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November 22 – St Cecilia’s Day, and Dryden’s Poem ‘Alexander’s Feast’

November 22 – St Cecilia’s Day, and Dryden’s Poem ‘Alexander’s Feast’

Saint Cecilia, a Roman virgin and martyr (230A.D.) is traditionally the patron saint of music and the 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 with Thais, the young and lovely Athenian courtesan, enjoying the banquet in the Persian city Persepolis in celebration of his victory over the Persian King Darius III in 331B.C. We are introduced to the court musician Timotheus with his lyre and then told that Alexander was in fact the son of Jove, King of the gods, and Olympia. Thus, “the sovereign of the world” begot the conqueror of the world.

Timotheus sings in praise of Bacchus and the scene is filled with drunken revelry. Since drinking is the sweet pleasure of the soldier, Alexander grows in vain and fights all his battles again in his mind. Seeing the madness in Alexander’s eyes Timotheus changes his song into one designed to create 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 of victory evaporates from Alexander, and he sighs and starts shedding tears. Pity prepares the mind for love, and love is the subject of Timotheus’ next song. Alexander gazes at the fair lady Thais and 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 for revenge. The music fires Alexander with a great zeal to destroy. Thais leads Alexander to burn Persepolis. In this she is like Helen, whose passion for the Trojan prince Paris resulted in the Greeks burning Troy.

At last came St Cecilia, inventor of the organ. Inspired by God, she enlarges the bounds of music by adding length to musical notes. Cecilia is superior to Timotheus, Dryden declares. Old Timotheus should yield the prize to her, or at least divide the crown.

“He raised a mortal to the skies
She drew an angel down.”

Timotheus raised Alexander to the skies creating in the King’s mind the delusion of divine status. But Cecilia’s music brought an angel down from heaven.

In Alexander’s Feast music is shown to have a mighty range of influence. Timotheus draws his master Alexander to varying moods: pride, bacchanalian revelry, martial zeal, pity, love, and religious devotion. The rhythms and sounds in the refrains of each stanza echo the hero’s changing emotions.

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