A Celebration of Saint Cecilia

Joy of Music
A Celebration of Saint Cecilia

Saturday 19 November 2016
St James Priory, Bristol

Christopher Finch - conductor
Nigel Nash - piano
Joe Pritchard - cello

Concert Order

(Scroll down or click a composer or work to view programme notes...)

J S Bach Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied
Benjamin Britten Hymn to Saint Cecilia
J S Bach Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008
Thomas Tallis Spem in alium
William Harris Faire is the Heaven
Cecilia McDowall Cecilia, busy like a bee
Eric Whitacre Her sacred spirit soars

Blessed Cecilia - Piety, Purity and Patronage

Saint Cecilia was one of the most venerated martyrs of Christian antiquity. The earliest historical account of her life and martyrdom can be found in ‘Martyrolgium Hieronymianum’, a record of saint-lore compiled by the monks in Gaul during the sixth century. Yet despite evidence of the celebration of her feast in the Roman Church from as early as the fourth century, her patronage of music, and specifically church music, dates from the 14th or 15th century.

Unlike the discredited accounts of many early saints, historians of early church history are convinced of the existence of the third century martyr Cecilia and her husband Valerian. Her dramatic life story finds its finest literary expression in the English language in the ‘Second Nun's Tale’ of Chaucer&appos;s ‘Canterbury Tales’. It is evident that rather than referring to the earliest documentation, Chaucer used as his primary source the florid and highly dramatic account from ‘The Golden Legend’ a thirteenth century encyclopaedia of ecclesiastical lore and legend. In Chaucer's iconic text, he provides five interpretations of the name of Cecilia (Cecillie), each a beautiful description of the Saint's character and virtue: Lily of heaven, the way for the blind, contemplation of heaven, a lack of blindness, a heaven for people to gaze at.

The propagation of a much romanticised version of Saint Cecilia's life from the early mediaeval period onward, has led to confusion and disagreement over even the most fundamental aspects of her story. The following is but one of the many accounts of her life:

There was in the city of Rome a virgin named Cecilia, who was given in marriage to a youth named Valerian. She wore sackcloth next to her skin, and fasted, and invoked the saints and angels and virgins, beseeching them to guard her virginity. And she said to her husband, “I will tell you a secret if you will swear not to reveal it to anyone”. And when he swore, she added, “There is an angel who watches me, and wards off from me any who would touch me.” He said, “Dearest, if this be true, show me the anger.” &ldquio;That can only be if you will believe in one God, and be baptized”.

She sent him to Pope S. Urban (223-230), who baptized him; and when he returned, he saw Cecilia praying in her chamber, and an angel by her with flaming wings, holding two crowns of roses and lilies, which he placed on their heads, and then vanished. Shortly after, Tibertius, the brother of Valerian, entered, and wondered at the fragrance and beauty of the flowers at that season of the year.

When he heard the story of how they had obtained these crowns, he also consented to be baptized. After their baptism the two brothers devoted themselves to burying the martyrs slain daily by the prefect of the city, Turcius Almachius. They were arrested and brought before the prefect and when they refused to sacrifice to the gods were executed with the sword.

In the meantime, Cecilia, by preaching had converted four hundred persons, whom Pope Urban forthwith baptized. Then Cecilia was arrested, and condemned to be suffocated in the baths. She was shut in for a night and a day, and the fires were heaped up, and made to glow and roar their utmost but Cecilia did not even break out into perspiration through the heat. When Aimachius heard this he sent an executioner to cut off her head in the bath. The man struck thrice without being able to sever the head from the trunk. He left her bleeding, and she lived three days. Crowds came to her, and collected her blood with napkins and sponges, whilst she preached to them or prayed. At the end of that period she died, and was buried by Pope Urban and his deacons. (source: www.catholicorg)

An ancient description of her wedding day provided the foundation for Saint Cecilia's patronage of music. Tradition tells that on hearing the organ's melody she sang in her heart unto God, with the words “O Lord I beseech thee that mine heart and body may be undefiled so that I not be confounded”. A popular and much quoted legend heralds Saint Cecilia as the inventor of the organ. Despite the beautiful symbolism of this legend, it originated from a mis-translation of the original Latin text of the ‘Acts of Saint Cecilia’: “Cantantibus organis in corde suo soli Domino decantabat”; the word “organum” in this context referring to the organ of speech and singing.

