Performances of odes on November 22, the feast day of the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia, were a regular feature of the concert season in London at the end of the seventeenth century. John Dryden’s ode, Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Musick, was written for the occasion in 1697, set to music (now lost) by Jeremiah Clarke. From 1700 the tradition died out, but composers continued to write settings of St. Cecilia odes as concert works. Handel composed two such odes, the first being Alexander’s Feast in 1736. (The second, From Harmony, from heavenly Harmony, followed three years later). The premiere of Alexander’s Feast took place at Covent Garden on February 19, a few short weeks after Handel completed the score. Dryden’s text was adapted by Handel’s friend, the Irish playwright Newburgh Hamilton, who “took care not to take any unwarrantable liberties” with Dryden’s original.
The audience at the premiere numbered 1,300, and it was so well received than an additional eight performances were given. Handel remounted it again the following season:
Last Night Mr. Dryden’s Ode, call’d Alexander’s Feast, was performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, to a splendid Audience, where his Royal Highness the Prince and Princess of Wales were present, and seem’d to be highly entertain’d, insomuch that his Royal Highness commanded Mr. Handel’s Concerto on the Organ to be repeated.
[A London newspaper account, March 17, 1737]
The libretto describes a banquet held by Alexander the Great and his mistress Thaïs in the captured city of Persepolis. The musician Timotheus sings and plays his lyre, inciting various emotions in Alexander until he is roused to burn the city in revenge for his fallen soldiers. Cecilia arrives to turn the barbarity to a more uplifting end through her “loftier” music.
The aim of St. Cecilia odes is to celebrate music, and it is evident here in the range of orchestrations in the airs and choruses, and by the inclusion of two concertos — one for harp, representing Timotheus’ lyre, and one for organ, representing “the divine Cecilia.”
You might have noticed a new crop of imagery for this season’s concerts, designed by our friends at Sovereign State.
A great deal of research goes into the production of these, and often times the inspiration comes from baroque imagery. Choir director Ivars Taurins is an expert in this realm, and provided us with a cornucopia of options. We’re happy to share a few them here for our Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronation concert – some that made the final cut, and others that didn’t but were still fascinating to see!
Here is the a painting of The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox by William Hogarth. It was fashionable in Georgian England for men to wear wedding suits in pale greys and creams. Of note are the cupids with a horn of plenty.
A popular style of wedding ring in the 17th and 18th centuries was a gimmel ring — a ring with two hoops that fit together. They were used as betrothal rings: the engaged couple would wear one hoop each, and rejoin them to use as a wedding ring.
The use of two clasped hands in the design was a popular, going back the ancient Roman Fede ring: “fede” comes from the Italian phrase “mani in Fede,” meaning hands clasped in faith or trust.
The 17th and early 18th centuries were rife with “Vanitas” paintings — still-life paintings that depict the vain, futile nature of earthly pursuits and goods. They use symbolic objects such as skulls and rotting fruit to represent mortality, and the brevity of life and suddenness of death. Books symbolize human knowledge, and music and musical instruments (often with broken strings) suggest the pleasures of the senses. Flowers, butterflies, candles, and clocks or hourglasses allude to the ephemeral, transient nature of life.
Collier, Claesz, Vermeulen, and Boel are just a few painters who excelled in this art form. The painting below is by the French painter Simon Renard de Saint-André (1613–1677).
And here are some spine-tingling photos taken by Ivars Taurins at an exhibition at Versailles on Louis XIV’s funeral.
Note the wonderful silver skeletons with scythes and hour-glasses holding the giant crown!
Below is a portrait of James II, who was crowned King of England and Ireland (and James VII of Scotland) in 1685. John Blow composed the anthem “God spake sometime in visions” for this very coronation.
And it wouldn’t be a coronation without a crown (or two). Here are a few, one of which made the final concert imagery. Below is an engraving of the Crown of State of James II. Underneath that image is an engraving of the Coronation Crown of St. Edward.
And so – the final product (note the baroque frame around the imagery)! This final image combines the three themes: the crown (coronation), the cut-out image (of a wedding), and the red shadow in the shape of a tombstone (funeral).
Why does an oratorio written in 18th-century England by a German composer still resonate so strongly to so many in this day and age? “Behold – I tell you a mystery…”
Why has “Hallelujah” struck a chord with people of all walks of life, whether it is Handel’s or Leonard Cohen’s? From an Inuit community in Alaska and a congregation in Kuwait singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, to the hundreds of cover versions and arrangements of Cohen’s song.
