Song for St. Cecilia’s Day


3 sopranos, string quartet, harpsichord
Duration: 23′

View the score:

Listen to excerpts:

I. From harmony, from heav’nly harmony (p. 1)

VI. But O! what art can teach…? (p. 34)

VII. Orpheus could lead the savage race (p. 37)

VIII. Grand Chorus (p. 44)

SKU: V108 Categories: , Tags: , ,


A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day

3 sopranos, string quartet, harpsichord
Text: John Dryden
1991, rev. 2005
Duration: 22′
Premiere–1993, by Maria Jette, Karen Clift, Mary Therese Royal de Martinez, sopranos; Laurie Weiss and David Hays, violins; Romona Merritt, viola; Arek Tesarczyk, cello; Barbara Weiss, harpsichord, Saint Paul, MN.
Full score. String parts available separately. Contact DET


I (Tutti)

From harmony, from heav’nly 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 pow’r obey.
From harmony, from heav’nly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Thro’ all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

II (Soprano I, harpsichord)

What passion cannot Music raise and quell!
When Jubal struck the corded shell,
His list’ning brethren stood around,
And, wond’ring, 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!

III (Tutti)

The Trumpet’s loud clangor
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger,
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thund’ring Drum
Cries: “Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, ‘t is too late to retreat.”

IV (Soprano III, viola, cello)

The soft complaining Flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper’d by the warbling Lute.

V (Sopranos I & II, cello, harpsichord)

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

VI (Sopranos I, II, III)

But O! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach,
The sacred Organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heav’nly ways
To mend the choirs above.

VII (Soprano II, strings, harpsichord)

Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre;
But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder high’r:
When to her Organ vocal breath was giv’n,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d,
Mistaking earth for heav’n.

VIII (Tutti)

As from the pow’r 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.

Program Note

In 1683, a London musical society inaugurated the tradition of commissioning an ode for November 22, the Feast Day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music. Lives of the Saints tells us that Cecilia heard heavenly music in her heart when she was married; thus the organ, or at least pipes-in-hand, is her attribute. Purcell and John Blow were the composers chosen for the first two festivals. In 1687, John Dryden (1631-1700) was teamed with Giovanni Draghi, the favorite composer of the royal consort, Maria of Modena. Dryden, a recent Catholic convert, was already famous as a playwright, satirist and Poet Laureate of the realm since 1668. Handel set Dryden’s text in a mere ten days of September 1739.

The Great Chain of Being for Dryden work

The Great Chain of Being

Dryden’s poem draws on the Platonic concept of the Great Chain of Being, which Tillyard describes “stretched from the foot of God’s throne to the meanest of inanimate objects.” From there, it’s an exuberant mash-up of classical and Christian traditions, with all stops out in praise of music. The “tuneful voice” has power to stir the very atoms of creation. But Music also raises and quells human passions like anger, jealousy and love. Mythological characters have walk-on parts, and comic relief appears in the form of a clueless angel. No less than the last trumpet of Revelation brings the work to its climax, invoking a music to end another music, that of the spheres. If all this makes unlikely cosmography, it was grand entertainment, and perhaps a metaphor for the forces undermining James II, the last Catholic king of England, who in a year would be deposed by a “Glorious Revolution.”

Collaborating with Dryden is a challenge: his verse is so rich it makes music redundant. My conception is more intimate than any of the composers named above, calling for a vocal trio, string quartet and obbligato harpsichord. I haven’t attempted to match the poem’s vivid musical imagery but to amplify it; the drum is suggested by harpsichord, flute by viola harmonics, organ by a cappella voices.

My Song for St. Cecilia’s Day was first performed on a concert of my music in Landmark Center’s wood-paneled Courtroom 317, St. Paul, Minn. in 1993. That concert included the premieres of Grace & Stir, Come to the Waters and Heard in a Violent Ward. The three saintly sopranos on that occasion were Maria Jette, Karen Clift and Mary Therese Martinez.

Additional information

Weight .375 lbs


There are no reviews yet.

Be the first to review “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day”

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like…