John Dryden – “A Song for St Cecilia’s Day”

If you have about fifty minutes to spare, you can’t spend them in a better way than listening to Handel’s musical setting for this poem. This is one of the poems commissioned annually by the Musical Society in London for, yes, St Cecilia’s Day celebrations. The music was originally written by a guy called Dreghi, but Handel’s music really makes every word shine. Dryden starts with portraying music as the creative force that created order from the primordial chaos, cumulating in the creation of man. Then he goes through all the feelings which music can inspire in listeners and the respective instruments best suited for this (again, go to Handel’s piece to listen how wonderfully they match). Jubal, the biblical inventor of music, made such an impression on his brothers when he first struck the chords of his tortoise-shell lyre that they fell down on their faces, believing it comes from a divine being. Trumpets and drums are used for giving valour to soldiers; the plaintive flute expresses “the woes of hopeless lovers”; violins are used for expressing jealousy and the organ, of course, inspires religious awe. The mythical Orpheus could tame animals and move rocks, but St Cecilia goes one better, because her organ (of which she was believed to be the inventor) and her voice brought down an angel from above. The poem is bookended with the grand chorus, which again reminds us about the role of music in creation of the world – it was music which set the spheres in motion and it is music which shall be heard at the end of the world, when the trumpet of Last Judgement shall sound. I am not quite sure about the last line “and Music shall untune the sky”. Does it mean there will be no music in the thousand-year reign? Surely Dryden cannot mean that, because that’s not the world I would like to live in. Maybe he means only that’s the end of the music of the spheres, because the universe (as he imagined it) will be dismantled. But this minor quibble aside, I really loved this poem, although I am not sure if I would love it so much without Felicity Lott’s soaring soprano. In the post-post-modern ironic world we struggle with the notion of the sublime, but Dryden’s poem and Handel’s music make us feel what transcendence is.

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