our participation–one in allegiance to the monarch, and the other in wonder at our place in the universe.
HANDEL Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne
By the time Queen Anne celebrated what was to be her penultimate birthday on February 6, 1713, “our Trusty and well-beloved George Frederick Handel Esq.,” as she called him, had already firmly ensconced himself in the musical life of the royal court. Though he was still reported to be “a Retainer to the Court of Hanover, in the Quality of Director of his Electoral Highness’s Chapple,” it was no state secret that the British throne was about to pass from the childless 48-year-old Queen to the House of Hanover. However, it was not the anticipated Electress Sophia, who predeceased the Queen by two months, but rather her son and Handel’s employer, Georg Ludwig, who would bring to an end the rule of the House of Stuart as King George I.
The composition of odes for New Year’s Day and the monarch’s birthday on texts by the British Poet Laureate was traditionally the responsibility of the Master of the King/Queen’s Musick but Handel was given the honors in the previous year as well, though he wrote not an ode but an entertainment in the popular style of Italian opera. The Queen’s partiality to Handel was impeded by his status as a German-born alien, making him ineligible for a court appointment. By the end of the year, however, she bestowed a lifetime annual pension of £200 ,identical to the salary of her Master of the Queen’s Musick, John Eccles, who was paid to attend–but not compose–the birthday ode.
Anne’s role as a peacemaker ending the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) is celebrated in the text by the poet and Whig politician Ambrose Philips. (Fun fact: The expression “namby-pamby” was derived from his name.) The “lasting peace” he refers to was not without controversy, however, as it was achieved by secret negotiations with France and the unilateral breaking of Britain’s previous alliance with the Hapsburg Empire, the Dutch Republic, and German states–including Hanover.
Handel’s ode begins, not with the expected celebratory choral apotheosis, but with a dialogue in free improvisatory style for alto and solo trumpet depicting the rising sun on “the day that gave great Anna birth,” the only movement of its kind in all of Handel’s works. The following Allegro first states the refrain–“The day that gave great Anna birth, who fix’d a lasting peace on earth”–with word painting of the word “lasting” both in a florid coloratura and a note sustained for twelve beats. The chorus responds with both ideas woven into the polyphonic texture. This pairing of solo and chorus, a form previously used by Henry Purcell in his verse-anthems, continues throughout the piece.
The soprano exhorts the “winged race” of birds with the flighty short-short-long corta figures first introduced by the oboes. The lofty avian realm is further depicted by the minimal presence of the terrestrial basso continuo group. The figures continue as an accompaniment to the chorus, interrupted only by the florid extenuation–again–of the word “lasting.” Instead of responding with the same music each time, however, the choral refrain changes to extend the music of the preceding aria.
Handel breaks the alternation of solo or duet and chorus only once, for the centerpiece soprano/alto duet, “Kind Health descends on downy wings,” sung to a plaintive oboe solo in the gently rocking rhythm of the siciliana. The health of the Queen (so brilliantly portrayed by Olivia Colman in her Oscar-winning role in The Favourite) was a major concern to the court, faced with imminent regime change. Indisposed by gout, she appeared briefly on the intended day of the performance only to play cards with friends.
The bass aria fulminates at the “hissing tongues” of Envy and “blasted faction,” alluding to the political turmoil which beset her reign both at home and abroad. The final verse, for double chorus, vividly depicts the echoing sound of Anna’s actions “to distant climes,” a prelude to the celebratory final refrain. It’s uncertain when, if ever, Queen Anne heard this magnificent work–or indeed if it was ever performed, and her next birthday was to be her last.
HANDEL Suite from Terpsichore
The Italian opera Il pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd) first opened in London on November 22, 1712, just a few months before the Queen’s birthday. However, when Handel revived it to open the 1734-35 season, he added a balletic prologue entitled Terpsichore, in which Apollo joins with the muses in anticipation of an upcoming festival. Terpsichore, muse of the dance, makes her entrance to a brief and stately Prelude. She then dances in response to texts sung by the other characters, each dance corresponding to the different affects of the song. The sharp contrasts in dynamics (piano and forte) in the Sarabande reflect the text, “Each sprightly change the Heart delights.” Terpsichore’s rollicking Gigue “shews the transports of a lover.” The mercurial Air, with sweeping scales (tirate), running passagework, and fragmentary ideas, “paints a lover with tort’ring Jealousy possessed.” Two recorders imitate “the rapidity of the Wind” in a fleeting passepied with the generic title ballo (dance). The final Chaconne–which in the prologue appears at the beginning–unfolds with a spectrum of emotions in a series of variations over an eight-bar harmonic pattern, as Terpsichore fulfills Apollo’s command: “With noble boldness lead the Dance to our various Harmony.”
About The Listeners: An Interview with Caroline Shaw
Bruce: How did this commission first come about?
