Dryden's Poem

Form of the Poem

A Hidden Structure

Dryden & the Classical Modes

St. Cecilia and Her Day

The London Ode Tradition

Musical Analysis

Reception and Performance

Literary vs. Musical Sublime

The Perils of Hermeneutics

Rhetoric of Music Composition

Across the Sublime Divide: Dryden and Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day

DRYDEN'S 1687 poem, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” and Handel’s 1739 musical setting of it, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, signify the meeting of poetry and music in the realm of the Sublime. Dryden’s poem takes music and its role in the universe as its theme, and hence invites examination against the eighteenth century’s radically evolving aesthetics of the Sublime. Handel’s musical work, setting to music a text about music itself, invites study to determine whether musical practice in Handel’s time enacted the aesthetics of contemporaneous poets and critics, insofar as they claimed to understand the Beautiful and the Sublime in music.

This paper will attempt to illustrate the enormous gap between the two arts by showing that eighteenth-century British critical understanding of music was based on abstract ideas largely unrelated to musical practice, an understanding that failed to acknowledge music as an art capable of sublime effect on its own. I will use Handel’s work to demonstrate that composers achieve sublime effects — with or without text — by employing harmonic, dynamic and rhythmic techniques that constitute a kind of rhetoric. This techne, closer to the Sublime of Longinus than to that of Burke or Kant, allows music its acknowledged power even when accompanied with less-than-inspired text. I will review some of the criticism around Dryden’s poem that relates to its original 1687 musical setting, and then examine Handel’s work itself on a musicological basis.

The full text of Dryden’s poem follows:

A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day


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.
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.


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!

      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.

      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, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains and height of passion,
      For the fair, disdainful dame.

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.

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.

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.

Dryden’s poem, although titled a “song,” is an ode. Eighteenth-century poets structured odes based on several different models. Poets could emulate the Greek Pindaric ode; or less formal Homeric hymn models, or the even less stringent Horatian ode from the Latin. Many English odes, starting with Milton’s 1629 “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” are marked typically by a tripartite structure corresponding to Pindar’s strophe, antistrophe and epode, and also by an inventive mix of line lengths.

Form of the Poem

Dryden’s “Song” is, loosely, a Pindaric ode. It has three recognizably different sections. For his strophe, Dryden presents an opening 15-line stanza with a highly unusual rhyme scheme: abcdefefcdababb. In Stanzas 2 through 7, six- and eight-syllable lines predominate. These stanzas, elaborations on specific instruments and their emotional associations, work together as an unorthodox antistrophe. The “Grand Chorus,” all in eight-syllable lines, comprises the epode. Occasional ten-syllable lines appear, and the beat, avoiding dactyls or anapests, is  almost uniformly iambic. It is a striking production, with easy scansion, well suited for musical elaboration and choral delivery. The naming of the instruments, and even the sounds employed, give each of the central stanzas a unique atmosphere (for example, contrast the war-like dentals and plosives in Stanza 3 with the soft sibilants and repeated aspirants in Stanza 4).

The poem contains ideas rich enough to satisfy almost any theory of the Sublime. Pure sound penetrates primordial chaos, Logos as music. Man’s arrival is the culmination of an octave (diapason), the eighth note of the scale corresponding to the eighth day of Creation. Myth comes to life in the form of Jubal’s lyre from the Old Testament, and with Orpheus, whose playing makes trees uproot themselves. In three short stanzas, Dryden summons, by their associated instruments, the terrors of war, the anguish of love, and the ecstasy of religious experience. Finally, Creation itself is undone as the trumpet of the Last Judgment kills the living, revives the dead, and not only destroys the earth but “untunes the sky.” This poem goes beyond valorizing music: it places music at the heart of universal creation and destruction.

A Hidden Structure?

