Friday, January 8, 2010

For the Feast of St. Cecilia by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Saint Cecilia is considered the patron saint of music, musicians, musical instrument makers, singers and composers. Her feast day is November 22nd, and there is a long history of composers writing odes and other musical works in her honor. She became a martyr around the year 177.

The story was that she was a young Roman noble woman who had pledged her virginity to God. Apparently her parents did not consider this a binding vow, and married her to Valerian of Trastevere. When she told her new husband of her vow, he too decided to become purified and baptized. Later his brother was also baptized and they began a ministry of giving proper burial to martyred Christians. They, in turn, were martyred for their faith. When Cecilia buried her husband and brother-in-law at her villa on the Appian Way, she was arrested and ordered to sacrifice to false gods. She refused and was martyred in her turn. According to tradition she did not die until she received the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Her connection with music is twofold, and since the 14th century she is usually depicted in art with an organ, violin, harp, harpsichord, lute, flute or singing. According to the Acta of Cecilia: “While the profane music of her wedding was heard, Cecilia was singing in her heart a hymn of love for Jesus, her true spouse.” And, later, the legend says that she was crucified and beheaded at the same time as she praised God, singing to him, as she lay dying a martyr’s death.

The tradition of composing odes in honor of St. Cecilia is especially strong in England. These works were often performed on November 22nd, Cecilia’s feast day. Some composers of these odes were Henry Purcell (1659-1605), George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), and William Boyce (1711-1779) of the 17th-18th centuries. Hubert Parry (1848-1918) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) continued the tradition in the 19th-20th centuries.

So why did Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847), a 19th century woman composer from Germany, decide to write music for the feast of St. Cecilia? It seems pretty clear that in this case the inspiration came from her composer brother, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). According to some of the preserved correspondence of the siblings, in 1833 Felix was in Düsseldorf preparing a performance of Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. That was enough impetus to motivate Fanny to compose a work for St. Cecilia. Apparently she wrote the work for vocal soloists, mixed choir and piano in a matter of several days and it was performed almost immediately in 1833 at one of Fanny’s famous salons. She played the piano part herself, and evidently never completely wrote it out, so performances today have to rely upon a carefully reconstructed score by Diether de la Motte published by Furore Verlag.

Above is a link which you can click on to hear a performance of Zum Fest der Heiligen Cäcilia by Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn Hensel. The performance is by the Chamber Coir of the University of Dortmund directed by Willi Gundlach. The recording was published by Thorofon Classics CTH 2398 in 1998.

Now that you’ve heard some of her music, perhaps you’re wondering, “Who was Fanny Mendelssohn?” She was the oldest child born into an extremely cultured Jewish family in the post-enlightenment period in Germany. The most famous of her ancestors was her paternal grandfather, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. He promoted the melding of liberal German Jewish and German Christian secular cultures. In the generation of Fanny and Felix this resulted in the conversion of the family to Lutheranism. Fanny and her brother Felix were immersed in the study of music from very early ages. They were extremely close and both challenged and stimulated each other musically and intellectually. Like Felix, Fanny studied music beginning when she was a young child and precociously wrote her first composition when she was only ten years old.

While the affluent Mendelssohn family encouraged Felix to become a published composer, however, even such an enlightened family was not so positive in their attitude toward Fanny. Instead she was groomed to become a wife and mother while becoming the focal point of a flourishing musical salon in Berlin. Her parents, and even Felix, did not encourage her to publish her own music, although Felix never hesitated to ask her advice about his own publishing ventures. Eventually Felix relented enough to publish some of her songs alongside his own (but without attribution). It is amusing to note that Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) favorite song was one by Fanny, even though she had no idea that it had been written by another woman.

In 1829 Fanny married the Prussian court painter Wilhelm Hensel who was much more supportive of his wife’s musical endeavors and encouraged her to have her compositions published. One of his portraits of Fanny is reproduced to the right. The drawing dates from the year of their marriage. He also contributed original artwork to some of her published compositions.

As our own musical age of enlightenment continues, and we begin to perform and listen to music by women composers, Fanny Mendelssohn has become an extremely important figure. She wrote some 464 pieces of music that have thus far been rediscovered. Much of it is only now being published, but critical acclaim is steadily growing. While many of her compositions were songs and piano pieces intended for performance at her salon, she also wrote a number of larger works for chorus, or orchestra or chamber ensemble. They are finally crafted works indeed.

Unfortunately, like her brother Felix, Fanny Mendelssohn died very prematurely of a stroke in 1847, when she was but 42 years old. We can only imagine how she might have changed the history of classical music had she been allowed to live and publish her own music for another thirty years.

