April Program Notes: Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music

George Frideric Handel was born on February 23, 1685 in Halle and died on April 14, 1759 in London. His legacy is vast and his exalted place in Western music is assured. Alexander’s Feast was composed in January 1736 and premiered on February 16 at Covent Garden. Handel revised the work in 1739, 1742, and 1751, and also added orchestral works for various performances, such as the Concerto Grosso in C Major HMV 318 that is included on this program.

Tiepolo: The Banquet of Cleopatra

Unlike the majority of Baroque composers who were salaried employees of a court or church, Handel went it alone in London’s rough-and-tumble theater world. Instead of patrons he had partners; instead of a congregation he had an audience. As composer, manager, producer, conductor, performer, and even stage director, Handel took the risks, reaped the profits when his shows were hits, and absorbed the losses when they flopped. Only the most incurable optimist would expect a smooth ride under such circumstances, and Handel was nothing if not a clear-eyed realist. He expected, and experienced, any number of boom-and-bust cycles.

He was at the ‘bust’ end of a cycle in 1735, as documented in a letter by an English music lover who wailed that “Handel, whose excellent compositions have often pleased our ears, and touched our Hearts, has this Winter sometimes performed to an almost empty Pitt.” For twenty years the English public had been flocking to Italian operas, but at long last tastes were changing. Handel’s potent fertility for musical theater had sustained him in fine style since his 1711 hit Rinaldo had encouraged him to settle for good in England, and despite the steady churn that inevitably accompanies theatrical enterprises, Handel had always made good with his London audiences. But now they were drifting away. Prefatory shivers of the coming tectonic shift had been making themselves felt as early as 1728, when Handel’s first Royal Academy had failed from a lethal combination of public ennui, shifts in royal favor, and the prohibitive costs of superstar vocalists—such as the pampered yet prickly Senesino—who often overshadowed the operas in which they appeared.

In 1729 Handel attempted a Second Academy. After a promising start the company began to falter, as ticket sales dwindled and Handel became increasingly at odds with his performers. The competing Opera of the Nobility began siphoning off some of Handel’s biggest draws, including his star castrato Senesino. But Handel wasn’t about to throw in the towel without a fight, as he countered with a steady stream of new operas (Arianna in Creta, Alcina, Ariodante, Atalanta, Arminio, Giustino, Berenice), presenting alternate fare such as oratorios, orchestral works, and organ concertos with himself as soloist, in order to make the most of the Lenten season, when operas could not be staged.

But by 1737 it was clear that Italian opera in London was on its last legs. The Second Academy was struggling, the Opera of the Nobility was dissolved, and to add injury to insult, Handel’s health was rapidly deteriorating. In April 1737 he suffered from what was first reported as an “indisposition” but what was in fact a severe stroke that paralyzed Handel’s right arm and left him mentally impaired, at least for a while. “It was with the utmost difficulty that he was prevailed on to do what was proper,” tells early biographer John Mainwaring. A contemporary observer might well have concluded that Handel’s career was over, given that only a person blessed with second sight could have foreseen Handel’s subsequent transition from English theater to a seat on musical Olympus.

As it happened, the vehicle for that journey was already at hand and in Handel’s compositional repertory, although he did not as yet recognize it as such. He had written oratorios since his early years in Italy—Il Trinfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, La Resurrezione—and with his relocation to England he had made a tentative start with the Purcellian Esther of 1718–1720. The heady operatic successes of the 1720s suppressed any further development along those lines, but the dicey state of his Second Academy led him to reviving and expanding Esther for the 1732 season. Esther established the pattern of Handelian oratorio to come—three acts characterized by a blend of sacred choral music with the forms and styles of Italian opera—and also brought a welcome respectability with its adoption of Biblical texts, a potent advantage in a London buzzing with theological debates and bombastic religious factions. So Esther was soon followed by Acis and Galatea (not technically an oratorio, but not an opera either), Deborah, and for the 1733 season, Athalia.

Handel was a stubborn man. Despite all the signs pointing to a bleak future for Italian opera, he remained determined to make a go of it, and thus Alexander’s Feast of 1736 stands as a bit of a sport between Athalia and the full bloom of Handelian oratorio with the twin masterpieces Saul and Israel in Egypt of 1738. Even the precise genre of Alexander’s Feast is tricky to determine. Not quite a full-scale oratorio, not quite a masque, its ambiguity is reflected in the title of John Dryden’s original poem “Alexander’s Feast; or, The Power of Musick: An Ode in Honour of St. Cecilia’s Day.” November 22 was the day in question, a celebration of the patron saint of music with new works each year. Handel was by no means the first composer to set the 1697 poem to music; one such version was by Restoration composer Jeremiah Clarke (c. 1674–1707), although the score itself is lost.

For his 1736 setting Handel worked with Irish-born librettist Newburgh Hamilton, who no doubt saw the collaboration as an opportunity for literary upward mobility, considering his previous authorship of silly stage trifles such as The Petticoat-Plotter and The Doating Lovers. Claiming that he was “determin’d not to take any unwarrantable Liberty” with Dryden’s original text, “which no Man can add to, or abridge, in any thing material, without injuring it,” Hamilton merely divided Dryden’s poem into recitatives, arias, and choruses, retaining Dryden’s original device of repeating the last few lines of each stanza for performance by a chorus. Handel was apparently satisfied with the libretto; not only did he bequeath Hamilton £100 in his will for having “assisted me in adjusting words for some of my compositions” but he also renewed the collaboration with Samson in 1742, The Occasional Oratorio in 1745, and possibly 1744’s Semele.

