What Should We Do With the 22nd of November?
For many people, especially those born say after 1970, the date November 22 has little meaning.
I’m here to tell you that in 2013 we celebrate St. Cecilia’s Day on November 22. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians. This year the date also marks the 100th birthday of composer Benjamin Britten. He died in 1976.
Composer Stephen Montague has been living in England for forty years. He told me that in the U.K. Britten is and has long been a national treasure. His homosexuality and conscientious objector status during World War II no longer pack any punch. His music has never gone out of fashion. Not only the operas, but every thing else.
Britten wrote a lot of music, beginning in his teens and ending with Phaedra, a gift for Janet Baker completed a few months before his death.
It’s easy enough to play several of the great choral works dedicated to St. Cecilia. There’s Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, a Cecilia mass by Alessandro Scarlatti, and the wonderful St. Cecilia Odes by Purcell and Handel.
But this November 22, how to commemorate for classical music radio that awful day fifty years ago? Jacqueline Kennedy herself said “The only song Jack knows is Hail to the Chief. White House concerts by Casals, Heifetz, Price, the Metropolitan opera (Cosi fan Tutte in the East room) and Leonard Bernstein were Mrs. Kennedy’s purview. These events did raise the prestige enormously of the Kennedy administration, which the PResident understood and appreciated.
The Boston Symphony was playing a Friday afternoon concert when the news came in. Leinsdorf made the announcement to a shocked house. The orchestra played the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Thrid Symphony and every one went home. Bernstein conducted the Brahms Requiem the following week. Stravinsky wrote an Elegy to John F. Kennedy, a setting of a poem by W.H. Auden, for three clarinets and baritone. It’s two minutes long and hasn’t much traction.
There was a performances of Mozart’s Requiem at Holy Cross Cathedral in January 1964, that was the first JFK Memorial he Kennedy family attended.
The Casals performance at the White House is on CD. Assuming our classical stations disdain Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra or The Wild Colonial Boy, there’s always Hail to the Chief. Me, I’d celebrate St. Cecilia, a lot, on the day and leave JFK to history.