Song for St Cecilia’s Day

HWV 76 (I/15: score with critical report), edited by Stephan Blaut, Kassel 2020

The short “little Cäcilienode” – the name more often used in German for HWV 76 – entitled “Song” in the autograph, was composed by Handel in September 1739. The text he used was an ode entitled “A Song for St Cecilia’s Day” composed in 1687 by John Dryden (1631-1700). The way in which the composer became familiar with Dryden’s text is not known. For Handel’s major caecilian ode, “Alexander’s Feast,” HWV 75, first performed in 1736, Newburgh Hamilton (1691-1761) had slightly edited this poem, also written by Dryden, and subdivided it into recitatives, arias, and choruses; Hamilton may have done the same for the minor caecilian ode.

London audiences in the first half of the 18th century were accustomed to performances in which three-part operas or oratorios were heard. Since “Alexander’s Feast” consisted of only two parts, Handel had first extended the work by three concertos and a cantata, thus corresponding to the expected length of the musical event. With the setting of Dryden’s shorter Cecilia poem, Handel now had the opportunity to combine “Alexander’s Feast” with a work that was not only suitable in scope but also corresponded in content, thus creating a full concert evening in the two first performances of the newly composed ode on November 22 and 27, 1739. In later repetitions of HWV 76, Handel replaced “Alexander’s Feast” with other appropriate works: “Acis and Galatea,” HWV 49a, and “L’Allegro ed il Penseroso,” HWV 55 (without the 3rd part, “Il Moderato”).

The new edition of Handel’s “Song for St Cecilia’s Day” offers in the main part music and text in
the version of the first performance. Even if it is not known exactly what music is used as the
instrumental introduction to the ode, the instrumental movements present in the compositional score of the ode were reproduced as the introductory pieces, in accordance with the autograph tradition. Appendix I of the volume contains early versions of three movements that were shortened or considerably expanded before the first performance. The three pieces of Appendix II are changes or a new setting of the aria “The soft complaining flute,” which Handel had executed for performances organized after the premiere of the ode, in order to do justice to the new singers of his ensemble.

(Source: Academy of Sciences and Literature Mainz, Annual Report Hallische Händel-Ausgabe 2020)