Friday, November 22, 2013

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians...

Today is St Cecilia's Day. Cecilia is the Patron Saint of Music. November 22 is also the birthday of Benjamin Britten, whom many consider to be the greatest composer not only of English opera, but the greatest the UK has ever produced. Today marks his centenary. Having devoted a significant portion of my studies and career to his life and music, I have been looking forward to this celebration of "Britten 100" for some time. A wonderful introduction to the composer and his beloved home in East Anglia, in the seaside town of Aldeburgh can be found on the Guardian website. The video ends with excerpts from his famous first opera, Peter Grimes, performed on Aldeburgh Beach to mark the centenary.

BBC Radio 3 is also celebrating the occasion with weekend-long broadcasts from Aldeburgh and Snape, where Britten and his partner, the tenor, Peter Pears built a concert hall. Britten 100 is live on the BBC and archived for online listening.

HM, Queen Elizabeth II attended the grand opening of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1967. Britten concluded the program with Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia. The text of John Dryden's famous poem is below. Handel's music and Dryden's poem were both so important for composers their influence can be heard in Mozart's The Magic Flute. "The Power of Music" is a recurring theme, transcending boundaries of historical period, culture and style.

Amy and I will be singing in Handel's Ode for St Cecilia at Greene Memorial United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 24, at 4:00 p.m.

Britten's earliest homage to St Cecilia was his brilliant a cappella setting of W. H. Auden's densely textured "Hymn for St Cecilia's Day." It features a memorable refrain which choral conductors have borrowed for program titles for the last 70 years.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions 

To all musicians, appear and inspire: 

Translated Daughter, come down and startle 

Composing mortals with immortal fire.

The full text of Dryden's and Auden's respective poems are below. Insatiable readers should also forbear and read Alexander Pope's Ode, which follows. I particularly love the alliterative list at the end of the 6th section when Eurydice (the widow of Orpheus) is evoked:

Yet ev'n in death Eurydice he sung,
Eurydice still trembled on his tongue,
Eurydice the woods,
Eurydice the floods,
Eurydice the rocks, and hollow mountains rung.

Pope's 7th and final verse opens with this harmonious quatrain:

Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate's severest rage disarm:
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please.

Poems for St Cecilia | 22 November

John Dryden (1631-1700): A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day (1687)

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
'Arise, ye more than dead!'
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music's power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell,
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound:
Less than a God they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell,
That spoke so sweetly, and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet's loud clangour
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger,
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat!

The soft complaining flute,
In dying notes, discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion,
For the fair, disdainful dame.

But O, what art can teach,
What human voice can reach,
The sacred organ's praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre;
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear'd
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.


As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator's praise
To all the Blest above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky!

W.H. Auden (1907-1973): A Hymn to Saint Cecilia (1940)

In a garden shady this holy lady 

With reverent cadence and subtle psalm, 

Like a black swan as death came on 

Poured forth her song in perfect calm: 

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. 

Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited, 

Moved to delight by the melody, 

White as an orchid she rode quite naked 

In an oyster shell on top of the sea; 

At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing 

Came out of their trance into time again, 

And around the wicked in Hell's abysses 

The huge flame flickered and eased their pain. 

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions 

To all musicians, appear and inspire: 

Translated Daughter, come down and startle 

Composing mortals with immortal fire.

I cannot grow; 

I have no shadow 

To run away from,

I only play. 

I cannot err; 

There is no creature 

Whom I belong to, 

Whom I could wrong. 

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. 

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions 

To all musicians, appear and inspire: 

Translated Daughter, come down and startle 

Composing mortals with immortal fire.

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall, 

O calm of spaces unafraid of weight, 

Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all 

The gaucheness of her adolescent state, 

Where Hope within the altogether strange 

From every outworn image is released, 

And Dread born whole and normal like a beast 

Into a world of truths that never change: 

Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange. 

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. 

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

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain. 

O law drummed out by hearts against the still 

Long winter of our intellectual will. 

That what has been may never be again. 

O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath 

Of convalescents on the shores of death. 

O bless the freedom that you never chose.

O trumpets that unguarded children blow 

About the fortress of their inner foe. 

O wear your tribulation like a rose. 

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions 

To all musicians, appear and inspire: 

Translated Daughter, come down and startle 

Composing mortals with immortal fire.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744): Ode on St. Cecilia's Day
I. Descend ye Nine! descend and sing;
The breathing instruments inspire,
Wake into voice each silent string,
And sweep the sounding lyre!
In a sadly-pleasing strain
Let the warbling lute complain:
Let the loud trumpet sound,
'Till the roofs all around
The shrill echo's rebound:
While in more lengthen'd notes and slow,
The deep, majestic, solemn organs blow.
Hark! the numbers, soft and clear,
Gently steal upon the ear;
Now louder, and yet louder rise,
And fill with spreading sounds the skies;
Exulting in triumph now swell the bold notes,
In broken air, trembling, the wild music floats;
'Till, by degrees, remote and small,
The strains decay,
And melt away,
In a dying, dying fall.

