“Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire”.
W.H. Auden, from the “Hymn to St Cecilia” by Benjamin Britten
There is something special about the way the stars line up in the sky on November 22nd.
In 1913, it was the day on which Britain’s other Big Ben – Benjamin Britten was born (d 1976).
It is also the day on which the patron saint of music, St Cecilia is celebrated.
When this tradition started is not known. The celebrations are believed to pre-date the first recorded celebrations of St Cecilia’s Day in London, in 1683. That year, a church service in her honour was followed by entertainment, which included an ode, written and composed for the occasion.
Fast forward to 1913 when Edward Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk on the east coast of England. One of four children, his father Robert was a dentist and his mother, Edith, was an amateur musician who taught the young Britten and cultivated in him a love of music.
Not surprisingly, Britten the composer wanted to honour the patron saint of music with whom he shared a birthday and asked his collaborator WH Auden to provide a text. Britten started work on the Hymn to St Cecilia in 1940 whilst he was still in the US and completed it in 1942 during the Atlantic crossing back to England. It received its broadcast premiere on the BBC and has remained a challenging staple of the a capella choral repertoire.
The story of Saint Cecilia is a powerful one. She has been regarded as a martyr of the early Christian church since the 5th century and revered as the patron saint of music from the 15th. According to the legend, St. Cecilia was so close to entering heaven after her death at the hands of persecutors, that she could hear the singing of angels. To prove her worthiness to enter heaven, and afraid that her songs were not enough, she invented the organ and dedicated it to the service of God, hence her role as patron saint of music and musicians. St Cecilia is also represented in association with the violin, the harp, the flute, the harpsichord, roses and with singing. Her reputation grew through time and she became the subject of leading painters like including Raphael, Rubens, and Poussin and poets like Pope and Dryden. Composers Purcell, Jeremiah Clarke, Handel, Samuel Wesley and Parry have all dedicated works to her.
When in Rome – visit the Chiesa di Santa Cecilia in the Trastevere district. The rose garden is memorable. the church stands on the site of the saint’s home.
When in England – visit the seaside village of Aldeborough, where Britten lived. His home, The Red House is open to the public, and the village has several landmarks that feature in his operas. Britten and Pears are buried (along with Imogen Holst) in the village churchyard.