Program Notes

James A. Winn

William Fairfield Warren Professor of English, emeritus

Boston University

In order to understand the cultural complexities of this evening’s first selection, an aria from Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739), we need to go all the way back to 1683, when the London “Musical Society,” a group of professionals and amateurs, sponsored the first of its annual celebrations of St. Cecilia, an early Christian martyr who became the patron saint of music. For each of the next twenty years (with occasional interruptions), the Society commissioned a poet to write an ode in praise of music and a composer to set it. In the first year, they were fortunate in securing the services of a brilliant young composer, Henry Purcell, then in his early twenties. As often happened, however, Purcell had to work with a text produced by an inferior poet, in this case one Christopher Fishbourne, but his music is so compelling that Welcome to all the Pleasures is still frequently performed. 

In 1687, the chosen poet was John Dryden, and his “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687,” the finest poem on music in the English language, set a standard that later poets struggled to meet—most commonly by plagiarizing phrases and ideas from Dryden. In its elaborately symmetrical structure, with stanzas describing the Creation and the Apocalypse framing stanzas on passions and instruments, Dryden’s poem exploits the traditional Pythagorean connection between music as an ordering principle for the universe and music as an emotional stimulus for the individual. The basis for this connection was a triple analogy between the ordering of pitches in one of the musical modes, the ordering of elements in the Creation, and the ordering of “humours,” “passions,” or “animal spirits” in human beings. Dryden’s catalogue of the passions music can “raise and quell” replaces the modes with the timbres of various instruments, a modern substitution that was surely far easier for his audience to grasp: 

The Trumpets loud Clangor
        Excites us to Arms
    With shrill Notes of Anger
        And mortal Alarms.
   
    The soft complaining Flute
    In dying Notes discovers
    The Woes of hopeless Lovers,
Whose Dirge is whisper’d by the warbling Lute.

    Sharp Violins proclaim
Their jealous Pangs, and Desperation:
Fury, frantick Indignation,
Depth of Pains, and height of Passion,
    For the fair, disdainful Dame.     [ll. 25–28, 33–41]

In order to introduce this series of stanzas linking instruments and emotions, Dryden retells the legend of Jubal, the Old Testament inventor of music, imagining the impact a tortoise shell with strings stretched across it might have had on people who had never heard a musical instrument. 

    Giovanni Baptista Draghi, an organist who came to England shortly after the Restoration, wrote the music for the first performance of Dryden’s ode. His elaborate setting was as influential for composers as Dryden’s words were for poets; he was the first composer in the series to use wind instruments. After languishing in obscurity for centuries, this piece has enjoyed a modern revival: Bryan White has published a splendid edition based on the five surviving manuscript scores, and Peter Holman has recorded the work (Hyperion CDH55257).  

    The St. Cecilia series petered out in 1703, but in the late 1730s, when his opera company had folded and he was supporting himself by composing oratorios, George Frideric Handel made a new setting of Dryden’s text. His setting is far better known than Draghi’s, and while neither composer was a native speaker of English, Handel is more attentive to the inherent music of Dryden’s poem than his Italian predecessor. Draghi sets the lines on Jubal as a recitative for countertenor, and when he comes to the word around (“His list’ning Brethren stood around”), he dutifully supplies a circular pattern of notes, which was a conventional way to express roundness. Handel, by contrast, sees the lyrical possibilities of these lines, and gives us a stately aria for soprano with two prominent cello parts. There is less here in the way of local word-painting, though the word raise does fall on the singer’s highest note. Handel mainly evokes the wonder of Jubal’s “Brethren”  through the sheer lyrical beauty of his music.

