In 1727 the first Hanoverian king, George I, died and was succeeded by his son George II. It perhaps says something about the condition of English music that far and away the most popular composer in England at the time was not English at all, but had been born in Germany: the great George Frideric Handel. Coronations in the 18th century were frankly a bit of a mess. This is a wonderful description from this CD. Unfortunately I only have time to play one excerpt from it but again, this is another recording that seems like it was made with this talk tonight in mind: a complete reconstruction of the coronation of King George II. From the jacket we read:
By the end of September Handel had clearly finished his new compositions. Predictably, with no instructions apparently passed to him (or perhaps they were conveniently ignored), the results come the day of the coronation were delightfully confused. The printed order at times bore little relation to what actually took place. Handel's texts in his own anthems did not match what was printed in the service paper; several anthems were performed at different positions in the service to those officially sanctioned, and some pieces meant to be set to music apparently were not, and vice versa. The actual musical performances too suffered from more than a degree of disorganization. Archbishop Wake, perhaps miffed because he felt Handel had hijacked the order of service, wrote a series of caustic comments in the margin of his own service paper, commencing with 'No Anthem at all Sung...by the Negligence of the Choir of Westminster'; and against Handel's first anthem was marked the terse comment: 'The Anthem all in confusion: All irregular in the Music'. The lack of musical coordination on the day cannot have been helped by the performers' being placed on two specially built platforms on either side of the abbey, their views interrupted by the altar. To make matters worse, five of the ten boys from the Chapel Royal choir had left with broken voices in June and such was the duplication of adult jobs between the two musical establishments that only one singer from the abbey was not accounted for from within the ranks of the Chapel Royal choir.6
But today, none of that really matters, because we have one legacy of this coronation that outshines any possible confusion at the time. This is an anthem which I think includes perhaps the most exciting introduction and chorus entrance ever written, the one piece that some of you probably could have predicted I would not dare leave out tonight: Handel's incomparable "Zadok the Priest."
I'd love to play the whole thing, but we need to go on.
6Robert King, liner notes, The Coronation of King George II (Hyperion, 2001), 3.
Choirs and the Crown IV: The Nineteenth Century
Choirs and the Crown