A new choral compendium from the highly regarded Choir of Royal Holloway, comprising twentieth- and twenty-first-century works written in honour of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
In many ways it was Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia—first performed on the radio in 1942—that rekindled musicians’ interest in celebrating their patron saint. The Musicians Benevolent Fund revived the tradition of an annual service of celebration for St Cecilia in 1947, and has marked the occasion with a new commission almost every year. Many of the pieces on this recording are the result of those commissions. Also included is a new work by Gabriel Jackson, one of the most popular choral composers of today, featuring Dame Felicity Lott.
The patron saint of music, Cecilia, has been a source of inspiration to musicians for centuries. The first documented celebrations of St Cecilia’s Day were held in France on 22 November 1570. Then in 1683 the Musical Society of London established annual St Cecilia’s Day festivals and poets such as John Dryden and later Alexander Pope would pen great odes to St Cecilia. Annual festivals became immensely popular leaving a legacy of great works by Purcell, Handel and others. Observances were held also in Italy and Germany. In the nineteenth century, a Cecilian Movement dedicated to promoting a cappella singing in church started in Germany and spread throughout Europe. Historians now confirm that in fact Valerian and Tibertius were Christian martyrs, but that Cecilia may be just a mythical figure. Whether woman or myth, she has inspired the composition of many beautiful hymns and odes in her honour. As James MacMillan, the composer of our first piece, said to me: ‘Any composition dedicated to or inspired by her is a very special statement by any composer; a kind of existential moment which gets to the spiritual core of our beings as composers.’
This recording draws on British composers’ responses to this genre in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In many ways it was Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia—first performed on the radio in 1942—that rekindled musicians’ interest in celebrating their patron saint. The Musicians Benevolent Fund revived the tradition of an annual service of celebration for St Cecilia in 1947, and has marked the occasion with a new commission almost every year. Many of the pieces on this recording are the result of those commissions—and all, whether they sing in praise of St Cecilia herself or not, speak of the universal power and virtue of music.
This album begins with a new setting of Cecilia Virgo commissioned by the Choir of Royal Holloway from James MacMillan. The Latin text dates from the 1500s and MacMillan chose ‘to draw on the heritage of richly contrapuntal music from the sixteenth century’. The work is scored for double choir, allowing the composer to make full use of ‘the multiplication of voice parts, as well as the antiphonal duality of the split choir’. This arresting call to Cecilia is heightened by the use of the opposing keys of C major and D major, and it is interesting to compare this use of bitonality with Elgar’s There is sweet music, written over a hundred years earlier. Unlike Elgar’s piece, here the keys are held directly in opposition and yet the effect is both radiant and mesmerizing, and gives a sense of the all-embracing nature of God’s mercy.
The poet, librettist and author Ursula Wood married Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1953 and in the same year Ralph set her poem Silence and Music as his contribution to ‘A Garland for the Queen’, in which ten composers and ten poets paid tribute to Elizabeth II in her coronation year. The dedication reads ‘To the memory of Charles Villiers Stanford, and his Blue Bird’, and there are clear echoes of Stanford’s haunting part song, with its soprano line floating above the dreamy, unresolved harmonies of the lower voices.
Gabriel Jackson’s La musique was commissioned by Dame Felicity Lott and the Choir of Royal Holloway. In celebrating this collaboration between the choir and distinguished Royal Holloway alumna Dame Felicity Lott, Jackson felt that music itself seemed an appropriate subject. The composer explained that he ‘also wanted to exploit Dame Felicity’s special rapport with the French language and to clearly define the roles of both protagonists by having the choir sing in English throughout, and the featured soprano entirely in French’. Jackson continues: ‘Baudelaire’s La musique and Elizabeth Bishop’s poem counterpoint each other very well with their shared (though somewhat different) images of the sea, the “quivering limbs” of the one echoed by convulsions and vibrations in the other … The musical counterpoint is one of simultaneity rather than intertwining—there is no sharing of material, although the rapt calm of the coda transmutes Baudelaire’s despair into something stoical and ecstatic.’
Bernard Rose was for many years Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford, and was commissioned to write for the 1975 annual St Cecilia service. The text for the Feast Song for St Cecilia comes from the pen of the composer’s son Gregory, and Bernard Rose paints the words with great care for their natural rhythm. The haunting refrain is set for soprano solo and bids us ‘sing to the Creator as this great Saint sang in her heart’.
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett was respected as one of Britain’s most versatile musicians with a varied compositional output including numerous film scores alongside half a century’s work as a writer and performer of jazz. Responding to a commission to write for the 2006 St Cecilia service held in St Paul’s Cathedral, Bennett, like Rose, also chose to avoid traditional texts in favour of one from a family member. The poetry of M R Peacocke (Bennett’s sister Meg) has been likened to the language of Elizabeth Bishop for its ‘bristly perceptive clarity for minutiae’ (David Morley in The Guardian). Bennett sets these Verses on St Cecilia’s Day across six choral parts, unusually dividing the two middle voices, lending a distinctive harmonic richness to the middle register of his choral palette.