The Dryden-Hamilton libretto was perfect as a stimulus for Handel’s imagination. It tells of a banquet held in about 330 BCE by Alexander the Great to celebrate his conquest of Persia. Together with his mistress Thais and his courtiers, Alexander is entertained by the musician Timotheus, whose music charms, intoxicates, and saddens him, reminds him of lost loves, and at last incites him to set fire to the captured Persepolis in revenge for the slaughter of Greeks in earlier Persian wars. Hence the subtitle: The Power of Music.

Part One opens with the customary French Overture that flanks a central fugal Allegro with regal dotted-rhythm passages, followed by a tender triple-meter minuet that sets the stage for the first of recitatives, as we are introduced to the scene: “Twas at the royal feast, for Persia won by Phillip’s warlike son.” The tenor, enthusiastically supported by the chorus, speaks to us of Alexander and Thais as a “Happy, happy happy pair!” Timotheus is then introduced in the first accompanied recitative “The song began from Jove,” its gentle cloud of sustained string chords reminiscent of Bach’s treatment of Jesus of Nazareth’s recitatives in the St. Matthew Passion. The “list’ning crowd” at the banquet, a.k.a. the chorus, admires the lofty sound, not only to the accompaniment of undulating string figures, but also in no fewer than eight choral parts—quite a sizeable assembly of guests indeed.

Alexander’s first reactions are told in “with ravish’d ears the monarch hears,” followed by a rambunctious paean to Bacchus taken up by the full chorus. But Alexander has become just a bit overly excited and appears to be headed into full-tilt warrior mode, so Timotheus calms him down with a reminder of his father “Darius, great and good, by too severe a fate fall’n,” given special poignancy by Handel’s gently persistent staccato strings. A kingly eruption avoided, Timotheus directs his master to the lovely Thais at his side; as Alexander falls gently to sleep on his mistress’s breast (to one of Handel’s few distinctly comic arias) the chorus concludes Part One with “The many rend the skies with loud applause.”

A massively scored accompanied recitative “Now strike the golden Lyre again” opens Part Two, as Alexander is wakened from his sleep by the irresistible impact of chorus and orchestra in “Break his bands of sleep asunder.” Now comes a bit of lobbying from Timotheus, as he cries out for revenge for the Greek soldiers put to death by the Persians. “Behold, a ghastly band, each a torch in his hand” sings Timotheus, “Those are Grecian ghosts that in battle were slain.” The stratagem works. A tenor aria tells us that “the king seiz’d a flambeau with zeal to destroy” and, as “Thais led the way” Persepolis becomes “another Troy.” Finally, St. Cecilia, patroness of musicians, makes a belated appearance in this ode to her honor and brings the proceedings to a grand conclusion with her inspiration and guidance.

George Frideric Handel

Handel’s opulent score is notable for its rich array of orchestral effects, brilliant choral movements, and unpredictability. In accordance with Handel’s oratorio practice at this time, even the arias dispense with the usual Italian forms; of the ten total, only two are da capo and one of those departs considerably from the norm. No fewer than seven accompanied recitatives, an unprecedented percentage of the whole, are scattered throughout the work. Evocative orchestration is found everywhere. In “Revenge, Timotheus cries” the ghosts of slain Greek warriors are suggested by a trio of bassoons, paired violas and cellos, and bass. The complex recitative-plus-chorus “Now strike the golden lyre again” that opens Part Two is remarkable for its gradual accumulation of instruments, as the initial strings are joined by basses, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, and at last drums that lead into the mighty chorus “Break his sands of sleep asunder” with its hypnotic martial rhythm and spectacular trumpet effects. The jolly bass aria “Bacchus, ever fair and young” is enhanced with a swank ensemble of paired trumpets, oboes, and bassoons in addition to the strings, while a violoncello obbligato supports the tender soprano arioso “Softly sweet in Lydian measures.” Paired oboes add piquancy to the accompanied recitative “Behold, how they toss their torches on high,” and the violas and recorder are allowed their moment in the spotlight for the accompagnato “Thus, long ago, ere heaving Bellows learn’d to blow.”

Alexander’s Feast was an immediate and long-lasting success. The premiere on February 19, 1736 brought in a box office of £450. Between 1737 and 1743 it was performed eighteen times, and eight times more during the 1750s. That it was highly regarded is attested by Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s 1790 commission to Wolfgang Mozart for an upgraded orchestration suited to Viennese tastes, along with Messiah and the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. However, Alexander’s Feast is just a bit too short to provide a full evening’s entertainment, so from the first performances Handel bulked up the running time with substantial instrumental works. The revivals of Alexander’s Feast in 1737 and 1739 mention concertos “for the Harp, Lute, Lyricord and other Instruments”, “for two Violins, Violoncello, etc.” and “for the Organ and other Instruments.” Of those works, the Concerto Grosso in C Major HWV 318 is often called “the concerto in Alexander’s Feast.” Originally intended as a curtain-raiser to Part Two, this is the only Handel orchestral concerto outside the Opus 6 set that features a trio concertino group of two violins and cello à la Corelli, a combination that was to become so popular that John Walsh was inspired to publish the C Major Concerto as a separate work in 1740. The four-movement HMV 318 begins with an Allegro notable for its careful thematic development, followed by a heartfelt Largo. A second Allegro reflects the polyphonic choral writing of Alexander’s Feast with its own fugal textures, and a bouncy Andante serves to bring the concerto to a close as it simultaneously paves the way for Alexander’s awakening in Part Two.

— Scott Foglesong, Scholar in Residence