June 2023

Celebratory Odes

Handel Let thy hand be strengthened
Purcell Welcome to all the Pleasures
Handel Birthday Ode for Queen Anne
Handel As from the power of sacred lays, from Ode to St Cecilia

The coronation of King George II and Queen Caroline took place in October 1727 ‘with great magnificence, the queen being ablaze from head to foot with jewels, most of them hired’.  The queen’s dress was so heavy that a pulley had to be devised to lift the skirt so she could kneel at various points in the ceremony.  The music included four Coronation Anthems by George Frederic Handel (1685-1759).  Notes taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the service suggest that the music did not go entirely smoothly: the choir forgot to perform one anthem altogether, another he described as ‘in confusion: all irregular in the music’, there was confusion between rival Orders of Service, poor sightlines between the performers, and it is likely that the singing of the Chapel Royal was not of a high standard.

The text for Let thy hand be strengthened, Handel’s third anthem, (the performance of which seemed to go smoothly!) is from Psalm 89 and radiates energy and architectural splendour.  The opening movement has an air of expansive confidence whilst the middle movement – ‘Let justice and judgement be the preparation of thy seat’ – is more inward in character.  The short piece ends with a dignified ‘Alleluia.’

St Cecilia, the patroness of music, is celebrated in verse by, amongst others, John Dryden OW and Christopher Fishburn.  The occasion of her feast-day, 22 November, provided some fine works by a number of composers including Handel and Henry Purcell (1659–1695). As an historical figure almost nothing is known about her for certain and her existence seems doubtful.  She is said to have been a patrician woman who had vowed her virginity to God; this did not prevent her marriage to a nobleman Valerian, who she persuaded into to a chaste marriage; she also converted him and his brother to Christianity.  Not long afterwards she and the brothers were martyred.  She was venerated as a martyr from the late 5th century but her connection with music did not emerge for another thousand years and is thought to have originated from the antiphon taken from her Acts: ‘as the organs were playing, Cecilia sung (in her heart) to the Lord, saying: may my heart remain unsullied, so that I be not confounded’.

For much of the 17th century it was the custom in London for ‘Gentlemen Lovers of Music’ to celebrate St Cecilia’s day at Stationer’s Hall, a ‘performance of Music by the best voices and hands in Town.’  The festivities normally included an ode addressed to Cecilia, taking as its theme the power of music to move the emotions.  Fishburn’s poem Welcome to all the Pleasures inspired in the 24-year-old Purcell a work of great freshness, notable for the string ritornelli with which he concludes many of the vocal sections, and for the alto solo over a ground bass, ‘Here the Deities approve’. There is ample opportunity for gentle word-setting, such as the tenor ‘Beauty, thou scene of love’, with a delicious, and maybe slightly malicious, discord at the mention of the lute. Unusually, the work ends quietly, with the texture of the last line of music ‘Iô Cecilia’ fading away to leave just the bass instruments and singers to conclude the Ode.

The custom of twice-yearly compliments to the British monarch, in the form of Odes for New Year’s Day and for the monarch’s birthday, became established in the late 17th century and continued until the death of George III in 1820.  The texts were usually written by the Poet Laureate and set to music by the Master of the King’s (or Queen’s) music.  Handel never held a formal court appointment, and it is thought that he might have taken advantage of a laxity of the arrangements in the early years of the 18th century, when the queen’s poor health restricted her formal appearance at court.  The Ode commemorates not only the queen’s 48th birthday (6 February 1713) but also the Peace of Utrecht (which ended the War of Spanish Succession) which occurred at about the same time. The piece opens with an elegiac alto solo and echoing solo trumpet welcoming the dawning of a new day.  All verses conclude with the refrain ‘The day that gave great Anna birth/Who fix’d a lasting peace on Earth’.  Jubilant choral writing is interspersed with florid vocal solos; in the final section, ‘United nations shall combine/To distant climes the sound convey/that Anna’s actions are divine’, Handel divides the voices into two choirs, one a responding echo-chorus, before concluding with a return of the first setting of the refrain.

Dryden’s A Song for St Cecilia’s Day is the first to suggest that its protagonist invented, rather than just played, the organ. Handel’s magnificent setting ends with the powerful As from the power of sacred lays, for soprano solo and orchestra, in which the sound of the trumpet breaks up the music of the spheres on the Day of Judgment.  A grand fugato theme is developed, the final bars, sung above a pedal D and G, suggesting a plagal cadence, perhaps ensuring that an audience would recognise the religious tone embodied in the work.