St Cecilia is the patroness of musicians, whose feast day is celebrated on 22 November. Concerts and festivals have for centuries been held to mark the occasion, with distinguished poets and musicians producing new works from time to time as part of the celebrations.
You can sample extracts from some of these musical dedications below. Before doing that, however, maybe it's not inappropriate to think of life without music. Gerald Finzi was still surrounded by the deprivations of Word War II when he composed his Ode on the rejection of St Cecilia (8.557963) in 1948; it's a setting of the poem by George Barker (1913-1991) that provides a thoughtful foil for the many happy musical events that will be taking place around this time.
Listen to Finzi's setting of the opening stanza
Rise, underground sleepers, rise from the grave
Under a broken-hearted sky
And hear the swansinging nightmare grieve
For this deserted anniversary
Where horned a heart sobs in the wilderness
By the thunderbolt of the day.
Gerald Finzi made a significant contribution to British twentieth-century song and choral repertoire. His acute awareness of the frailty of existence had already found its musical expression in his settings of Thomas Hardy (8.557644), before he began his Intimations of Immortality in the late 1930s. Set to nine of the eleven stanzas of Wordsworth’s Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, Finzi’s Intimations is a deeply touching lament for the passing of the instinctive, intuitive freshness of childhood. His Ode for St Cecilia is an exultant paean honouring music’s patron saint.
“We’ve all grown used to Naxos winners. Perhaps we even take the artistic quality of much of the budget label’s output for granted. But this disc is up there with the finest money can buy, a red-letter recording of Finzi’s masterpiece, Intimations of Immortality, and an unbeatable introduction to the composer’s setting of Edmund Blunden’s ode For St Cecilia. James Gilchrist has never sounded finer on disc, colouring phrases with mercurial changes of tone and accent and weighting Wordsworth’s evocative text with true affection. David Hill’s command of both scores, meanwhile, elicits classy music-making from the Bournemouth SO and Chorus. Unmissable.”
– Classic FM ★★★★★
Listen to an extract from Finzi's For St Cecilia, Op. 30: Delightful Goddess, in whose fashionings
Benjamin Britten's compositional output was vast, covering every form of music from operas and ballets to simple voice settings of folksongs. He was also a highly respected conductor, solo pianist, accompanist and an eager participant in many chamber groups. His large catalogue of choral works spans the whole of his compositional career, much of his music in this genre employing sacred texts that were derived from contemporary poets. They inspired Britten to fashion some of his most radiant scores, his unique use of boys' voices providing such a distinctive and exciting tonal quality that his music has come to characterise British church music of the twentieth century.
“The sound gives us the space and resonance of St John's chapel while allowing us to hear every detail, with good balance between organ and singers. This disc will make an excellent introduction to Britten's choral music - and will satisfy Britten aficionados who just can't resist adding another top drawer compilation to their collection.”
Listen to an extract from Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27
Handel’s setting of John Dryden’s 1687 Ode for St Cecilia’s Day was first performed in 1739 on the appropriate feast day, 22nd November. Although Handel relied to some extent on borrowed material, he incorporates a variety of colourful instrumental effects in vivid illustration of the text. The Ode ends with one of Handel’s noblest final choruses, and one of Dryden’s most visionary verses, celebrating together the all-embracing glory of music itself. It is easily the most substantial movement of the Ode, and reminds us that the composition of The Messiah was only two years away.
“Concerto Polacco plays neatly and stylishly, while the German chorus sing with fresh, well-blended tone … anyone who investigates this new disc will get a thoroughly enjoyable performance of an enchanting piece.”
– The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
Listen to an extract from Handel's Ode for St Cecilia's Day: The trumpet's loud clangour
1995 marked the three-hundredth anniversary of the death of Purcell, and during that year numerous performances of his music were given in the U.K., yet one of the most important events was the discovery of a long lost work, The Noise of Foreign Wars, which was performed with the present artists who now give the première recording. Yet another world first for Naxos, the label which is bringing an ever increasing number of premières to the recording scene.
The remainder of the disc is an ideal entry point to the music of Purcell as it contains both his orchestral and his choral music.
It is performed by a relatively new period instrument group, the Orchestra of the Golden Age, with their specialist choir and a group of soloists, dedicated to the promotion of music from this period.
The disc also features one of the great virtuosos of the natural trumpet, and for those who are unfamiliar with this instrument it has no valves, the notes having to be conjured up by the musicians work within the mouthpiece of the trumpet. This short work provides David Staff with an ideal opportunity to demonstrate his skill.
“These superb examples of Purcell’s choral music, both church music and secular cantatas, as well as a brief, joyful trumpet sonata, make an attractive collection, well recorded. The singing is excellent from a group which includes such distinguished singers as the counter-tenor, Christopher Robson.”
– Penguin Guide
Listen to an extract from Purcell's Ode for St Cecilia's Day: Here the deities approve