The patron saint of musicians (pictured, courtesy of Raphael) has found herself
especially favoured by English composers. One of the greatest odes to her is
that by Handel, that greatest of honorary Englishmen, to a text by Dryden. (If
only we heard more of his oratorios and choral works, and somewhat less of his
operas: fine music but, more often than not, dramatically uninvolving.) The
finest recording I know of Handel’s 1739 Ode
for St Cecilia’s Day is conducted by today’s centenary birthday boy, Benjamin
Britten, at what I think - though I shall be happily corrected - was the celebratory opening concert of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1967.
Alas, I cannot find an excerpt on Youtube or another such site, so
here instead is a refreshing performance of the glorious final chorus, ‘As from
the power of sacred lays,’ from a young Tuscan choir and orchestra. The Italianate
charm of the younger Handel’s music never left his work, and how refreshing it
is to come across musicians being able to treat it as music, rather than as a pseudo-archaeological exercise replete
with inspectors and enforcers from the non-vibrato Taliban.
Handel’s work, in this and many other cases, owed a great deal to Purcell, perhaps the greatest English composer of all. Certainly no composer, not even Britten, has set the English language with greater facility. The late Sir Charles Mackerras’s joyous recording of Purcell’s 1692 Hail! Bright Cecilia has never been
equalled, let alone surpassed, though Sir Michael Tippett’s earlier recording
offers a splendidly characterful alternative. Amazon links to all three of recordings
may be found below.