This seems a self-explicating poem, its particular form an expression of Dryden’s creative impulse. Critics, however, have delved under the surface of the text in search of hidden structural principles. Roger Bray provides an exhaustive summary of previous scholarship, and his own researches, into Dryden’s alleged use of Platonic-Pythagorean ideas of number, harmony and music in the “Song.” Critics in this line of research contend that the entire structure of Dryden’s poem is based on the metaphor of Harmony with Number, rather more a tautology than a metaphor, since musical notes and harmony are in fact expressions of exact mathematical relations in the size of the vibrating strings or columns of air. Bray contends that Dryden’s line lengths and number of lines in each stanza are in accord with Pythagorean principles.

One problem with a numerological approach is that significant numbers can seem to pop up everywhere. Bray, in his analysis, gives every occurrence of the number 10 special meaning, including the fact that Dryden mentions the names of instruments ten times. Ten, as the sum of Pythagoras’s tetractys (1+2+3+4=10) ties in with Plato’s description of Creation in Timaeus, in which primordial matter is stretched out in lengths corresponding to musical harmonics (Bray 333). But by the time this theory unravels over Dryden’s poem, the reader is asked to allow mystic significance to a large array of seemingly ordinary numbers, including 4 for the four elements, 8 for octaves and doublings, 7 and 9 for “the corporeal nature of the world and the spirituality of heaven” (320). For this theory to apply to a work as a whole, however, it is the sequence of their use that matters. Bray assures us that, “Whenever one meets ratios of the series etc., it is safe to presume that this was not casual, but the result of reflections which directly or indirectly depend on the Pythagorean-Platonic division of the musical scale” (333). Bray concludes that the poem conceals hidden mathematical dicta, and that Draghi attempted to conform to the text’s hidden numerology, forcing his music to occupy a corresponding ratio of durations (beats and measures).

In a lengthy analysis of Dryden’s text, and of the musical score used for the only performance of the “Song” in Dryden’s time — that of Giovanni Battista Draghi — Bray makes a strong case for an underlying number-based structure in both the poem and musical score, a kind of imposed symmetry used by Renaissance composers like Dufay and even found as late as Bach, a principle also well-known among earlier poets, including Spenser. Bray insists, furthermore, that when he tries to apply the same numerological principles to St. Cecilia settings by other poets and composers, he fails to find similar correlations in either text or music.

Ernest Brennecke, Jr., one of the earlier critics cited by Bray, published an exhaustive reconstruction and imaginary listening to Draghi’s 1687 musical setting. Brennecke finds that “Draghi’s setting contains some passages in which real violence is done to the poem” (29) and notes places where “the composer is sadly embarrassed, at the end, by a sheer scarcity of words” (30). He attributes this to Draghi’s inability to set Dryden’s words properly, but if Draghi felt compelled to make each section of his ode occupy an arbitrary number of bars, this might be exactly what might occur. Brennecke points out that Draghi’s awkward word repetitions in the last chorus result in the listener hearing “[A]nd Musick shall untune the sky, untune, untune, and Musick shall, and Musick shall, and Musick shall untune, and Musick shall untune the sky” (29). Handel, in 1739, unimpeded by numerological constraints, managed to make a vast fugue out of just the last two lines of the stanza, with no sense of violation of the poem. Elsewhere, Brennecke notes Draghi’s tendency to break up the text with seemingly inexplicable stretches of instrumental music, which might indeed be evidence for the theory that Draghi was attempting to fill out a pre-ordained plan of duration.

Dryden’s numerological interest was known to few, and seems to have been forgotten. By the time Samuel Johnson writes about Dryden’s poem, he deals only with its poetics, and expresses religious reservations about Dryden’s temerity in alarming readers with thoughts of the Last Judgment (Clingham 168), a Catholic obsession unpopular with Protestants. Oblivious to any other rationale for its structure, Johnson also chides Dryden for spacing his rhymes too many lines apart in the first stanza (166).