 

    Our second selection comes from one of the later celebrations mounted by the “Musical Society.” In 1691, not long after the Revolution of 1688, the poet was Thomas D’Urfey, a playwright best known to his contemporaries for his songs, many of them bawdy. His text is a typical pastiche of received notions about music, with plenty of borrowings from Dryden, but while Dryden had maintained an elevated tone in his ode, D’Urfey frequently descends into bathos. The two excerpts we hear tonight are typical. “Music! Celestial Music!” contrasts the sacred and authentic “Royalty” of Cecilia with the “Glorious Name” a modern monarch might gain “by Flattery or Fame.” Yet by introducing the idea of flattery, D’Urfey made himself vulnerable: some listeners would surely have remembered the poet’s successful attempts to flatter Charles II, his unsuccessful attempts to ingratiate himself with James II, and his rapid turnabout after the Revolution, when he began to produce birthday odes for William and Mary. Even more dubious is the text for “Excesses of Pleasure,” which connects St. Cecilia, famous for her virginal purity, with a libertine world in which “No lover of Phylis’s rigour complains.” Fortunately for D’Urfey, the composer for 1691 was John Blow, who almost manages to obscure this embarrassing poetry by cunning strategies of repetition, and by giving us such interesting music that we are unlikely to pay close attention to the words.

 

Our next selection takes us back to the 1730s. In addition to re-setting Dryden’s St. Cecilia poem from 1687, Handel also made a new version of Alexander’s Feast, Dryden’s contribution to the St. Cecilia celebration for 1697. Between the movements of that piece, he introduced a short Italian cantata featuring the Florentine tenor, Carlo Arrigoni, who was playing lute in the continuo team. In the opening words of the text, lifted from an earlier Italian cantata (“Splenda l’alba in oriente,” c. 1712), the tenor asks St. Cecilia to look toward England, where she will find her virtues celebrated in music. The fanciful notion that a Mediterranean deity or saint might abandon her home for Britain may remind us of “Fairest Isle,” a ravishing aria in Dryden and Purcell’s King Arthur (1691) in which the poet predicts that Venus will “chuse her Dwelling” in Britain, “and forsake her Cyprian groves.” In the duet for soprano and tenor that we hear tonight, the embraces are called “innocent,” but Handel’s setting once again shades the myth of the virginal martyr Cecilia toward the idea of pleasure, which proves difficult to detach from music.

 

The second half of tonight’s program is a complete performance of Hail bright Cecilia!—Purcell’s St. Cecilia ode for 1692. The poet on this occasion was Nicholas Brady, an Anglican clergyman who dabbled in literature. Like most of the St. Cecilia poets, Brady did not hesitate to lift material from Dryden. His narrative of music inspiring “the jarring Seeds of Matter,” for example, echoes the earlier poet’s evocation of primal chaos, “When Nature underneath a heap / Of jarring Atomes lay.” His discussion of various instruments and the passions they inspire also derives from Dryden, though Brady seems determined to deny the erotic and warlike powers granted to music by Dryden and many earlier poets. His Cecilia sponsors “chaste Airs,” discouraging “loose Desire”; her “commanding Sounds” can “compose and charm” our impulses toward war: 

In vain the Am’rous Flute and soft Guitarr,

Jointly labour to inspire

Wanton Heat and loose Desire;

Whilst thy chaste Airs do gentle move

Seraphic Flames and Heav’nly Love.

 

The Fife and all the Harmony of War,

In vain attempt the Passions to alarm,

Which thy commanding Sounds compose and charm.

 

Purcell’s setting, written just three years before his untimely death, leaves little doubt about his belief in the powers of music. The florid recitative in which he sets the lines about “Nature’s Voice” foregrounds the “moving” and “striking” effects by which music can both express and move the passions, and while Brady may have wished that “the Am’rous Flute and soft Guitarr” would labor “in vain,” Purcell’s setting of those lines, with its melting chromatic harmonies, points more clearly toward “Wanton Heat and loose Desire” than toward “Seraphic Flames.” His setting of the lines on the “Harmony of War,” with its prominent trumpets, became so famous that it was frequently revived during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714); Brady’s hope that Cecilia’s music might point toward peace was evidently forgotten, as listeners remembered the stirring music rather than the pacifist text.  In one way or another, all of the St. Cecilia poets celebrate the power of music. In this case, however, the transcendent irony is that the power of Purcell’s music overwhelms the claims of Brady’s text.