• For St Cecilia

Happy St Cecilia’s Day!  Who knows these lines?

In England too men marked Cecilia‘s grace,
Their looks turned listening to that faultless face.
Stand with us, Merbecke, and be Byrd close by;
Dowland and Purcell, lift the theme on high;
Handel is here, the friend and generous guest,
With morning airs for her, and choral zest.

Cecilia’s blessings if you recognise them as being by that rather neglected poet, Edmund Blunden (right), who wrote For St Cecilia in 1947, in conjunction with the composer Gerald Finzi (left), whose ‘ceremonial ode’ of the same title is also rather neglected. Their work was premiered 65 years ago today in the Royal Albert Hall, London.

I came across this wonderful piece when I was conductor of the Queen’s University Choir and Orchestra in Belfast and we performed it to a rapt audience.  It continues to puzzle me why it is not better known.  It’s not a difficult piece to perform, has all of Finzi’s lyrical gifts and unparalleled word-cadences, and it has an open-hearted, celebratory quality that I cannot resist.  It’s more than a match for the revered Purcell and Handel (Blunden omits Britten from the list, though the latter’s Hymn predates Finzi’s setting by five years).  Blunden’s poem is ingenious, conjuring up fresh images and references while still giving Finzi plenty of musical scope.  It’s a marvel in itself.

There have been only two commercial recordings as far as I’m aware.  I ‘grew up’ with the Decca recording of 1978, with Philip Langridge, the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox.  More recently (2008), Naxos released a recording with James Gilchrist, the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by David Hill.

The Naxos recording tries to be more faithful to Finzi’s extremes of tempo (his fast tempi are impossible to sustain), but ends up exaggerating the contrasts – the fast tempi are too brisk for their own good, while the slow tempi are often overdone.  I still prefer the Decca recording, despite Langridge sometimes seeming a little strained and despite its tendency to flatten out the tempo contrasts, even if this does result in a greater symphonic sweep.  An example of their differences lies in the treatment of the melody at ‘For all man’s martyrdom the crowning psalm’. In Hill’s hands, it’s rushed and goes for nothing, whereas Hickox gives it more than its due, but it still lifts the heart as only Finzi can.

I await an interpretation that positions itself somewhere between these two.  Happy St Cecilia’s Day!

Delightful goddess, in whose fashionings
And fables Truth still goes adorned; …

… Changed is the age; mysterious, man’s next star;
But Legend’s children share his calendar, …

… How came you, lady of fierce martyrdom,
How came you by your manifold skill? …

… How smilingly the saint among her friends
Sits, and with her fingers white and long …

… Wherefore we bid you to the full concent
Of St Cecilia‘s joyous argument, …

You can also find this recording on Spotify, but currently there’s no recording on YouTube.

2 Responses to • For St Cecilia

  1. Estelle cole says:

    On October 31andNovember 1, the renowned choir from Orleans, Ma. Will be performing a concert of masterworks of Gerald Finzi which includes For St. Cecilia and Intimations of Immortality. Click here for more information: http://gdcchoir.org/event/gloriae-dei-cantores-concert/?instance_id=29146

  2. Excellent – all best wishes for the concerts!


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