The note- or measure-count of a musical work, and the proportion of its parts, are only visible to the critic reading the printed score. Numerological statistics mean nothing to the listener, who is not, after all, counting beats and bars. Nor is the reader of the poem ticking off how many times the names of instruments are given. Finding structural harmony, or a mathematical ratio of parts in a whole, may constitute a cerebral thrill for the initiated, but this has nothing to do with everyday reading or listening.

Douglas Murray offers a somewhat different take on Dryden’s musical aesthetics or intentions, observing that the eight parts of Dryden’s poem correspond to the eight notes of the scale (the eighth note being the octave). Murray also proposes that each of the second through seventh stanzas is intended to evoke the white-key scales known as modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Aeolian, Mixolydian, and Locrian). He presents textual examples, from Plato and Aristotle through Milton , that set a clear literary tradition for associating each mode with a given emotion. As Murray argues, “The salient fact about the modes — for the poets, at least — was their much-discussed effects. The idea of the modes, therefore, could blend well with baroque art, one of whose governing ideals was Affektenlehre — the idea that art should both portray and excite the human emotions” ( Murray 328).

Dryden and the Classical Modes

Murray ’s cautionary phrase “for the poets, at least”, is a telling one. Dryden does not mention the modes by name, but his stanzas indeed correctly follow their sequence and their classical associations. Is Dryden, therefore, instructing his composer on how to go about his work?

The reference to musical modes, unfortunately, is strictly a literary custom, and was of no use to composers in the eighteenth century. Modal music had long been superseded by the modern system of major and minor tonalities, modulations and harmonic tensions. If a composer attempted modal composition, it would deprive the work of the potential for tension and harmonic progression. Modal music would not make a return until the twentieth century, when it colored the compositions of Impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel, as those composers sought to break away from the very conventions that the eighteenth century sought to perfect.. So, much as neoclassical poets continued to linger over modes, composers simply ignored these cues.

History of St. Cecilia and Her Day

The foregoing treatments of Dryden’s poem and concerned with form, and with possible adherence to rules of construction rooted in antiquity. Examining Dryden’s “Song” and Handel’s Ode in their respective historical and cultural contexts enriches our understanding of the text/music and may shine light on other ways in which these works achieve sublime effects.

Dryden’s “Song” is not a spontaneous production. It, and Draghi’s musical setting, were commissioned by a society of London musicians for a one-time performance in honor of St. Cecilia, patroness of music, iconographically linked with the pipe organ. What this Saint Day celebration meant in rabidly anti-Catholic London in 1687, merits investigation.

For about the first 1400 years of the Christian era, St. Cecilia was a typical virgin martyr, tortured and beheaded for her faith, and to punish her charity to fellow Christians. Well into the nineteenth century, four different shrines still displayed what was claimed to be the martyr’s head, and various Cecilian relics still abound in European churches. Saint Cecilia, perhaps based on a Roman matriarchal figure, Caia Cecilia, had no association with music or any profession.

Renaissance artists, taking cues from minor details in martyrologies and breviaries to fill out their paintings, began portraying St. Cecilia sometime before 1450 in altarpieces. Richard Luckett cites a 1541 Raphael work in Bologna as a key point of reference in Cecilian iconography: in this painting, St. Cecilia listens in rapture to a Heavenly choir, while musical instruments, cast aside and broken, lie at her feet (18). Popular engravings based on this painting reversed the roles and depicted Cecilia holding or playing the instruments, with the angels in rapt attention. The saint’s association with worldly music-making seems to have begun around this time. Cecilia is also readily conflated with Musica, one of the emblems of the seven liberal arts, depicted in engravings which may have influenced the Raphael painting (25). It is all an intriguing self-referential and self-reinforcing association merging pagan mythology, martyrology and personification.

The association of St. Cecilia with the pipe organ has a clear etymology. The martyrologies referred to Cecilia listening to the sounds of “organis,” which in fourth- and fifth-century Latin signified “instruments” (Luckett 21). By the time of Chaucer, “organis” was translated as a reference to the portative or pipe organ.

Luckett cites the growth of the craft guilds, with each seeking a patron saint, as another trend that cemented the St. Cecilia-music connection (24).

The London Ode Tradition

London ’s celebrations for St. Cecilia started in 1683, marked by a choral ode, followed by a feast serenaded by instrumentalists. These events involved the combined choirs of the Chapel Royal, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul ’s, joined by solo singers recruited from theaters (Shapiro 219). The ode, performed in church, was accompanied by an Anglican sermon, not devoted to St. Cecilia, but to the defense of church music against its Dissenter foes ( Hopkins 486). Six St. Cecilia Day sermons survive from the 1683-1703 series, but none refer to the Saint by name except on the printed title-pages (Luckett 28). Other St. Cecilia commemorations sprung up in other cities.

Handel inherited the traditional style of these odes from Draghi, Purcell, Blow, Clarke and other earlier composers, although it is doubtful that he had access to any examples other than those of Purcell and Blow, for which he may have seen parts. One similar ceremonial work of Purcell’s, the Te Deum, was still being performed in Handel’s time ( Lincoln 203).

It is significant that musicians sponsored the St. Cecilia festivities, a kind of antiquarian throwback to the guild system. Musicians themselves raised the funds for paying poet and composer, and supplied the annual feast. There was an air of resistance about some of the 1683-1703 St. Cecilia festivities, after William III banished all accompaniment except the organ from the Chapel Royal in 1691 (Shapiro 221). The Odes typically called for an orchestral complement of strings, oboes, trumpets and drums in addition to the church organ. David Hopkins speculates that the St. Cecilia concerts were “a significant stage in the transition from performances supported by church or court patronage, to publicly sponsored concerts of the type which later became the norm” (487). As such, they were also precursors of Handel’s oratorio productions, which were quasi-sacred works performed in secular public venues.

The singing of St. Cecilia Odes has both an artistic and political significance. The St. Cecilia observances of 1683-1703 were a Restoration phenomenon, and its synchretistic use of St. Cecilia as a Roman Catholic saint and pagan Muse, promoted both the re-established monarchy, and the High Church with its fondness for music and pageant. Like the St. Bartholomew’s Fair, it was a public event that mocked the repressiveness of Puritans, a nearly-pagan thanks-offering to a muse figure.

Some critics thought that the St. Cecilia Ode tradition had died out completely before Handel revived it himself. Recent scholarship, however, has established that provincial music clubs continued to hold St. Cecilia concerts in private halls (Borsay 24), and that Oxford continued the tradition into the 1740s (Burrows, “Copyists” 115 ).

By the time of Handel’s 1739 Ode, under the Hanover regime, there was no longer any royal ban on instruments in the church, although any music outside the confines of church walls still disturbed some of the faithful. Methodists and other religious radicals tore down placards advertising Handel’s performances, came to the concerts to heckle, or even hired “rowdies” to annoy wealthy patrons en route to the concerts (Weinstock 265 and Hogwood 198). The composer remained throughout his life one of the most controversial figures on the English scene.

Musical Analysis

I could locate no detailed musicological analysis of Handel’s Ode, so I have prepared my own. The following is a rough analysis of the work in terms of its structure, tonality, orchestration, and musical effects.

The work begins with an instrumental Overture in D Major, with two oboes, strings and keyboard continuo (harpsichord). This 42-bar Larghetto e staccato is in dotted French rhythm, a style considered somewhat antique already by 1739. The bass line has downward octave leaps, a possible hint at the “diapason.” It ends on a dominant A major chord instead of the expected D Major, establishing an anticipatory feeling. This chord leads directly into a 59-bar fugue, marked Allegro, also in D Major. The fugue seems to suggest the four elements in Dryden’s poem, pitting two oboes against the strings in echo effects, and a feeling of four voices emerges in oboes versus strings versus bass versus continuo. The tension is unexpectedly relieved at the end of the fugue, when the tempo changes to 3/4 and a 56-bar minuet ensues.

