The regal anthems of genius

Handel and the English Chapel Royal

May 12, 2006

The English, Handel is reputed to have claimed, best like "something striking, which has its effect directly on the eardrums". In Zadok the Priest , his famous 17 coronation anthem, they certainly had that. The other works discussed in Handel and the English Chapel Royal are rather less well known - and generally rather less striking - but, as Donald Burrows amply demonstrates, well worth our attention.

Handel scholars have long awaited this book: the doctoral dissertation on which it is based was completed in 1981, and in the intervening years Burrows's enduring "fascination with Handel and his music" has generated a succession of important studies, placing him at the forefront of Handel scholarship. These are studies of not only academic significance (for example, on Handel's autograph manuscripts, on the Harris family correspondence and numerous articles paving the way for this book), but also of general interest (his excellent Handel biography).

This healthy mix continues: as the series editor suggests, Burrows luxuriates in detail while adding to our appreciation of Handel's "many-sided genius". Although the book may be aimed primarily at an academic market, there is much here to interest the general reader.

Burrows achieves a consistently readable narrative in large part through his all-embracing approach to the subject, which encompasses dynastic politics, court intrigue and social custom on the one hand, and the niceties of institutional operation and outlook on the other, bound together by the music (analysed with a light touch). In part, this is making a virtue of necessity, given that the works concerned are mainly fairly brief (anthems, not operas or oratorios), few in number (about 20, including revised versions), and little known. Burrows nonetheless presents a compelling case for their examination: the Chapel Royal's political function meant that the composer's association with it had ramifications for his social status and career, while the publicity surrounding Chapel Royal events and the calibre of its performing forces meant his compositions had a wide impact on English church music. Then, too, because these works span the length of his London career, they demonstrate important developments in Handel's style.

It follows that Burrows sees himself as presenting a "creative biography", one that parallels Handel's more widely discussed operatic career, but for an institution with quite a different ethos. A chronological exploration of Handel's Chapel Royal work is thus filled out with general considerations of musical style and career development - including the composer's "interlude" at Cannons, and the Chapel Royal connections in his 1730s oratorios - and rounded off with an examination of performance conditions.

Throughout, Burrows interweaves discussion of musical detail and background to present illuminating "thick" (in the Clifford Geertz sense) readings of music and composer. The value of such readings is most apparent with stories already well known - for example, that of Handel's first years in England, when his composition of music celebrating the Peace of Utrecht won favour here (not least, perhaps, for its recognisably "English" musical devices), though apparently angering his Hanoverian employer.

Burrows's discussion of the Chapel Royal before Handel's arrival, and of his first English verse anthem, establishes a sense of the early importance of musical tradition within a volatile religious and political environment, and so makes clear Handel's astute manoeuvring to co-opt that tradition.

The justification for Burrows's catholic approach might be illustrated with regard to Handel's anthem for the wedding of Princess Anne and William of Orange: while newspaper reports of the wedding music were "rather mean", Burrows's narrative demonstrates that Handel's anthem was at the heart of the event, "the only time during the service when the bride and groom sat on the specially provided seats... [implying that] everyone's full attention was given to the music".

Burrows, we recall, began his Handelian career equally fascinated by the music and the man, and while thick history plays a part in this book's success, so too does a conception of the narrative in terms of personal as well as creative biography. The biographical allure that attends any great composer is particularly strong for a subject so notably private and yet so colourfully portrayed in anecdotal history. Here, biographical speculation is facilitated by the intermittent, contingent nature of Handel's London church career; thankfully, Burrows's hypotheses about Handel's motivation are generally well supported.

If these happy biographical conceits serve to leaven the factual narrative, the often fraught intersection of Handel's rising star with those of lesser musicians, such as the Chapel Royal composer and organist Maurice Greene (ridiculed by George III as "that wretched little crooked ill-natured insignificant Writer Player and Musician"), suggests an enterprise already somewhat fictionalised, one that might be characterised - as Lady Cowper did the Utrecht Te Deum - a "church opera". It is to Handel's credit that he played his part in the drama so well, and to Burrows's that he so vividly captures its ethos.

Suzanne Aspden is lecturer in music, Oxford University.

Handel and the English Chapel Royal

Author - Donald Burrows
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 651
Price - £89.00
ISBN - 0 19 816228 6

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs