CLASSICAL CDs OF THE YEAR 2004 (The Daily Telegraph)
No 1 Overture Part 3: Minuet [1'14]
No 7: March [1'53]
St Cecilia first appears in literature in a medieval collection of tales of early Christian martyrs who met gory deaths; at this stage there is little in her story to suggest a connection with music, but by the middle of the fifteenth century she had been accredited with the invention of the organ and was thus adopted as the patron saint of music. Over the succeeding centuries, the annual celebration of her patronage (falling on the supposed date of her martyrdom, 22 November) inspired composers to dazzling new heights of creativity. At the 1739 festival Handel’s dazzling Ode to St Cecilia (setting the famous text by Dryden) presented enthralled London audiences with chorus, top-notch soloists and a splendid array of obbligato instruments – and some of Handel’s finest music. For this new recording, Carolyn Sampson and James Gilchrist fully rise to the occasion, supported by choir and The King’s Consort in sparkling form.
Paired with the seldom-heard setting for soprano and tenor Cecilia, volgi un sguardo (a Dryden setting from 1736 written as a showcase for the skills of Handel’s two Italian opera stars), this generously filled new recording is a must!
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St Cecilia first appears in literature in The Golden Legend, a medieval collection of mostly legendary tales of early Christian martyrs who met gory deaths through adherence to their faith. There is little in the original version of her story to suggest a connection with music, but during the fifteenth century a new image of Cecilia emerged as a singer and as a player of the organ, an instrument she is supposed to have invented, and she was adopted as the patron saint of music. It was a time when musicians were becoming conscious of themselves as practitioners of a noble art and, like other craftsmen, felt the need to form themselves into guilds under the protection of a Christian patron. Cecilia seems to have acquired this role for music through a naive interpretation of a sentence in the Latin text of her story, in reference to her praying at her wedding feast while organi (i.e. musical instruments in general) were playing. By the sixteenth century several musical societies dedicated to St Cecilia had been established in Continental Europe, and the art of music was regularly celebrated on 22 November, the supposed anniversary of her martyrdom.
In Protestant England any devotion to St Cecilia remained private until 1683, when a group called ‘The Musical Society’ held a public celebration in London on 22 November to mark the day ‘commemorated yearly by all musicians’. It became the first of a series of annual festivals, each including a church service and a concert (usually held at Stationers’ Hall in the City of London) at which a newly composed ode in praise of music was performed. The festivals lapsed after 1703, probably as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession, and were never resumed in their original form. Poets and musicians nevertheless continued to write and compose odes to St Cecilia on an occasional basis, and some of the odes produced during the original series continued to be remembered and admired. The greatest musical compositions from that era were Henry Purcell’s contributions to the festivals of 1683 and 1692 (and ), but poetically it was the two odes written by John Dryden (1631–1700) that stood out and became more valued in their own right than in their original musical settings. These were A Song for St Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music, written respectively for the festivals of 1687 and 1697. The first was set by G B Draghi, whose music survives (and is recorded on Hyperion ), and the second by Jeremiah Clarke, whose music is lost.
When Handel first came to London in 1710 the Cecilian festivals had ended, but around 1711–12 he composed Splenda l’alba in oriente, an Italian cantata making reference to St Cecilia, though the surviving portion of the piece is mainly in praise of virtue. No clue remains as to why it was written, and it is not clear whether the extant fragment is part of a larger work, the rest of which is lost, or whether Handel left it unfinished. The composer’s great contributions to the Cecilian tradition appeared in the 1730s, after he had begun to introduce English choral works into his London seasons of Italian opera. In 1736 he set Alexander’s Feast, the longer and more famous of Dryden’s odes, filling out the evening with concertos and the Italian cantata Cecilia, volgi un sguardo, the latter partly derived from Splenda l’alba in oriente. The ode itself was very successful, and had the rare distinction of being printed complete in full score. It confirmed Handel’s status as a composer whose music could match the sublimity of the Bible and the great English poets.
After two more seasons of Italian opera, Handel returned to English works in 1739, presenting the oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt in January and April. The moment was now opportune for him to take the obvious step of setting Dryden’s other Cecilian Ode, and he decided to perform both it and the earlier ode on the day which they commemorated. The double bill of Alexander’s Feast and the new setting of A Song for St Cecilia’s Day was duly presented for the first time at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 22 November 1739, with Elisabeth du Parc (known as ‘La Francesina’) and John Beard as the soprano and tenor soloists, and was repeated five days later. However, the combination of the two odes was not entirely happy, and proved somewhat indigestible to audiences. After 1739 Handel always performed his Cecilian odes separately, pairing the shorter ode with Acis and Galatea or L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.
Though the central verses of Dryden’s shorter ode follow convention in praising and characterizing the qualities of the various musical instruments, the poem is taken to a higher plane in its opening and closing stanzas, dealing with nothing less than the birth and death of the universe, and identifying music as the operative element that brings both events about. Dryden begins with a view of creation combining ideas from the Bible, classical literature and the new science of Isaac Newton, in which the ‘tuneful voice’ of God assembles the ‘jarring atoms’ of the unformed universe into order, and he ends with a reference to the Last Judgement, when the music of the last trumpet ‘untunes’ what has been created. Cecilia, though given great reverence for her invention of the ‘sacred organ’, plays a subservient role in the proceedings. Such a text offered an almost insuperable challenge to a composer, but it was one from which Handel did not flinch, with memorable results.
