Young Handel and the wow factor

The young and adventurous Mr Handel

One of Handel’s most exciting works, Dixit Dominus, written when he was a young man on an exciting Italian adventure was one of the high points of Chobham Festival in 2018 as part of a Joyfully Choral concert.

It was performed by a stellar bespoke choral consort, including members of the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, the King’s Consort and the renowned Stile Antico who specialise in music from the Renaissance era.

They were conducted by English tenor Roy Rashbrook, who is himself a member of the choir of St Paul’s, as well as a significant contributor to the musical life of Surrey and Hampshire. The soprano soloist was Kirsty Hopkins, a member of The Sixteen, simply one of the best chamber choirs in the world and the organist was Richard Pearce, frequently to be found playing the organ at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, and at the Last Night of the Proms.

Dixit Dominus was Handel’s exuberant setting of Psalm 110, which begins with the words Dixit Dominus, “The Lord Said”. This piece was written when Handel was just 22 and living in Italy for three and a half years. Its brilliance made him something of a sensation and established his reputation as a top talent of the day.

In the words of Roy Rashbrook this stunning outpouring of George Frederic’s youthful talent was “exciting, racy and colourful”. Having travelled south from the relatively grey skies of Hamburg in northern Germany, Handel must have been overwhelmed by the colours, the vibrancy and sunshine of Italy, says Roy.

“You also have to consider that he must have come across some spectacularly able choral singers and the result is he writes this firework of a piece. It has the most exuberantly decorative writing, way past anything you are likely to find in the Messiah.”

It also has a deeply moving section, a soprano duet, De Torrente, following the “choral fireworks” of the earlier sections and just before the final closing blast of choral pyrotechnics. “There is this piece in the middle when the world seems to stand still and it is something that people will take away with them,” says Roy.

“There is this piece in the middle when the world seems to stand still and it is something that people will take away with them.”

Another young man’s masterpiece featured in the programme was My Heart is Inditing by Henry Purcell, the greatest English baroque composer- and many would claim the greatest ever native composer – whose brilliant life in music and at the royal court ended when he died at the age of only 36.

This anthem, was written for the coronation of James II (brother of Charles II who had died without any legitimate offspring) in 1685, and marked the point when England had finally thrown off the legacy of puritan Cromwell’s Commonwealth which had suppressed delight in music and musical innovation. We had caught up, musically, with our continental European neighbours.

Purcell supervised the installation of an organ in Westminster Cathedral for the first time for the coronation and his music bore many French influences, including the introduction of the new virtuosic instrument, the violin, edging out the more sedate stringed viols and the brass sackbut. Unusually Purcell wrote eight, rather than the customary four, vocal lines for this work, creating a particularly rich, dense and luxurious sound.

This anthem marked the point when England had finally thrown off the legacy of puritan Cromwell’s Commonwealth which had suppressed delight in music and musical innovation. We had caught up, musically, with our continental European neighbours.

Three crowd-pleasers from J.S.Bach completed the programme: all chorale based movements from Bach’s cantatas: Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Sheep May Safely Graze and Sleepers Awake.

Roy, who is also a member of the King’s Consort, had taken part as a singer and assembled the voices for choral concerts for at least two previous Chobham Festivals – he’d lost count – but this was his first tour of festival duty with baton.

Chobham and the High Street is familiar turf – from driver’s seat level. Living in Woking and being musical director of Hart Voices of Fleet, as well as conductor of the Chantry Singers of Guildford, Roy drives through Chobham several times in most weeks.

Like Roy, Chobham Festival’s Musical Director Dale Chambers, teaches at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford. Violist Dale is also taking part as violist and leader.