Sing for the morning’s joy Cecilia…

Our O Sing Aloud! programme covers a broad musical spectrum – and not all of it is about St Cecilia who, unsurprisingly, has inspired many composers to put pen to (paper) score.

Here’s a few examples to whet the appetite for November 23.

Purcell’s Ode to St Cecilia was commissioned in 1692 by the “Gentlemen Lovers of Musick” and, set a poem by the Rev Nicholas Brady, features 13 movements praising the saint, music, and instruments. It’s a bit of a benchmark piece as it heralds the start of the English secular choral tradition. At the time of composition, St Cecilia Day celebrations were civic entertainments staged for the entire population. For musicians it was a commercial venture and the Odes were performed in public concert halls. Our concert features three excerpts from work.

The stars clearly combined when Benjamin Britten came along.s He was born on St Cecilia’s Day (November 22) and so his Hymn to St Cecilia must have been somewhat inevitable. Although it wasn’t an easy process: Britten initially had problems in finding a suitable text which led to a request to poet WH Auden who produced the words in 1940. Much of the music was composed while Britten was in America but when he returned to England in 1942 US customs officials confiscated the first part, believing it was some kind of coded message. Britten had to rewrite the entire first section from memory.

Haydn was only young when he wrote Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae – otherwise known as the St Cecilia Mass.  And he also had to write it from memory after the original manuscript was lost in a fire in1768. Seldom performed, it’s a heady mix of intricate fugues and elegant melodic lines.

Herbert Howells wrote his Hymn to St Cecilia using words from poet Ursula Vaughan Williams (aka Mrs Ralph Vaughan Williams) and, harking back to 17th century tradition, was commissioned by the Livery Club of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. Set for four-part choir and organ, it premiered on November 22,1961, in St Paul’s Cathedral.

If anyone was going to get a -er- Handel on all of this it was George Friedrich with his 1739 cantata Ode for St Cecilia’s Day.  He, again went to a poet for the text, this time England’s first Poet Lauret John Dryden, with its theme of music being a central force in Earth’s creation.

Tickets for O Sing Aloud! in St Martin’s Church, Worcester, on Saturday, November 23, are available here.

Serenade makes for a sublime musical heaven

In composing a homage to Sir Henry Wood, Vaughan Williams brought in words from greatest Bard of all time – and the result was sublime musical heaven. 

So what could be a fitting celebration to St Cecilia than Serenade to Music, which is the other highlight of our concert?

Written in 1938 to mark Sir Henry’s 50-year Proms conducting milestone, it features the words from Act V of The Merchant of Venice, in which Jessica and Lorenzo are listening to music.

Opening with ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank’, Shakespeare pens a gloriously poetic discussion about music that stands alone before you add Vaughan Williams’s exquisite score.

The composer set it specifically for 16 leading singers of the time – their initials appear alongside his or her lines – but eventually arranged versions for chorus, soloists and orchestra and for solo violin and orchestra. 

In the original, some parts see the soloists singing as a “choir,” often in as many as 12 parts; in others, they have a solo, some more than others.

Once premiered, it immediately became a Proms staple. Sir Henry himself, wrote thanking Vaughan Williams after that first performance, saying he thought it had “lent real distinction” to it and the work was performed in the following Proms four years straight.

And Sergei Rachmaninov, who was playing his own Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor in that same inaugural concert, was said to have been moved to tears when he heard ‘Serenade’.

The season has since given it almost nearly 30 airings while Vaughan Williams conducted the original version in the 1951 inaugural concerts of the Royal Festival Hall.

“A fitting ending to 14 minutes of sublime poetry coupled with some of the composer’s most transcendent music: a divine pairing that ascends to heavenly heights and returns to earth with the harmonious strains of the angelic harp hovering in the air,” writes one author.

And what could be a better tribute to the patron saint of music herself? Come and hear it performed in St Martin’s Church, Worcester on Saturday, November 23.  Tickets here.

Larking About: facts behind our St Cecilia celebration centrepiece

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

One of the central pieces of our St Cecilia celebration concert is Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending.

This lush, evocative work is more often than not performed with violin and orchestra, but it was originally scored for violin and piano. That is how it will be heard in St Martin’s Church on November 23.

Vaughan Williams began working on the piece in 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War. He did not score it for orchestra until 1920.

