Newman Flower's great biography of Handel mentions `the twelve Chandos anthems'. There are 11 here, that number is explicitly confirmed in the liner note, so I suppose it must be 11, whatever Flower had in mind. The anthem was a specifically English musical form, tracing its descent apparently to the unaccompanied motets of an earlier era. It gave a role to the church choir in the latter half of certain services, and anthems came to be accompanied by either organ or small orchestra. Handel's association with the Earl of Caernarfon, later Duke of Chandos, seems to have come about through the Duke's social pretentiousness. He amassed great wealth dishonestly, and used it to build his palace Cannons at Edgware. He acquired paintings for ostentation, and he seems to have acquired Handel in much the same spirit. Their association appears to have been cordial but brief, just over 12 months in 1718-19. Flower says nothing about the occasions for which the anthems were composed, and the liner note suggests that little is actually known. They are mostly 20 minutes in length, although two stretch to nearly half an hour. The orchestra consists of strings without violas plus an oboe, a bassoon and a couple of recorders. The first 6 anthems are for 3-part chorus lacking altos, the others having 4 or 5 parts, not always including altos. The texts are from the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer version, except in two anthems where the rhyming versions of Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady are used.
The Sixteen were already known to me in Handel from their fine Samson. However I have just been admiring them on their own in Palestrina, and I had to hear them in Handel again, because for me Handel is simply the greatest stylist of the voice who ever set words to music. It was also an opportunity to acquire and study the Chandos anthems as a complete set. Most of the music goes to the chorus, but there is plenty of solo and ensemble work, with the tenor having the lion's share. They seem to me to differ from Bach's cantatas not only in having their focus strongly concentrated on the voices rather than on instruments but also in having greater internal unity. Cantatas are to set texts for specific liturgical occasions, and are a string of separate `numbers'. As I understand it, the composer could assemble his own text for an anthem, and these anthems are units that break down into smaller subdivisions. Indeed the first anthem does not seem to me to subdivide in any way at all after the orchestral introduction, although there are breaks at six other points. Except for #9, where the first chorus has a lengthy `integral' prelude, each is preceded by a short `sonata' in slow-quick format - this is called a `sinfonia' at anthem 10, a distinction with no difference that I can detect. Arias, or detached solos and ensembles if arias is not the right word, are without da capo repetitions, and there is very little in the way of recitatives or accompagnati.
The chorus here are as superb as elsewhere, the modest but important orchestral parts are immaculate, the recording from 20 years ago is fine basically, and I like the soloists without exception. Right at the start of the first anthem Partridge is recorded in disconcertingly close focus with, as luck would have it, a long sustained `O' that will test how well you like his tone. It suits me fine, the focus adjusts almost immediately, and surely he is both a great singer and a great artist. That said, the performance calls for no more comment. The Sixteen do very well indeed, of course, in conveying depth and strength of tone even in 3-part writing - but whose is the true credit for that? Beecham tells us, if we even need telling: there has been no music since Handel's time that even feebly rivals his for grandeur and build of choral tone. However there is another aspect to Handel's vocal writing that seems to me at least as important, and one that receives less notice. I may call it the vocal rhetoric. By this I do not mean the `effects', although there are a few of those even here. The `snares fire and brimstone' of the second anthem are not treated pictorially, more as just a musical exclamation at such phenomena. However the earthquake and the thunder in #10 are spectacular to this day, I can almost literally see the lightning, and it was surely the capacity to do this kind of thing with such slender resources that led Mozart to say that Handel was the master of them all. Still, I come back to it - there is a deeper characteristic to Handel's musical rhetoric.
Listen attentively to the word-setting just as a technique. Observe the resourcefulness in the matter of repetition, with the musical phrases constantly varied and often the words repeated to different music entirely. Note the combining of phrases, the shortening, the rearrangements, and the associated stylistic features like the changes of pace, stops and starts, and irregular phrase-lengths. It is something entirely without parallel. It takes word-setting out of the ordinary realm of finding music that will express the mood and reflect the spoken rhythm of the words. Speech is no longer what governs this musical utterance, the utterance has become the province of a purely musical design.
This is all done with haughty ease and naturalness, and it was the kind of thing that led Haydn, on his last triumphant visit to London and at the height of his own great powers, to lament that Handel made him feel a novice. Understand this aspect of Handel's style and you will understand his melody better too. Hanslick, superficial as usual, deplored the lack of a freer modern melodic idiom in Handel, and indeed it seems to me that the entire reaction against him, partly caused by travesties in performance and partly by the appalling oratorio tradition that purported to be his legacy, led to the European musical culture as a whole losing contact with his special idiom and excellence. Tovey for one keeps talking about `Bach and Handel' when all he means is Bach. Beethoven had different ideas, and now that a generation or two has emerged from this era of heresy perhaps we can hear Handel with purified ears and begin to appreciate why Beethoven pronounced him the greatest composer who ever lived.