Handel: Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day

George Frideric Handel was born February 23, 1685, in Halle, Saxony (Germany), and died April 14, 1759, in London, England. He was baptized under the name Georg Friederich Händel, but long before his death he adopted an English version of his name, George Frideric Handel. He composed his Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day in the short span of September 15-24, 1739, in London, to a poem by John Dryden. The work was premiered November 22, 1739, at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, with Handel conducting and with La Francesina (the stage name of Elizabeth Duparc) and John Beard as vocal soloists. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The score calls for flute, two oboes, two trumpets, strings, timpani, and basso continuo (here drawn from an assemblage of bassoon, cello, lute, harpsichord, and organ), plus soprano and tenor soloists and a four-part mixed chorus. Solo flute, trumpet, and cello are spotlighted as obbligato instruments. Performance time: about fifty minutes.

Whether Saint Cecilia existed at all is greatly open to debate. Perhaps she was the Cecily who gave land for the founding of a church in the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome and who was interred in a well-situated crypt near some popes in the catacomb of Saint Calixtinus—or perhaps that was someone else. In any case, in the late fifth century Cecilia began to be venerated as a saint. According to the hagiographies, Cecilia’s parents betrothed her to a dashing young pagan; but on their wedding night she informed him that she had consecrated her virginity to God and, furthermore, persuaded him that a chaste marriage was really for the best and she converted him to Christianity—not bad for an evening’s work. Others proved less pliable when confronted with her evangelical fervor, and the authorities ended up condemning her to die by scalding in her bathroom. She survived this, so a soldier was sent to chop off her head. Three strokes of his sword failed to finish her off, and she languished for three more days before moving on to her heavenly reward.

Because of the location of her presumed crypt in Trastevere, people started to identify Cecilia with a pagan goddess once celebrated at precisely that site, a goddess whose virtues involved healing the blind. Blindness was historically associated with music—the idea that deprivation of one sense boosts another—and so Saint Cecilia gradually became associated with the musical arts. What’s more, the Biblical tale of Esther (the Purim story), which early Christians overwhelmingly ignored, held a prominent place in the liturgy at the church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere, with the result that the final words from that tale—“Turn our mourning into joy, and do not close the mouths of those who sing thy praises”—became also associated with Cecilia. Her connection with music was thus assured, but not until the fifteenth century did she assume the rank of the Patron Saint of Music, with special musical celebrations accordingly marking her feast day, November 22. Painters, including great ones like Raphael and Rubens, began to portray her surrounded by musical instruments (especially the organ), and she was often depicted in proximity to King David. The two bore a yin-and-yang relationship: where David had cast aside his harp when his joy was turned into mourning, Cecilia took up her organ when her mourning was turned into joy.

By the seventeenth century the cult of Saint Cecilia was in full swing in England, and in 1683 a group called the Musical Society instituted an annual celebration in London comprising a church service with extra music and a concert-hall performance featuring a specially-composed ode to Saint Cecilia. Famous authors contributed texts for these odes—John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and William Congreve among them—and their librettos were set by the likes of Henry Purcell, John Blow, and Jeremiah Clark. After 1703 the celebrations grew more sporadic, but the tradition was revived now and again.

George Frideric Handel composed an ode (titled Alexander’s Feast) for one of these revivals in 1736, and three years later he followed up with second, revisiting a Dryden ode that had been set originally in 1687 by Antonio Draghi. Dryden’s text presents not a dramatic plot but rather a sequence of glimpses of how individual instruments reflect the “affections” of human character. We meet the martial trumpet and drum, the “soft complaining flute” (rhymes with “warbling lute”), the “sharp violins,” the inspiring organ, the seductive lyre, and Cecilia’s own heavenly voice. Framing these instrumental portraits Dryden offers a cosmogony in which music serves as the engine for the universe itself. A composer would have trouble resisting such a text; and, even if our modern scientific outlook is not likely to identify the Big Bang as a stroke on the timpani, we can still be charmed by this enchanting poem.

Handel was a revered figure on London’s musical scene when he wrote this piece. Though he had been born in Germany and carried out his years of musical apprenticeship in Italy, most of his career unrolled in England. Handel first visited Great Britain in 1711, to oversee the production of his opera Rinaldo at the Queen’s Theatre. His ensuing visits grew more frequent, and when in 1714 his patron Prince Ernst August, Elector of Hanover (whom he had briefly served as Capellmeister back in Germany) ascended to the throne of England as George I, Handel established himself full-time in London. During the next twenty-seven years he would be enmeshed in the high-stakes vicissitudes of English musical life, and especially in the worlds of opera and oratorio.

Handel was one of the consummate keyboard soloists of his day and an orchestra leader of very impressive ability. Nonetheless, it is probably a safe generalization to say that, at heart, he was a man of the theatre, whether the operatic stage or the “ecclesiastical theatre” of the oratorio. It is beyond question that he infused a dramatic flavor into whatever he wrote, whether for voices or instruments. That’s one of the qualities that makes his music so memorable: his arias, vocal ensembles, and choruses, not to mention his concertos, sonatas, and sinfonias, dependably contain emphatic turns of phrase that engrave themselves on the mind. In an age that valued adherence to Classical standards and, by extension, did not disdain a certain interchangeability of style, Handel exhibited brash independence of musical character. In his mature works, he rarely sounds like anybody else. “Handel understands effect better than any of us,” wrote Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, one of his dedicated admirers. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” Other qualified listeners concurred. When asked to name the all-time greatest composer, Ludwig van Beethoven exclaimed, “Handel—to him I bow the knee.” (He really meant it; some years later, lying on his deathbed, Beethoven asked for a volume of Handel to console him in his extremity.)

The Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day was a personal favorite of a few of Handel’s followers among composers. It was one of the small handful of Handel works that Mozart re-orchestrated to make them more acceptable to a later generation of listeners; and Frédéric Chopin—not a name often invoked in close proximity to Handel’s—declared of the Ode that it “comes closest to that ideal of sublime music enshrined in the deepest reaches of my soul.”

Handel composed the Ode in a white heat of inspiration—a mere nine days of September 1739. This sort of concentrated production seems extraordinary to most of us, but it was business as usual for Handel. The entire set of his Opus 6 concertos—twelve pieces, each comprising between four and six movements, a total of sixty-two movements in the group—was produced immediately after the Ode, in the space of a single month in the autumn of 1739. In fact, Handel effected a bit of a shortcut by borrowing some of his themes for the Ode from the newly published keyboard collection Componimenti Musicali by the composer Gottlieb Muffat.

It was a difficult moment in which to unveil a new work: England was deeply engaged in the War of Austrian Succession and London was shivering under a snowy cold spell. Advertisements for the premiere promised that “Particular Preparations are making to keep the House warm; and the Passage from the Fields to the House will be cover’d for better Conveniency.” The piece scored a remarkable success under the circumstances, and it was revived for at least two further performances in the course of the London season.

In this work, Handel proves a perfect match for his estimable librettist. His text setting is scrupulous in the extreme, a remarkably idiomatic achievement for someone who did not speak English natively and who is reputed to have never mastered English inflection in his own speech. He misses nary an opportunity to underscore Dryden’s references through musical reflections of the most irresistible sort. The individual movements hardly require explication, so inevitable do Handel’s settings seem.

The Ode’s Overture evokes the grandeur of creation itself, which will occupy the opening stanzas of the libretto. In typical late-Baroque fashion, this is a French-style overture, with a stately opening yielding to a contrapuntal fast section; to this Handel appends a gracious minuet, rather reflecting the proto-symphony tastes of his English listeners. In the opening accompanied recitative (“From harmony, from heavenly harmony”) the tenor proposes music’s elemental role in organizing the universe; the accompanying orchestra suggests the formless ooze of chaos gelling into coordinated matter; and then the chorus puts a punctuation mark on the topic, with “the diapason closing full in Man.” The soprano aria “What passion cannot Music raise and quell” begins with a long and meltingly beautiful cello solo; the singer enters, marveling at the wonder inspired in mankind “when Jubal struck the corded shell,” and the movement continues as a gorgeous duet between voice and cello.

The trumpet is next considered (“The trumpet’s loud clangour excites us to arms”). The tenor informs us that this instrument, along with “the double, double, double beat of the thund’ring drum,” stirs mankind to anger and arms, and the chorus adds its affirmation. Handel then puts a fine point on the question through a March featuring the trumpet. Next the soprano sings tenderly of “The soft complaining flute,” which mirrors lovers’ woes, with solo flute naturally serving as an obbligato. In the ensuing air, the tenor relates that “Sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs and desperation.” This may not be the first thing that comes to most of our minds when we think of violins, but we can at least relate to Dryden’s idea that these instruments can convey a broad range of emotions.

“But oh!” argues the soprano, “What art can teach, What human voice can reach /The sacred organ’s praise?” What resembles a slow movement from a Handel organ concerto supports her musings. Following this salutation to the “King of Instruments,” the soprano turns to mythology, specifically to the story of Orpheus, who charmed the world with his lyre (“Orpheus could lead the savage race”). Now we have only the human voice to honor, and, given the occasion, the voice the soprano cites in her accompanied recitative is that of Saint Cecilia herself (“But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher”). The final chorus (“And from the power of sacred lays”) is extraordinary; the soprano intones an extended line almost as a chorale in call-and-response with the chorus, after which the chorus launches into a complicated fugue to proclaim that, at mankind’s last hour, when “the trumpet shall be heard on high” (and of course Handel makes sure that it is strikingly represented here), “Music shall untune the sky.”

—James M. Keller

This note originally appeared in the program books of the New York Philharmonic and is used with permission. ©New York Philharmonic

More About the Music
Reading: Handel: The Man and his Music by Jonathan Keates (Victor Gollancz)  |  Handel, by Christopher Hogwood, revised edition (Thames and Hudson)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Handel, edited by Donald Burrows (Cambridge University Press)  |  For readers of German, Händel Oratorien, Oden und Serenaten, by Hans Joachim Marx (Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, Göttingen)

Recordings: Marc Minkowski conducting Les Musiciens du Louvre, with soprano Lucy Crowe and tenor Richard Croft (Naïve)  |  Trevor Pinnock conducting the English Concert, with soprano Felicity Lott and tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Archiv re-release by ArkivCD)  |  Robert King conducting The King’s Consort, with soprano Carolyn Sampson and tenor James Gilchrist (Hyperion)