The tenor solo enters with “From Harmony,” a mere four bars, over sustained, quiet notes from the organ continuo. This leads into a 41-bar “Chaos” Larghetto, with the tenor singing a difficult chromatic line over soft legato passages and repeated notes in the strings. The effect is unsettled, unstable, mysterious, tone painting of primordial creation. The organ doubles the continuo bass line, using only the bass clef, thus employing St. Cecilia’s favored instrument as an ominous “ground” for the music.

For the first full chorus, 101 bars long, Handel introduces a long and elaborate melody, over which the chorus intones the “From Harmony” stanza. In a deft touch, Handel gives the lines about man as “diapason” to male voices, sung softly. The opening theme scampers and repeats at the end of the chorus, the strings having the final word.

As the antistrophe portion of the work begins, Handel makes a change of tonality to G Major. The slow Adagio depicting Jubal’s lyre accompanies the soprano with a ravishing continuo: a meandering solo cello and a quiet organ beneath. The choice of G Major permits the use of the cello’s lowest note as the tonic. The strings, in unison, echo the cello on occasion. The underpinning of the high soprano line with the arpeggiated cello accompaniment conveys a sense of rapture.

Trumpets and timpani return the work to D Major for the martial air, “The trumpet’s loud clangor.” Handel indicates no tempo, but the trumpet tune sets its own pace. The chorus joins in, repeating the tenor’s aria and making the cries of “Hark!” and “Charge!” into shouts. The lines, “The double, double, double beat / Of the thundering drum” provoke a stirring crescendo from the timpani. This rousing music is followed by a more leisurely March in D Major for trumpet, strings and continuo. This music is reminiscent of Handel’s Water Music. Pragmatically, it serves to show off a good trumpet player, while giving the singers a breather.

For the next section, depicting “The soft, complaining Flute,” Handel changes tonality to B Minor, the gloomy minor key that shares the same scale with D Major. The strings play with mutes on (con sordino), and the soprano sings, accompanied by transverse flute, lute, and organ. The muted strings, the lute, and the flute together create a haunting, pastoral atmosphere, and the minor key washes everything in shadow. Even without the words, the mood would be conveyed.

Another key change to A Major, the dominant of the home key on D, introduces the “Sharp violins proclaim” air for tenor. This movement is rife with trills and dotted rhythms, and the tenor imitates the strings with his own arpeggios, octave leaps, and trills. It is a delightful musical interplay and its humor matches the irony of the lovelorn poet's pursuit of “the fair disdainful Dame”.

The tempo slows to a Larghetto for 84 bars and the full organ enters for the first time as a full partner of the orchestra, along with strings and bassoons, as the soprano extols “The sacred Organ’s praise.” Up till this point, the organ has been only continuo or underpinning; now it takes its proper place. The key is F Major, home of some of Handel’s happiest organ concertos. Listeners expecting a grand organ with pedals will be surprised: Handel writes only for an organ with a single manual and no pedals. There were as yet no German- or French-style pipe organs in England (Lang 655).

The stanza devoted to Orpheus is set as a 55-bar Hornpipe in 3/4 time. This syncopated folk meter suggests, in a humorous way, the uprooted trees following Orpheus as he plays. The soprano leads for the rest of the work, the tenor presumably exhausted by war and love. This section is set in D Minor, a rather philosophical key. The tonality undermines the levity of the dance meter and helps suggests the gravitas of Greek myth. Handel has a musico-dramatic reason for this dark tonality as well: the opportunity to have his final chorus burst more dramatically into the related tonic (home) key of D Major. This is one of the rhetorical devices of classical music that might be termed Longinian, in which “a well-timed sublimity shatters everything like a bolt of lightning” (Longinus 163).

