What God Said (or why I enjoy writing programme notes) by Julia Jones
The central work in our forthcoming concert (November 27th Chelmsford Cathedral, please get your tickets here) is Handel’s Dixit Dominus. I’ve almost worn my CD out over the years, as I listen in the car bowling merrily along the A12 (or more likely stuck in a traffic jam). But only now do I begin to appreciate Handel’s brilliance at word-setting – it’s more than ‘word-painting’. He seems able to embody the word in the music in a way that brings to mind the c17th English metaphysical poets and John Milton. Handel possesses a rare quality of linguistic wit and the capacity to spring surprises. Dixit Dominus opens with 17 bars of exciting, attention-grabbing string-playing then the orchestra falls silent. Who announces the voice of God? It’s the altos, unaccompanied!
This comes as something of a shock to my section, used as we are to a handmaidenly role, supporting our brilliant sisters in the sopranos or those important assertive chaps in the tenors and basses. Nevertheless, this is Our Moment before the rest of the chorus seizes the word ‘dixit’ (he said) and bandies it about in a chattering crowd. It reminds me of that delightful moment in CS Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when the ordinary lion picks up on an announcement from Aslan:
‘The most pleased of the lot was the other lion, who kept running about everywhere pretending to be very busy but really in order to say to everyone he met, “Did you hear what he said? Us lions. That means him and me. Us lions. That’s what I like about Aslan. No side, no standoffishness. Us lions. That meant him and me.” At least he went on saying this till Aslan had loaded him up with three dwarfs, one dryad, two rabbits, and a hedgehog. That steadied him a bit.’
In Dixit Dominus God’s announcement has been made to ‘domino meo’ (my god) and we altos give that ‘me-o’ two solid minims to make the point. You might not necessarily hear it from the audience as the rest of the singers have started up by then. When God actually gets a word in, it’s given to the magnificent soprano soloist who sings ‘Sede a dextris mei’, (Sit at my right hand) giving 3 full bars of glorious emphasis to that word ‘Sede’. It forces the rest of us to shut up and listen. (‘Are you sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin,’ as Daphne Oxenford might have instructed my generation when we were children.)
We chatter a few more ‘dixit’s as our excitement simmers until we receive God’s message. I think some of our c21st audience may find this message rather shocking (though many will miss it as it’s sung in Latin). What God says – and we repeat many times - with relish - is that he’s going to make our enemies our footstool. Our conductor, Andrew Fardell, works tirelessly to ensure that we sing the word ‘scabellum’ (footstool) with suitable vindictive glee. I consider that it's part of my job, as programme notes volunteer, to help make clear why we’re dropping our friendly, middle-class Essex personas (together with our plummy vowels) as we grind our enemies (‘in-i-mi-cos’ stresses Andrew, almost getting us to spit it) under our feet. Because that’s what God has said (Dominus Dixit) and (as movement 4 will clarify) he’s not sorry, ‘non paenitebit eum’. ‘Non, non,’ Handel emphasises.
So here’s some context for the programme: Handel was 22 and living in Rome when he wrote Dixit Dominus, his setting of Psalm 110. Rome was not a large city then and had been suffering a series of climatic disasters (flooding and earthquakes) as well as the wider effects of the War of the Spanish Succession. Handel’s biographer, Jonathan Keates, praises the efforts of the Pope Clement XI to maintain the city’s morale through this period and his success in preserving the conditions needed for a thriving cultural life. Handel, who had arrived in late 1706, was soon noticed as an excellent harpsichord player and composer and quickly amazed people with his brilliance at the organ. His affiliation to the Lutheran rather than the Catholic church doesn’t seem to have been any hindrance to his acceptance in ecclesiastical circles though his biographer uses it to cast doubt on the general assumption that Dixit Dominus was composed as part of an incomplete Vespers to be performed at the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria di Monte Santo as a thanksgiving for deliverance from earthquakes. Instead, he suggests that Handel’s work was made consciously 'in tempore bello' (in time of war) and was performed t the end of April 1707 for the Spanish Ambassador who had been alarmed by rumours of an approaching Imperial army.
Though the words were the responsibility of the Old Testament psalmist, Handel’s treatment misses no opportunity to underscore their violence. ‘Confregit’ (break in pieces) in movement 6; ‘ruinas’ (destruction) and ‘conquassabit’ (shatter) are given full value as the chorus hammers home the message of retribution to come. There was no opera in Rome at this period but there’s plenty of drama here.
Dixit Dominus is a challenging work for us Essex amateurs. There’s a youthful sense of ‘going for it’ in some of the top of the range notes and we have to summon plenty of energy and verbal dexterity to punch our message home. I was glad to discover a recent piece of research which suggests Handel may have used the services of some moonlighting singers from the Capella Sistina for its first performance. This felt obscurely flattering (even if completely unproven) so I popped it in the notes.
But should a performance need notes? Couldn’t we put the message over musically without even a Latin-English translation? To refer to music as ‘programme music’ is perhaps to consider it a little downmarket – Classic FM rather than Radio 3? Truly musical people hear differently, I’ve come to realise. But we are not all so capable. For myself I like some context / translation / elucidation. No-one is forced to shell out for my programme (cost £1).
I was once criticised for not putting in the length of time each piece should take – presumably to help people check how much longer they needed to endure before they could nip out into the churchyard for a ciggy or scamper down the road to the pub. And I can remember as a child running my finger down the sections of text with a sense of satisfaction that the concert was making progress, only to feel utterly cheated by the number of times the singers when back and sung those same words all over again.
Well, that’s tough. I think Handel’s handling of language is outstanding even among the greatest composers. Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria in D (RV 589) is also an in-car CD favourite and is also in our concert. The two pieces were composed within eight years of each other but their pleasures are quite different. Thinking (for the programme notes) about the circumstances of the Gloria's composition (for the Venetian Ospedale della Pieta c 1715) and the invidious situation of its composer and performers, brought me a renewed admiration for the music's intrinsic quality of joy.
I can’t see where it might come from in either the girls’ or the composer’s life; I can’t even see it as purely religious. There’s a section (Laudamus te) where two sopranos are singing a duet of praise to God. They would only have to turn and face each other, rather than singing out to the audience, for it to become a passionate declaration of mutual love. Where does that come from in the experience of the officially celibate priest and the young women hidden behind a metal screen? If they were 'lucky' and found a husband from behind that screen, they and their husband had to promise there would be no more singing...Otherwise they could stay, cloistered, for ever. Vivaldi was asthmatic, under appreciated, often broke. Yet his Gloria has the irrepressible quality of springing happiness. There are sections when the words are conventionally pleading for God’s mercy yet the music breaks into a dance. I’m guessing that the God factor will be immaterial for many audience members and they’ll merely be amazed to discover that such gorgeously joyous music was forgotten for almost 200 years. It’s exactly what we need now to lift our spirits in the winter of 2021.