Caroline: We first talked about this piece after I had written my first piece for PBO, “Red, Red Rose” for Sophie von Otter. I had been in love with the Orchestra, and listened to their recordings for many years, and with that first piece I knew I’d found the group and the sound I could live in for a long time. We talked about what we could do next. I had never written an opera or something on that scale.
B: So this is your first “oratorio”?
C: That’s definitely what this is, but it’s strange to use that word now, because it’s such a part of history, and yet I like what it represents. It’s a piece that is not an opera, not in the church, but it does use text and does develop certain themes. I’ve listened to and thought about Handel’s oratorios in particular and every time I’ve written for Philharmonia, I always moved towards Handel, who was a brilliant song writer and wonderful deliverer of drama and text.
B: Did you have any particular work in mind as a kind of template?
C: Handel, of course, and Buxtehude (1637-1707), who combined sacred and secular texts in an interesting way. Any Bach cantata might even be the closest relationship to this piece, since there’s a mix of arias ,duets, chorales in several movements. My definition of oratorio is that it doesn’t exist in one “go,” but ebbs and flows as the number of performers and scale are constantly changing. It’s actually quite a modern way of listening. I’ve thought about a baroque dance suite, where nothing’s longer than about three or four minutes, but in the 20th century you actually have lengths being determined by how long can a record hold music, and you have things that begin to be twenty minutes long. There’s something about the oratorio form that encourages a shift in scale and orchestration and a multi-part journey.
B: What is this piece about?
C: I started with this idea of the Golden Record attached to the Voyager spacecraft, a fascinating notion that Carl Sagan had in 1977. This concept of putting a record on the side of the spacecraft, and (what I’m sure he understood) the absurd notion that someone might someday play the record, and this idea of something going out into the sky and not returning–wasn’t about what might happen; it’s the story we were telling about ourselves. I wanted to construct a journey–whether we call it an oratorio or whatever we call it– looking at the ways we see the sky and wonder about the universe and the ways that we also understand the earth and our planet.
B: What is the “pivot point” in your oratorio?
C: There’s a very subtle shift that happens in the piece where, instead of looking at the sky we begin to look at the planet from the perspective of the sky. No. 8 is the crucial moment. It’s taken from Carl Sagan’s last lecture at Cornell when he mentions the “pale blue dot” in the photograph taken from the Voyager spacecraft before it couldn’t communicate any more.
The mix of centuries in the text is very deliberate. At first you have Whitman and William Drummond (1585-1649) and Tennyson looking at the sky], and at No. 8 you are pivoting back and looking at the earth. It’s about how we look at the sky and space and how we live, and who we are on earth (as often happens in scifi). We’re really talking about issues on earth, what the earth looks like from 100,000 miles away, and how we might understand ourselves differently.
B: The ending reminds me of the simple chorale that ends a Bach cantata.
C: It’s the Spanish version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” something so completely simple and familiar but also universal. “I wonder who you are and where you are.” What would Handel say looking at the stars in 2019?
B: What are your challenges and opportunities does writing for period instruments?
C: Period instruments require a particular kind of musician. I think a lot about the players and singers– the people performing the music, perhaps more than the audience: who are they and what are their skills? What do they bring to the piece? Writing for PBO is not just writing for the particular instruments. It’s also the sensibility and the training and the familiarity with certain repertoire that’s a part of it.
As a violinist, I love the open A and E strings, fast sixteenth notes played on gut, and the “bloom” of the note. I embrace and love the shape of the bow. I appreciate the resonance of instruments and honor the “nonstandard” notes. In the history of developing instruments, we have tried to eliminate challenges: we’ve added keys to play certain notes more easily, working towards standardization. What’s Interesting about baroque instruments is that they’re not easy to play, and softer wood produces a different quality of sound. The baroque oboe is a beautiful mystery to me, but I’m working on it.
B: What kind of technology is called for in the piece?
It’s only “vintage” technology, the kind I grew up with but is vintage now. The original pre-recorded voice-over, the kind that journalists would love. Vinyl was what I grew up with. I have Lots of early childhood memories of using a cassette recorder to record myself and record the radio. I grew up very much before the internet, in the cassette/early CD generation.
B: What is the role of the Chorale?
I’ve thought a lot about how the choir is used, and I like that it can serve different roles within the work. Regarding the Chorale in particular. it’s the repertoire they have sung, the lilt and the phrasing and the harmonic language that is embedded in that experience. And I think that for me as a composer and a musician and a person, it’s important to write to that experience and not something that is removed from them. At some times I feel badly when the Chorale is just murmuring and it’s really just a couple of harmonies, but there are other parts where it amplifies the text. There’s one movement (No. 10) that’s only the choir without accompaniment. It’s the heart of the piece, like the Irish blessing of sailing through with the wind at your back.