Alexander the Great

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion” said Alexander the Great. These are the words of a wise man indeed! Little wonder then that writers and poets have unceasingly turned to him for inspiration in their works. The great composer, Handel, is no exception and his choral work “Alexander’s Feast” is no small contribution to the pantheon of great works honoring a mythical leader.

This Handel work depicts a banquet held by Alexander and his purported mistress Thais in the captured Persian city of Persepolis and is set to a poem by John Dryden. The Greenwich Choral Society will perform the piece on Saturday, March 24, at 4:30 p.m. at Christ Church in Greenwich. For more information log onto www.greenwichchoralsociety.org. The concert will be dedicated to long-time Greenwich Choral Society member Sallie Williams.

In 330 BC, the army of Alexander entered Persepolis. After the soldiers had looted the city the palace was set on fire and left in ruins. The Athenian courtesan Thais was said to have provoked Alexander to this destructive act after a late night drinking session. The Renaissance poet Dante, writing two thousand years later, thought Thais important enough to deserve a prominent place in Purgatory and 19th century French novelist Anatole France used her to exemplify the power of female sex appeal in one of his books: A holy man emerged from his meditative life and chose Thais as his target for redemption, but after converting her from a life of sin, he found himself in love with her and unable to maintain his purity of mind, so that he returned to Thais to declare his love, only to see her on her death bed.

In actual fact Thais was the hetaera, lover and then wife of Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s finest generals and the eventual king of Egypt. Time has historically associated Thais romantically with Alexander himself, but ancient writings show that she was most likely Ptolemy’s partner the entire time of their association and that Alexander simply enjoyed her company and respected her intellectually. She followed the army on Alexander’s conquests around Greece and into Egypt, giving advice and speaking on politics to the great conquerors of the time. She was known for being witty and intelligent as well as beautiful and skilled in entertaining, an appropriate companion to these revered generals.

There are few subject matters as epic as Alexander the Great and so it is a fitting subject for a musical master work, the Greenwich Choral Society therefore has a challenging but by no means insurmountable feat ahead of them. In order to bring his audience to its knees Handel did not really on theatrics, elaborate costumes or stage tricks. Instead he used the power of his music as sole weapon, waging a musical war to win people’s affections and judging by the success of his works to this very day, he succeeded.

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