Although audiences think “oratorio” when the name George Frideric Handel comes up, the driving force behind his whole career was opera, and specifically opera in the Italian style. To be sure, the oratorios for which Handel is known – Messiah, Israel in Egypt, Saul, and many others – were in many ways distinct from the operas, but they were an evolution from them, born of the same impulse to compose dramas in music.
At the age of 18, Handel (set free by his father’s death from his filial obligation to study law) left his native city of Halle and traveled the 200 miles to Hamburg, the center of operatic life in Germany. He was hired as a violinist and harpsichordist for the Hamburg Opera, and there he composed his first two operas. While working in Hamburg he also met the last Medici Duke of Florence, who invited Handel to move to Italy. There he spent time in Florence and Venice, where he composed and produced some operas, but lived primarily in Rome, where performances of opera were forbidden.
In Rome, in 1707 he composed his highly dramatic setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, for a Vespers service at the church of Santa Maria in Montesanto. The Psalm has seven verses, which Handel set in nine movements. Verse 4 is divided into two movements, and the concluding movement is “Glory to the Father…” which is traditionally appended to each Psalm in a Vesper service. The chorus plays a significant, even dominant, role in the composition, unlike in the operas of the time. This characteristic reappeared thirty years later when Handel reinvented himself as a composer of oratorios.
The musical idiom of Dixit Dominus contains many moments that foreshadow the more familiar idiom of Messiah, particularly the figures that are used for the word “Hallelujah” in the later work. Much of the rest of the Dixit, including the vocal lines, resemble the instrumental music of Corelli (Handel’s friend while he was in Rome, and probably the concertmaster for the first performance of Dixit). There are also moments in the first, fourth, and sixth movements that resemble the instrumental and choral writing of Vivaldi, who was music director for the Ospedale della pietà in Venice at the time that Handel was there producing his opera Agrippina.
Handel’s twelve Concerti grossi, opus 6 were the product of the 1730s. Each was composed to be played between the acts of his oratorios. Like all of Handel’s concerti, they are based on the model of the concerti grossi of Corelli (in contrast to the concerti of Bach, which are modeled after Vivaldi), especially in that they all use a solo-ensemble of two violins and violoncello. The fifth concerto in the set has six movements, in contrasting meters and tempos.
Christoph Graupner started his career in 1705 as one of Handel’s colleagues in the Hamburg Opera. In 1709 he became Music Director for the Langrave of Darmstadt, remaining there for life. In 1722 he and Telemann were each considered to succeed Johann Kuhnau, his teacher, as Cantor of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig. However, the position went to Bach after Graupner turned it down. Graupner’s Overture in D is a characteristically German adaptation of the French opera-overture, combined with the dance-movements of the suite, and flavored with the Italian concertante style of the concerto grosso.
Jerry Ulrich’s Lucem Pax, presented in its world premiere in these two concerts, is one of a distinguished line of modern compositions for “early” instruments. Since the “early music” revival in the late 19th century, composers such as Hindemith, Britten, Frank Martin, Persichetti, Berio, and Martinu have been creating new music using Baroque resources. Jerry Ulrich writes, concerning his work:
The text and music of Lucem Pax was assembled and composed as an ‘active and assertive appeal for peace,’ and is included on this program as a companion work to the more violent and judgmental text of Dixit Dominus. It uses the same orchestration as Handel’s work with the addition of flutes and oboe.
Movement I (Requiem Aeternam), a “Requiem for War,” uses a slightly altered opening text from the traditional Requiem Mass. It is a ‘requiem for the intrinsic violence of human nature’ and an appeal for humanity to put to rest that part that seeks power, revenge, control, and dominance.
Movement II (A Vision of Peace) seeks to envision a world without violence. The shifting meters and angular instrumental parts represent the earth quaking and the mountains falling into the heart of the sea, while the oceans roar and foam and the mountains tremble.
Movement III (A Place of Peace) uses exclusively open strings as accompaniment for an almost hymn-like melody by the choir.
Movement IV (A Plea for Peace) is a plea for an end to violence, concluding with a prayer. It includes a retrograde/inversion of the Dies Irae theme, literally ‘turning judgment on its head…’
Movement V (Peace on Earth) utilizes a quasi-fugal instrumental theme and a soprano/alto duet, sung while the chorus recites the word “Peace” in over 25 languages from around the globe.
Movement VI (Peace Within) is intended as an introspective opportunity to reflect on the ultimate source of peace. It is the recognition that we are each, Divine reflection.
Movement VII (The Light of Peace) utilizes unison moving to open chordal sonorities within the voices – distinctly contrasted with the aggressive and non-harmonic instrumental exclama- tions. It symbolizes the ultimate triumph of light over darkness and hope over despair.