Zadok the Priest       George Frideric Handel


Zadok the priest and Nathan the Prophet

anointed Solomon King.

And all the people rejoiced, and said:

“God save the King! Long live the King!

May the King live for ever!

Amen, Alleluia, Amen.”

Words based on 1 Kings, Ch 1, vv 39-40

This anthem was written for the coronation of the Hanoverian King George II in Westminster Abbey in 1727, and has been performed at the coronation of every British sovereign ever since – traditionally during the anointing of the monarch. At its initial performance, Handel had under his control a choir of over 200 and an orchestra of 160. The music falls into three distinct choruses. The first, in seven parts, begins with a lengthy introduction from the organ based on a rising arpeggio figure, which gradually builds in volume and harmonic tension until the choir enters with a huge acclamation. This is followed by a triple-time chorus which is dance-like in its nature, rather like a minuet or hornpipe. In both of these two choruses the choir sings entirely homophonically. The final chorus, in six parts, is polyphonic however, with pairs of upper and lower voices alternating with each other and moving in parallel thirds, contrasted by a contrapuntal instrumental section and outbursts of full choral writing.

Handel’s stature and position as one of the greatest Baroque composers of operatic, choral, ceremonial and instrumental music has long been recognised, and his eclectic and catholic style drew readily on direct influences from the music of Germany, Italy and England. As well as having been a brilliant composer, Handel is also regarded as having been a great dramatist, bringing the texts of his operas, oratorios and anthems vividly off the page with all manner of musical devices. His surviving compositions include 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, numerous trios, duets and arias, much chamber music (including many instrumental sonatas and concerti grossi), a large volume of keyboard music, odes and serenatas, dance suites, coronation anthems written for the British monarchy, and 16 organ concerti. Handel spent the majority of his professional and productive life in London and, informed and influenced by earlier time spent in Germany and Italy, he introduced previously uncommon musical instruments into Britain through his works. These included the viola d'amore, the lute, the trombone, small and high-pitched cornetts, the theorbo, the French horn, the double bassoon, the viola da gamba, the carillon, the positive organ, and the harp. Born in Halle, his first professional appointment was as a violinist and harpsichordist at the opera house in Hamburg. From 1706 Handel spent five years in Italy where there are records of him conducting his music in cities as far apart as Naples and Venice. In 1711, he was appointed as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, the nominated future King George I of Great Britain. Following two sabbatical visits to London, Handel moved there finally and permanently, with his employer, on the death of Queen Anne in 1714. There followed an illustrious career as a composer of Italian opera in London and as the Musical Director of the Royal Academy – a body set up under the patronage of the monarch to control and direct Italian opera – which had become highly fashionable in London at the time. Other notable compositions from the first two decades of the eighteenth century include the Chandos anthems, composed under the patronage of the Earl of Caernarvon (James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos and prominent patron of the arts). Other notable compositions dating from the mid-eighteenth century include the two dance suites, Music for the Royal Fireworks, and what we now know as The Water Music, as well as other coronation anthems for George II. Following the gradual decline in popularity of Italian opera amongst the public, and some catastrophic financial decisions, Handel turned his attention to oratorio, and spent his final years in London writing and producing oratorios, amid ongoing attempts to resurrect earlier productions of previously popular Italian operas to an increasingly dwindling and reluctant audience. A trip to Dublin in 1741 resulted in the composition of Handel’s most enduring work, Messiah, and an association with the Foundling Hospital – a charitable institution  “…for the reception, maintenance, proper instruction and employment of exposed and deserted young children”. Handel died in London in April 1759, blind from injuries suffered in a road accident in his carriage in poor weather, and having suffered two strokes. He was buried with full state honours in Westminster Abbey before a congregation of around 3,000 people. Handel’s harpsichord, and all of his surviving manuscripts are now held in the British Museum where they represent the largest collection of any composer’s work, held in a single place, anywhere in the world.