For the Feast of Saint Cecilia was, as noted above, first performed in November 1833 at one of the Hensel’s musical salons. It was considered a tableau vivant, despite its text being derived from sacred verses from the mass for Saint Cecilia. (This original Latin text and an English translation are printed below as a conclusion to this particular blog.) Tableau vivant is the cultured French tern for “living picture.” Usually the actors in such dramatic scenes were carefully posed and, perhaps, theatrically lit. Often the actors (or singers) imitated statues that were suitably costumed. This approach combined the art of stage presentation with that of painting (or, later, photography). Apparently Fanny’s husband, Wilhelm Hensel, contributed to this side of the performance. These cultured social events were especially popular during the nineteenth century.

Zum Fest der Heiligen Cäcilia
(text as sung in Latin)

Beati immaculate in via,
Qui ambulant in lege Domini.

Audi et vide et inclina aurem tuam.
Deus, qui nos annua beatae
Caeciliae Virginis et Martyris tuae
Solemnitate laetificas: da, utquam
veneramur officio.

Veni, electa mea, et ponam
in te thronum meum.
Etiam piae conversationis
sequamur exemplo.
Quia concupivi Rex speciem tuam.

Audio et video, inclino aurem meam
Domine Deus, Rex coelestis,
quam admirabile est nomen tuum in
Universa terra!
Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei, et opera
manuum ejus annuntiat firmamentum.

Alleluja, Gloria in excelsis et
Laudem dicam tibi Domine.

For the Feast of St. Cecilia
English translation of the text

Blessed are they who are unspotted in their ways,
who walk in the law of the Lord.

Hear and see and incline thy ear.
God who dost gladden us
with the annual feast of the blessed
Cecilia Virgin and Martyr thine:
grant that we may venerate thee by our office.

Come my chosen one and I shall place
my throne in thee.
And let us follow the example
of virtuous conduct.
For I have desired, my King, thy glory.

I hear and see, I incline my ear,
Lord God, heavenly King,
How admirable is thy name in the whole earth!
The heavens are telling the glory of God and the works
of his hands are proclaimed by the firmament.

Alleluia, Glory in the highest and
praise I shall utter to thee O Lord.

The Birth of Saint Cecilia's Blog

I still remember back in 1985 being asked

what I would think about helping to work on a symposium about women in music. Specifically about women who are composers.

By that time in my career I had been in music arts administration for decades. I had a degree in music history. I was a music librarian and was working as a university concert hall manager. I had written hundreds of program notes for various recitals and concerts. I loved classical music (in fact I lived and breathed it virtually every day) and I had long been attracted to exploring music beyond the standard repertoire. I was fascinated by composers beyond Bach and Handel or Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, or Mendelssohn and Schumann, or Wagner and Verdi, or Brahms and Dvorak, or Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Mind you I loved all of those composers and I still do. But I also enjoyed music by Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Schütz, Boccherini, Purcell, Scarlatti, Danzi, Weber, Rimsky-Korsakov, Bruch and Copland and Prokofiev. I loved discovering music for baryton in addition to that for cello. Mandolin concertos were as fascinating to me as violin concertos. How about music for harmonica or jews harp? I listened to all of it, every chance I got. I was enthralled when, in about 1972, I discovered that there were actually classical composers who were black, and their music was performed as we learned more about black history in our schools. But I had so much more to learn.

Getting back to that first conversation about female classical composers, I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t think of one woman who had written classical music. I think I sheepishly said, “Well, the patron saint of music is St. Cecilia, does that count?” In my defense, the standard music history text when I went to school, by Grout, in fact didn’t mention any women composers. Of course, very few American composers were mentioned either, virtually no black composers and none from outside the European mainstream. The idea of contemporary music was also given little enough space. That was the first time that it was really brought home to me that all we knew was music by dead, European, white, men. It didn’t take long for me to be hooked on my new discovery.

There is a wealth of music composed by

women throughout history. Fortunately today we can hear it on the local classical music station and, occasionally, in live concert. It has even grown to be heard beyond the ghetto of specialized women music months or conferences or books. But that is not to say that the general lover of classical music knows enough. Maybe today a somewhat aware listener would mention Clara Schumann, Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, Joan Tower or Amy Beach when asked about women composers.

The purpose of this blog is to share my fascination with classical music composed by women. I’ll write about composers of all places, styles and eras, as I continue to discover their music. Equally important I’ll share links to recordings of their music. And, I’ll point out books about women’s music and the score sources of music as we work toward reclaiming or rediscovering Cecilia’s music.

As with any writing endeavor I have to take the ultimate responsibility for the content and accuracy of my information. Obviously I’m more likely to write about music that somehow touches my soul, rather than that which I merely find slightly interesting. But I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank those who have had a positive and even profound influence on this venture. To Barbara: for that long-ago first introduction to Women in Music. To Melanie: for her many encouragements to have the confidence to express myself about something that I love. And thanks again for the impetus to share that pleasure with others. To Shelley and Lesa: for encouraging me to write, and for introducing me to the blogging world.