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8.572224 - HANDEL, G.F.: Alexander's Feast [Ode] (Samann, Schoch, Mertens, Junge Kantorei, Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra, Martini)
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George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Musick

 

Georg Friedrich Händel, later more generally known under the English forms of a name that he assumed in London, George Frideric Handel, was born in Halle in 1685, the son of a successful barber-surgeon and his much younger, second wife. His father opposed his son’s early musical ambitions and after his father’s death Handel duly entered the University in Halle in 1702 as a student of law, as his father had insisted. He was able to seize the chance of employment as organist at the Calvinist Cathedral the following month, holding the position for a year, until his departure for Hamburg, to work there at the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, contributing in the latter capacity to the Italian operatic repertoire of the house. At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, he travelled, in 1706, to Italy, where he won considerable success during the next four years. Connections he had made in Venice, brought appointment in 1710 as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. From here he was granted immediate leave to fulfil a commission in London.

Handel’s first opera for London was Rinaldo, with which he won general acclaim, and after little over a year in Hanover, he returned to England. It was here that he now established himself as a composer of Italian opera and of other forms of vocal and instrumental music, for which there was an eager audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musical life of the English capital. His involvement with Italian opera as a composer and organizer continued, eventually under the royal patronage of George I, Elector of Hanover, who had succeeded to the English throne in 1715, on the death of Queen Anne, but by 1733, with the establishment of a rival opera company under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, there were obvious commercial difficulties.

While Handel’s work in Italian opera continued, with a final opera to be staged in 1741, he increasingly turned his attention to a new English form, that of the oratorio. This had certain very practical advantages, in language, lack of the need for expensive spectacle and the increasing employment of native singers. The content of oratorios appealed to English Protestant susceptibilities, providing a winning synthesis of religion and entertainment, and offering no offence to those who had found operatic conventions ridiculous in a city with strong pre-existent dramatic traditions. Handel’s first English oratorio, in 1732, was Esther, with a libretto based on Racine, followed, in 1733, by the biblical Deborah in March and in July Athalia, with a libretto by Samuel Humphreys, his earlier collaborator, derived from Racine and biblical sources. The next English oratorio relying on biblical sources was Saul, first performed at the King’s Theatre in London on 16 January 1739 and revived on a number of subsequent occasions.

During the following years Handel continued to develop the form of the oratorio, chiefly on biblical subjects but with an occasional excursion into the mythological. These works, with their Italianate melodies, strong choral writing and demonstrable dramatic sense, ensured their composer’s continued popularity and dominance, particularly, after his death, with the wider development of choral singing in the nineteenth century. Handel’s most famous oratorio, Messiah, was first performed in 1742, his last, Jephtha, ten years later. While Messiah may be exceptional in its ambitious subject, most of his oratorios treat narratives derived from the Old Testament, well characterized by the composer’s own descriptive title of them as sacred dramas.

Handel died in London in April 1759 and was buried, as he had requested, in Westminster Abbey, to be commemorated there three years later by an imaginative and slightly improbable monument by Louis François Roubiliac, who had provided, thirty years before, a statue of the composer, in his night-cap and slippers, as Apollo, for the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall, an indication of his popular reputation. His funeral drew a crowd of some three thousand mourners, while posthumous Handel celebrations could muster a similar audience in the Abbey, with a proportionate number of performers.

Handel completed his setting of John Dryden’s 1697 poem Alexander’s Feast in January 1736 and the first performance was given on 19 February at Covent Garden Theatre. The text of Dryden’s poem, which had originally been set by Jeremiah Clarke, was adjusted by Newburgh Hamilton, who claimed to have done little more than divide the text between recitatives, arias and choruses, but did add a final chorus. The work enjoyed considerable success, attracting an audience of 1300 for the first performance and 150 subscribers to the edition published two years later by John Walsh. The singers in 1736 were Anna Maria Strada, whom Handel had recruited for the opera in 1729, Cecilia Young, the future wife of Thomas Arne, the young English tenor John Beard and a bass, Erard. The original work included concertos, the first for ‘Harp, Lute, Lyricord and other Instruments’ after the recitative Timotheus, plac’d on high, a version of which survives as an organ concerto. A second concerto, for organ, came after the present Part II, before a chorus with additional words by Newburgh Hamilton. There was a further concerto, now generally known as the Concerto in Alexander’s Feast played in the interval. The work was revived in 1737 and 1739 and was performed in Dublin in 1742, with various performances in London in the 1750s. As a practical musician, Handel made a number of revisions to the work over the years, partly to suit the needs of the soloists he employed and partly to suit more extended programmes. There was only one aria for the second soprano, War, he sung, is toil and trouble, later, as here, given to a tenor.

