Festival Repertoire, Bach at 8: The Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, HW 56

The Fine Arts Window at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, where we recently offered our Spring Concert.

My first experience of the Händel Cecilia Ode (St. Cecilia is the patroness of musicians) was hearing Greg Funfgeld conduct the Musikfest Chorus in a rousing summer performance at the eponymous Festival, one very hot August in the mid-90s (if you think the Packer Memorial Church is hot in May…).  I enjoyed it so much, I came back a second time, a week later. Händel’s excellent setting of a poem by John Dryden, Britain’s first Poet Laureate, which coupled Pythagorean theories with sparkling evocations, in poetry, of the various instruments of the baroque orchestra was pure, unadulterated magic.  It also helped that the estimable Christine Brandes, soprano extraordinaire, was one of the soloists.  Those were two nights I will never forget!

The geometric inner-workings of the theory of Harmonia Mundi, the harmony of the world, that informed Dryden’s poetry is beyond my understanding, but the gist is that the universe sprung forth from the Creator from harmony, and there are many allusions to the music of the spheres, as well as the Book of Revelation. 

Händel responds to these allusions with fiercely inventive music. There’s a recitative that rivals “Comfort ye,” from Messiah, in its lyricism and the beauty of the instrumental interpolations.  There’s a very demonstrative chorus that evokes the act of creation as replete with harmony (with excellent choral text-painting).  There are two absolutely time-stopping soprano arias – what a treat it will be to hear Cassandra Lemoine in her Festival debut – on the subject of music’s ability to raise and quell passion and efficacy of the sacred praise of the organ.  We hear martial marches and much excitement at a discussion of “the trumpet’s loud clangor,” and the “soft complaining flute” and the “sharp violins.”  I’m also very excited to hear Ben Butterfield in the tenor arias, including a heroic call to arms (on a high A), and in the opening recitative.  

The language of Dryden’s poetry is impossibly charming and elegant, and while Händel’s counterpoint doesn’t perhaps reach the heights of Bach’s (really, whose does?), his arias are full of stunning melodies and compelling instrumental obbligatos.  The Choir sang this work, in Mozart’s orchestration, with the Lehigh University Philharmonic a few years ago, and it’s nice to be returning to Händel’s original instrumentation.  Much is rightfully made of Greg’s skill with Bach interpretation, but he’s also an excellent Händelian.  It’s fun to watch him play within the (slightly) less dense strictures of Händel’s music.

This work will be the second bookend to She-e Wu’s performance of her transcription of the Bach C-Major cello suite for marimba, which is sure to be spellbinding.  We cannot know for sure what Bach, or Händel or Dryden would make of her instrument, but the sonorities she beautifully evokes from that beautiful rosewood would surely delight.  After the Ode, everyone will be invited to a champagne toast, their way to the festivities lit by luminaries lit to help celebrate 120 years of the Bach Choir! As if the music weren’t magical enough!  

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