George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Ode for St Cecilia's Day
Georg Friedrich Handel, later more generally known under theEnglish forms of name that he assumed in London, George Frideric Handel, wasborn in Halle in 1685, the son of a successful barber-surgeon and his muchyounger, second wife. His father opposed his son's early musical ambitions andafter his father's death Handel duly entered the University in Halle in 1702 asa student of law, as his father had insisted. He was able to seize the chanceof employment as organist at the Calvinist Cathedral the following month,holding the position for a year, until his departure for Hamburg, to work thereat the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer,contributing in the latter capacity to the Italian operatic repertoire of thehouse. At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, hetravelled, in 1706, to Italy, where he won considerable success during the nextfour years. Connections he had made in Venice, brought appointment in 1710 asKapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. From here he was granted immediateleave to fulfil a commission in London.
Handel's first opera for London was Rinaldo, with which hewon general acclaim, and after little over a year in Hanover again, he returnedto England in the autumn of 1712. The following year he took up residence atBurlington House in Piccadilly as a guest of Lord Burlington. After a briefreturn to Germany in the summer of 1716, Handel returned to England, joiningthe establishment of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and later Duke ofChandos, at Cannons, near Edgware. Principally, over the following years,Handel established himself as a composer of Italian opera, for which there wasa fashionable audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musicallife 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 thedeath of Queen Anne, and on the death of the former in 1727 was commissioned toprovide anthems for the coronation of George II. In the following years he wasagain called upon to provide music for royal occasions. At the same time hisinvolvement with Italian opera brought increasing commercial difficulties,particularly after the establishment of a rival opera company in 1733 under thepatronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, himself later a strong supporter ofHandel.
While Handel's work in Italian opera continued, with a finalopera to be staged in 1741, he increasingly turned his attention to a newEnglish form, that of the oratorio. This had certain very practical advantages,in language, lack of the need for expensive spectacle and the increasingemployment of native singers. The content of oratorios appealed to EnglishProtestant susceptibilities, providing a winning synthesis of religion andentertainment, and offering no offence to those who had found operaticconventions ridiculous in a city with strong pre-existent dramatic traditions.Handel's first English oratorio, in 1732, was Esther, with a libretto based onRacine, followed, in 1733, by the biblical Deborah in March and in JulyAthalia. During the following years he continued to develop the form, chieflyon biblical subjects but with an occasional excursion into the mythological.These works, with their Italianate melodies, strong choral writing anddemonstrable dramatic sense, ensured their composer's continued popularity anddominance, particularly, after his death, with the wider development of choralsinging in the nineteenth century.
Handel died in London in April 1759 and was buried, as hehad requested, in Westminster Abbey, to be commemorated there three years laterby an imaginative and slightly improbable monument by Louis Fran?ºois Roubiliac,who had provided, thirty years before, a statue of the composer for thepleasure gardens at Vauxhall, represented in his night-cap and slippers, in theguise of Apollo, an indication of his popular reputation. His funeral drew acrowd of some three thousand mourners, while posthumous Handel celebrations couldmuster a similar audience in the Abbey, with a proportionate number ofperformers.
Handel's setting of John Dryden's 1687 Ode for St Cecilia'sDay was first performed in 1739 at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln's Inn Fields onthe appropriate feast day, 22nd November. Included in the advertised programmewere Alexander's Feast, an earlier setting of Dryden's 1697 celebration of StCecilia, two new concertos for several instruments and a concerto on the organ.The same announcement in the London Daily Post and General Advertiser, assurespatrons that 'Particular Care has been taken to have the House well-air'd; andthe Passage from the Fields to the House will be cover'd for betterConveniency'. An earlier advertisement of the event had brought the assurancethat the house would be 'warm'd', something that was very necessary in aparticularly cold winter, when the Thames was frozen. The time wasunpropitious, as conflict had broken out with Spain in the so-called War ofJenkins Ear, and public attention was drawn to that, while significantspectacle in London was limited. Nevertheless there were further performancesduring the season and further assurances of the necessary heating, with'constant Fires ... kept in the House 'till the Time of Performance'. The singersfor whom Handel wrote were the French soprano Elisabeth Duparc, known as LaFrancesina, who became increasingly associated with Handel performances overthe years, and the English tenor John Beard, who had worked with Handel since1734.
The Ode for St Cecilia's Day opens with a French Overture,introduced by ceremonial dotted rhythms, leading to a lively fugal section anda Minuet. The text that follows, in praise of music, offers many chances ofword-painting, exploited by Handel in a work that draws to some extent onGottlieb Muffat's Componimenti Musicali per il Cembalo for material that isthen transformed, applied to its new purpose. A brief unaccompanied tenorrecitative introduces the more extended accompanied recitative of When Natureunderneath a heap / Of jarring atoms lay, with harmonies that follow theimagery. The chorus takes up the opening text, while Handel seizes theopportunity to provide ascending vocal and descending instrumental scales toillustrate the words Through all the compass of the notes it ran, beforeconcluding with the more sonorous The diapason closing full in Man.
The air What passion cannot Music raise and quell? employs asolo cello, matching the text of the soprano solo When Jubal struck the chordedshell, in a G major saraband. A solo trumpet starts The trumpet's loudclangour, a D major movement in which the tenor soloist evokes the mortalalarms of war, while The double double beat / Of the thund'ring drum, echoesmusically and verbally Purcell and Dryden's King Arthur. The chorus addsfurther strength to the suggestion of warfare, leading, naturally, to a March.
The following B minor soprano air, The soft complainingflute, finds a natural place for flute and lute, the instruments mentioned inthe verse, its delicate sentiments translated aptly into instrumental terms. Tothis 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! whatart can teach, / What human voice can reach / The sacred organ's praise?, amovement provided with an organ obbligato that allowed Handel a chance offurther improvisation in performance. The soprano continues with the D minorOrpheus could lead the savage race, a hornpipe in the marked rhythm associatedwith that English dance. The soprano introduces the saint her