And why doesHandel’s Messiah touch people of different backgrounds, faiths, and cultures? The universality of this work, beyond its remarkable, moving, and uplifting music, lies, I think, in its message of “Peace on earth, good will towards men,” and its themes of enlightenment and understanding, hope and faith, humanity and good will, sacrifice and charity – these are important values that we esteem and strive for, even in our secular world. And the triumph of these over suffering, injustice, selfishness, or man’s inhumanity to man – these are to be found in Handel’s masterpiece. I believe that Messiah, like other great musical compositions, opens in us a spirituality, whether one belongs to a faith or not. It also offers solace – an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. And as such it has become an annual ritual for many.
Messiah joins the ranks of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, or school and church nativity plays, or a holiday dinner with family and friends – all are rituals that are part of the private and public recognition of this special time of year – a time for giving and of thanksgiving. And a little ritual and mystery in our lives isn’t such a bad thing.
But something else – and perhaps therein lies the mystery – something about this work and its music and its message has touched more than the English-speaking world with its power and essence, allowing it to remain meaningful and vital to this day. And to that I say Hallelujah!
Join Ivars Taurins and Tafelmusik Chamber Choir for Handel Messiahfrom December 13–16, 2017 at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre.
Tenor Cory Knight first joined the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir in the fall of 2010, shortly after participating in the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute. In 2012 he moved to Switzerland to pursue a Master’s degree in Historical Performance Practice at the prestigious Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. He rejoined the Choir upon returning to Toronto, and balances his career in Canada with engagements in Europe. He was recently featured as the Sailor in Opera Atelier’s production of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas.
How did you come to decide to sing?
I’ve always been interested in music and fortunately I have parents who are very supportive of that. They signed me up for piano and voice lessons and drove me to all kinds of rehearsals when I was a child. My plan was to be a high school music teacher, but after I finished my teaching degree I thought I’d give this singing thing a try. So I auditioned at the Glenn Gould School and was accepted into the vocal program that year. I met some important professional contacts and mentors through that experience and haven’t looked back since.
What was your first music gig? I played a sailor at my Kindergarten graduation. It was a big deal. But my first professional gig was with Opera Atelier. I was cast as Telemaco in Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses.
Who has been your greatest inspiration?
Probably my grandfather, who taught me that no job is as difficult as picking tomatoes. [Cory comes from Leamington, the Tomato Capital of Canada.]
What is your ‘guilty pleasure’ music to listen to?
My grandmother recently gave me her old LPs and I’m currently making my way through them. There’s a Patsy Cline album in there that I just can’t get enough of.
What is your favourite thing to do in Toronto during your free time?
I love walking around the city and discovering little places that I’ve never seen before.
What is your favourite restaurant in Toronto?
Where is your own personal oasis in Toronto?
I really enjoy my apartment in the Village. The neighbourhood is so vibrant, and I love the mix of people and general energy. But when I’m not at home, I love Kensington Market, Toronto Island, and wandering the paths in Don Valley.
Are you involved with any clubs/charities in your off-time?
I volunteer as a Youth Mentor through Catholic Children’s Aid Society. Basically I get to hang out with a really cool kid who keeps me up to date on the latest Nerf toys and video games. I’ve also spent most of the past 20 summers working at camp.
You have a night off—what do you do?
I get cozy on my couch with some yummy snacks and watch movies.
Where do you see yourself ten years in the future?
In my 40s.
What words of wisdom would you pass to budding musicians?
Practise, practise, practise. Find joy in everything you do. Follow your instincts. Be patient. And when things get tough just remember that you could be picking tomatoes.
Apple or PC? PC Starbucks or Tim Hortons? I’m faithful to my small town roots on this one: Timmies. Cat or dog? Dog City or country life? A healthy amount of both. Hockey or baseball? Hockey Batman or Superman? Depends on which nephew I’m hanging out with. TTC or “anything else that gets me to my destination”? TTC Favourite season? Summer Favourite instrument? I played trombone in high school and university. So, trombone. But I’ve always loved the viola. Old or new? Old Tidy or cluttered desk? Tidy
Join us for A Bach Tapestry at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre and George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts. Tickets are available here.
When art galleries present comprehensive exhibitions focusing on a particular artist, we are given the rare and wonderful opportunity to explore and experience that artist through the variety of their techniques, and the development of their expression. Recent exhibitions at the AGO of Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, Turner, Michelangelo, or Monet have allowed us a vastly different perspective on these artists and their work than could be gained by viewing just one or two iconic works.
