Georg Friedrich Handel Alexander’s Feast; or, the Power of Musick, HWV 75

Score, ed. Michael Robertson.
Edition Walhall (EW 904), 2015. xvi + 256pp,
Also available: Vocal score (EW 910), Parts (EW 248)

Bärenreiter published Das Alexander-Fest in 1957, with German text placed above the English original. It is among a group of editions which have generally been considered as inadequate. Serie I Band 1, no. 4001, edited by Konrad Ameln, isn’t quite the first, but several early examples could hardly be thought as scholarly. I bought a copy through my subscription in 1960 (30 shillings. i.e. £1.10s), but my first use was at the Dartington Summer School in 1966, with Jennifer Vivyan, Kenneth Bowen and Neil Howlett (STB) with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields directed by Neville Marriner (who is still conducting in his 90s) and conducted by Louis Halsey – a few years later I shared the BBC Music Library canteen with Louis and Basil Lam. The performance failed to include the harp concerto (op. 4/6), though Act II was introduced by “The Celebrated Concerto in Alexander’s Feast”. Over the years, I became more and more annoyed with the score, but the Novello vocal score by Donald Burrows was, as far as it goes, useful. I never acquired the reprint of the work from Chrysander – one of the few copies I don’t have, though it is available on line via IMSLP – HG 14, 1862. From the same source, but more interesting, is the facsimile of the very early printed edition, though with no specific date.

It is virtually impossible to produce an accurate Urtext. Various changes took place between 1736 to March 1739, and it is likely that some of Handel’s performances were given in his absence. The editor claims that the performing score copied by the elder J. C. Smith (Hamburg Staats- & Universitätsbibliothek, MSM C/263) is the best source in that it clarifies what Handel intended. The most interesting feature of the new edition reviewed here is the inclusion of an independent organ part (British Library R.M. 19.a.1), which was probably written out in Handel’s period of bad health. This is valuable information which can guide players in other non-theatrical works. The organ often plays just in octaves at the pitch levels of cello and bass, with the bottom note F. Modern organs can negotiate that by using 16′, but that’s less plausible for organs of Handel’s time, though they have low Gs.

An asset is the Concerto per la Harpa (op. 4/6). I’m used to it sounding delicate, but it is does seem odd for the harpsichord to be added in brackets as well as having the organ plus the essential harp. The editorial additions are superfluous. The harpsichord disrupts the harp, and the two-stave organ part may well be the scribe copying the harp. Does the octave bass foresee the habits of pianists and play both basses in one hand, in which case the right hand could play the simplified upper parts? On musical grounds, however, there would be more musical sense in using two hands – so does the organist sit opposite the C below middle C! (I’ve never tried it.) I’m puzzled at an editorial [“play’d an 8. lower”] (bar 41), though the range is more-or-less the same as 25-28 with no indication of lowering the octave.

Another issue that is of interest occurs in The many rend the skies, where two oboes and two bassoons swap between one or two individual lines each or, occasionally, two parts for each. This provides an interesting texture, but the bassoons fall back on a single part from bar 19 and stays thus to the end (bar 137). Ameln makes the score seem much more sensible, with the oboes and bassoons each shown on one stave, though the Walhall edition spreads them onto two each, since it wouldn’t have been possible to leave space for two extra staves for the organ part even if the oboes and bassoons had been single-staved. I’m not sure what “Loud: an octave lower” means since after ten bars the notation is basically from the score and may well be played at pitch, especially if there is figuring, but bars 20-24 imply low octaves, irrespective of what is in the treble. An interesting piece of scoring is Revenge Timotheus cries, where at bar 49 a bassoon doubles each of the two violas, with a third bassoon on the bass line.

I haven’t mentioned Dryden’s text. It is good to have it printed in the original English with a translation by Stefan Gericke. I checked the details of the text which was presented in the style of 1736 as given in Robert Manson Myers’s Handel, Dryden, & Milton… (Bowes & Bowes, 1956). Cecilia volgi un sguardo was placed at the beginning of the work, though headed A Cantata perform’d at the Beginning of the Second Act. In the current edition, it was excluded. Act the Second opens with a Concerto for two Violins, Violoncello, &c (not in the edition, but there is an isolated work in C named “Alexander’s Feast”) and a further Concerto per L’organo before the final chorus: neither of these is added in the edition, and the reference on p. 215 should be referred to p. 236, not 234. I find the 1956 layout of the verse plausible, and retaining capital letters aids singers in the poetic shape. (I periodically complain that the Italian verse of the madrigal period was notated with capitals but is now ignored.) But I suspect that any further 18th-century English is too fussy as underlay.

The price in euros is surprisingly cheap. The English equivalent is around £63.00: I imagine that a new Bärenreiter edition would probably cost something over £200, judging by the larger works running into £400+. The commentary isn’t a thorough survey of all the variants, but significant ones are shown, and the introduction is helpful, especially with regard to avoiding the matters of pseudo-authenticity. There are, of course, places where it is obvious that Handel or his amanuensis start precisely but later simplify the music since the earlier notation will continue. However, that is much more common in opera than oratorio. The opening in the Ouverture in Donald Burrows’ Novello vocal score (1982) was following the editorial practice of its day by adding semiquavers above the quavers to show how they should be played, but there’s none of that here.

Another issue is the length of the chords in secco recits. The editor recommends that the harpsichord sustains no longer than a crotchet. But the very first chord (no. 2) begins on the first beat and needs to sustain until the voice enters on the fourth quaver: it makes it sound like making the voice keep quiet until the chord is stopped! In bar 3 the C can end with the voice’s “son” but the G sharp in bar 4 needs sustaining until the voice enters. It is probably not necessary now to cue a note a tone or a fourth above the closing note of the phrase. It’s up to the harpsichordist to be more flexible. The organ is tacet in secco recits.

Michael Robertson has made an excellent job of this edition: congratulations!

Clifford Bartlett