“Collegial, collaborative music-making of the highest level.” – The Vancouver Sun
A Gentleman’s Journal
The person of Saint Cecilia and her association with music is shrouded in mystery. She had been venerated among the saints since the fifth century, but only began to be regularly identified as patroness of music in the sixteenth century. The first documented music festival held in her honour occurred in Normandy in 1570. In 1585, Sixtus V established one of the oldest musical institutions in the world, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, issuing a papal bull invoking Gregory the Great and Saint Cecilia as the two saints most prominent in the history of western music. Yet, it was in Protestant Restoration England that the celebration of Saint Cecilia flourished especially colourfully. Between the years 1683 and 1703, the Musical Society of London hosted annual festivities including a service at St. Bride’s Church featuring an anthem for choir and orchestra and a sermon in defense of music, followed by a performance at Stationer’s Hall of a newly composed ode in praise of music.
The celebratory ode, a genre of formal lyric poetry borrowed from antiquity, had become extremely popular in the court of Charles II. The times were unsettled; the monarchy newly re-established amid persistent conflicts over succession and religion. The ode served to express political power and loyalty, linking the security of the developing British nation to the king and his divinely ordained authority. Ancient Greece and Rome were often elevated as models for the modern state. Odes written in praise of Saint Cecilia similarly connected English artistic achievement with Cecilia’s patronage and with divine blessing. She became a secular figurehead, conflated with the muses of antiquity.
Further, the texts of the Cecilian odes, always commissioned from Britain’s greatest poets, elevated music, particularly the collaborative process of music-making, as a model for the creation of a healthy civil society. Music unified the arts and sciences, involving diverse disciplines from poetry to instrument technology. Ensemble music harmonized the varied timbres and abilities of instruments and voices. Musical composition knit together a range of influences – music theories traced from antiquity, traditions of musical genre and style, the composer’s own inspiration… Emulating, adapting, reworking, or enriching existing music and text was, in fact, privileged over conspicuous originality. Artists situated themselves and their work within community. So, Nicholas Brady’s text Hail! Bright Cecilia (1692) reworks John Dryden’s famous poem A Song for St. Cecilia’sDay (1687), and Henry Purcell’s setting of Brady’s text dialogues with the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1691) composed by his teacher John Blow.
Hail! Bright Cecilia (1692) is a kaleidoscopic exploration of the power of music to move the emotions. Purcell uses an exceptionally large orchestra and all sorts of combinations of vocal solos, duets, trios, and choruses to paint the purported universal power and cosmic significance of music and the characters associated with different instruments and musical genres. The piece concludes with a bass duet and chorus encouraging the unity of disparate instruments and human voices with the music of Saint Cecilia and her heavenly ensemble.
Matthew Locke’s incidental music for The Tempest formed part of a similarly exemplary collaborative project. During the 1650s, the Commonwealth government forbade spoken theatre, though musical performances remained permissible. Lovers of Shakespeare “operatized” his plays as a way of circumventing the restrictions, and the new genre proved a winning combination of excellent spoken drama with music and spectacle. The most successful of these pieces was the reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, premiered in 1674. Poet John Dryden and playwright William Davenant revised the play line by line, modernizing the language and incorporating references to contemporary politics and recent scientific discoveries. Matthew Locke provided instrumental music, including the Curtain Tune, a realistic depiction of the storm so central the play’s plot, while Pelham Humphrey, Pietro Reggio, and John Banister all contributed vocal music.
Perhaps, amid the fantasy and myth associated with the Cecilia Day celebrations of the seventeenth century, there is a timely reminder for us too about music’s potential to model unity and to create links across the span of history. The hope that Nicholas Brady expressed in his sermon for St. Cecilia’s Day of 1697 remains rather poignant. “Peace then is restored to us within our Walls, Peace, that Banisher of Discord, that Mother of Harmony, that Band of Union to consenting Minds, that Nurse and Patroness of useful Arts and Sciences. And O! That all the several parties in this kingdom, however formerly divided by interest or design, would Resemble the Trumpeters and Singers in the Text! That they were as one!”
— Notes by Christina Hutten
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