The world sighed in relief when European diplomats signed the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, ending the War of Spanish Succession. Handel's 'Utrecht Te Deum,' performed on July 13, 1713, celebrated the event.
When the last Habsburg ruler of Spain, Charles II, died without heirs in the year 1700, Habsburg royalty in Austria, as well as France's Bourbon dynasty, claimed a right to the vacant throne. What began as a struggle between royal families about succession developed into a pan-European war. It was not just a battle about supremacy in Europe, but also over the colonies in the New World. The bloody conflict lasted 13 years, with more than one million people losing their lives in this "world war" of the Baroque period.
Balance of powers
And then something happened that no one expected: on neutral territory, in the Dutch city of Utrecht, diplomats from France, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and the Netherlands gathered together in January 1712 to sign a peace treaty. There were to be no winners and no losers; peace was to be negotiated, and not dictated. The goal was achieving a balance of powers in Europe.
The difficult negotiations lasted 15 months, but ultimately, the treaty would contain the words: "In the name of the Almighty God of Everlasting Peace - all hostilities shall be laid to rest; all affronts shall be forgotten."
The diplomats signed the final Treaty of Utrecht on April 11, 1713, ending the War of Spanish Succession. Fanfare sounded from trumpets. Diplomacy had won out - for the first time in world history, a war had been ended not on the battlefield, but at the negotiating table. The political principle of pursuing a balance of power became a model for international peace negotiations, from the Congress of Vienna to the Hague Convention to the Camp David Peace Accords. Many historians even see the origins of the later United Nations taking shape during these Utrecht negotiations.
The music of peace
Champagne bottles popped as peace was heralded. Around Eruope, fireworks were set off, celebratory services of thanks were held, and the early Christian hymn "Te Deum Laudamus" (Thee, o God, We Praise) was performed.
For music lover Queen Anne, "Te Deum" was also a must for the London peace celebration. George Frideric Handel must have sensed that when he arrived in the fall of 1712. Born in Saxony, the composer had studied in Italy before aiming to establish himself in England. Handel thought he could draw attention from the English royal house by creating a work for an official function. The work commissioned by the British royal family was completed three months before the Utrecht peace treaty was signed. It was his first major sacred work in English.
George Frideric Handel in a portrait by Thomas Hudson, 1749
But Handel did not take into account one major hurdle: during official events, the Royal Court Orchestra was allowed to play only music by English composers. Parliament had to offer permission for works by foreign composers to be performed. But Handel employed his diplomatic talents - and composed a work as a gift for the Queen's birthday. "His Birthday Ode for Queen Anne" thrilled the Royal Majesty so much that she offered the foreign composer the musical direction of the official ceremony to celebrate the Peace of Utrecht. Handel, in turn, must have been quite pleased, as he supplemented his 30-minute "Te Deum" with the musical scoring of Psalm 100, "O, Be Joyful in the Lord."
A firework of Baroque sound
Both works were performed at the celebratory events on July 13, 1713 - in a thanksgiving service at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The city was ecstatic. "The parliament marched in the procession to the cathedral, with throngs of people crowded along the parade route," some people of the period reported. "4,000 children sang celebratory hymns. Majestic fireworks were displayed along the Thames."
"Te Deum" also turned out to be a true firework of Baroque sound: more than 100 singers and the musicians from the Royal Orchestra participated in the performance under Handel's direction. A newspaper report gushed that the composer had hit a nerve among the audience with the compelling melodies of his choral movements and managed to move nearly everyone in attendance.