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St Cecilia

A sequence of poetry, prose and music telling the story of St Cecilia. With texts by Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, Auden and Blunden, with music by Haydn, Finzi, Charpentier and Britten.

Behind today's feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, lies an extraordinary account of courage and faith. Her story is told through Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; commentary comes from Dryden, Pope, Auden and Blunden, while music is by Haydn, Finzi, Charpentier and Britten. Readers are Zoe Telford and Michael Maloney.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Sun 22 Nov 2015 17:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    Joseph Haydn

    Missa Sanctae Caeciliae

    Performer: Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music, Simon Preston.
    • Oiseau-Lyre 4171252.
    • 4.
  • W.H. Auden

    Ode to St. Cecilia, read by Michael Maloney

  • 00:04

    Joseph Haydn

    Missa Sanctae Caeciliae

    Performer: Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music, Simon Preston.
    • Oiseau-Lyre 4171252.
    • 16.
  • Chaucer

    The Second Nun’s Tale, read by Zoe Telford

  • 00:12

    Marc‐Antoine Charpentier

    Caecilia Virgo et Martyr

    Performer: Choir of New College Oxford, Oxford Baroque, Edward Higginbottom.
    • Novum NCR1387.
    • 5 & 6.
  • Dryden

    A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, read by Michael Maloney

  • 00:18

    Gerald Finzi

    For St Cecilia

    Performer: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, David Hill.
    • Naxos 8557863.
    • 14.
  • Chaucer

    The Second Nun’s Tale, read by Zoe Telford

  • 00:22

    Marc‐Antoine Charpentier

    Caecilia Virgo et Martyr

    Performer: Choir of New College Oxford, Oxford Baroque, Edward Higginbottom.
    • Novum NCR1387.
    • 7.
  • Chaucer

    The Second Nun’s Tale, read by Zoe Telford

  • 00:29

    George Frideric Handel

    Ode for St Cecilia’s Day

    Performer: Heather Harper, English Chamber Orchestra, Benjamin Britten.
    • BBC Legends BBCB80092.
    • 7.
  • Blunden

    For St Cecilia, read by Michael Maloney

  • 00:36

    George Frideric Handel

    Ode for St Cecilia’s Day

    Performer: Peter Pears, English Chamber Orchestra, Benjamin Britten.
    • BBC Legends BBCB80092.
    • 5.
  • Pope

    Ode for Music on St Cecilia’s Day, read by Michael Maloney

  • 00:43

    Charles‐François Gounod

    Messe solennelle de Sainte Cecile

    Performer: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Igor Markevitch.
    • DG 4274092.
    • 8.
  • Chaucer

    The Second Nun’s Tale, read by Zoe Telford

  • 00:49

    Marc‐Antoine Charpentier

    Caecilia Virgo et Martyr

    Performer: Choir of New College Oxford, Oxford Baroque, Edward Higginbottom.
    • Novum NCR1387.
    • 10.
  • Chaucer

    The Second Nun’s Tale, read by Zoe Telford

  • 00:54

    Marc‐Antoine Charpentier

    Caecilia Virgo et Martyr

    Performer: Choir of New College Oxford, Oxford Baroque, Edward Higginbottom.
    • Novum NCR1387.
    • 11 & 12.
  • Dryden

    A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, read by Michael Maloney

  • 01:03

    Benjamin Britten

    Hymn to St Cecilia

    Performer: The Sixteen, Harry Christophers.
    • Collins Classics 12862.
    • 13.

Producer's Note - St Cecilia

Reading Chaucer’s account of the life and martyrdom of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, one is struck as much by her modernity as by her Christian devotion: on the night of her wedding, she negotiates control over her own body; when faced with the threat of torture, she replies with withering sarcasm.   

She has inspired generations of poets and composers, many of whom are heard in this programme.  For Dryden, she represented the very act of creation: Pope too, although for him creation was even more important when it could be used to call his nation to arms in time of war.  More recently, Edmund Blunden (1896-1974) saw her as muse to composers Byrd, Dowland and Purcell: all English artists, note - again, there is perhaps a tendency for poets to claim her for their own countries.  Blunden collaborated with composer Gerald Finzi for a ceremonial ode celebrating Cecilia, a work sadly little-heard now.

 In his oratorio Caecilia Virgo et Martyr, baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier followed the narrative of Cecilia’s life much as Chaucer did: with soloists taking the roles of all key protagonists, it is almost operatic in dramatic flair.  Haydn’s and Gounod’s Cecilia masses are just that, settings (albeit rather wonderful ones) of the standard Latin mass.  Handel’s ode sets Dryden’s specially-written text with characteristic verve and imagination: in this programme we hear both the “soft, complaining flute” and the “trumpet’s loud clangour”. 

 There is a second presence, though, haunting much of this programme: Benjamin Britten.  Was it coincidence that such an important composer (and, as heard here too, conductor) was born on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November?  Is it fanciful to imagine an unseen saintly hand, inspiring and guiding a shy schoolboy to become one of the key musicians of the last century?  Was he not, as Auden put it, a “composing mortal” startled “with immortal fire”…?

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