Alexander the Great, son of Philip, King of Macedonia, sits with Thais, the young and lovely Athenian courtesan, enjoying a banquet in the Persian city Persepolis in celebration of his victory over the Persian King Darius III. We are introduced to the court musician Timotheus with his lyre and then told that Alexander is in fact the son of Jove, king of the gods, and Olympia. Thus, “the sovereign of the world” begot the conqueror of the world. Timotheus sings in praise of Bacchus and the scene is filled with drunken revelry.
Since drinking is a soldier’s pleasure, Alexander indulges his vanity and fights all his battles again in his mind. Seeing the madness in Alexander’s eyes, Timotheus changes his song to create a mood of pity. He sings of the fall of Darius, the Persian king, who was great and good, but was deserted by his own followers and his slain body left exposed to bare earth. The joy of victory fades: Alexander sighs and starts shedding tears.
Pity prepares the mind for love, and love is the subject of Timotheus’s next song. Alexander gazes at the fair lady Thais and sighs. Finally, oppressed with wine and love, the “vanquished hero” sinks upon Thais’s breast.
Timotheus now plays music “in a louder strain,” “like a rattling peal of thunder” to rouse the sleeping Alexander to action. “Revenge,” cries Timotheus. The ghosts of the Greek soldiers slain in the battle cry out for revenge. The music fires Alexander with a great “zeal to destroy.” Thais urges Alexander to burn Persepolis. In this she resembles Helen of Troy: a man’s passion for her leads to the destruction of a city.”
Saint Cecilia appears, bringing with her the means to produce heavenly harmonies: the organ. Dryden declares these heavenly harmonies superior to Timotheus’s lyre and flute tunes or at least their equal: they should share the glory - the crown.
Hear how Timotheus’ various lays surprise,
And bid alternate Passion fall and rise;
While, at each Change, the song of Libyan Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow,
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow;
Persians and Greeks like turns of Nature found,
And the World’s Victor stood subd’d by Sound.
Pope’s Essay on Criticism
These lines appeared on the title page of the word-book
for the first performance in 1736.
Alexander’s Feast (or The Power of Music), a setting of a poem by John Dryden written in honor of St. Cecilia, was completed by Handel on January 17, 1736 and produced at Covent Garden in London on February 19. Dryden’s poem, written in 1697, was originally set to music by Jeremiah Clark. Newburgh Hamilton, Handel’s librettist, adapted and augmented the poem with an additional aria and chorus. The ode attempts to demonstrate the effects of music upon the emotional harmony of man and also conceives of music as the harmonization of human passion with universal order.
The work became one of Handel’s most admired, and Handel repeatedly revived it whenever his audiences were declining and he needed a guaranteed success. Altogether it was performed eighteen times between 1737 and 1743, and eight times in the following decade. Evidence of its continued appeal is the fact that it was one of four choral works by Handel that the Baron van Swieten, between 1788 and 1790, commissioned Mozart to re-orchestrate to suit Viennese patrons. Used in this evening’s performance is Handel’s original scoring.
The ode itself, a mere eighty minutes in length, is rather brief in Handelian terms. Therefore, to complete a full evening’s entertainment, its original form contained three concertos: Concerto in B flat major for Harp, Lute, Lyrichord and other Instruments HWV 294; Concerto Grosso in C major, now known as the Concerto in Alexander’s Feast HWV 318, and Organ Concerto in G, HWV 289. Our performance includes the Concerto in Alexander’s Feast, HWV 318, before Part II.
The success of Alexander’s Feast, in 1736, could be considered a stylistic turning point for Handel away from opera towards oratorio. Although it is not listed today, nor was it spoken of in Handel’s own time, as an oratorio, it belongs aesthetically with the great oratorios. Handel had written works to English texts, such as the Chandos Anthems (1717-20) and Coronation Anthems for George II (1727), and he had made tentative moves in the direction of English oratorio with Esther (1732) and Deborah (1733). But the public endorsement of Alexander’s Feast, coupled with a fresh, grander, more elevated and thorough approach to dramatic composition, made it the first of a list of highlights in Handel’s oeuvre of oratorio triumphs including Saul (1739), Israel in Egypt (1739), Messiah (1742), Samson (1743) and Belshazzar (1744).
It is an intensely dramatic and pictorially vivid work. Timotheus is able to inspire and arouse in his listeners a range of intense emotions: sense of sublime divinity, bacchanalian joy, martial zeal, heartfelt pity, tender love, and even fiery revenge. And more important, this drama is portrayed through a now new fully formed and grander style of writing. In Alexander’s Feast we discover that less emphasis is placed on sheer virtuosity of the singer, and there are fewer da capo arias. Unlike opera, the chorus now plays a significant role, and its music has a rich contrapuntal texture. Replacing the chain of arias, great blocks of musical form take shape, seamlessly integrating recitative, aria and chorus. Balancing the arias there are profound accompanied recitatives that achieve the melodic beauty and strength of arias, and at the same time their rhythmic freedom enables intimate reflective moods. The orchestration, perhaps inspired by the theme of the “power of music,” is unusually rich and colorful. Basically it employs the standard Handel orchestra, but in various sections Handel adds recorders, bassoons, trumpets, and horns.
Alexander’s Feast fuses the expansiveness and heroic-tragic drama of oratorio with the musical economy of an ode. S.W. Bennett elaborates:
It is an almost symphonic conception which can be said to consist of five movements, each combining recitative, aria and chorus. The first expatiates on the mood of a happy celebration. The second is tragic. The third is sensuously lyrical. The fourth is in a mood of dramatic unrest. The fifth is a resolution of conflict in a grand and transcendental joy.
The dramatic unrest to which Bennett refers begins Part II where Alexander is awoken and fired with great “zeal to destroy.” Handel may now be accused of treating the sense of Dryden’s text rather freely, in order to build up his glorious finale and, perhaps more importantly, soften the violent, war-like mood. The tranquil and lovely soprano aria and chorus, “Thais led the way” hardly evokes the “firing” of “another Troy,” but is, rather, a beautiful lilting melody that works against the text. This is not a mistake on Handel’s part, but a calculated choice for the kind of emotions he wants to arouse, or quell.
Following this, text and music join hands again with the divine St. Cecilia’s appearance. By giving mortals the instrument of heavenly harmony – the organ – she extends the benefits of music beyond those influences which Timotheus exerted. A rousing double fugue concludes Dryden’s poem with “He raised a mortal to the skies,
she drew an Angel down.” This evocative image of Timotheus raising Alexander, creating the delusion of divine status, juxtaposed with St. Cecilia bringing an angel, or music, down from heaven supersedes humanity’s (Alexander’s) flawed nature, compelling Handel and his librettist to write a final chorus of praise extolling the virtues of harmony and love.
- Ryan Turner 2010