Wednesday 21 August 2019

Classical: Divine inspiration and Cecilia - the patron saint of music

Korean soprano: Sumi Jo, who has performed at the Olympics, was born on St Cecilia's Day
Korean soprano: Sumi Jo, who has performed at the Olympics, was born on St Cecilia's Day

George Hamilton

Tomorrow is a significant day for music and musicians for it is the feast day of their patron saint, Cecilia. A Roman martyr from the 2nd or 3rd century, the reason why this connection with music came about isn't altogether clear, but in medieval times, she was being commemorated with what became major occasions, particularly in London.

The Cecilian Festival - the first of them was recorded in 1683 - would consist of a choral service that was followed by a specially commissioned poem with music.

The top English composer of the time, Henry Purcell, who died on this date in 1695, just before St Cecilia's Day, was heavily involved in that original celebration.

He wrote a piece called 'Welcome to All The Pleasures', the first of four he would compose especially for the day.

The most famous of them - one that's become known as 'Purcell's Ode to St Cecilia' - was written to words by an Anglican clergyman from Bandon in Co Cork, one Nicholas Brady.

'Hail! Bright Cecilia' is its title. With references to all manner of musical instruments, from the airy violin and the amorous flute to the soft guitar, it has special praise for the organ - "Wondrous machine" - which was the instrument most associated with Cecilia.

"Hail! Bright Cecilia," Brady's poem concludes, "Hail to Thee! Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!"

Cecilia came from a well-to-do family. The 18th century basilica in Rome that's dedicated to her memory - Santa Cecilia in Trastevere - is built over the ruins of an ancient upmarket house, said to be Cecilia's old home, parts of which you can view underneath.

In front of the altar is a statue of St Cecilia in repose, depicting her martyrdom, complete with the wounds inflicted by an axe.

If the reasons for Cecilia's musical connection are less than obvious, there are numerous musical links with her feast day. Quite apart from Henry Purcell's anniversary the day before, there is a raft of birthdays that coincide with the day itself.

Johann Sebastian Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, said to be the composer's favourite, and highly regarded as a musical bridge between the Baroque and the Classical, was born on November 22, 1710.

Joaquín Rodrigo, who created the sublime Concierto de Aranjuez for the "soft guitar" of Purcell and Brady's ode, is another born on that date, in his case in 1901.

He named his only child Cecilia.

Benjamin Britten, one of the towering figures of 20th century music, was born on St Cecilia's Day in 1913, exactly 17 years before the birth of Peter Hall, who would go on to direct for both stage and screen and present Britten's operas A Midsummer Night's Dream and Albert Herring at Glyndebourne.

The American conductor Kent Nagano (1951), the Merseyside-born pianist Stephen Hough (1961), and the Korean soprano Sumi Jo (1962), who has performed at the Olympic Games and football's World Cup, are children of St Cecilia's Day as well.

The date is also inextricably linked with one of the most famous of all compositions, instantly recognisable, yet loved and hated in equal measure.

Described by its creator as "20 minutes for orchestra without music", it was on November 22, 1928 that it was given its first public performance.

The piece in question is Ravel's 'Bolero'.

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