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Felix Culpa

St Cecilia, the Saint of the month

Benjamin Britten was born on 22 November 1913 at Lowestoft in Suffolk. Being born on St. Cecilia’s feast day was a foreshadow of not only his vocation in music but also his exceptional brilliance. The holy day marked off for musicians inspired Britten to become one of the greatest British composers of the 20th century and to fulfill a British tradition begun in the 17th century ‘Cecilian’ cult.

It was in 1683 when a group of artists and composers from the Musical Society gave birth to the first festival dedicated to St. Cecilia. Celebrating the solemnity with poetry and music, among them were the well-known poet, John Dryden, and composer, Henry Purcell. The “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day”, written by Dryden in 1687 and set to music by Purcell, counts as one of the greatest masterpieces from 17th century English music.

Pending the Spanish War in 1703 the traditional festival for St. Cecilia was interrupted but later taken up with even greater force thanks to Georg Friedrich Haendel. In 1736 Handel took another of Dryden’s texts dedicated to the saint, the lyrical poem “Alexander’s Feast or The Power of Music”. In the poem, Dryden recounts how, during one of Alexander the Great’s sumptuous banquets to celebrate the victory over the Persians, the musician Timothy solicits different reactions in the soul of the great leader with his song, moving him from the exhalation of war to tears, thanks to the psychological power of the different scales used in the intonation. Unexpectedly, at the height of the act, the power of music fulfills the highest of its objectives when the role of Timothy is revealed by Saint Cecilia in person, manifesting itself through the sound of an organ embodying the most sublime musical ethos, the mysticism of sacred music.

In 1739 Handel devoted another ode to St. Cecilia’s Day using more verses from the late 17th century Dryden. Once again, they are composed to illustrate the metaphysical power of music as a symbol of universal harmony which, with the strength of sound, orders the chaos of atoms until another sound, that of the trumpet of the Last Judgement, dissolves them again.

The ‘Ceclian’ myth, in the poetic interpretation of Dryden taken up by Haendel, assumes a modern meaning of the poetic exaltation of affection tied to the success of the tonal system. In those years this was achieved by the final codification with the Traité de l' harmonie reduite à ses principes naturels of Rameau and practical demonstrations with Bach's well-tempered harpsichord. Modern harmony was renewed with its subtle psychological ability of repair, the power of the Greek èthoi connected to the music.

It’s certainly because of this meaning of refined aesthetic symbolism that in 1790 Mozart took up the two ‘Cecilian’ scores from Handel and made a new orchestral version. He adapted them to the symphonic style of his time while at the same time elevating them to to an authoritative example of modern classical music. In the centuriess following, liturgical celebrations were never lacking music, and after the baroque Catholic contributions (including the scores of Charpentier and Alessandro Scarlatti), St. Cecilia returned to express the primacy of secular music in the Masonic Vienna of Joseph II.

The second half of the 19th century, under the effigy of Saint Cecilia, saw a movement rediscovering the purity of Palestrina polyphonic. The complete edition of the work of Prenestino, edited by Haberl, anointed the myth of the prince of Catholic music with a momentous editorial, “aere perennius”. Even though the great Roman master put the “Company of Musicians” under St. Cecilia’s protection, he doubted her leadership. When in 1585 the Congregation was born as an Academy, which still today is named after the Saint, Palestrina was able to control any attempts to subvert her authority by placing it under papal protection, and therefore under the personal control of the master of the papal chapel.

Over the centuries St. Cecilia, the Roman martyr immortalized in the sublime marbled statue, has miraculously inspired marvellous scores of music. It’s sufficient to listen to Britten’s 20th century jewel, “Hymn to St. Cecilia”, through Auden’s verses, to testify to the vitality of inspiration as compared in recent times with Arvo Pärt’s “Cecilia, Roman Virgen”, composed in 2002.

And to think that everything perhaps resulted from a misunderstanding. Indeed, it seems that the reference to the music in the famous antiphon “Cantantibus Organis” of the “Proper missae” on 22 November was the consequence of a copyist error. In copying the ancient text of the ‘Cecilian Passion’ the copyist replaced the “candentibus organis”, namely the incandescent instruments of torture to which the Virgin was subjected during her martyrdom, with sounding organs, which has since then accompanied the iconography, “Felix culpa”.

Prato (1961), Alberto Batisti teaches history and aesthetics of music at the Conservatory "Giuseppe Verdi" in Como. Already a music critic of "Paese Sera" and the "Repubblica", in 1997 he founded the Orchestra Camerata Instrumental "City of Prato “, of which he is still artistic director. From 1997 to 2009, he was the artistic guide of the Teatro Verdi in Pisa. In 2002 he founded Network Classic Tuscany, a radio station playing only classical music and cultural information which he still runs today. Since May 2005 he has been the artistic director of the “Friends of Music” in Perugia and of the Sagra Musicale Umbra since 2008.

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