In reality it was the representations of St. Cecilia by artists and sculptors that perpetuated the myth of Cecilia's association with music. A painting by Raphael from the beginning of the 16th century depicts her with a small organ in her hand. Around a hundred years later Domenichino portrayed her in three works, with an organ, as a violinist, and as a bass violist. In 1584 at the foundation of the Academy of Music in Rome, Cecilia was adopted as the patron of church music and her Patronal festival instituted on 22nd November. Since this time, composers have written large scale works to celebrate St. Cecilia as a muse and source of inspiration to all musicians. In this country, many notable composers including Purcell, Jeremiah Clarke, Handel, Parry and Howells have written large scale works to be performed on her feast day.

Other less well substantiated legends elaborate St. Cecilia's relationship with music. Some describe how her extreme piety enabled her to hear the angelic choir of heaven. Other sources describe how as she lay waiting for her death, she proclaimed the truth of God's salvation through songs and psalms of praise.

The truth of St. Cecilia's life and death may have been irrevocably obscured through the ages. However, we have been left with an significant figure of adoration in two guises. Firstly, she remains a much revered saint in the Roman and Orthodox churches, as a pious and pure woman whose faith showed others the path to salvation. Secondly, she is a patron and muse to all musicians, whose importance is shown clearly in the final stanza of Auden's majestic poem ‘A Hymn to St. Cecilia’:

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

Programme note by Christopher Finch

Notes on the composers and tonight's works

Notes provided by Tim Warren

JS Bach (1685-1750) - Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied

All of Bach's German motets date from his earlier years in Leipzig, from 1723-31. All are great pieces, and all are hard to perform, and harder to perform convincingly. If you were to ask any choral singer which is the most difficult, they would probably reply with the one they sang most recently. Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied was written about 1727. It has been plausibly suggested that Bach used it as a training piece for his choir, as well as in church services: it would certainly have sorted out the sheep from the goats amongst his choristers. It is scored for two four-part choirs, and would probably have been accompanied by organ continuo, as we are doing this evening, although Bach's manuscript does not mention this.

It is divided into three sections:

The first section is organised like a prelude and fugue but the prelude and fugue overlap, so you will have to be alert to hear the start of the fugue, which happens around two and a half minutes in, when the Sopranos of choir 1 start a new, quite long (and wonderful) tune to the words Die Kinder Zion sei'n frölich. You may be able to spot subsequent appearances of this theme - there are eight in all. The words are from Psalm 149.

The second section, which is slower, was marked by Bach Aria. In it choir 2 sing a harmonisation of a chorale tune - eleven phrases. In between each phrase choir 1 ‘comments’ with more complex music. The words are from the third verse of a 16th century German hymn Nun lob, mein Seel.

The final section is, like the first, a prelude and fugue, but this time it's much easier to spot where the fugue begins. The basses start it off by themselves to the words Alles, was Odem hat. Words are from Psalm 150.

Throughout the piece Bach's sure control of textures, motifs, structure and harmony never falters - a truly astonishing achievement.

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - Hymn to St. Cecilia

Britten was born on St Cecilia's Day, November 22nd, and felt an affinity with the Patron Saint of musicians. He first had the idea of writing a piece about St Cecilia in 1935, but could not find suitable words and abandoned the project. Five years later he asked W. H. Auden to write words for him on the subject. The resulting piece has been called ‘only the second time a great English composer has collaborated with a great English poet’ - the first being the masque King Arthur, with words by Dryden and music by Purcell. Britten started work on the piece in America in 1940, but had only written part of the first movement when in 1942 he and Peter Pears returned to Britain on the MS Axel Johnson. The manuscript of the completed section of the piece was confiscated by an over-zealous customs official, who feared that the strange squiggles might conceal information useful to the enemy. While at sea, Britten rewrote the confiscated part from memory, and completed the piece.

The piece is written for unaccompanied five-part choir with a soprano solo in the last movement on O dear white children.

The words have a reputation for being colourful and memorable but obscure. It's important to remember that it's all about music, though the word “music” does not appear in the poem. The first section, the easiest to understand, concerns the legend of St Cecilia, who is supposed to have invented the organ in order to enhance her prayer. It deliberately uses both Roman and Christian images and concentrates on music's ability to entrance and soothe.

The second refers to music's static quality, and inability to make transformative change - I cannot grow - note how Britten's music here always returns to the same chords and phrases, and does not change or develop. The music is a fast and light fugato.

