Like Alexander's Feast, the composer's more famous work
in honor of the patron saint of music, George Frideric
Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, HWV 76, is a
setting of texts written in honor of Saint Cecilia by
John Dryden in 1697. Perhaps inspired by the sweeping
success of Alexander's Feast (composed and first
performed in 1736), Handel revisited Dryden's ode three
years later to create a new, shorter work. The
circumstances of the November 22, 1739, Lincoln's Inn
Fields premiere of HWV 76 were something of an omen of
things to come: the Ode for St. Cecilia's Day was
presented as little more than a prelude to Alexander's
Feast, and indeed the work has remained in the shadow
of its sister piece ever since. The Ode is of very
considerable merit, however; the three choruses
contained within it are among the finest ever crafted
by the composer, and the six arias are of equally high
HWV 76 is properly an ode and not an oratorio; there is
no plot, but rather a series of recitatives, arias,
choruses, and instrumental pieces that extol the
praises of the St. Cecilia (a third century martyr).
Handel's score is for soprano and tenor soloists, the
usual SATB chorus, and a colorful orchestra made up of
strings, continuo, flute, double reeds, trumpets and
Handel's tendency to borrow music from himself and
other composers is famous, and indeed, essentially all
of the melodies contained in the Ode for St. Cecilia's
Day were lifted straight from the keyboard pieces of
Gottlieb Muffat's Componimenti musicali (published ca.
1739). However, the working-out of this pre-fab
material over the course of the Ode is entirely
Handel's own. The musical subject of Dryden's ode
provides a sure footing for all sorts of musical
text-painting and allusion.
The Ode falls loosely into two halves, each of which
ends with a chorus, and which are separated by an
orchestral March. The work's two-part overture was
taken from, or perhaps used as the model for, the
composer's own Concerto grosso, Op. 6, No. 5, composed
around the same time. The singing begins with a
recitative for tenor solo, "From harmony, from heav'nly
harmony," the text of which is immediately echoed in
the first of the three choruses. The soprano follows
with the stunning but graceful aria "What passion
cannot Music raise and quell," and the boisterous tenor
counters with "The Trumpet's loud clangor," immediately
taken up by the chorus.
A succession of four arias--three for soprano, one for
tenor (but that one the delightful "Violins
proclaim")--begins the second half of the Ode for St.
Cecilia's Day. A soprano recitative ("But bright
Cecilia rais'd the wonder high'r") prefaces the final
chorus ("As from the pow'r of sacred lays" / "The dead
shall live"), itself a spectacular example of Handel's
choral writing. It moves seamlessly from the opening
soprano solo to a purely choral climax and finale in
which the composer displays his contrapuntal wizardry
in a stunning double fugue.
Although originally written for Mixed Chorus & Baroque
Orchestra, I created this Interpretation of the Aria:
"Orpheus could lead the savage race" from "Ode for St.
Cecilia's Day" (HWV 76 Mvt. 10) for Oboe & Strings (2
Violins, Viola & Cello).