Today is the Feast Day of St. Cecilia, an early Christian martyr. Her story dates back to Roman times, when the new religion was still punishable by death.
It wasn’t until the 15th century, however, that St. Cecilia became the patron saint of music and musicians. Over time her Feast Day came to be celebrated with special works composed in her honor, all extolling the power of music. Of these, pieces by three British composers are the most famous.
In the 17th century, Henry Purcell wrote four cantatas, or “Odes” for St. Cecilia’s Day. The most famous of these, entitled “Hail! Bright Cecilia!” was written in 1692.
The British poet John Dryden, a contemporary of Purcell’s, wrote two poems in praise of St. Cecilia. These attracted the attention of the great British composer of the following century, George Frederick Handel. The first of these, “Alexander’s Feast” premiered in 1736, oddly enough not on St. Cecilia’s Day, but proved so popular that Handel set Dryden’s other Ode to St. Cecilia, entitled “From Harmony, Heavenly Harmony,” and performed both pieces on today’s date in 1739.
The great 20th century British composer, Benjamin Britten was actually born on St. Cecilia’s Day in 1913. In the early 1940s, the British poet W.H. Auden wrote a piece entitled "Anthem for St. Cecilia's Day" especially for Britten, who set it to music in 1942.
Music Played in Today's Program
Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695)Hail Bright Cecilia!Gabrieli Consort; Paul McCreeshArchiv 445 882
George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1759)Ode for St. Cecilia's DayEnglish Concert; Trevor Pinnock, cond.Archiv 419 220
Benjamin Britten (1913 –1976)Hymn to St. CeciliaLondon Sinfonietta VoicesVirgin 90728