Measure by Measure

On St. Cecilia’s Day

Handel’s ode for November 22

By Sudip Bose | November 22, 2018
<em>Saint Cecilia</em> by
Simon Vouet, c. 1626 (Wikimedia Commons)
Saint Cecilia by Simon Vouet, c. 1626 (Wikimedia Commons)

Today is not only Thanksgiving, but also the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, who lived in Rome in the second century AD and was martyred around the year 230. According to legend, Cecilia was a devout young woman who committed herself to a life of chastity. Her parents, however, arranged a marriage for her to the pagan nobleman Valerian, leaving Cecilia so distraught that during her wedding ceremony, she removed herself from the festivities and sat alone, singing to God. When Valerian later tried to consummate the union, Cecilia refused, warning him that the angel who watched over her would punish him severely if her vow of virginity were to be broken. Valerian needed proof of the angel’s existence, and Cecilia said that he would have just that, provided he first journey down the Appian Way and submit to a baptism. This he did, and sure enough, the angel appeared to him, placing a garland of lilies and roses upon Cecilia’s head. The story, however, does not end well. Later denounced for distributing her belongings to the poor, Cecilia was eventually condemned to death.

In art—for example, Raphael’s The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia—she is usually holding or playing a pipe organ, the instrument with which she is most associated. In poetry, John Dryden memorialized her in “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687,” which George Frideric Handel, a great connoisseur of English verse, set to music in 1739. First performed on November 22 of that year, Handel’s Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day is an exquisite cantata—not at all a depiction of the Cecilia legend but rather, in keeping with Dryden, an apotheosis of music itself.

It is music, after all, that allows the world to come into being, to coalesce out of the void. Quietly at first, the tenor soloist sings:

From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
Arise ye more than dead.

With its uncertain harmonic progressions, the musical depiction of chaos is sublime, though the mood of uneasiness is quickly dissipated when the tenor sings, with the commanding authority of a deity, the word Arise. The chorus answers with a pure and harmonious passage. Here, in this first movement, Handel wrote some of his most joyous music—and some of his most ingenious, as well. Listen, for example, to the deep, resonant, organ-like sonorities of the final couplet—“Through all the compass of the notes it ran, / The diapason closing full in man.” The word diapason can mean a rich, full-bodied, mellifluous sound, or it can refer simply to an octave. A diapason also happens to be one of the two fundamental stops on the pipe organ. At any rate, the word should invoke feelings of consonance, harmony, and symmetry—all of which Handel’s writing suggests.

If music is the agent of creation, it remains, for those on earth, a reminder of the divine. It is at once a celestial gift and a personification of human emotions. For both Dryden and Handel, music can be blissful and serene, as in the “What passion cannot music raise and quell!”—a movement that also features two extended, heartfelt solos, the soprano dovetailing beautifully with the cello. It can inspire us to war—“The trumpet’s loud clangor / Excites us to arms / With shrill notes of anger. / And mortal alarms”—the trumpet and tenor sounding the battle cry, and the martial roll of the timpani (corresponding to “The double double double beat / Of the thund’ring drum …”) truly bringing our blood to the boil. Music can reflect our jealousy, our pain, our anger, our desperation. And in quieter moments, it can mirror feelings of deep melancholy. In the movement commencing with “The soft complaining flute,” Handel contrasts the sad desolation of the solo flute and lute continuo (the timbres becoming magical with the addition of the soprano’s voice) with some spectacular coloratura on the word warbling in “Whose dirge is whisper’d by the warbling lute.” More passages of impressive coloratura come later, though in Handel’s hands, this writing never amounts to mere showing off, to virtuosity for its own sake. Rather, the florid embellishments always seem to enhance meaning, aligning text and music to the greatest effect.

This is tone painting of the highest order, and Handel saves some of his most stirring writing for the cantata’s end. Orpheus may have tamed the savage with his lyre,

But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder high’r;
When to her organ, vocal breath was giv’n,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d
Mistaking earth for Heav’n.

A grand passage follows this recitative, the soprano and chorus now alternating stately lines in depicting the Day of Judgment (“So when the last and dreadful hour / This crumbling pageant shall devour”). There’s a lovely modulation to a minor key here, with the somber, elegiac choral harmonies so sophisticated and rich that they would not be out of place in one of Anton Bruckner’s Masses or Motets, composed well over a century later. The chorus proceeds with a long, contrapuntal passage constructed from Dryden’s final couplet: “The dead shall live, the living die, / And music shall untune the sky.” This vocal writing, as it is throughout the Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day, is something to behold, culminating in lines of bombast and power, the bright strings and hefty timpani contributing to an effect that is almost overwhelming. It’s a brilliant ending to a work of tenderness, refinement, inventiveness, and majesty.

Listen to Trevor Pinnock conduct The English Concert and Choir, with soloists Felicity Lott and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, in this performance of Handel’s Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day: 

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