St Martin's Church, Bowness-on-Windermere
22 November 2008
Last Saturday, 22 November, was the feast of St Cecilia, known since the sixteenth century as the patron of music and musicians. So it was only fitting that the Wordsworth Singers devoted much of their concert in St Martin's Church, Bowness-on-Windermere, to works of Cecilian inspiration. The evening started off with a Mass in Honour of St Cecilia by the Lithuanian composer Kristina Vasiliauskaite, who was much involved with the choir's tour in her homeland in 2006 and maintains strong links with them. It is a simple setting of the four shorter sections of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei), sung in Latin, probably new to most of those hearing it, much appreciated.
This was followed by two pieces by the twentieth-century English composer Herbert Howells - a psalm prelude for organ and A Hymn for St Cecilia (a setting of a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, commissioned in 1960 to mark Howells's membership of the Worshipful Company of Musicians).
Then we were treated to two delightful works for unaccompanied choir by Arnold Bax, both settings of medieval texts. I Sing of a Maiden is a fifteenth-century poem, and This Worldes Joie antedates Chaucer. The first is a relatively simple setting, the second more complex and difficult; both were splendidly sung.
After the interval we came to what I imagine was the most familiar work to the bulk of the audience - Benjamin Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia. This is a setting of words by W H Auden that Britten composed at sea on his way back from the USA in 1942, beautiful words set beautifully to music, hauntingly performed by the Singers. Britten was born on St Cecilia's Day 1913 — usually referred to as a great musical coincidence, but I prefer to think of it as the outcome of a deliberate conspiracy between Cecilia and Ben’s parents.
The programme came to a conclusion with two more works by Britten. The Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria is Britten's only piece for solo organ, composed in 1946. And in Rejoice in the Lamb Britten sets sections of the long religious poem Jubilate Agno by the eighteenth-century Christopher Smart (who at the time of writing was an inmate in an asylum). The poem was not published until 1939, when the manuscript was discovered in Suffolk. Britten's music captures Smart's sense of wonder in a hymn of praise for all creation. A difficult work wonderfully sung.
All in all, a quite challenging but highly enjoyable evening's music making. Just what we have come to expect from the Wordsworth Singers.