The poem is based on a historically unreliable anecdote about Alexander the Great, who, in an evening of drunkenness after his defeat of Darius, King of Persia, was induced by the Greek courtesan Thaïs to burn the palace of the former Persian monarch Xerxes at Persepolis. This seemed a wanton act of destruction. He is shown entertained by the lyre and flute-player Timotheus, who arouses various emotions in his listeners by the power of his music, but giving way finally to St Cecilia. The historical Greek poet and musician Timotheus, famous for his ability to represent in music the phenomena of nature, belonged to an earlier generation.

Alexander’s Feast opens with a French Overture, the dotted rhythms of the initial Maestoso followed by a fugal Allegro and an Andante in 6/8. A tenor recitative leads to the cheerful tenor aria of Purcellian exuberance, Happy pair, followed by a chorus, with soprano and tenor solo passages interjected, expressing the same sentiments. The tenor resumes with a short recitative introducing Timotheus, skilled on the lyre. Here there was originally an illustrative concerto for harp and other instruments, omitted from Walsh’s published score. A soprano accompanied recitative describes Jove’s descent, in the form of a dragon, on Olympia, celebrated in the following chorus, the resonance of the ‘vaulted roofs’ represented by the echo effects of dynamic changes. The same effect is continued in the soprano aria With ravish’d ears, the monarch hears.

A tenor recitative heralds the approach of Bacchus. The bass aria Bacchus, ever fair and young is introduced by oboes and horns and leads to a chorus that continues to praise the benefits of drinking, ending with a passage for the two horns. A tenor recitative has the king thinking of his victories, his growing madness and pride checked by the musician, who, in an accompanied soprano recitative, assumes an elegiac tone, followed, in a soprano aria, by sad reflection on the fate of the Persian King Darius, ‘deserted at his utmost need’. The soprano recitative tells of the king, listening and starting to weep at the ‘various turns of chance’. The chorus echoes the same sentiment.

The tenor, in a recitative, suggests the proximity of pity to love, an emotion hymned by the soprano with a solo cello obbligato, Softly sweet in Lydian measures. The soprano in the da capo aria War, he sung, is toil and trouble changes the mood to something more stirring. The oboes return to mark the opening of the chorus The many rend the skies, with its contrapuntal suggestions. This is interrupted by a da capo soprano aria, The Prince, unable to conceal his pain. The chorus returns with The many rend the skies to end Part I.

Part II starts with a tenor accompanied recitative, Now strike the golden lyre again!, which reflects the text by the use of two trumpets and drums, as the chorus continues the same ‘horrid sound’, a rousing summons. The da capo bass aria Revenge, Timotheus cries, with its stirring trumpet obbligato, changes mood and key in the sombre Behold a ghastly band, accompanied by lower strings and organ, before the cry for revenge returns. The tenor, in a solemn accompanied recitative, Give the vengeance due, tells of the Grecian ghosts of those fallen in battle, continuing with an energetic aria, The princes applaud with a furious joy, orginally a chorus in Dryden’s text, where each stanza ends in a chorus, a pattern not followed by Newburgh Hamilton. The soprano, in a gentle Andante larghetto, compares the king’s companion Thaïs to a second Helen, putting to flames another Troy, capped by the chorus to the words earlier heard in another mood The princes applaud with a furious joy.

Two recorders join in the accompaniment of the tenor recitative Thus, long ago, ere heaving bellows learn’d to blow. This is a prelude to the chorus At last divine Cecilia came, with the duly fugal ‘with nature’s mother-wit and arts unknown’. Tenor and bass intervene in a brief recitative before the final Let old Timotheus yield the prize, for chorus and soloists, a characteristic Handelian chorus that ends Part II of Alexander’s Feast, and to which the additional words by Newburgh Hamilton, which Handel set and performed after the final organ concerto, must seem something of an anticlimax.


Keith Anderson


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