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George Frederick Handel: Coronation Anthem: The King Shall Rejoice


Handel's four Coronation Anthems were written in 1727 for the accession of George II on 29 October of that year. The Organist and Composer of the Chapel Royal would usually have composed the music for such occasions, but the holder of that position, William Croft, died on 14 August; although Maurice Greene was appointed as the new holder of the position, the job of providing music for the Coronation was given to Handel, apparently at the request of the king himself. The anthems are today usually presented with Zadok the Priest, the most famous of the four, as the first of the set, but it is doubtful from notes regarding the Order of Service that this was the order in which they were originally performed.

The text for The King Shall Rejoice is taken from the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible. Its key, D major, is the same as a further two of the four anthems. The reason for this lies chiefly in the orchestration; D major allowed the composer to exploit the availability of trumpets, which were generally played in this key at the time, and the use of brass was necessary to create the sense of grandeur and ceremony required by a state occasion such as this.

The structure of the piece, a sectional design, is influenced by the traditional English sacred anthem. This form, which loosely parallels Continental examples, had developed during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the verse anthem, in which contrasting sections of text are set as both solos and choruses. Such composers as Byrd, and his successors Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Weelkes, developed the potential of this form in the period leading up to the Commonwealth (during which church music was suppressed). After the Restoration, further important developments were made to the form. In 1662 the king's enlarged violin band, modelled on Les 24 Violons of the French court of Louis XIV, was introduced into the Chapel Royal to play symphonies and ritornellos between the verses of the anthem. This sparked the development of the occasional 'orchestral' anthem such as Locke's Be thou exalted, Lord, which utilises three four-part choirs with soloists, five-part string band, a consort of viols and two theorbos. It was Purcell, however, who drew together the work of his predecessors and wrote the most effective anthems of his generation, again some of them with orchestral accompaniment such as Rejoice in the Lord Alway. Handel contributed to this tradition with the Chandos Anthems, twelve such pieces composed between 1716 and 1718 for the Earl of Carnarvon (later the Duke of Chandos).

It is against this backdrop of English church music that one should view the style and form of the Coronation Anthems, which are all constructed from sections of differing key, metre and character. With their orchestral accompaniment and ceremonial qualities, they are what is known as 'full' anthems. Although tonally unified by beginning and ending in the same key, thematic material is only important here on a local scale within sections as the basis for polyphonic writing. The main difference between these and most church anthems, however, is the lack of writing for solo voices; each number is sung by the chorus, although at the first performance some sections were sung with two to a part in the alto, tenor and bass parts (a practice that is not usually used in performance today). The orchestration is typical of the period, with the strings and continuo providing the core of the accompaniment, the brass being introduced for gestural effects as required.

The choral writing displays Handel's intuition for setting words, something that had made him such a successful composer of operas and oratorios; his intuition for when to use a declamatory, homophonic style for impact or a polyphonic style to generate tension and excitement over a wider span shows a dramatic talent of the highest order. This can be seen throughout the work, from the opening choral block chords of 'The King shall rejoice, the King shall rejoice in thy strength, O Lord' to the contrapuntal ecstasy of the drawn-out closing 'Alleluia'.

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