Handel: “Alexander’s Feast”
Alexander’s Feast or The Power of Musick begins with vivid account of a banquet held to celebrate the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great in 331 or 330 BC. His beautiful mistress Thais is at his side, and the eloquent Timotheus provides entertainment by playing and singing.Thais collaborates with Timotheus in moving Alexander through the various moods of being charmed, intoxicated, saddened, enraged, and love-sick.The power of Timotheus’s music then serves to rouse Alexander into a frenzied attack to avenge the Greeks slain in earlier Persian wars, by setting fire to the Persian capital Persepolis. While Timotheus’s craft certainly is proven to be capable of moving even the greatest of warriors through a wide array of emotions, it seems that these are earthly ones at best. Only St. Cecilia—the patron saint of music—is capable of raising music to a higher degree. At the end of the work, the message is that, in Pagan times, music was able to arouse only the cruder emotions, but the sacred art of the (Christian) Cecilia can inspire spiritual well-being and more noble deeds. At least, this was the position portryaed by the work’s librettist John Dryden (1631-1700).
George Frideric Handel must have been greatly intrigued by Dryden’s Ode. It, along with A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, was written for the annual festival in the City of London that took place during the 20 years between 1683 and 1703. The festival usually included the performance of a new ode in honor of Cecilia, and Dryden’s two works were set to music by G.B. Draghi and by Jeremiah Clarke.