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The Coming-of-Age of a New Hero

None other than Ludwig van Beethoven asserted that “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would,” he continued, “uncover my head and kneel down at his tomb.” Even today, Beethoven expresses how we feel about Handel’s music. Perhaps he is not the greatest composer—we tend to give that appellation to the composer whose work we last sang—but certainly he is one who gives unfailing pleasure. We, too, are on our knees, grateful to participate in so much beauty. But in Handel’s Dixit Dominus, the San Francisco Choral Society’s offering this spring, we cannot remain on our knees for long. From the very beginning of the astoundingly energetic first chorus, we must jump to our feet and dance and clap with the joy of it.

For if Bach’s B minor Mass was the summary work of the renowned old master, Handel’s Dixit Dominus is all about the coming-of-age of a new hero. The 22-year-old Handel, newly arrived in Italy, was questing for creative freedom, yearning to put behind him all remnants of the stifling Germanic atmosphere in which he was born and raised. He found the perfect vehicle in Dixit Dominus, a Latin setting of Psalm 109, which he completed in April 1707. The choral piece is redolent with spring and vigorous youth, capturing the excitement of the passage of power from the Lord to his chosen one, the young David. It begins:

“The Lord said unto my lord:
Sit thou on my right hand,
Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”

As in Israel in Egypt, Handel has chosen to portray a powerful God who speaks in images of war. The theme of vengeance, so prevalent in Israel, is present here but does not dominate. The Lord is creating a kingdom for his son, and all enemies will be subdued to further this goal:

He shall drink of the brook in the way:
Therefore shall he lift up his head.

The dramatic splendor of Dixit Dominus marks the beginning of Handel’s strictly liturgical works. This eight-movement score has five solo parts, a five-part chorus, and a string orchestra. It is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but it requires enormous precision, agility, and lyrical expressiveness from the singers, especially the chorus. (But then those are the kinds of requirements our chorus is moving toward—right?)

We quizzed our conductor, Bob Geary, about his choice of this piece. He was eloquent about its difficulty and his desire to use it to further develop our choral skills. He feels that our ability to sing such a demanding piece as Dixit Dominus derives directly from our work on the enormously challenging B minor Mass. In fact, he opined, the Dixit Dominus, though much shorter, is perhaps even a step beyond the Mass in its demand for energy, breath control, and accuracy. And because it is not in the mainstream choral repertoire, it offers most singers and audience members a fresh chance to learn and experience a masterpiece.

Edward Fitzgerald, Handel’s biographer, states that “his is the music for a great and active people.” We know we are active but can we also reach for the greatness? This out-of-this-world music requires that of us. Certainly it deserves not just our best effort but that we give it all we have. Let’s continue our blissful and hard-working singing spring!

— Arthur Colman and Pilar Montero

Reprinted from The Society Page—The Voice of the San Francisco Choral Society (formerly known as The Choral Society News, Spring 2003

Copyright © Arthur C. Colman