June 2004

Welcome to all the Pleasures

Purcell Welcome to all the Pleasures
Britten Hymn to St Cecilia
Purcell Come, ye sons of art, away!


St Cecilia, the patroness of music, is celebrated in paintings by Raphael, Rubens and Poussin and in verse by, amongst others, John Dryden OW, Christopher Fishburn and W.H. Auden.  The occasion of her feast-day, 22 November, provided some fine works by a number of composers including Henry Purcell (1659–1695) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).  As an historical figure almost nothing is known about her for certain and her existence seems doubtful.  She is said to have been a patrician woman who had vowed her virginity to God; this did not prevent her marriage to a nobleman Valerian, but she persuaded him to a chaste marriage and also converted him and his brother to Christianity.  Not long afterwards she and the brothers were martyred. The traditional account of her life is famous as the Second Nun’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  She was venerated as a martyr from the late 5th century but her connection with music did not emerge for another thousand years and is thought to have originated from the antiphon taken from her Acts: ‘as the organs were playing, Cecilia sung (in her heart) to the Lord, saying: may my heart remain unsullied, so that I be not confounded’.

From 1608 until 1703 it was the custom in London for ‘Gentlemen Lovers of Music’ to celebrate St Cecilia’s day at Stationer’s Hall, a ‘performance of Music by the best voices and hands in Town… This feast is one of the genteelest in the world…’ The festivities normally included an ode addressed to Cecilia, taking as its theme the power of music to move the emotions.  Fishburn’s poem Welcome to all the Pleasures gives Purcell an opportunity for gentle word-setting, especially in the alto solo Here the deities approve as well as the trio The power shall divert us a pleasanter way, for sorrow and grief find from music relief, and love its soft charms must obey and a melancholy but melodious tenor solo Beauty thou scene of love and virtue thou innocent fire, Made by the powers above to temper the heat of desire.  Unusually the piece ends quietly, with the choral Iô Cecilia fading away to leave just the bass instruments and singers to conclude the Ode.  Purcell’s compositions for Queen Mary, co-regnant wife of William III, span the whole of her brief reign – her coronation in 1689, the formal celebration of her birthday for the next six years, and her funeral in March 1695. The British public was genuinely fond of Mary, and Come, ye sons of art, away! was the composer’s birthday offering in 1694.  The music is wonderfully inventive – there is some joyfully ornate writing in the alto duet Sound the trumpet and the bass solo These are the sacred charms, whilst a more meditative aspect is found in the soprano aria Bid the virtues, bid the graces which has a fluid obbligato oboe accompaniment.  The interspersion of the solo movements with festively triumphant choral writing helps make it one of Purcell’s most enduring pieces.

Britten’s 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 Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire. Translated daughter, come down and startle composing mortals with immortal firewhich 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 is mankind praying to Cecilia, who is music personified: his petition calls on music to transform, develop, and invigorate the emotions.  Sorrow, hope, dread – all released by Music – may actually restore us and our lost innocence.  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 (the innocence of composers as a species, maybe), 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.’