by Donald Draganski
for the November 17, 2002 Concert of the North Shore Choral Society
Handel’s Oratorio Alexander’s Feast, despite its classical setting in the days of Alexander the Great, was in fact intended as an ode in honor of the legendary virgin and martyr, Saint Cecilia.
Cecilia achieved her status as Patroness of Music on the strength of a sixth century document which describes her enforced betrothal to a young nobleman, this despite her vow of virginity. At the wedding, we are told: “Cantantibus organis, illa in corde suo soli Domino decantabat dicens: Fiat cor meum et corpus meum immaculatum, ut non confundar.” Chaucer translates this passage (in his Second Nun’s Tale) as follows:
And while the organs maden melodie
To God alone in hart thus sang she:
“O Lord, my soule and eek my body gye
Unwemmed, lest it confounded be.”
(Or, in modern translation: “While the organ played, / To God alone within her heart there sounded this prayer: / ‘Lord, keep my soul and body free / from all defilement, lest I be dissuaded.’”) The legend assures us that the match was never consummated, and Cecilia and her betrothed – while both were still in a state of virginity – were subsequently martyred for their faith.
During the Renaissance devotion to Cecilia began to bloom, as painters depicted the Saint sitting at the organ, looking ecstatically up to heaven while an appreciative audience of angels hovered around her. The earliest recorded musical festival held in honor of St. Cecilia dates back to 1570 in Normandy. A century later the practice migrated to England with the establishment in 1683 of the London St. Cecilia Society which inaugurated annual celebrations, usually on November 22nd, the Saint's officially designated feast day. Odes in praise of music and of the Saint were commissioned and performed on a regular basis, and many of the leading poets and composers of the time – Shadwell, Congreve, Purcell, John Blow, to name a few – participated in these annual tributes.
The Poet Laureate John Dryden (1631-1700) wrote two Odes in honor of St. Cecilia and both were set to music by Handel. The first, Dryden’s “From harmony, from heav’nly harmony” was set by Handel in 1739 under the title The Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. This work is not to be confused with Handel’s setting of Dryden’s other Cecilian poem, “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” which we perform today under its published title, Alexander’s Feast.
Alexander’s Feast was written, with typical Handelian celerity, in only five weeks and premiered within a month of its completion at Covent Garden on February 19, 1736. This Dryden Ode had been set to music earlier by Jeremiah Clarke (1697) and Thomas Clayton (1722), although neither work seemed to have influenced Handel’s treatment. The libretto was assembled by one Newburgh Hamilton who, adding a few minor additions, kept fairly close to the original Dryden text. The setting describes the famous feast held in celebration of Alexander’s conquest and destruction of Persepolis, one of the capitals of ancient Persia. Always the classicist, Dryden went back to Plutarch for his material, peopling his poem with Alexander and members of his court, and, as an added fillip, the Greek poet Timotheus (c.450-c.360 BCE).
The Oratorio opens with the chorus “Bacchus ever fair and young” reminding us, as Paul Henry Lang points out, that of all the gods Bacchus was the only one who demanded not worship but conviviality. A succession of splendid movements continue the story as set down by Plutarch and elaborated by Dryden.
One may well ask what this pre-Christian classical narration has to do with St. Cecilia. Not much, as it turns out, unless one allows Dryden sufficient poetical anachronistic license to juxtapose Saint Cecilia with personages who antedated her by at least six centuries. Some commentators have speculated that Cecilia is introduced toward the end to show the triumph of Christianity over paganism. However, in the section in which the Saint and Timotheus confront each other, the tenor sings “Let old Timotheus yield the prize,” but this exhortation is followed by the bass who coyly suggests “Or both divide the crown.” Even though the angel has the last word, Dryden the classicist is not about to see his beloved Timotheus confuted and upstaged by Cecilia.
Alexander’s Feast was only one of two oratorios published during the composer's lifetime, and for many years it was second in popularity only to Messiah. Mozart thought highly enough of it to reorchestrate the work, and both Goethe and Herder expressed their admiration for this oratorio.
A pious legend informs us that Handel wrote this Ode as an act of thanksgiving to the Saint for his quite sudden recovery from a serious paralysis of his right arm. As with most such stories, the chronology handily disproves this pretty story, for Handel composed the Oratorio a full year before he was stricken with his rheumatic attack.
It has become something of a tradition to include a Concerto within the body of the oratorio; indeed, at its first performance, Handel interpolated his Concerto for harp and orchestra in B-flat (op. 4, no. 6) midway through the piece. Today’s concert re-creates the circumstances of that premiere; this concert also marks the NSCS’s first complete performance of Alexander’s Feast.
Copyright© 2002 by Donald Draganski