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Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia, a personal reflection



Written by a member of the Holst Singers during the rehearsal period for the upcoming performance in Temple Church.


Britten’s invocation to Cecilia, patron saint of music moves me because, written at a pivotal moment in his life, it evokes the sea – and for me a particular sea – as much as the great sea pieces it anticipates


The rocking rhythms of the refrains and first section, and lilting, poignant soprano solo for Auden’s lost-innocence white bird-children imagery suggesting the dip and glide of seabirds on the wing, remind us Britten is actually at sea – returning in 1942 with Pears from America to his native Suffolk coast. Crabbe’s Peter Grimes story has convinced him at last, after personal indecision and writer’s block, that he must compose ‘where I belonged’.


Aphrodite proudly rides the shell of an oyster, a humble East Anglia staple, rather than Botticelli’s scallop. It’s a place of extremes. Of constant change - shifting sands, sudden squalls, sea swallowing land overnight – conveyed by the piece’s three contrasting sections. Of intense light, rebounding off sea, marsh and estuary - evoked by the glittering, dancing ‘I cannot grow’ central round, also evoking the whirling-in-circles sand-martins. Of stratospheric skies – expressed in soaring soprano, and plunging abysses – descending basses in the final section suggesting the church bells of the submerged city of Dunwich tolling, as legend has it, from the deep.


It’s this coast which becomes Britten’s metaphor for the soul, and, often blurring into a mystical, transformative infinity, for the potential for creative inspiration to find us if we accept change, and accept ourselves.


At this journey’s end we share Britten’s sense of joyful release. A triumphant tenor trumpeting we should wear experience ‘like a rose’ – as only through its pain can we grow – heralds a miraculous, unexpected Aldeburgh calm as Britten comes home to himself, and to the place where, on fire, he will spend the rest of his life ‘pouring forth his song’ like his saint – inspired by her, and his sea.

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