On a quest to understand the history behind the Coronation Anthems and the Dettingen Te Deum, I went to Kensington Palace, home to the two King Georges whom Handel served as court composer. Imagine my joy as I walked up the King’s Staircase on hearing Handel’s Coronation Anthems being played. As I strolled through the Baroque wood-panelled galleries and listened to a lovely guide succinctly explaining who had lived here, I realised I had come to the right place.
Bear with me! I am absolutely not a musical expert but I did want to understand the context behind these glorious pieces of music. So I was intrigued to learn about the Glorious Revolution when parliament invited William and Mary to be Protestant King and Queen. But as they died without heirs, parliament had to search again for a suitable successor, eventually landing on George I, aka Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover. Georg was completely German, spoke no English and must have felt that his right to rule was fairly tenuous. Sadly he wasn’t around for long but died quite suddenly and his son George II inherited the throne. Just like Handel, who had moved to England in 1712 and had become a British citizen in 1727, they were Germans who had adopted Britain as their country. It must have been vital to stake their claim and I imagine that Handel would have been very aware of that.
So Zadok the Priest, one of the four Coronation Anthems commissioned for George II in 1727, is a perfectly apt musical background to the coronation. How would you not want to bow down on hearing those dramatic few lines? By drawing a direct comparison with Solomon, anointed by Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet, a none-too subtle claim to the divine right to rule is being asserted. As monarch, how would you not be assured by your own majestic role? And of course, it is testimony to its success as a piece of music fit for a King or Queen, that it has been played at every British coronation since then.
But What About Dettingen?
And now fast forward to 1743 and take an imaginative leap to Dettingen, a small town in southern Germany, site of a battle between allied forces, in support of the Austrian monarch Maria Theresa, and the French.
George II had little power in Britain as parliament made all the decisions, so I imagine going to war was a good way of exercising his might and wielding his military muscle. The Battle of Dettingen was part of the War of Austrian Succession, when Britain had allied themselves with Maria Theresa, fighting for her right to become sovereign to the Hapsburg Empire (could there be a theme here?!). George led what was known as the Pragmatic Army into battle against the French and ultimately won. Had the French prevailed, the Pragmatic Army would have had to surrender or starve, and King George II might have fallen prisoner to Louis XV.
A Te Deum is a chant in praise of God sung at the end of Matins or as a song of thanksgiving. It would have been the perfect choice as a setting for Handel to compose a glorious piece of music giving thanks for the safe return of the victorious King.
And if any of this has intrigued you as it did me, then come and listen to Streatham Choral Society perform both pieces of music on Saturday 10th November at St. Leonard’s Church, Streatham.