The Jacobean Chronicle
Vol. 21, no.1 April 2014
The Jacobeans first “gig” of the year was an evensong at St John’s, Gordon in March. They will be back there on Palm Sunday, sharing the stage with the Cathedral Singers and the local parish choir for the annual service for the Knights of St Lazarus. This is always a big event – the knights (and dames) in their dark green capes, a big procession (well, three choirs, the “Lazarenes” and clergy). There is lots of “holy smoke” and, as you would expect, lots of singing.
Easter follows closely. We ‘assist’ at Mary Immaculate, Waverley on both Maundy Thursday and Easter Eve but the ‘big event’ will be the performance of Handel’s “Brockes’ Passion” at St John’s, Birchgrove at 3.00 pm on Good Friday (18th April).
We will not be performing the complete Passion. It is a VERY long work and modern bottoms seem quite unable to endure sitting on hard wooden church pews for the approximately three hours which it takes to perform the average Lutheran Passion. (Eighteenth century Germans were a hardier lot.) Catherine Nash has severely pruned the work (but the basic story-line is still there, as is the best of the music.)
This is a little-heard work and not to be confused with a “St John’s Passion” of 1704 which most modern scholars do not think that Handel wrote at all – although it was for long attributed to him. The 19th century score we have had to use has presented some challenges. The poor English translation is printed in “italic script” beneath the German and is difficult to read. Altos and tenors have the added problem of having to read C clefs.
The Jacobean Committee
President & Music Director Catherine Nash
Vice-President Stan Warren
Secretary Lucy Harrison-Prentice
Treasurer Bradley Kalgovas
Committee: Patricia Dunn (Public Officer)
The following members, although not on the committee have the following responsibilities:
Jan Giannotis Robes
Peter Roberts Newsletter
Join Us on Good Friday
The Jacobeans would like to encourage Friends, who can get there, to join us for “Brockes Passion” on Good Friday (3.00 pm). St John’s Church is sometimes said to be at Balmain, sometimes at Birchgrove. Anyway, it’s at the corner of Birchgrove Rd and Spring St.
What’s in a name?
That dreadful joke – “Who wrote The Messiah?”
“A chap called ‘Doorknob’!”
“No, It was Handel.”
“Well, I nearly got it right.”
George Frederick Handel was the name that he ultimately used in England. He was christened Georg Friederich Hӓndel and that is the spelling that is normally used in Germany. When in Italy, he spelt his name Hendel and he initially used that spelling in England. (He may well have been trying to indicate the pronunciation he expected.) However, he later reverted to ‘Handel’, without the umlaut.
One associates passions with Bach and oratorio with Handel but the latter did actually write a passion. We are not sure exactly when and where (the autograph does not survive) but we do know a number of things about its composition.
Handel had been born in Halle in 1685 (the same year as Bach). His father had opposed a musical career but, especially after his death in 1697, the boy was free to study music. In 1703 he left for Hamburg where he supported himself playing in the opera orchestra and giving private lessons. Later that year he went with the composer Johann Mattheson (an important writer on German Baroque music) to visit the aging Buxtehude in Lubeck. The real aim was to succeed the greatest organ composer before Bach as organist at the Marienkirche. It proved that one of the ‘conditions’ for getting the job was to marry Buxtehude’s daughter (no spring chicken). Handel backed away from that. Two years later J.S.Bach went to Lubeck seeking the same job. However, since nobody had as yet carried the maiden off, he too thought better of trying for the position.
In 1704 a St John Passion was performed in Hamburg. It was long regarded as Handel’s earliest significant work but scholars now seem to think it more likely to be by Bohm or Mattheson. In 1706 Handel went off to Italy where he made a name for himself and, most importantly, mixed with some of the greatest composers of the middle Baroque. From them he learned to refine his compositional technique.
In 1710 he was back in Germany, acquired the position of Kapellmeister to the Prince-Elector of Hanover, but was soon off to London on 12 months leave-of-absence. Since the Prince-Elector was the heir to the British throne, he probably did not see the London visit as a way of loosing his new Kapellmeister. Handel’s visit to London was a great success. He was well received at Queen Anne’s court and his opera Rinaldo was a great success. He returned to Hanover within the 12 months that he had been given leave for.
In 1712 he was back in London, again with the Elector’s permission but with the condition that he return “within a reasonable time”. This he failed to do. In 1714, with Queen Anne’s death, the Elector became George I. We have the famous story that the truant Kapellmeister was reconciled to his master by writing The Water Music – a wonderful story but the water party was in 1717 and Handel was receiving salary 2 years before that. (Another good yarn bites the dust!)
We think that it was about this time that Handel wrote his Passion. Mattheson said it was composed in England and sent by post. A libretto which seems to be for audience use is dated 1716 but the first certain performance was in the refectory of Hamburg Cathedral on 23 March 1719. It was repeated 4 or 5 times between then and 1724.
The libretto for this Passion was by Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) a Hamburg-born poet who had studied at Halle University before Handel had left the town. (Did Handel meet him then?) When he returned to Hamburg he used give private concerts in his house – perhaps the young Handel had been part of similar concerts in Halle? Brockes published his first poetry in 1708. In 1712 he published his Passion. This was an amalgam of all four gospels. An evangelist and some Biblical characters were joined by allegorical figures such as the “Daughter of Zion” and the “Faithful Soul”. To modern ears much of this poetry is highly sentimental but it went through 30 editions between 1712 and 1722. The genius of Brockes’ passion narrative was that it found the middle ground between the orthodox Biblical passion story and the pietism so popular in many 18th century Lutheran circles.
Many greater and lesser German composers set the Brockes text, including Keiser (1712), Telemann (1716), and Mattheson (1718). J.S.Bach, who copied Handel’s entire score by hand, used parts of the text in his St John’s Passion. Still, the question remains, why did Handel at the time he was establishing himself in England, write an essentially German work. Was he unsure of British success? Was he keeping his options open for a return to Germany? Certainly, he made no attempt to perform the work in England. It is very much in the Lutheran liturgical tradition and would not have appealed to 18th century Anglican tastes. (Doubtless, Handel would have understood that!)
In Britain this Passion is a much neglected work. It was not published until the second half of the 19th century and its combination of extreme sentimentality and explicit descriptions of Christ’s sufferings offended Victorian taste. Moreover, its acceptance was hampered by an extremely poor translation. People who were used to Handel’s brilliant word setting were disappointed by what they met with here (but, of course, this was not Handel’s word setting). Indeed, it can be quite difficult to get copies of the score in English (one needs to look in second-hand bookshops). The only easily-available score is the German Handel Society edition (which is in both German and English).
Also, one must not forget that, in Lutheran Germany, a passion served liturgical functions. Especially on Good Friday, people went to church “for the entire afternoon”. They may have anticipated competent music but the day was really given to religious contemplation.