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8.554752 - HANDEL: Ode for St. Cecilia's Day
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George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Ode for St Cecilia’s Day


Georg Friedrich Händel, later more generally known under the English forms of 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 again, he returned to England in the autumn of 1712. The following year he took up residence at Burlington House in Piccadilly as a guest of Lord Burlington. After a brief return to Germany in the summer of 1716, Handel returned to England, joining the establishment of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and later Duke of Chandos, at Cannons, near Edgware. Principally, over the following years, Handel established himself as a composer of Italian opera, for which there was a fashionable audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musical life of the English capital. He enjoyed the royal patronage of George I, Elector of Hanover, who had succeeded to the English throne in 1715, on the death of Queen Anne, and on the death of the former in 1727 was commissioned to provide anthems for the coronation of George II. In the following years he was again called upon to provide music for royal occasions. At the same time his involvement with Italian opera brought increasing commercial difficulties, particularly after the establishment of a rival opera company in 1733 under the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, himself later a strong supporter of Handel.

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. During the following years he continued to develop the form, 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 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 for the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall, represented in his night-cap and slippers, in the guise of Apollo, 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’s setting of John Dryden’s 1687 Ode for St Cecilia’s Day was first performed in 1739 at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on the appropriate feast day, 22 November. Included in the advertised programme were Alexander’s Feast, an earlier setting of Dryden’s 1697 celebration of St Cecilia, two new concertos for several instruments and a concerto on the organ. The same announcement in the London Daily Post and General Advertiser, assures patrons that ‘Particular Care has been taken to have the House wellair’d; and the Passage from the Fields to the House will be cover’d for better Conveniency’. An earlier advertisement of the event had brought the assurance that the house would be ‘warm’d’, something that was very necessary in a particularly cold winter, when the Thames was frozen. The time was unpropitious, as conflict had broken out with Spain in the so-called War of Jenkins Ear, and public attention was drawn to that, while significant spectacle in London was limited. Nevertheless there were further performances during the season and further assurances of the necessary heating, with ‘constant Fires … kept in the House ‘till the Time of Performance’. The singers for whom Handel wrote were the French soprano Elisabeth Duparc, known as La Francesina, who became increasingly associated with Handel performances over the years, and the English tenor John Beard, who had worked with Handel since 1734.

The Ode for St Cecilia’s Day opens with a French Overture, introduced by ceremonial dotted rhythms, leading to a lively fugal section and a Minuet. The text that follows, in praise of music, offers many chances of word-painting, exploited by Handel in a work that draws to some extent on Gottlieb Muffat’s Componimenti Musicali per il Cembalo for material that is then transformed, applied to its new purpose. A brief unaccompanied tenor recitative introduces the more extended accompanied recitative of When Nature underneath a heap / Of jarring atoms lay, with harmonies that follow the imagery. The chorus takes up the opening text, while Handel seizes the opportunity to provide ascending vocal and descending instrumental scales to illustrate the words Through all the compass of the notes it ran, before concluding with the more sonorous The diapason closing full in Man.

The air What passion cannot Music raise and quell? employs a solo cello, matching the text of the soprano solo When Jubal struck the chorded shell, in a G major saraband. A solo trumpet starts The trumpet’s loud clangour, a D major movement in which the tenor soloist evokes the mortal alarms of war, while The double double beat / Of the thund’ring drum, echoes musically and verbally Purcell and Dryden’s King Arthur. The chorus adds further strength to the suggestion of warfare, leading, naturally, to a March.

The following B minor soprano air, The soft complaining flute, finds a natural place for flute and lute, the instruments mentioned in the verse, its delicate sentiments translated aptly into instrumental terms. To this the tenor adds the A major Sharp violins proclaim / Their jealous pangs. There is immediate contrast in the following F major soprano air But oh! what art can teach, / What human voice can reach / The sacred organ’s praise?, a movement provided with an organ obbligato that allowed Handel a chance of further improvisation in performance. The soprano continues with the D minor Orpheus could lead the savage race, a hornpipe in the marked rhythm associated with that English dance. The soprano introduces the saint herself and the harmony of the spheres, her phrases answered by the chorus, before the final fugal climax of the work.

Keith Anderson

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