In the third, and most complex movement, Auden refers to music's effect on people, and its relationship to a wider world. The dear white children casual as birds, playing among the ruined languages may be composers, specifically Britten; by his great setting Britten makes it clear that he understood the criticism and was reconciled to his own pacifism and political neutrality. In a reference to 17th century Odes to Saint Cecilia, the words refer to different instruments: violin, drum, flute and trumpet are represented by alto, bass, soprano and tenor soloists.

Each section is followed by a varied refrain, Blessed Cecilia.

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Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) - Spem in alium

Not much is known for certain of the writing of Tallis's great 40-part motet; here are ten theories, some certain, others more speculative or contradictory:

What to listen for: most importantly, the piece's unique and stunning sound-world, with the sounds of the eight five-part choirs coming from different directions and combining in imaginative and never-predictable varieties of texture. At the beginning, over the course of about two minutes, the sound gradually works its way from choir 1 over to choir 8; after a shortish full section it works its way back again. Note the dramatic entry of all 40 voices on an unexpected chord to the word Respice about a minute before the end - possibly the greatest single moment in Tudor music; and the glorious final section from there.

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William Harris (1883-1973) - Faire is the Heaven

Harris was an organist and composer who held a number of posts as organist and choir-trainer, most notably at St George's Chapel, Windsor from 1933 to 1961. He is remembered nowadays for a handful of choral pieces, of which Faire is the Heaven, written in 1925, is perhaps the most notable; it is one of the best-loved pieces of Anglican church music, though because of its difficulty not performed that often. Spenser's poem about heaven would seem to be a difficult one for which to find adequate musical images, but Harris's imaginative treatment for eight-part unaccompanied choir manages this very well. A key to the success of the piece is his ability to maintain the sense of momentum as each rank of angels is succeeded by another ‘more faire’: listen for example to the magical chord change at yet far more faire be those. Other highlights include one of the most celebrated 20th century instances of the English cadence at the word overdight, and the serene ending, which interprets the image of such endlesse perfectnesse with a perfectly serene chord of D flat.

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Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) - Cecilia, busy like a bee

Cecilia McDowell was born in London in 1951. Much of her music is choral but she has also written chamber music, songs, a short opera and for orchestra. Some of you may remember Christus natus est, a selection of carols sensitively arranged for choir and brass, which we sang for our Christmas concert in 2014.

Cecilia, busy like a bee was first performed exactly one year ago at Royal Holloway in Surrey. The words, partly in Latin, partly English, are adapted from medieval liturgies for St Cecilia's day. As far as I can tell, McDowell has not used any of the associated plainsong melodies.

The piece is written for unaccompanied choir in five parts, with a soprano solo which comes in in several places, and appears to represent Cecilia herself - the saint, not the composer. It lasts for about 6 minutes.

Although the piece uses a variety of textures and types of harmony, it sounds unified. The different styles represent or mirror the different tones and emphases of Cecilia's prayers. Notice in particular the whole-tone chords used in the sections where the choir repeats the word saying, and the last chord, which is unexpected but satisfying - always the sign of a composer who knows what she (or he) is about.

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Eric Whitacre (b.1970) - Her sacred spirit soars

Her sacred spirit soars was commissioned from Eric Whitacre and his poet collaborator Charles Anthony Silvestri for the Heartland festival in Platteville, Wisconsin in 2005. Since the festival had an Elizabethan theme, Silvestri decided to cast the poem as a sonnet more or less in Elizabethan style, and (at Whitacre's suggestion) to end with an extra line tacked on: Long live fair Oriana, a reference to Elizabeth I used by several madrigalists. The poem, which is also an acrostic, is about poetic inspiration: how all poets are inspired (beginning) but not equally so (middle) and finally suggesting various sources of inspiration, ending with the Virgin Queen herself. Whitacre set the piece for two equal choirs, both of 5 parts. It lasts about six minutes.

What to listen for: in the first section all the music sung by choir 1 (on the left as you look) is repeated after one bar by choir 2 (on the right). It should be possible to hear this - listen out for any new phrase, and then hear it again 3-4 seconds later. Notice the ‘musical staircase’ effect that this technique creates at the beginning. The second section, starting In whose sweet words is shorter, and both choirs sing a richly harmonised chorale-like melody together. O shall Cecilia starts the third section, which uses the same canonic technique as the first - note the faster music on quickening fire. Finally LONG LIVE FAIR ORIANA makes a loud coda, ending with one of Whitacre's favourite added-ninth chords.

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