Saint Cecilia, a Roman virgin and martyr (230 A.D.) is traditionally the patron saint of music andthe inventor of the organ. Dryden’s poem Alexander’s feast is written in celebration of St.Cecilia’s day on 22 November 1697.The poem opens with Alexander the Great, son of Philip, king of Macedon, seated along withThais, the young and lovely Athenian courtesan, enjoying the banquet in the Persian cityPersepolis in celebration of his victory over the Persian King Darius III in 331 B.C. We areintroduced to the court musician Timotheus with his lyre and then told that Alexander was in factthe son of Jove, King of the gods, and Olympia. Thus, “the sovereign of the world” begot theconqueror of the world.Timotheus sings in praise of Bacchus and the scene in filled with drunken revelry. Since drinkingis the sweet pleasure of the soldier, Alexander grows in vain and fights all his battles again in hismind. Seeing the madness in Alexander’s eyes Timotheus changes his song into one designed tocreate a mood of pity. He sings of the fall of Darius, the Persian King, who was great and good,but was deserted by his own followers and his slain body left exposed to bare earth. The joy ofvictory evaporates from Alexander, and he sighs and starts shedding tears. Pity prepares the mindfor love, and love is the subject of Timotheus’ next song. Alexander gazes at the fair lady Thaisand sighs. Finally, oppressed with wine and love the “vanquished hero” sinks upon Thais’ breast.Timotheus now shifts the music to a louder strain and rouses a sleeping Alexander to action."Revenge," cries Timotheus. The ghosts of the Greek soldiers slain in the battle cry out forrevenge. The music fires Alexander with a great zeal to destroy. Thais leads Alexander to burnPersepolis. In this she is like Helen, whose passion for the Trojan prince Paris resulted in theGreeks burning Troy.At last came St Cecilia, inventor of the organ. Inspired by God, she enlarges the bounds of musicby adding length to musical notes. Cecilia is superior to Timotheus, Dryden declares. OldTimotheus should yield the prize to her, or at least divide the crown."He raised a mortal to the skiesShe drew an angel down."Timotheus raised Alexander to the skies creating in the Kings mind the delusion of divine status.But Cecilias music brought an angel down from heaven.In Alexanders Feast music is shown to have a mighty range of influence. Timotheus draws hismaster Alexander to varying moods: pride, bacchanalian revelry, martial zeal, pity, love, andreligious devotion. The rhythms and sounds in the refrains of each stanza echo the heroschanging emotions.
Alexander’s Feast: Or, The Power of Music, an Ode in Honor of St. Cecilia’s Day is Dryden’ssecond ode honoring Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. The poem’s theme, the power ofmusic to move human emotions, is identical with that of “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” writtena decade earlier. Both odes are occasional, having been composed at the invitation of the LondonMusical Society. The second ode, however, is much more elaborate, for Dryden introducescharacters and places them within a dramatic setting. The Greeks are celebrating their victoryover the Persian King Darius when the musician at the banquet, Timotheus, is called upon toperform.With exalted strains, Timotheus creates within Alexander the Great a sense that he has become adeity. An alteration of tone changes his mood to a desire for pleasure, and following this alonging for love of his mistress Thaïs, who sits beside him. Somber strains evoke pity for thefallen Darius, but these are followed by strident tones calling for revenge on behalf of Greeksoldiers who have perished. Alexander and his mistress and their company rush out, torches inhand, to burn the Persian city Persepolis. The poem concludes with a grand chorus, stressing thepower of music to move emotions and contrasting the legend of Saint Cecilia with the power ofTimotheus. Dryden recalls the story that after she had invented the organ, she played suchbeautiful music that an angel, mistaking the sounds for those of heaven, appeared as she played:Let old Timotheus yield the prize,Or both divide the crown:Herais’d a mortal to the skies;Shedrew an angel down.The intricate form resembles the Pindaric ode in its lengthy and complicated irregular stanzas,yet its linear organization follows the tradition of Horace. Dryden achieves a complex, forceful,and energetic movement, and his use of historical events and characters contributes to a lively,dramatic expression of his theme.
