When George Frideric Handel arrived in London in 1710—he was in his mid-20s at the time and would reside in the capital for the duration of his life, becoming a naturalized British subject—he made his reputation composing operas, their librettos written not in his native German but in Italian, as was the fashion of the day. Working tirelessly and continuously, Handel produced an astonishing succession of operatic masterpieces: Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Orlando, and Alcina, to name just a few. Eventually, however, he turned to the language of his adopted land, and it was in his English oratorios—Esther, Saul, Israel in Egypt, Samson, Judas Maccabaeus, Jephtha, and most famously of all, Messiah—that he arguably made his most striking contributions to Western music. Handel was attracted not only to the Bible but also to secular poetry, his subjects inspired by the likes of Milton, Pope, and Dryden. The composer’s command of English was never stellar (he was hardly a fluent exophone in the manner of Voltaire, Conrad, or Beckett), which makes his facility with the cadences, imagery, rhythms, and rhymes of English verse all the more remarkable.
Consider, for example, Dryden’s 1697 ode “Alexander’s Feast,” which Handel set to music, to magnificent effect, in the mid-1730s. Dryden depicts Alexander the Great, fresh off his conquest of the Persian Empire, enthroned at a celebratory banquet in the capital Persepolis, surrounded by his garlanded officers and seated beside his lovely consort, Thais. The real hero of the poem, however, is the musician Timotheus, who sings a series of songs of contrasting temperament, from the heroic to the comic to the pathetic, and who manages in the process to manipulate Alexander’s emotions and control his actions, playing the great warrior like a lyre. Initially lavishing Alexander with praise, likening him to Jove, Timotheus then sings in praise of Bacchus, encouraging the men to drink heavily (“Bacchus’ blessings are a treasure, / Drinking is the soldier’s pleasure”). In his cups, Alexander begins to relive his triumphs on the battlefield, his cheeks glowing and his eyes aflame, a kind of madness setting in. Seeing this, Timotheus changes tack, cooling Alexander’s bloodlust with a mournful song in tribute to the slain Persian king, Darius, remembered as “great and good, / By too severe a fate, / Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen, / Fallen from his high estate”:
Deserted, at his utmost need,
By those his former bounty fed;
On the bare earth exposed he lies,
With not a friend to close his eyes.
These are the most doleful lines in the entire poem, and Alexander is moved to tears. This is Timotheus’s signal to change tenor again, now spinning out a love song so intoxicating that Alexander, his heart already softened by pity, looks upon his beloved, Thais, and
At length, with love and wine at once oppressed,
The vanquished victor sunk upon her breast.
But this somnolent mood will simply not do for a celebratory feast, and the bard rouses Alexander from his slumber “like a rattling peal of thunder.” Here is where the poem turns dark, harrowing, almost unconscionable, for Timotheus now bays for revenge, invoking the memory of all those Greek soldiers killed by the Persians, still unburied, restless ghosts, “Inglorious on the plain.” Those men must be avenged, the Furies must be summoned, and impelled on by Timotheus’s music, Alexander takes up a torch “with zeal to destroy”:
Thais led the way,
To light him to his prey,
And, like another Helen, fired another Troy.
Thus is Persepolis laid to waste.
This scene from antiquity, Dryden seems to imply, belongs to a savage, pagan age, one repudiated by the introduction of the divine Cecilia in the poem’s final stanzas. Yes, Timotheus “Could swell the soul to rage, or kindle soft desire,” yet his ravishing music leads to shocking, immoral action, whereas Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, who is credited in lore with inventing the organ, would inaugurate a new age of sound, a music that is sacred and solemn:
Let old Timotheus yield the prize,
Or both divide the crown;
He raised a mortal to the skies,
She drew an angel down.
Dryden wrote his ode specifically as a libretto for musical performance. Read it and you can easily imagine it divided up into arias, recitatives, and choruses. The work was performed twice, in 1697 and 1711, though the scores by the composers, Jeremiah Clarke and Thomas Clayton, have not survived. Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, its libretto written by the playwright and poet Newburgh Hamilton (it veers from Dryden’s poem only minimally), premiered at Covent Garden in February 1736. A major success, the oratorio was adored by a public that had been clamoring for vocal music in English rather than Italian. At any rate, it remains one of Handel’s most vibrant and moving scores, full of glory and pathos in almost equal measure.
Indeed, some of Handel’s effects are magical, especially in the realm of coloratura—the tenor singing of the happy pair, Alexander and Thais (“None but the brave deserves the fair”), and the soprano describing how the egotistical Alexander feels so godlike, he “seems to shake the spheres” like Jove himself—as the soprano sings this line, her florid runs and ornamental effects make the musical line itself quiver and shake.
In some ways, Handel’s feast is less sinister than Dryden’s. In the invocation to Bacchus, for example, Handel does not conjure up some wild bacchanal, but rather something noble, the horns and trumpets suggesting the hunt, not some bloody battle. If Dryden’s Alexander, moreover, driven to tears by Timotheus’s lyre, comes off as a touch maudlin, Handel’s music reveals the humanity and compassion, momentary as these sentiments are, that the warrior feels. Even the avenging Furies are rendered as glorious creatures, not the menacing figures that they are, with blood dripping from their eyes and serpents writhing in their hair. And when Thais leads Alexander to the final inglorious act, the torching of Persepolis, the soprano sings with utter radiance: it’s as sweet and gentle and stately a call to violence as one can ever imagine.
The choral writing throughout is superb, luminous and rejoicing, capable of rendering so many shades of color and meaning. And though there is a good bit of joy in the score, the most memorable moments are its sorrowful passages: the contralto singing a haunting dirge in “He chose a mournful muse, / Soft pity to infuse,” and the violin answering the contralto in those agonizing lines, “On the bare earth exposed he lies, / With not a friend to close his eyes.” Just as the tone shifts dramatically in the last section of Dryden’s poem, the turn at the end of Handel’s oratorio is as exquisite as it is shocking, the tenor quiet and slow, singing with hushed beauty of the bygone era in which Timotheus played his lyre. And when Cecilia is introduced, the chorus sings music from another realm, seraphic lines unlike anything preceding them, with a wonderful fugue on the line “With nature’s mother-wit, and arts unknown before.” The work concludes in this serene mood, the blood and toil of war, the vainglory of valiant men, the cunning of the tricky lyre all put to rest, Handel leaving us instead with a feeling of calm, a beatific peace that promises to linger on.
Listen to John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists perform Handel’s Alexander’s Feast:
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