In 2018, the Oldest Bach Choir in the United States, The Bach Choir of Bethlehem celebrates its 120th birthday season. The choir gave the first complete U.S. performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor in [...]
Handel: Ode for St. Cecilia's Day
They spoke about it
Although George Frideric Handel is thought of as the quintessential “English” composer, we should not forget that he was born in Halle, Germany and had a similar upbringing to such contemporaries as Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach, among others. His teacher from 1692 was Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau, organist at the Marktkirche, Halle. When Zachau died in 1712, Bach was approached to become his successor in Halle, a position he declined even though a contract had been drawn up and needed only his signature. At that time Handel was well traveled and far from Halle, having spent some years in Hamburg, where he was active in the opera, then more years based in Rome, and by 1712 had already been in London for two years. Thus Handel’s career, and the music he composed, was somewhat different from that of Bach and his contemporaries in Germany. But despite the differences, the roots were the same, and Handel maintained his contacts in Germany and was fully aware of the music being performed there.
In 1683 the Musical Society of London, a group of musicians and their sponsors, inaugurated annual celebrations of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians, to be held on her feast day, November 22. The united choirs of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and the Chapel Royal joined together each year for the celebration. Most years, the celebration featured special music composed by such notable composers as William Blow, Henry Purcell, and Giovanni Baptista Draghi, but also by lesser-known composers who sometimes had to set somewhat indifferent poetry. There were exceptions, however, such as the Ode by John Dryden, the English Poet Laureate, first set by Draghi in 1687 and then by Handel in 1739.
According to a note on the score, the Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day (HWV 76) – usually referred to as the Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day – took just 10 days to compose, between September 15 and 24, 1739. The work was, according to his custom, dependent on musical ideas from other composers, notably some recently-published keyboard pieces from Gottlieb Muffat’s Componimenti musicali. But, again according to his custom, these musical ideas were developed and expanded in Handel’s distinctive creativity. The concert in which it was first performed not only included his Alexander’s Feast (HWV 75), composed three years before, but also four other works by Handel, as the original 1739 advertisement announced: “At the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, on Thursday, the 22d November (being Saint Cecilia’s Day), will be perform’d A New Ode. With two new Concertos for several Instruments; which will be preceded by Alexander’s Feast, and a Concerto on the Organ.”
The Ode is not an oratorio but rather a sequence of movements, comprising instrumental pieces, declarative recitatives, expressive arias, and powerful choruses that extol music and its patron saint. The work is structured in two halves, each beginning with an instrumental movement and ending with a striking chorus. The three-section overture is followed by an accompanied tenor recitative recalling the heavenly origins of music, a theme endorsed in the following chorus: “From harmony, from heavenly harmony.” After this is a captivating soprano aria, accompanied by obbligato solo cello, strings and continuo, that asks the rhetorical question: “What passion cannot music raise and quell?” In contrast, the vigorous tenor aria that follows is a call to arms with trumpet and timpani, “The trumpet’s loud clangor”, that expands from a single voice to the whole chorus, and brings the first part to a close.
The second half begins with a march for trumpet and strings and is succeeded by four arias extolling various musical instruments: “The soft complaining flute” (soprano); “Sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs” (tenor); “But oh! What art can teach. the sacred organ’s praise?” (soprano); and “Orpheus could lead the savage race [with his] Lyre” (soprano). The penultimate movement is a brief soprano recitative in praise of Cecilia, which leads to the final movement that begins with the solo soprano in dialog with the SATB chorus and ends in a striking double fugue.
© Robin A. Leaver 2018