Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Saint Cecilia

Named the patron saint of music and musicians (alas, under somewhat dubious conditions), Saint Cecilia is celebrated on this date.  On YouTube, you can hear a lecture by the celebrated conductor Christopher Hogwood about Cecilia, which takes on the veracity of the legend (early in the video, so you don't have to watch the whole thing).  As the website at the first link above states: Never was so much made of such a tiny bit of pseudo-biographical information.

Cecilia has been the subject of much sacred poetry, and much of that poetry has been set to music over the last several centuries.  Hogwood also recounts the English tradition of musical commemoration of Cecilia with concerts on this day, a tradition which dates back at least to the sixteenth century. This history is recounted in William Henry Husk's An Account of the Musical Celebrations on St. Cecilia's Day in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries (1857).

One of the pieces written for these celebrations which is still popular today is Hail, Bright Cecilia (1692) composed by Henry Purcell.  The poem itself was written by Nicholas Brady, best known for his psalm paraphrases with his collaborator Nahum Tate. Their New Version of the Psalms of David (1696) provided the texts for congregational singing for the next few centuries (and we have seen two of their texts here and here).

This video is the final movement of Purcell's and Brady's ode (text below). Hogwood's lecture also talks more about the piece, among others written for the day.

Hail! Bright Cecilia, Hail to thee!
Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!
Who, whilst among the Choir above
Thou dost thy former Skill improve,
With Rapture of Delight dost see
Thy Favourite Art
Make up a Part
Of infinite Felicity.
Hail! Bright Cecilia, Hail to thee!
Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!

Even though Cecilia's original connection to music may have been the result of misinterpretation, the centuries since have inspired such a wealth of musical tributes to her (including the hymns we have also seen here in previous years) that she has gained a sort of reverse legitimacy.

Seven Years Ago: Saint Cecilia

Six Years Ago: Successive Cecilias  (female composers of hymn tunes)

One Year Ago: Saint Cecilia

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