Handel & Purcell
Composing music about music has always been an opportunity for self-reflection and self-congratulation among its practitioners, and the celebration of music’s patron saint, St. Cecilia, has provided an occasion for composers from Purcell to Britten to celebrate their art. Never mind that her claim to fame as an organist arose from a mistranslation of a reference in the early medieval Acts of the Martyrs: “cantantibus organis illa in cordo suo sol domino decantabat” (while instruments were playing she was singing in her heart to God alone). The collective term for musical instruments, organis, was understandably mistaken for “organ,” and organists have claimed her as their own ever since. In 1584 she was made the patron saint of music and patroness of the Roman Confraternity of Santa Cecilia, one of the oldest musical societies in the world. In the 18th century, she was championed by Cecilian Leagues (Caecilian-Bündnisse) in Germany, and in 1870, Pope Pius IX invoked her name in the restoration of Gregorian chant and a cappella choral singing championed by the Council of Trent (the “Cecilian Movement”) against the excesses of symphonic and operatic church music.
Ever since the Restoration, the English have taken the lead in celebrating November 22, the feast day of the ‘”harmonious Saint,” and Henry Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate, was his third ode written for that occasion. Unlike Welcome to All the Pleasures (1683) and Hail! Bright Cecilia (1692), both commissioned by ‘The Musical Society’ and set to poetic texts by Nicholas Brady and Christopher Fishburn, respectively, the Te Deum and Jubilate were composed for the Chapel Royal using liturgical texts. Its first performance on 21 November 1695 at St. Bride’s Church in Fleet Street marked a milestone in the development of the English verse anthem, especially in the prominence of its use of orchestral accompaniment in church music. The composer and organist Thomas Tudway (c. 1650-1726) states that it was “ye first of its kind in England, of Te Deum, & Jubilate, accompanied with instrumental music,” a feature unusual enough to be a point of reference in St. Cecilia’s Day sermons for the next six years.
It was to become the most popular of Purcell’s works in the 18th century, as Tudway attests:
There is in this Te Deum such a glorious representation, of ye Heavenly Choirs, of cherubins, & Seraphins, falling down before ye Throne & singing Holy, Holy, Holy &c As hath not be Equall’d by any Foreigner, or Other… This most beautifull, & sublime representation, I dare challenge, all ye Orators, Poets, Painters &c of any Age whatsoever, to form so lively an Idea, of choirs of Angels singing, & paying their Adorations.
Whether or not Purcell had written this work in anticipation of the opening of Wren’s new St. Paul’s Cathedral, as Tudway claims, its festive opulence was to be heard there many times after its consecration in 1710. Purcell, however, never was to hear it there, as he died on St. Cecilia’s Eve, 21 November 1695. The signed and dated manuscript for this masterpiece now resides in the rare book collection of the Stanford Library.
The text of the Hymn of Thanksgiving, Te Deum laudamus, traditionally ascribed to St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397), is poetic illuminated manuscript of imagery derived from the Apostles’ Creed and the Book of Psalms. Purcell sets each phrase in the manner of the “verse anthem,” alternating soloists and chorus appropriate to the dramatis personae of the text. Isaiah’s vision of six-winged angels crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” around the throne of the Lord–a passage also found the Sanctus movement of the Mass–is vividly depicted by treble voices floating in parallel thirds between the exclamations of “Holy!” by the five-part choir. Alto, tenor, and bass soloists represent Apostles, Prophets, and Martyrs, respectively, praising the lord in elegant lilting phrases in the French style, answered by the chorus of “The Holy Church” in typical Anglican hymnbook style. “Vouchsafe, O Lord,” a penitential alto solo with its minor key, chromatic harmonies, and drooping melodic line. provides a moment of poignancy before the final D-major affirmation.
Purcell’s declamatory writing for the chorus becomes contrapuntally complex in overlapping passages suggesting temporal continuity (e.g., “day by day,“ “world without end”). Rising out of the bass line, “Thou art the King of Glory” accumulates the other four vocal parts rising up to the glorious climax, “O Christ.”
A brilliant trumpet solo introduces one of the most joyous of psalms, Psalm 100, the Jubilate. Here the solo and choral divisions are based on the parallel structure of the psalm verses themselves. It is a less pictorial text than the Te Deum, although the bass and alto duet describing everlasting mercy and enduring truth illustrate the text with everlasting counterpoint. The choral sections are more developed, including a four-part canon (“O go your way into His gates”) and a tightly complex “Glory be to the Father,” once again depicting a “world without end” with seemingly endless polyphonic imitation.
When Handel first presented his setting of another Dryden ode, Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music, on 25 February 1736 at Covent Garden, he needed to extend the two-part work to satisfy his opera-going audience’s expectations of a three-act evening. He added three concertos—one for “Harp, Lute, Lyrachord, and other Instruments,” another for oboes, bassoons and strings, and one of Handel’s celebrated novelty acts–an organ concerto played by the composer himself. Though the cast included the English soprano Cecilia Young and tenor John Beard, the principal role of Thaïs was sung by Handel’s loyal prima donna, the Italian soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò, the only singer not to defect when the Opera of the Nobility decimated his roster of Italian stars in 1733. Adding to the variety show that was becoming Alexander’s Feast, Handel reworked an Italian solo cantata, Splenda l’alba in oriente, into a charming half-hour cantata for soprano and tenor, Cecilia, volgi un sguardo. It was, of course, a showcase for Strada, but also featured a Florentine lute-playing tenor from the band, Carlo Arrigoni (presumably the lutenist in the aforementioned concerto)—not John Beard, the tenor soloist for the rest of the program. The cantata celebrates the glories of Virtue with local allusions to the Britain and the Thames, and only passing mention of St. Cecilia. Its final and only duet is a frothy evocation of Virtue’s innocent embraces and untainted affection, a charming pairing of tenor and soprano for those diehard fans of Italian opera who may have been experiencing withdrawal symptoms in the midst of an evening of English oratorio.