According to the dates on his autograph score Handel composed A Song for St Cecilia’s Day between 15 and 24 September 1739. (A Song was Dryden’s title, copied by Handel; the more usual title, An Ode for St Cecilia’s Day appears first in Randall’s edition of 1771.) So swift a rate of composition was not exceptional for Handel, but in this case it was to some extent expedited by a remarkable amount of musical borrowing from the Componimenti of Gottlieb Muffat (1690–1770), a newly published set of suites for harpsichord. (Copies of several fragments from Muffat are found among Handel’s autograph sketches.) In the ode Handel not only expands and improves Muffat’s material, but also brings fragments of separate pieces together and fits them into contexts for which one might easily assume they were originally conceived. In the opening accompanied recitative, for example, the shifting harmonies depicting primordial chaos, and the lively exchanges between violins and basses suggesting the atoms obediently arranging themselves into order, are apt pieces of tone painting; yet both are taken from different Muffat suites.
The ode opens with a splendid overture with which Handel seems to have been particularly pleased, since he converted it into his Grand Concerto in D major (Op 6 No 5) a month after composing it. The accompanied recitative just mentioned follows and the chorus enters to close Dryden’s first stanza in jubilant style. The stanzas describing the attributes of the various instruments are all set with appropriate instrumental solos (though Dryden’s ‘flute’ was a recorder rather than the transverse flute prescribed by Handel) and are admirably contrasted in mood. ‘What passion cannot Music raise and quell!’, with its gorgeous cello solo representing Jubal’s lyre, and the solemn tribute to the organ show Handel at his most expressive, while the celebration of the war-like qualities of the trumpet is one of his most exciting movements. Handel seems to have added the more formal March (not prescribed by Dryden) to bring back a more sedate mood, again using a motive from Muffat. The sprightly hornpipe with which Orpheus apparently leads the wild beasts is perhaps a shade incongruous, but it is a light-hearted moment which allows the magnificent setting of the final verse to unfold all the more powerfully. The soprano soloist begins to declaim Dryden’s lines in a hymn-like major-key melody, each phrase echoed by the full chorus, but at the mention of the ‘crumbling pageant’ of the ‘last and dreadful hour’ the music turns into minor-key mode and passes through dark modulations to A flat major, the key furthest from the tonic key of D major. The soprano and a solo trumpet then emerge majestically from the gloom to restore the home key and prepare for the final fugue, a grandiloquent extension of a subject taken from Muffat. Handel, a man of plain and devout belief, could contemplate the Last Judgement with unclouded optimism.
As has already been mentioned, the cantata Cecilia, volgi un sguardo was originally written to accompany Alexander’s Feast. It was first performed between the two parts of the ode at Covent Garden on 25 February 1736. As Handel’s setting of the Dryden text proved to be too short to make a full evening’s entertainment, he added three concertos to be played at specified points during the performance, and made a number of attempts to extend the vocal music by setting additional words taken from The Power of Music, a Cecilian ode written in 1720 by his friend Newburgh Hamilton. One of these extensions, set for tenor voice, consisted of an accompanied recitative ‘Look down, harmonious saint’ and an aria ‘Sweet accents’, often sung nowadays as a short cantata. Handel abandoned this interpolation in its original form but soon found a use for the music of the aria in Cecilia, volgi. The presence of an Italian cantata among the mixture of additions to Alexander’s Feast may seem odd, but there was a good reason for it. Anna Strada del Pò, Handel’s leading soprano in 1736, was Italian, and one of the other performers in the ode was Carlo Arrigoni, a Florentine musician who had worked in London since 1732. Arrigoni had been engaged to play the lute in Alexander’s Feast, but he had a good tenor voice and it may only have been an inability to sing in English that prevented him from being a vocal soloist in the ode. Adding an Italian cantata for Strada and Arrigoni was therefore a sensible and generous gesture on Handel’s part, giving both singers a chance to show their abilities in their native tongue.
Much of the text and a little of the musical material for Cecilia, volgi is taken from Splenda l’alba in oriente. As first composed the cantata consisted of two arias with introductory recitatives, all for Arrigoni’s tenor voice, followed by a soprano recitative for Strada and the final duet. Obviously this was not a satisfactory structure from Strada’s point of view, and so before performance Handel added another recitative for her and inserted the aria ‘Sei cara, sei bella’, the music of which was simply a slightly trimmed version of the aria ‘Sweet accents’ from the earlier abandoned addition. When the full score of Alexander’s Feast was published by Walsh in 1738, Cecilia, volgi was printed in an appendix, together with an additional aria ‘Sei del ciel’, probably inserted for the mezzo-soprano castrato Domenico Annibali when the ode and the cantata were repeated in 1737. The first aria of the cantata is modestly accompanied with continuo alone, perhaps as a deliberate contrast to the powerful chorus ‘The many rend the skies’ that preceded it at the end of Part 1 of Alexander’s Feast. It nevertheless tests the tenor voice with a highly elaborate vocal line. The next aria, based on the opening aria of Splenda l’alba in oriente and using the same text, has a lively triple-time rhythm, with an accompaniment of full strings. ‘Sei cara’, the soprano aria, has a variety of effects within itself. The main section is mostly in fast tempo, with a vocal line dominated by long, florid runs, but it is divided into two statements, each begun with the opening words set in a slow tempo, inviting additional vocal embellishment. In the middle section, originally composed as a reflection on the mysterious power of music, a new and unexpected mood of ravishing intensity is ushered in by a change to a minor key and the entry of the full strings. Shifting harmonies help to create a musical equivalent of the rapt, heavenward-gazing image of Cecilia found in many Renaissance paintings. The cantata closes in lighter style, with jaunty, syncopated rhythms bringing a sense of playfulness to the final duet. Handel’s last cantata with orchestral accompaniment celebrates the joint themes of music and virtue with engaging warmth.
Anthony Hicks © 2004