Edward Elgar composed many part songs as test pieces for choral competitions, and with There is sweet music (1907) he appeared to have set the ultimate challenge by scoring the tenors and basses in G major with the upper voices in the key of A flat major. Diana McVeigh wrote that ‘for individuality, strength and certainty of effect he has no superior among English part-song writers’. Perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than in this remarkable tonal experiment where keys may appear to oppose each other fiercely on paper yet, in performance, combine to exquisitely expressive effect. The text, a verse from Tennyson’s The Lotos-eaters, is richly scored for eight voices.
Nowhere else does the relationship between innocence and music collide with more creative intensity than in Benjamin Britten’s setting of W H Auden’s poetry in Hymn to St Cecilia. Books, articles and even a play have been written about the challenging relationship between these two exceptionally creative individuals. This rather intense alliance culminated in the somewhat bohemian ménage of Britten, Pears, Auden and Kallman in a house in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940. Britten was born on St Cecilia’s Day so it was hardly surprising that he had spent a number of years considering writing his own ode to the patron saint of music. He asked Auden to provide a text and the result in 1940 was ‘Three Songs for St Cecilia’s Day’, later published as ‘Anthem for St Cecilia’s Day (for Benjamin Britten)’. This was to be their last collaboration; by this point it was already clear that the friendship was waning.
Interpreting Auden’s poetry is complex, with many possible layers of meaning. Here, in the context of other writings from Auden aimed at Britten, it is hard not to read Auden’s St Cecilia text as a possible commentary on Britten himself—some would even suggest his rejection of Auden’s love (‘There is no creature / Whom I belong to, / Whom I could wrong … I shall never be / Different. Love me’). Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Britten suggests that this poem is a commentary on Britten’s refusal to properly embrace his sexuality, keeping him locked in an artificial ‘childhood’ thereby avoiding adult responsibilities and emotions. Certainly the first section acknowledges both the intellectual/chaste aspect of music (St Cecilia) as well as the emotional/erotic (Aphrodite). Throughout the middle section (‘I cannot grow; / I have no shadow / To run away from, / I only play’), is Auden referring to St Cecilia after death, to the voice of music itself, or to Britten? In the final section, a lament, it is as if St Cecilia herself is speaking to us through the soprano solo, answering our prayer to restore and celebrate lost innocence through music. Auden may have produced this last portion of text later than the earlier sections; Britten had found himself stuck and it was only during the difficult journey home aboard the Axel Johnson that the work was completed. Paradoxically, Britten’s creative block and depression were lifted during this dangerous wartime journey and he was able to provide a celebratory response to the final lines of Auden’s text. No matter how one interprets the text, there is no doubt that Britten’s musical response is a remarkable work coming at a pivotal moment in his career.
Herbert Howells’ A Hymn for St Cecilia was commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Musicians to mark Howells’ Mastership of the Company in 1959–60 and sets a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams. Paul Spicer rightly asserts that it is ‘a classic “cumulative” tune which carries the singer along on a tide of increasing emotional energy and leaves an impression of being a piece much bigger than its constituent parts’. The anthem was first performed on St Cecilia’s Day in 1961 in St Paul’s Cathedral and the descant to the third verse was an afterthought added at the request of the cathedral organist John Dykes Bower.
Sir George Dyson studied in Italy and Germany on a Mendelssohn Scholarship before establishing a distinguished career as music master in a number of England’s top public schools and becoming Director of the Royal College of Music. Retirement in 1952 afforded time for more composition, including responding to a commission to write for the annual St Cecilia service. In Live for ever, glorious Lord Dyson sets words by John Austin (1636–1669) and makes extensive use of a soprano soloist. This piece illustrates his mastery of organ writing, with colourful textures throughout supporting expressive melodic lines amid harmony reminiscent of Delius.
John Gardner—another composer with a distinguished career in education—was commissioned to write for the 1973 festival, perhaps following the huge popularity of his 1965 carol setting Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. Gardner sets the first section of John Dryden’s A song for St Cecilia’s Day with a long organ pedal and drifting ‘heavenly harmonies’ creating a stately atmosphere of reverence to the primordial power of music.
Sir Arthur Bliss succeeded Sir Arnold Bax as Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953 and relished the opportunities for the composition of ceremonial and occasional music. Despite claiming in his autobiography of 1966 that he found ‘my joy in writing music on the wane’ the last few years of his life saw a flurry of compositional activity. Sing, mortals!, a ‘Sonnet for the Festival of St Cecilia’, was commissioned for the St Cecilia service in 1974 and is catalogued as his last choral composition. Bliss sets a text by Canon Richard Tydeman, Rector at the time of the Church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London. Known as the National Musicians’ Church, this was the home for many years of the annual St Cecilia service.
Rupert Gough © 2014