Here Dryden inadvertently gives Handel a suitable verse for a “bridge” passage between minor and major tonalities. The lines in which a passing angel mistake Cecilia’s organ for a sound from Heaven gives Handel cause to slow the music to a Largo . The continuo here is a series of long, sustained notes. These bars, without key signature, perform the necessary harmonic work to bridge back to D Major. It is a stroke of genius to accomplish this precisely where, in the text, we encounter the iconographic key to Cecilia’s affiliation with music.

The epode, marked Grave, in glorious D Major, begins with only the solo soprano, singing “As from the pow’r of sacred lays.” After a half measure of total silence, the whole chorus and full orchestra burst in, echoing her line. Three more times, Handel floats the soprano line above a universal silence, and thrice, the universe calls back. The soprano then invokes, “The trumpet shall be heard on high,” and two trumpets respond. This 67-bar episode is pure theater, exploiting dynamic contrasts as well as acoustics. This penultimate section of the work electrifies audiences.

What can follow this? Handel began the piece with creation from a primordial bass line, chaos, darkness, disorder, the raw clay in God’s hands. Handel takes Dryden’s final couplet as promise rather than threat, as deliverance rather than judgment, as a good Protestant ought. The composer’s tour de force is a 156-bar four-part choral fugue on “The dead shall live, the living die/ And music shall untune the sky.” This chorus, as grand as any in Handel’s Messiah, culminates the work in glory on a resounding D Major chord.

The work has endured as a staple of the English choral repertory, although Handel himself had problems making it fit into future concerts. At around 45 minutes in duration, the Ode is not long enough to fill a concert, or to justify, for a sponsor, the expense for the forces required to perform it alone. Handel found ways to keep the Ode in his repertory, indicating his fondness for the work. In April 1741, he dropped the final “Moderato” part of his oratorio, l'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato, and appended the Ode (Burrows, Music and Theatre 113). This combination was repeated in concerts on March 17, 1743 (302), October 5, 1750 (272), and February 19, 1755 (302).

Reception and Performance

After Handel’s death in 1759, conductors sometimes attached the Ode to the composer’s pastoral masque Acis and Galatea (Burrows, Music and Theatre, 537, 684, 811). Mozart enlarged the Ode’s orchestration in 1790 for performances in Vienna, indicative of continued admiration for the work among musicians (F.G.E. 589).

PRESENTED with these two masterpieces, how can we connect the literary with the musical Sublime? The classic writings on the Sublime from Longinus through Kant praise the power of music, but provide little detail and no actual examples. Kant is willing to grant music second place to poetry, “more a matter of enjoyment than culture” (194) an art that, “since it plays merely with sensations, has the lowest place among the fine arts” (195). Burke dislikes loud music, deep bass notes or sudden changes in tempo or rhythm. He wants his music “clear, even, smooth and weak” (122). He places music only among the Beautiful and confesses, [N]either is it an art in which I can say I have great skill” (123).

Literary versus Musical Sublime

Writers throughout most of the eighteenth century lacked a technical vocabulary to describe music, other than vague notions of its ability to imitate nature or convey affect. England had no music schools. No history of music appeared in English until 1776, and the first English-language biography of a composer was that of Handel in 1760 (McGeary 413). Many in England regarded opera and concert music with suspicion and even hostility – suspect as an art form dominated by foreigners and foreign terminology. Italian opera especially, with its foreign composers, castrato superstars, costumes, set paintings, ballet troupes and hypersensitive impresarios, composers and musicians, seemed to its detractors a hotbed of effeminacy and a threat to morals. Those who already dreaded the theater, for many of the same reasons, detested opera. Those critics whose writing left posterity with an impression of a manifestly anti-musical nature included Addison, Dryden, Johnson, Pope, Steele and Dennis. The latter two have been characterized as “intemperate and almost fanatical” (McGeary 399). Even Addison, somewhat a moderate, is so enraged by Italian opera that he writes, “Music is certainly a very agreeable entertainment: but if it would take the entire possession of our ears; if it would make us incapable of hearing sense . . . I must confess I would allow it no better quarter than Plato has done, who banishes it out of his commonwealth” (53).

