For two years beginning in the summer of 1717, George Frideric Handel was composer-in-residence for James Brydges, a wealthy patron and Member of Parliament who held the title of Earl of Carnarvon, later known by a more famous title—Duke of Chandos. The Duke’s great mansion was known as Cannons, the place where Handel resided for the duration of his tenure.
The “Chandos” anthems
Handel’s compositions during the first year of his residency were solely intended for performance at St. Lawrence, Whitchurch, the Duke’s parish church and the location of his private chapel. In total, Handel composed eleven anthems and one “Te Deum” which were performed by the Duke’s resident musicians (who were overseen by Johann Christoph Pepusch).
Better known as the Chandos anthems, Handel’s works were based on religious texts and scored for voices and instruments. Some of them were based on earlier compositions, but all are recognized as having unique qualities with no precedent in the English church repertory.
Esther, the first English oratorio
Among the works Handel wrote, following a fruitful and auspicious first year at Cannons, was the oratorio Esther—the first English oratorio. Unfortunately, we know very little of the circumstances surrounding the premiere. There are hints, of course, but none are strong enough to support anything beyond speculation (the details are too few).
Even the librettist remains a mystery. All we know is that the libretto was inspired by Racine’s play of the same title and its subsequent translation into English by Thomas Brereton.
The music, on the other hand, does tell us more. It is clear that a good portion of the arias and choruses in Esther were recycled by Handel from a somewhat earlier work—the Brockes Passion.
Although Esther was a relatively significant work for English music, it took another fourteen years for oratorios to take off in London. Ironically, it was due to a successful revival of Esther in 1732, in a new and improved form.
The story of Esther comes to us from the Bible. Esther was a Jewish queen who saved her people from slaughter by convincing King Xerxes I to rescind his order condemning the Jewish people in his dominion.
Acis and Galatea
By far, the most recognizable piece to be written during the Cannons period in Handel’s life was the masque Acis and Galatea. He’d already explored the story while living in Italy, but chose to create an entirely new work when he set it in English.
Written for soloists and small chamber ensemble, Handel expanded what was originally a story with a trio of soloists into one with three main characters and a couple of added supporting roles. The work portrays at least one of the main characters in a different light—the monster Polyphemus went from a lustful buffoon in the Italian version to a patently malevolent creature in the Cannons version.
The English Acis and Galatea is known as one of the most popular works to be performed during Handel’s lifetime.
Our new release of the week features the American ensemble Les Delices in a program of French baroque music for oboe. Director and baroque oboist Debra Nagy is joined by colleagues Scott Metcalfe, violin, Emily Walhout, cello, Lisa Goode Craford, harpsichord, and guitarist Lucas Harris. Their program includes music by composers Chauvon, Couperin, Corbetta, Philidor, and others.