Here’s a few more ‘did you knows?’ about this most English of English-sounding music.

  1. The work was inspired by George Meredith’s poem of the same name.
  2. Vaughan Williams said that tune came into his head on a cliff walk while holidaying in Margate and he stopped to make some notes. This was on the first day of World War One and ships were holding fleet exercises off the coast. The composer then found himself under a citizen’s arrest by a keen young scout who thought he was a spy scribbling down details of the English coastline.
  3. Actor Peter Sallis  (Last of the Summer Wine and the voice of Wallace of Wallace and Gromit fame) is said to have requested that a copy of The Lark Ascending be buried with him.
  4. The Lark Ascending regularly tops the polls.  This year it regained number one status in the Classic FM Hall of Fame chart after a rare slip to number three in 2018. It has also been voted the nation’s favourite Desert Island Discs track and, in a 2011 American radio survey, New Yorkers ranked it number two as the music they most wanted to hear to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Twin Towers attacks.
  5. Dedicated to violinist Marie Hall, she gave the work its first performance in Bristol in 1920.  Adrian Boult led the orchestral debut in London the following year.

We’re delighted to welcome Shulah Oliver onto our concert platform for this performance. One of the Chamber Music @ Worcester Festival’s founders and artistic directorial team, she regularly performs concertos and gives recitals throughout the UK and Europe.

Tickets for our concert, which also includes Serenade to Music are available from Eventbrite.

St Cecilia – a saint of note

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We sing about her, we have concerts in her honour – but who was St Cecilia and why is she the patron saint of musicians?

Well she’s thought to have come from one of third century Rome’s aristocratic and wealthy families and was said to have worn sackcloth next to her skin and constantly called upon the angels, saints and virgins to preserve her own maidenhood.

That didn’t stop her being given in marriage to the Roman Valerian but she is said to have spent the ceremony singing ‘in her heart’ to God or listening to heavenly music. No doubt Valerian was delighted when she told him on the wedding night that she had taken a vow of virginity and was now protected by an angel.

Understandably, her new husband was quite keen to see this angel,but his wife told him that wouldn’t be possible until he had travelled part way along one of Rome’s most important roads, the Via Appia and been baptised by the Pope.

This he duly did and returned to see the angel, who is then said to have crowned Cecilia with a garland of roses and lilies. Word of all this reached Valerian’s brother Tibertius who responded with his own baptism and the brothers went on to dedicate their lives to burying those killed for their faith by the city’s then prefect. The siblings were ultimately executed for their trouble.

Cecilia, meanwhile, spent her life preaching and was said to have converted over 400 people as a result but this, too, led to her arrest. She was condemned to die by suffocation in the public baths. However, despite being shut up for around 48 hours as the fires were stoked to a blazing heat, she survived – without even breaking a sweat.

So the city’s same prefect then ordered her decapitation. She was struck three times but lived on for another three days while crowds visited, collecting her blood as she continued to preach and pray.

She is buried under the high altar of her titular church in Trastevere, Rome, and is regarded as the patroness of musicians/music because of all she heard and sang on her wedding day.

Our concert, in St Martin’s Church, London Road, Worcester, comes one day after her feast day, November 22. For tickets please visit our home page or Eventbrite.

Singing aloud for St Cecilia

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We’re raising our voices to celebrate the patron saint of musicians at our next event.

O Sing Aloud! will encompass a wide range of composers and genres for the St Cecilia concert, due to take place in St Martin’s Church, London Road, Worcester, on November 23.

The programme spans the globe: France, Britain and America, the centuries: Purcell, Mozart, Vaughan Williams and Gershwin; and is interspersed with items from local musicians.

Worcester’s Ian Venables has created the piece from which the concert takes its title and ‘Three meditations’ have come from city-born Steven Kings.

The performance ends on an upbeat feel with a series of classic American songs arranged by former Worcester Cathedral Director of Music Dr Donald Hunt.

Readings reflecting the evening’s theme will be performed by Gabrielle Bullock and Vaughan Williams’ classic The Lark Ascending will be sent soaring aloft by violinist Shulah Oliver

Christopher Allsop, King’s School’s Assistant Director of Music, provides organ and piano accompaniment for the evening that, under the baton of Stephen Shellard, also includes Faure and Parry.

Tickets are available from Eventbrite or via www.worcestercathedralchamberchoir.co.uk