Handel’s Ode was composed in 1739, just months after the composer had recovered from a stroke which had briefly deprived him of the use of one hand. Reeling financially from the failure of his opera efforts, he began turning his attention to oratorios. The Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day treads a thin line between secular and sacred, a breakthrough work for Handel as he moves away from opera into his long immersion in oratorios. Oratorios, odes and anthems played to a rather different sensibility than operas had, an audience craving the Religious Sublime. While opera offered lurid romances and sensual pleasure, for pleasure’s sake only, oratorios sought to elevate. Handel simply transferred all the techniques at his disposal to render texts about Biblical episodes terrifying, thrilling, or ecstatic.

Dryden’s 1687 “Song,” with its references to Creation and the Last Judgment, frames its otherwise rather secular subject between two dizzying sublime extremes: the unthinkable nothingness of Chaos, penetrated by the first Harmony, and the shattering sounds that herald the Resurrection. In the traditional Requiem Mass, the Resurrection is announced by a horn: Tuba mirum, the sheer power of Music that will “untune the skies.” The religious Sublime of strophe and epode frame a more secular and neoclassical antistrophe.

We also need to give Handel due credit for choosing the Dryden poem as he experimented with a genre change. Past Cecilian composers did not get to select their own texts. Handel’s choice of Dryden’s 62-year-old work as libretto may have been an intentional evocation of the “antique.” The 1730s and 1740s in Britain were characterized by a renewed interest in older plays, older poems, and even earlier music. In the opinion of critic Peter Holman, this also corresponds with the renewed interest in Shakespeare, with Chatterton’s and ‘Ossian’’s faux-medieval poems, along with “a developing interest in antiquarian scholarship . . . [and] a wider aesthetic movement in Britain that was really an early manifestation of Romanticism”(10).

Was Handel aware of Dryden’s numerological fancies, and did they influence him in any way? Roger Bray, who would have been delighted to find Pythagorean numbers sprouting from Handel, laments: “[I]t does not at present seem that Handel used the technique ... as far as I can see he shows no sign of having any knowledge either of Draghi’s setting or of Dryden’s literary subtleties” (320).

The St. Cecilia ode does have a slightly different sound from other Handel choral works, but not because of any numerological element in its construction. Having set himself the task of writing a choral work whose text is about music, the composer constructs the music around Dryden’s poem by cutting-and-pasting melodies and melodic cells from the work of a contemporary, tinkering, revising, reworking, expanding. Handel’s unacknowledged source is a 1736 collection of harpsichord pieces, Componimenti Musicali, by Gottlieb Muffat, a Viennese court composer. Much musicological treatment of Handel’s Ode, unfortunately, has consisted of scandalized exposés of Handel’s borrowing from Muffat. The more temperate of these essays acknowledges that Handel uses borrowed materially principally “as germs for large and striking development” (Bennett 150). Muffat, in his turn, had circulated his own keyboard arrangements of Handel and dedicated his Componimenti to Handel (Baselt 906). In the context of music about music, Handel’s cut-and-paste play with Muffat’s notes has the air of tribute to a peer, not plagiarism.

There is no indication that Handel lingered over the work or extended his work time upon it to make it conform with any elaborate Pythagorean formula. The composer started his work on the Ode on September 15, 1739 and completed it in a mere ten days. He continued on his Cecilia-inspired composing streak by writing all twelve of his Concerti Grossi, Opus 6, during the following month, this too abetted by some brotherly borrowing from Muffat (Burrows, Music and Theatre 79) and Scarlatti (Hogwood 161).

