November 2013

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A concert for St Cecilia’s day

Palestrina Missa Papae Marcelli
Britten Hymn to St Cecilia
Parry Blest Pair of Sirens

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) was one of the towering figures of late sixteenth-century music.  The Missa Papae Marcelli is the most renowned of his works, supreme amongst the composer’s 104 mass settings.  It was first published in 1567 but the date of its actual composition is unclear; it has fascinated musicians and historians because of the legends surrounding the work.  Writing in 1828, the Abbé Baini suggested that it was composed for a gathering of a commission established to ascertain whether various mass settings were sufficiently comprehensible to a congregation, following the injunctions of the Council of Trent for the writing of ‘la musica intelligibile’: the whole plain of singing in musical modes shall be constituted not to give empty pleasure to the ear, but in such a way that the words may be clearly understood by all, and the hearts of the listeners be drawn to the desire of heavenly harmonies, in the contemplation of joys of the blessed.  Baini suggested that the mass was composed to persuade the Council of Trent that a draconian ban on polyphonic treatment of text in sacred music was unnecessary – there is a superb dramatization of this in Hans Pfitzner’s great opera of 1917, Palestrina.  The myth has since been demolished and the mass is now thought to date from about 1555, possibly in celebration of the enthronement of the short-reigned Pope Marcellus.  Whatever the legend, the mass is perfectly concordant with the Council’s directives, with a simplicity of manner and a translucent beauty of musical material that has given rise to superlatives from Palestrina’s time to ours. The Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei have a poised serenity whereas the Gloria and Credo, with their lengthy texts, demonstrate something more deeply majestic.  Its properties of textual clarity, spiritual joy, rhythmic vitality and a ‘simultaneously grand and humble expression of faith of great profundity’ make the mass a timeless, unsurpassed masterpiece.

Cecilia was a Roman noblewoman martyred for her Christian faith in the second century AD. The traditional account of her life is famous as the Second Nun’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is said that as she suffered a lingering death she sang exultantly to God, thus becoming the patroness of musicians and of church music. The occasion of her feast-day, 22 November, inspired fine works by a number of composers including Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), who was born on this same day 100 years ago.  His Hymn to St Cecilia dates from 1942 and is set to a text of his friend W.H. Auden.  The poet conflates his subject – the patron saint of music – with composers and music in general.  The piece is in three sections and opens with a broad triadic tune for the upper three parts set against a bell-like invocation from tenors and basses.  The section moves to a haunting supplication to Cecilia which appears as a unifying hymnic theme at the end of each of the sections.  The middle section has been compared to a glockenspiel, with mercurial quickness in the sopranos and tenor set against more bell-like chimes from alto and bass.  This is often seen as a self-portrait of music ‘I cannot grow, I have no shadow to run away from, I only play’.  The final section falls into two parts.  The first represents mankind praying to Cecilia, who is music personified: his petition calls on music to transform, develop, and invigorate the emotions.  There is an underlying tension (‘dread, like a beast, of things that never change’) which is partly resolved by the lyrical sweetness of ‘O dear white children’, but not for long, as the music moves to the second part, Cecilia’s answer.  Using references to the four families of musical instruments – strings, percussion, wind and brass – the piece ends on a note of optimism: with the help of music, we can transcend our ills and turn pain into beauty.  The work sparkles with passion and ingenuity.  Barry Holden has described the piece as ‘speaking warmly to musicians who have always delighted in its themes, revelled in its harmonies and relished its technical challenge… maybe [this] is the work’s deepest truth’.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) began writing music from an early age but it was not until 1880 that he achieved national recognition with the première of his piano concerto at Crystal Palace.  In 1894 Parry was appointed Director of the Royal College of Music; he was knighted in 1898 and made a baronet five years later.  Blest Pair of Sirens, one of the composer’s best-known works, was written in 1887 and is a setting of Milton’s Ode ‘At a solemn musick’.  Milton combines the classical Greek idea of a lost Golden Age with the Christian doctrine of the Fall, the poem ending with the prayer that through the blest pair of Sirens – Voice and Verse – we may once again unite with God’s own ‘celestial concert’.  Its originality, passion and fluent technical mastery were unprecedented, effectively establishing Parry as the leading composer of the day.  The leisurely setting finds imaginative musical equivalents for the magnificent sweep and solemnity of Milton’s verse.  The culmination, ‘O may we soon again renew that song’, spreads from the sopranos to the whole choir before turning seamlessly into a fugue on ‘To live with him’ which again transforms into the more homophonic textures of the final bars: the whole forms one magnificent arch of music.