Friday, 21 November 2014


“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato

Saint Cecilia (Latin: Sancta Caecilia) is the patroness of musicians. It is written that as the musicians played at her wedding she “sang in her heart to the Lord”. Her feast day is celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches on November 22. She is one of seven women, excluding the Blessed Virgin, commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.

Cecilia is one of the most famous of the Roman martyrs, even if the familiar stories about her are apparently not founded on authentic material. It was long supposed that she was a noble lady of Rome who, with her husband Valerian, his brother Tiburtius, and a Roman soldier Maximus, suffered martyrdom in about 230, under the Emperor Alexander Severus. The research of Giovanni Battista de Rossi agrees with the statement of Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers (d. 600) that she perished in Sicily under Emperor Marcus Aurelius between 176 and 180.

According to the story, when the time came for her marriage to be consummated, Cecilia told Valerian that she had an angel of the Lord watching over her who would punish him if he dared to violate her virginity but who would love him if he could respect her maidenhood. When Valerian asked to see the angel, Cecilia replied that he would see the angel if he would go to the third milestone on the Via Appia (the Appian Way) and be baptised by Pope Urbanus.

The martyrdom of Cecilia is said to have followed that of Valerian and his brother by the prefect Turcius Almachius. The legend about Cecilia’s death says that after being struck three times on the neck with a sword, she lived for three days, and asked the pope to convert her home into a church. The Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere is reputedly built on the site of the house in which she lived. The original church was constructed in the fourth century; her remains were placed there in the ninth century and the church was rebuilt in 1599.

“Hail! Bright Cecilia” (Z.328), also known as “Ode to St. Cecilia”, was composed by Henry Purcell to a text by the Irishman Nicholas Brady in 1692 in honour of the feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Annual celebrations of this saint's feast day (22 November) began in 1683, organised by the Musical Society of London, a group of musicians and music lovers. Purcell had already written Cecilian pieces in previous years, but this Ode remains the best known.

The first performance was a great success, and received an encore. Brady’s poem was derived from John Dryden’s “A Song for St Cecilia’s Day” in 1687, which suggested that Cecilia invented the organ. With a text full of references to musical instruments, the work requires a wide variety of vocal soloists and obbligato instruments. Brady extols the birth and personality of musical instruments and voices, and Purcell treats these personalities as if they were dramatic characters.

The airs employ a variety of dance forms. “Hark, Each Tree” is a sarabande on a ground. It is a duet on a ground-bass between, vocally, soprano and bass, and instrumentally, between recorders and violins (“box and fir” are the woods used in the making of these instruments). “With That Sublime Celestial Lay” and “Wond’rous Machine” are in praise of the organ. “Thou Tun’st this World” is set as a minuet. “In vain the am’rous Flute” is set to a passacaglia bass.

In spite of Brady’s conceit of the speaking forest (it should be remembered that English organs of the period typically had wooden pipes), Purcell scored the warlike music for two brass trumpets and copper kettle drums instead of fife and (field) drum. The orchestra also includes two recorders (called flutes) with a bass flute, two oboes (called hautboys), strings and basso continuo. Purcell is one of several composers who have written music in honour of Cecilia.

Here is Purcell’s “Ode to St. Cecilia”, 1692, with Lucy Crowe, soprano; Anders J. Dahlin, tenor; David Bates, countertenor; Neil Baker, baritone; Luca Tittoto, bass; Richard Croft, tenor; Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble directed by Nicolas Jenkins and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble directed by Marc Minkowski.

The illustration is “St Cecilia” by Jacques Blanchard (1600–1638), painted in the first half of the 17th century, now in the Hermitage Museum.

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