This is an ode to the emotive power of music, and presumably a commemoration of someevent on this festival day of music’s patron saint. It re-imagines the Genesis account as anact of melodic conception, perhaps drawing on Milton’s famous invocation to Paradise Lost.The later stanzas can be seen to carry this Biblical metaphor through Christian history untilthe ‘Grand Chorus’ where music heralds the apocalypse. Intricate rhyme scheme andmirroring lines, together with varied line lengths create a frame and strive for a lyrical effect.The opening stanza sees music as an aspect or incarnation of divinity in self-begettinggenesis. The lyric, flowing rhythm of the first line with two ‘harmonizing’ dactyls at the endsets the tone – this ode has the grandeur of a hymn and the playfulness of a folk song. The‘universal frame’ likens nature to an instrument that requires assembling – its constituentparts the elements, ‘cold, and hot, and moist, and dry’. Yet it is music itself, ‘the tunefulvoice’ that sets in motion this genesis. Consequently music, personified with its own ‘power’is seen as an expression of a self-begetting God. Nature then comes to represent themusical scale, which Dryden likens to the Chain of Being. Just as man is created on thefinal day of creation, so Dryden’s Genesis account ends in this stanza with mankind as thenote which completes the scale.Stanza structures throughout the poem are suggestive of the forms and frames of musicalinstruments. In the opening stanza the longer pentameter and tetrameter lines cut acrossthe shorter to mimic the struts or strings on an organ or lute. The repeated line ‘Fromharmony, from heavenly harmony’ might represent the same note in a scale struck again.The second stanza certainly aims to mimic the completeness of the ‘compass of the notes’,returning to its opening line to suggest the circle of fifths or other mathematical sequencesthat were being applied in music at this time. Alternating line lengths also try to convey alyrical feel, as much as is possible for an Augustan poet whose strength is in grandeur,solidity and rhetoric. The rich rhymes on ‘shell’ are not intrusive as they might be, butproduce exactly this grand kind of effect which seems to work against the lyricism.A major theme in the poem is music’s ability to play on human emotions, somethingreflected by Dryden’s sounding of various emotions as if they were notes in a scale. Therange moves from anger and courage in stanza 3 to jealousy in 5 and worship in 6. Each isassociated with an instrument, and Dryden’s word choices mimic the sound of each withvarying success. The trumpet is evoked well by ‘clangor’, which has a resounding metallicsound but also warmth. The repetition of ‘double’ for the drum doesn’t quite come off,sounding out of place where two repetitions would have conveyed the message better –perhaps the line works once set to music. Music’s divine beginnings in Stanza 1 work tosuggest that music not only inspires humanity but provides a link with heaven. This issuggested in stanza 7 with Cecelia’s summoning of an angel with the organ.However, music is also seen as a force of destruction in the poem, fanning the flames ofjealousy and heralding judgement. The ‘listening brethren’ that worship the music of Jubalneed not be committing idolatry – they worship the same divine music that represents and isGod in stanza 1. However, the suggestion that music’s power to manipulate can be abusedis shown first here, ‘With the hollow of that shell / That spoke so sweetly and so well’. Ofcourse shells do make a sound because they’re hollow, but the word also acts in itspejorative mode to suggest the seductive, misleading rhetoric of a politician. Likewise music
inspires wars with the ‘thundering drum’, and the ‘pains’ of unrequited love. The poemgently and unobtrusively reminds us that when music is a human rather than divine tool, itcan be misused. Hence finally in the Grand Chorus, the divine trumpet also brings aboutjustice. The enjambment over ‘So, when the last and dreadful hour / This crumbling pageantshall devour’ creates a speed of delivery that echoes the cataclysmic ‘devouring’ of theworld. The second line here seems to me to have a satirical bite to it – suggesting thatelevated art and abstracts like music will outlive and shed unfavourable light on the‘crumbling pageant’ of our lives. The final triplet is beautiful – echoing the cadence ofRevelation and bringing us full circle to the ‘tuneful voice’ of stanza 1.This poem is a grand but playful ode to music, celebrating art’s power to affect us but alsoimposing a moral framework just as it imposes a ‘universal frame’ on its stanzas. Music canbe both a route to heaven and a herald of destruction.
Alexanders Feast, or the Power of Music (1697) is an ode by John Dryden. It was written tocelebrate Saint Cecilias Day. Jeremiah Clarke set the original ode to music, however the score isnow lost.The main body of the poem describes the feast given by Alexander the Great at the Persiancapital Persepolis, after his defeat of Darius. Alexanders bard Timotheus sings praises of him.Alexanders emotions are manipulated by the singers poetry and music. Timotheus glorifies himas a god, puffing up Alexanders pride. He then sings of the pleasures of wine, encouragingAlexander to drink. Seeing Alexander becoming too boisterous, he sings of the sad death ofDarius; the king becomes quiet. He then lauds the beauty of Thaïs, Alexanders lover, making thekings heart melt. Finally, he encourages feelings of anger and vengeance, causing Thaïs andAlexander to burn down the Persian palace in revenge for Persias previous outrages againstGreece.The poem then moves ahead in time to describe Saint Cecilia, "inventress of the vocal frame",who is traditionally supposed to have created the first organ and to have instituted Christiansacred music. The poem concludes that while Timotheus "Raised a mortal to the skies, / Shedrew an angel down".George Frideric Handel composed a choral work, also called Alexanders Feast, set to a librettoby Newburgh Hamilton which was closely based on the ode by Dryden.