Today is Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day on the Roman Catholic calendar. The third century martyr is venerated as the patron of music and musicians. According to legend, despite taking a vow of celibacy, she was forced by her parents to marry a pagan nobleman. She “sang in her heart to the Lord” on her wedding day, illustrating the divine, meditative, and transcendent power of music.
Fortuitously, the English composer, Benjamin Britten, was born on this date in 1913. Following in the footsteps of distant predecessors such as Purcell and Handel, Britten composed the Hymn to Saint Cecilia, Op. 27 in 1942. The work, scored for five-part unaccompanied chorus, is set to a text by W.H. Auden. It would be one of Britten’s final collaborations with the poet, with whom he had worked frequently since 1936. Britten began working on the score while in the United States. Upon boarding a ship to return to the United Kingdom, customs officials in New York seized the manuscript, fearful that it contained secret wartime codes. Britten restored and completed the score during the voyage.
The Hymn to Saint Cecilia unfolds in three sections. Each section concludes with a recurring invocation to the muse:
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
In the opening bars, a gently lilting melody, filled with wandering twists and turns, unfolds over a ground bass line, initiated by the tenors. The second section is a rapid, scurrying scherzo with fugue-like interjections. The final section, beginning with a new ostinato bass line, suggests the forward momentum of a march. It is interrupted by a serene lament for the lost innocence of children, “playing among the ruined languages.”
This 2020 performance features the British vocal ensemble, VOCES8:
- Britten: Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27, VOCES8 Amazon
Featured Image: Saint Cecilia in a window in the church of St Mary The Virgin in Little Wymondley in Hertfordshire.