Hymning St Cecilia

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

Today is St Cecilia’s Day, so what better way to mark it than with this (which also combines my two biggest cultural discoveries this year, Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden):

Auden’s poem is an interesting one, and frankly I wonder whether choirs that sing this piece liturgically have really attended to the words. These start off lightly, even humorously (though not without a hint of Audenesque double entendre):

And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.

By the second part, things have become more subdued, though not entirely without hope:

I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.

All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.

I shall never be
Different. Love me.

The third and final section, however, is darkest of all, with words that bring tears to the eye just to read them (let alone to hear them sung by a piercing treble solo):

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

And the choir then comes in with:

O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin.

With the closing words (before the final, redemptive chorus of “Blessed Cecilia…”):

Chorus: O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.

Solo: O wear your tribulation like a rose.

So this is no pious homage to the simple beauties of music. Rather, it’s an expression of how music (and its patron, and her Saviour) accompanies us, whether in the joy of “perfect calm” or in the darkness of an anguished conscience.

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