Our entr’acte is a suite of dances taken from the incidental music to the tragedy Distressed Innocence, or the Prince of Persia (1691) by Elkanah Settle (1648-1724), City Poet of London and a public antagonist of John Dryden. The suite is one of over forty “stage-musics” Purcell composed in his final years. Though the music lacks the exoticism of the Persian subject, the melancholy C-minor harmonies of the Overture and Slow Aire underscore the distress of the principal characters, while the innocence of the G-major Aire and Minuett concluding the suite suggest a happy ending.
“Purcell’s Te Deum, in design, and expression of the words, is, perhaps, superior to all others; but in grandeur and richness of accompaniment, nothing but national partiality can deny HANDEL the preference.” So wrote Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814), in weighing the merits of this evening’s featured composers from the next generation. Though Burney was probably comparing their settings of the Te Deum, his mention of “national partiality” not only reflects the parallel esteem in which these composers were held, but echoes, along with Tudway’s remark ,“…As hath not been Equall’d by any Foreigner,” the xenophobia of some in the English audience.
Handel picked up the mantle of Purcell, reviving the celebration of St. Cecilia’s Day, which had become dormant at the turn of the century. His setting of John Dryden’s ode, A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day (It wasn’t called “An Ode” until a decade after Handel’s death.) was also intended to supplement the two-part Alexander’s Feast, also on a text by Dryden. After their premieres on 22 November 1739 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the double bill was performed only once more, before St. Cecilia became a companion piece either to Acis and Galatea, or a substitute for Il Moderato between Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso to be performed by PBO with the Mark Morris Dance Group in March 2016.
Unlike the texts of his other English oratorios resulting from Handel’s collaboration with a number of librettists, the lyrics of St. Cecilia are Dryden’s verbatim, originally written for a musical setting by Giovanni Battista Draghi (1640-1708) in 1687, the heyday of English Cecilian festivals. Dryden‘s text, an amalgamation of Newtonian physics, Biblical apocalypse, and a young person’s guide to the baroque orchestra, begins with the “jarring atoms” of creation and concludes with the trumpet of the Last Judgment.
Like Messiah, Song for St. Cecilia’s Day was composed in record time, a mere 10 days.
And also, like Messiah, Handel relied on some pre-existing material to expedite the process. A newly-published series of harpsichord suites, Componamenti musicali, by Gottlieb Muffat (1690-1770), the foremost keyboard player in Vienna, provided inspiration and a generous helping of material for Handel. Far from Winton Dean’s disparaging accusation that the work was “redigested Muffat,” however, Handel ingeniously crafted new works from these sources in a manner uniquely his own. The Overture, abounding in the stately dotted rhythms and scalar tiratas of the French overture; the ensuing fugue must have appealed to him especially, as he immediately repurposed it in the first movement of his Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 5.
Handel wrote the soprano solos in St. Ceciia for Elisabeth Duparc (known as “La Francesina”). Though first brought from France by Handel’s rival company, the Opera of the Nobility, she later became Handel’s go-to soprano for his new ventures in English oratorio, including St. Cecilia. To be sure, she sang in Imeneo and Deidamia, the last gasps of Handel’s operatic career, but made her mark in the English oratorios Saul, Semele, Messiah, Belshazzar, and L’Allegro. The tenor soloist was John Beard, the Englishman whose association with Handel almost single-handedly elevated the status of the tenor voice to prominence in principal roles previously sung by castrati. Clearly he had dramatic ‘range,’ as he was also singing Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera in Drury Lane in the same period as his Handel oratorios. This flair for the dramatic would have served him well in the mysterious accompanied recitative depicting primordial chaos which opens the oratorio.
Unlike Purcell’s verse-anthem structure, Handel’s St. Cecilia is a series of relatively short, discrete movements. The arias, none written in the operatic da capo form, describe legendary musicians, their instruments, and the affects they elicit in the listener. Jubal’s lyre (“corded shell”) becomes a poignant cello obbligato, Cecilia’s organ a pious procession of harmonies, while Orpheus’s lyre (in contrast to Jubal’s) leads an impressionably gullible, “sequacious savage race” in a rustic, limping hornpipe (alla zoppa).
Individual instruments, save one, represent their anticipated character: the “soft, complaining Flute,” the “warbling Lute,” the “Trumpet’s loud clangor.” However, instead of the hearts and flowers we might expect of them, the “sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs and desperation.” There is frantic, furious indignation in their vigorous bowing, even though a coquettish trill figure (think Cleopatra) suggests the “fair disdainful dame” that drove us to such anguish.
Handel’s choruses are appropriately festive and literal to the text. Ascending and descending scales amusingly trace “the compass of the notes” in contrast with the manifestation of man in a burst of harmony (“diapason”). The final chorus (“As from the pow’r of sacred lays”) does not reflect a Lutheran chorale as some commentators claim, but the common liturgical practice of “lining out,” a hymn-singing tradition of call-and-response in which a deacon or precentor sings a line repeated by the congregation. This was a practice brought to the New World by the Puritans for the singing of psalms, especially when hymnals were scarce.
The text of the final chorus alludes both to the Last Judgment and the “music of the spheres.” Following the trumpet of the Last Judgment, St. Cecilia closes with a grand choral fugue with a typically Handelian attention span; once the four voice parts have entered, they soon devolve into block declamatory chords. Dryden concludes his ode with praise to the power of music until the end of time, and Handel depicts it with a tangle of intersecting lines coalescing into a single majestic harmony : “The Trumpet shall be heard on high,/ the dead shall live, the living die,/ and Music shall untune the sky.”