One of the last official acts of the reign of George I of Great Britain was to both naturalize George Frideric Handel as a British citizen and to commission Handel to write the coronation anthem for King George’s son and successor, George II.
As 1727 drew to a close, Britain had been enduring a generation’s worth of political and religious turmoil. The union of Scotland and England was still tenuous at best, with many Scots and English Catholics (Jacobites by name) still supporting the line of the deposed King James II.
When George I (of the House of Hanover) assumed the throne in 1714, he was hardly popular — he spoke German and not English — many Jacobites rose against him and joined James in rebellion. The rebellion was put down, but anti-Hanoverian sentiments still ran strong. George I looked to the Old Testament for a parallel to his situation, and found one in 1 Kings. The Bible told how King David of Israel, while nearing death was facing his own succession crisis. After some deliberation, he chose his son Solomon as his heir, rather than Solomon’s ambitious half-brother Adonijah. In a grand ceremony, David’s most trusted advisors, Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, annointed Solomon as king.
George feared another Jacobite uprising (which nonetheless came in 1745), and wanted to use the spectacle of his son’s coronation to establish George II as the legitimate ruler in the public’s eye. Thus Handel was called upon to write an appropriately-grandiose set of anthems for the ceremony, and he didn’t disappoint. Four anthems were sung that day: The King Shall Rejoice, Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened, My Heart Is Inditing and Zadok the Priest, but it is the last that has endured. Zadok the Priest was first sung during the annointing of George II during his coronation on 11 October 1727. It since has been sung at at every British coronation since 1727, the only anthem from Handel’s four to endure the last three centuries. It is traditionally performed during the sovereign’s anointing. The anthem is anything but subtle. Regal, yes. Ambitious, yes. But subtle? I’m afraid not. It is played in four-four time, and at a slow tempo (about 60 beats per minute), picking up to ~80 bpm at the first “God save the king”.
The anthem is written in seven-part SSAATBB harmony, sung in the key of D flat. The libretto was adapted from a Latin antiphon, “Unxerunt Salomonem Sadoc sacerdos”. The running time of the piece can vary between 5:15 and 5:45, depending on the arrangement and conductor.