The Power of Music —
Alexander's Feast

Nicholas Kraemer, conductor


Harp Concerto in B-flat Major

Alexander's Feast

Handel's enduring tribute to music's magical ability to arouse intense emotions, Alexander's Feast is a dramatic, vividly colorful work that moves listeners from heartfelt pity to fiery revenge, and from tender love to transcendent joy. The harp concerto heard at its London premiere rounds out an evening celebrating the "Pow'r of Musick."

Preconcert lectures will take place on Sunday at 6:30 pm (Athens Room, DoubleTree Hotel) and Monday at 6 pm (Chicago Cultural Center) and will be given by Dan Maki.

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When George Frideric Handel arrived in London in 1710, his chief preoccupation was Italian opera. His productions were well-attended for many years, but the tide of popular opinion eventually began to ebb. In 1728, John Gay composed The Beggar’s Opera, a work whose infectious tunes and refreshing use of the vernacular made English audiences hungry for more. By 1732, a new opera company boasting the famous castrato Farinelli and offering productions in English was giving Handel’s group stiff competition. At the same time, internal conflicts had seriously weakened Handel’s own opera company,and his expenses were steadily outweighing his profits. As his eighteenth-century biographer Mainwaring wrote, “This upshot put an end for the present to all musical entertainments at Covent Garden, and almost put an end to the author of them.” Ever the consummate businessman, Handel found a way to re-invent himself. As is well known, his seamless transition to English music guaranteed his fame in London—and after 1741, he abandoned opera entirely. While convention governs structure and substance in Italian opera libretti, English texts were relatively free of these constraints, and allowed Handel to be more liberal in his choice of material. In 1736, the playwright and poet Newburgh Hamilton encouraged him to set John Dryden’s famous Alexander’s Feast. Written explicitly for musical performance, Dryden’s poem had already been set to music by Jeremiah Clarke for the celebration of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, in 1697, and again by Thomas Clayton in 1711. (Neither piece is extant today.) Hamilton was convinced from the outset that the work would be a success. As he claims in the conclusion to the libretto’s preface, “it is next to an Improbability, to offer the World any thing in those Arts more perfect, than the united Labours and utmost Efforts of a Dryden and a Handel.”

In spite of Hamilton’s confidence, Handel took a calculated risk in setting a text the public greatly admired—and it paid off. Alexander’s Feast was an immediate success. Audiences were thrilled that Handel had put the words of a beloved English author to music, and those who were disenchanted with Italian opera approved of the composer’s turn towards the vernacular. But most of all,people viewed Alexander’s Feast as truly English—so much so that they seemed to forget that its composer was a foreigner. Within two years of its premiere at Covent Garden on February 19, 1736, a statue of Handel, complete with a score of the work, had been erected at Vauxhall Gardens.

As the title suggests, Alexander’s Feast is set during the feast celebrating Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia. Though the event commemorates Alexander’s strength, the musician Timotheus uses his art to control the emotions of the mighty warrior, ultimately inciting Alexander to burn the city of Persepolis and avenge the killing of the Greeks. The story does not end with the ironic comparison between a musician’s power and a great conqueror’s weakness, however. In the concluding lines, Hamilton and Handel undermine Timotheus’s pagan art, contrasting it with the coming of St. Cecilia and a new “sacred” music.” While the humble servant may have been powerful, the best music ultimately benefits rather than destroys its listeners. As he made the turn to English music, Handel came up with an extra way to garner attention: interpolating solo concertos (often with himself as soloist) among the sung sections of the work. Handel composed both an organ and a harp concerto for Alexander’s Feast. The Harp Concerto (op. 4, no. 6) is performed tonight at the same point it appeared at the work’s premiere,bringing to life the text, “With flying fingers touch’d the lyre; the trembling notes ascend the sky, and heav’nly joys inspire.” In general, Handel’s works intended for interpolation use few of the instruments’ idiomatic features, and the Harp Concerto can easily be adapted for the organ or keyboard. As in the organ concertos, the Harp Concerto includes many unaccompanied passages for the soloist. This texture gives the soloist a certain amount of freedom to improvise as the mood of the performance dictates, while simultaneously preventing him or her from being drowned out by the full ensemble.

Alexander’s Feast is divided into two parts. Part 1 describes the many different states of mind Timotheus is able to evoke: sovereignty, pleasure, pity, and love. In the original poem, Dryden simply describes the music—Timotheus’s songs have no text. As the soprano recitative “The song began from Jove” illustrates, Handel turns this to his advantage. The vivid language evokes Timotheus’s affecting performance while placing it tantalizingly out of reach,and the slow, accompanied recitative captures perfectly the listener’s longing for ravishing music. Gratification comes immediately with the powerful chorus,“The list’ning crowd admires the lofty sound,” whose dramatic pairing of high and low registers evokes both heaven and earth. Handel seizes another opportunity for musical illustration in the soprano aria, “With ravish’d ears,” in which brilliant flourishes of ornamentation seem to “shake the spheres.” In contrast, the melancholy aria “He sung Darius” eschews vocal pyrotechnics in favor of sustained, expressive melody. A full-bodied, triumphant chorus concludes Part 1, proclaiming the power of music with the words, “Love was crown’d, but Music won the cause!”

Part 2 opens with an accompanied tenor recitative growing “louder yet” and culminating in a rousing chorus calculated to awaken Alexander “like a peal of thunder.” Strings tiptoe in, announcing the eerie bass aria dominated more by “Grecian ghosts” than statements of revenge. Interestingly, although Dryden’s poem seems to denounce the events that follow, Handel’s musical interpretation almost ignores this subtext. As the destruction of Persepolis commences, the music sounds the triumph of the conqueror in all his glory. Finally, a tenor recitative, “Thus, long ago,” marks the transition to the purity of St. Cecilia’s music. A powerful chorus announces her arrival, unfolding in counterpoint that literally illustrates the phrase “Enlarged the former narrow bounds, and added length to solemn sounds.” The work concludes with a marvelous and grandiose choral fugue—illustrating exactly why the pagan Timotheus must “yield the prize” for composition to the divine Cecilia.

© Jennifer More, 2016