November 22, 2005

From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony

Not being a part of a liturgical tradition, I don't typically pay much attention to the traditional calendar of saints' days. There are exceptions: as a musician and an English graduate I have a fondness for St. Cecilia's Day, which is commemorated on November 22.

Cecilia is regarded as the patron saint of music, and said to be the inventor of the organ. She was a noble woman of Rome, thought to have been martyred in Sicily in the late second century under Marcus Aurelius, along with her husband and other friends who were converts to Christianity.

Cecilia has inspired many works of art, poetry, and (of course) music. My own way of observing St. Cecilia's Day, then, is to sit down and listen to Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day. Handel composed this secular cantata in 1739, setting to music the words of John Dryden's 1687 poem "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day."

The cantata begins with a suitably dramatic overture, then continues with a recitative for tenor, as creation is sung into existence:

From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony
    This universal frame began.
  When Nature underneath a heap
    Of jarring atoms lay,
  And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
    Arise ye more than dead.
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
  In order to their stations leap,
    And music's pow'r obey.

Then the chorus breaks in:

From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony
    This universal frame began:
    From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
  The diapason closing full in man.

Then comes a soprano aria, nice and slow with a long introduction featuring primarily low strings and harp, about Jubal's invention of the first musical instrument:

What passion cannot music raise and quell!
    When Jubal struck the corded shell,
  His list'ning brethren stood around
    And wond'ring, on their faces fell
  To worship that celestial sound:
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
    Within the hollow of that shell
    That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot music raise and quell!

Now the tenor has a rousing, dramatic aria, accompanied by the chorus. The way the "double double double beat" rolls off the tympanis is sublime:

  The trumpet's loud clangor
    Excites us to arms
  With shrill notes of anger
      And mortal alarms.
  The double double double beat
    Of the thund'ring drum
  Cries, hark the foes come;
Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat.

Next comes an instrumental interlude, a march, which is suitably martial (but not as martial as the double double double beat, by a long shot). The soprano returns for an aria singing the praises of flute and lute, accompanied, not surprisingly, by flute and lute:

  The soft complaining flute
  In dying notes discovers
  The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute.

Then the tenor does battle with the violins in a dramatic aria:

  Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs, and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains and height of passion,
  For the fair, disdainful dame.

But when the subject turns to St. Cecilia's instrument, the organ, Dryden's ode, voiced by the soprano, reaches its lyrical pinnacle:

But oh! what art can teach
What human voice can reach
  The sacred organ's praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their Heav'nly ways
  To mend the choirs above.

She continues to sing the next stanza, in praise of Cecelia herself:

Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place;
    Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder high'r;
  When to her organ, vocal breath was giv'n,
An angel heard, and straight appear'd
    Mistaking earth for Heav'n.

Finally, in the Grand Chorus, the world ends as it began, with music, as the trumpet sounds and the dead rise, and the soprano and chorus belt out:

As from the pow'r of sacred lays
  The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator's praise
  To all the bless'd above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
 This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
  The dead shall live, the living die,
  And music shall untune the sky.

and with a last flourish of trumpet & tympani, it's done.

My recording is of the English Concert and English Concert Choir, on period instruments. The soloists are Felicity Lott and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Trevor Pinnock conducts and play harpsichord and organ. This recording was made in 1985, and it sounds to me like the engineers were fairly new to full-digital recordings, as there is a lot of what sounds like stage noise - pages turning, odd clicks, and so forth. In a few pieces they become a bit of a distraction, but otherwise this is a clear, excellent disc.