If we consider the mind-staggering output by Johann Sebastian Bach of over 200 cantatas in a 40-year period, we quickly realize that we are familiar with only a handful of them. This is in no part due to their quality — on the contrary, the variety of compositional styles, techniques, invention, and effects is a veritable compendium of everything that can be done within that form. But we creatures of habit tend to gravitate again and again to the most familiar, the most “popular” and iconic works of any composer. On the other hand, we can only have the opportunity to experience these works as a whole if we partake in the kind of pilgrimage that John Eliot Gardiner undertook in 2000, performing all of Bach’s cantatas on a year-long tour that took his musicians throughout Europe, Britain, and even further afield to New York.
With all of this in mind, I have attempted in curating this Bach Tapestry to present Bach’s mastery and genius as a composer by creating an aural gallery of choral movements from his cantatas — many of them rarely heard in concert — and to complement these choruses by interweaving secular instrumental works. We also explore how Bach reused and refashioned his compositions to create new, equally vibrant works, represented in our Bach “gallery” by selections from his Lutheran Mass in G Major, comprised of his reworkings of earlier cantata movements. In this spirit, we have also taken the liberty to refashion Bach’s famous Italian Concerto, originally written for solo harpsichord, to create a “new” concerto for strings.
I hope that our Bach Tapestry will inspire you to further explore for yourselves the remarkable riches to be found in Bach’s oeuvre.
REFLECTIONS ON J.S. BACH
The aim and fundamental reason of all music is none other than to be to the glory of God and the recreation of the spirit. Johann Sebastian Bach
I need Bach at the beginning of the day almost more than I need food and water. Pablo Casals
The true spirit of the art is what led him to the great and sublime as the highest object of the art. We owe it to this spirit that Bach’s works do not merely please and delight, like what is merely agreeable in art, but irresistibly carry us away with them; that they do not merely surprise us for a moment, but produce effects that become stronger the more often we hear the works, and the better we become acquainted with them; that the boundless treasure of ideas heaped up in them, even when we have a thousand times considered them, still leaves us something new, which excites our admiration, and often our astonishment; lastly, that even he who is no connoisseur, who knows no more than the musical alphabet, can hardly refrain from admiration when they are well played to him and when he opens his ear and heart to them without prejudice. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, first biographer of J.S. Bach, from the chapter in the biography, dated 1802, entitled “The Spirit of Bach”
The great J. Seb. Bach used to say: “it must be possible to do anything.” And he would never stand to hear of anything not being feasible. This has always inspired me, with my slight abilities, to accomplish many otherwise difficult things in music, with effort and patience. Johann Philipp Kirnberger (student of Bach)
Not Brook but Ocean should be his name. Ludwig van Beethoven [“Bach” in German means “brook”]
In response to hearing Mendelssohn perform Bach:
Again I thought how we are never at an end with Bach, how he seems to grow more profound the oftener he is heard. […] While we listen, it would seem again as if we could only distantly approach him through the understanding of words. The music itself still serves as the best means to bring his works before our senses and to explain them. Robert Schumann
[Bach is] one of God’s phenomena, clear, but unfathomable. Carl Friedrich Zelter (teacher of Mendelssohn)
Study Bach: there you will find everything. Johannes Brahms
I think that if I were required to spend the rest of my life on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of any one composer during all that time, that composer would almost certainly be Bach. I really can’t think of any other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, is valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that—its humanity. Glenn Gould
Bach was a top harmonist geezer, which is why the jazz cats love him. Nigel Kennedy, violinst
Compared with him, we all remain children.
variously attributed to Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Bach is not about beauty, it’s about honesty. Anner Bylsma, cellist
Directed by Ivars Taurins
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH 1685–1750
Chorus “Sei Lob und Ehr” from Cantata 117
Chorus “Aller augen warten” from Cantata 23
Adagio e dolce, for 2 violins & continuo, after BWV 527/2 Geneviève Gilardeau & Christopher Verrette, violins Allen Whear & Charlotte Nediger, continuo
Chorus “Christum wir wollen loben” from Cantata 121
Chorus “Ihr werdet weinen” from Cantata 103
Sarabande for solo harpsichord, BWV 816 Charlotte Nediger, harpsichord
Kyrie & Gloria, from Mass in G Major, BWV 236
Chorale “Jesu, bleibet meine Freude” from Cantata 147
Chorus “Ach, Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” from Cantata 3
Italian Concerto, after BWV 971 Allegro – Andante – Presto Julia Wedman & Patricia Ahern, violin soloists
Chorale “Christe, du Lamm Gottes” from Cantata 23
Chorale “Verleih uns Frieden” from Cantata 42
Chorale “Wer hofft” from Cantata 109
Sinfonia to Cantata 196
Chorus “Und wenn die Welt” from Cantata 80
Cum sancto spiritu, from Mass in G Major, BWV 236
Join us for A Bach Tapestry at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre and George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts. Tickets are available here.