II. By Music, minds an equal temper know,
Nor swell too high, nor sink too low.
If in the breast tumultuous joys arise,
Music her soft, assuasive voice applies;
Or when the soul is press'd with cares,
Exalts her in enlivening airs.
Warriors she fires with animated sounds;
Pours balm into the bleeding lover's wounds:
Melancholy lifts her head,
Morpheus rouzes from his bed,
Sloth unfolds her arms and wakes,
List'ning Envy drops her snakes;
Intestine war no more our Passions wage,
And giddy Factions hear away their rage.

III. But when our Country's cause provokes to Arms,
How martial music ev'ry bosom warms!
So when the first bold vessel dar'd the seas,
High on the stern the Thracian rais'd his strain,
While Argo saw her kindred trees
Descend from Pelion to the main.
Transported demi-gods stood round,
And men grew heroes at the sound,
Enflam'd with glory's charms:
Each chief his sev'nfold shield display'd,
And half unsheath'd the shining blade:
And seas, and rocks, and skies rebound
To arms, to arms, to arms!

IV. But when thro' all th'infernal bounds
Which flaming Phlegeton surrounds,
Love, strong as Death, the Poet led
To the pale nations of the dead,
What sounds were heard,
What scenes appear'd,
O'er all the dreary coasts!
Dreadful gleams,
Dismal screams,
Fires that glow,
Shrieks of woe,
Sullen moans,
Hollow groans,
And cries of tortur'd ghosts!
But hark! he strikes the golden lyre;
And see! the tortur'd ghosts respire,
See, shady forms advance!
Thy stone, O Sysiphus, stands still,
Ixion rests upon his wheel,
And the pale spectres dance!
The Furies sink upon their iron beds,
And snakes uncurl'd hang list'ning round their heads.

V. By the streams that ever flow,
By the fragrant winds that blow
O'er th' Elysian flow'rs,
By those happy souls who dwell
In yellow meads of Asphodel,
Or Amaranthine bow'rs,
By the hero's armed shades,
Glitt'ring thro' the gloomy glades,
By the youths that dy'd for love,
Wand'ring in the myrtle grove,
Restore, restore Eurydice to life;
Oh take the husband, or return the wife!
He sung, and hell consented
To hear the Poet's pray'r;
Stern Proserpine relented,
And gave him back the fair.
Thus song could prevail
O'er death and o'er hell,
A conquest how hard and how glorious?
Tho' fate had fast bound her
With Styx nine times round her,
Yet music and love were victorious.

VI. But soon, too soon, the lover turns his eyes:
Again she falls, again she dies, she dies!
How wilt thou now the fatal sisters move?
No crime was thine, if 'tis no crime to love.
Now under hanging mountains,
Beside the falls of fountains,
Or where Hebrus wanders,
Rolling in Maeanders,
All alone,
Unheard, unknown,
He makes his moan;
And calls her ghost,
For ever, ever, ever lost!
Now with Furies surrounded,
Despairing, confounded,
He trembles, he glows,
Amidst Rhodope's snows:
See, wild as the winds, o'er the desart he flies;
Hark! Haemus resounds with the Bacchanals cries —
— Ah see, he dies!
Yet ev'n in death Eurydice he sung,
Eurydice still trembled on his tongue,
Eurydice the woods,
Eurydice the floods,
Eurydice the rocks, and hollow mountains rung.

VII. Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate's severest rage disarm:
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please:
Our joys below it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
This the divine Cecilia found,
And to her Maker's praise confin'd the sound.
When the full organ joins the tuneful quire,
Th'immortal pow'rs incline their ear;
Borne on the swelling notes our souls aspire,
While solemn airs improve the sacred fire;
And Angels lean from heav'n to hear.
Of Orpheus now no more let Poets tell,
To bright Cecilia greater pow'r is giv'n;
His numbers rais'd a shade from hell,
Hers lift the soul to heav'n.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Art is science, science is art

Collaboration and cooperation are more than buzzwords here in Virginia's Blue Ridge. Among the many colleague organizations with whom we are proud to partner, The Science Museum of Western Virginia is one. Several of our apprentice artists joined Amy and me for their final "Butterflies @ 5" presentation of the season in late September. The following poem was inspired by the few minutes I spent gawking at the moon rock the museum had on display.

At the Science Museum of Western Virginia

This like a dream | Keeps other time, | And daytime is | The loss of this
(from “This Lunar Beauty,” W. H. Auden)

The crystal shivers through
your impossibly old body,
moon-rock, lunar idol,
fascination block on view
here beneath the butterfly
pavilion. I quiver,
circling the pedestal
supporting your extra-
terrestrial mass, which
I expect, any nanosecond
now, to break out, shatter
glass, and streak free
across a room that can’t
possibly cage 33 million millennia.

(September 2013)

No less a scientific genius than Thomas Edison
wrote to the operatic genius, Giacomo Puccini:

"Men die and governments change,
but the melodies of La Boheme will live forever."

(Mark Fisher:
Sounds of an Atlantic Spotted Dolphin)