The Perils of Hermeneutics

Is it sufficient to know merely how Handel achieves his sublime effects? If numerology fails, is there some other meaningful metaphor or parallelism between text and music? Cautioning against a hermeneutic approach to Handel’s music, musicologist Paul Henry Lang advises:

Symbolism cannot attain its aims if the symbols used are private and therefore incomprehensible. The listener must either take such symbolism as expressed in descriptive music without reference to its intended meaning or occupy himself with a baffled search for an inaccessible meaning. Since with the great masters the link between symbol and the thing symbolized is often subtle, even disguised, it became an accepted scholarly pursuit to read all sorts of meanings into the simplest of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic progressions, and exegetic ingenuity has been carried, especially in Germany, to fantastic extremes. There is always a danger of reading more into an old score than the composer could possibly have intended, and one may properly hesitate to accept a symbolic interpretation of a passage that has other functions that are quite clear and direct. . . . Musical hermeneutics has, indeed, a dangerous attraction for the type of mind to which the appeal of mysticism is stronger than that of reason (626).

All of the devices Handel employs in the Ode are part of the evolving toolkit available to operatic and church composers in the line beginning with Monteverdi after 1600. The many key changes in the Ode are readily understood as harmonic and dramatic opportunities, and exigencies. The choice of D Major for a choral work with trumpets was almost a given, owing to how the instruments were made. That choice in turn determined which other tonalities might be exploited for harmonic tension and atmosphere, also allowing for the abilities of players. The choruses are kept safely in D Major, a kindness to under-rehearsed choristers. Part of Handel’s genius is to apply his repertoire of effects with endless novelty and variation, adding a sense of inevitable rightness to the melding of text and music.

The Rhetoric of Music Composition

Handel’s style in the St. Cecilia ode, as in his oratorios, employs grand gestures and dramatic effects. If any music of the 18th century can be called “sublime” in terms of its effect on listeners, Handel’s is arguably the first choice. Among the techniques Handel employs are tension and suspense; homophonic shouts and echoes from antiphonal choirs (as in Israel in Egypt and Samson); sinister ostinato bass lines or chromatic, meandering bass accompaniments (the cello continuo in the Ode or the counterpoint to “Oh Calumny” in Alexander Balus); unusual instrumental timbres (bassoons accompanying the Witch of Endor in Saul); startling contrasts of solo voice in dialog with full choirs (Samson, Athalia, Esther, and the St. Cecilia Ode); and cliff-hanging rests or pauses (the heart-stopping pause near the end of Messiah’s “Hallelujah”).

Handel also mastered, during his thirty years of opera composing, the affective use of rising and falling scales, muted strings, trembling semi quavers, minor key tonalities, wide interval leaps, and the delayed entry of percussion and horns at the proper dramatic moment.

Finally, Handel offers sheer loudness. The Ode and the oratorios offer a Burkean sublime thrill when as many as a hundred voices join with instruments and organ. Other than the din of battle, most Londoners had never heard anything so loud. Handel’s high style delivers what Shapiro aptly calls “a fulfillment of High Anglican prescriptions for the sublime” (227).

Handel’s music also has an unerring forward thrust, “a latent propulsive — even explosive — quality” (Lang 595). He does not pull listeners down into murky chords or ask them to follow chromatically intertwining voice lines (as does Bach). Lang elaborates: “[I]n Handel the vocal basis is never missing and is subtly influential even in the most idiomatic instrumental compositions” (595). His counterpoint is transparent: there is always something intriguing going on in the bass line, but what is on top remains crystal clear.

Handel’s career, despite his long string of masterpieces, was also a verbal battlefield. He fought with librettists who wanted text to dictate to music, and he fought critics who condemned his every move in both secular and sacred music. A gulf separated the two great arts of poetry and music, and even when they joined, as here in Dryden and Handel, to achieve sublime effect, neither side truly understood the other. The literary Sublime dwells in the world of concepts. The musical Sublime is a cunning craft, a techne, wielded with incredible force by a master. The recurring mystery is that, for many of us, the craft is the more convincing and humanizing force.

We can use words to unravel words and to spin vast levels of abstractions; try as we might to describe music in words, it exists ultimately only on its own terms and according to its own rules.

To contact the author about classical music lectures and program notes: brett@poetspress.org

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