Hail! Bright Cecilia

Saint Cecilia and an angel / Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco.
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington. (C.C.0)

It is usual at this time of year to think about Halloween, Remembrance Sunday and Christmas.  On my journeys home from work I pass by the railings of St Botolph’s Church where in pre-Covid times there were many posters advertising music for St Cecilia’s Day. I couldn’t help noticing the enthusiasm for concerts for the patron saint of music and musicians. St Cecilia’s day is November 22nd. Cecilia, also spelled Cecily, was born in Rome in the 2nd century AD into a wealthy patrician family. She was martyred around 230 A D. She was one of the most famous virgin martyrs of the early church.

Jacob Obrecht the Flemish-Dutch composer was born on St Cecilia’s Day in 1458 and died in 1505. I was in a choir which sung a piece by him in Belgium as part of a festival, which was enjoyable.

Benjamin Britten was born on St Cecilia’s day in 1913. I couldn’t find his grave in Aldeburgh churchyard but I did have an enjoyable day visiting the Britten Pears Library with the Cambridge Library Group. As St Cecilia’s day was also Britten’s birthday it’s not surprising he wrote a piece for St Cecilia. His Hymn to St Cecilia was first performed on the radio in 1942. The work was set to a poem by W.H. Auden. I enjoy listening to his version of the National Anthem at the Last Night of the Proms.

Henry Purcell was born on the 10th September 1659 in Westminster, London and died on 21st November 1695, Marsham Street, London so his dates are not quite as interesting as Benjamin Britten’s but he did write Hail! Bright Cecilia set to a text by Irish poet Nicholas Brady in 1692. This ode to St Cecilia is full of references to musical instruments. There is a full orchestra with many vocal soloists.

Haydn wrote the St Cecilia Mass in 1766. It is also known as Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae. It is not performed much. It has intricate fugues interspersed with elegant melodic lines.

Herbert Howells wrote a choral work in 1960 called A Hymn to St Cecilia. It is set to a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, the English poet and author and wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is set for four-part choir and organ. It moves from joy to a contemplative end.

Peter Hurford OBE was born on 22nd November 1930 and was an organist and composer. He was appointed an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, where he had formerly been an organ scholar, in 2006.

Cecil Sharp photographed ca. 1900.

Cecil Sharp, famous for being a folk song collector, was born on St Cecilia’s Day 1859 and named after St Cecilia. He was educated at Uppingham School but left at 15 and was privately coached for Cambridge University where he rowed in the Clare College boat and graduated B.A. in 1882.

Peter Hall born on St Cecilia’s day 1930 in Bury St Edmunds is best known by people born in Cambridge as a former pupil at the Perse School in Cambridge but of course the nation knew him as an English stage, film and opera director. He was director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

Hoagy Carmichael was born on 22nd November 1899. He composed many songs and is best known for composing the music for Stardust  which Nat “King” Cole and many others sang. Sir Terry Wogan was on Desert Island Discs thrice with Roy Plomley, Sue Lawley, and Kirsty Young. Stardust featured in both of the first two recordings.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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