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 theÂ operas, but every thing else.
Britten wrote a lot of music, beginning in his teens and ending withÂ Phaedra,Â 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’sÂ Hymn to St. Cecilia, aÂ Â Cecilia mass by Alessandro Scarlatti, and the wonderful St. Cecilia Odes by Purcell and Handel.
ButÂ this November 22, how toÂ commemorate for classical music radio that awful dayÂ fifty years ago?Â Jacqueline Kennedy herself said “The only song Jack knows is Hail to the Chief.Â White HouseÂ concerts by Casals, Heifetz, Price, the Metropolitan opera (Cosi fan TutteÂ in the East room) and Leonard Bernstein were Mrs. Kennedy’s purview. These events did Â raise the prestige enormously of theÂ KennedyÂ administration, which the PResident understood and appreciated.Â
The Boston Symphony was playing a Friday afternoon concert when the news came in. Leinsdorf made the announcement to a shockedÂ 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 anÂ Elegy to John F. Kennedy, Â a setting of a poem by W.H. Auden, Â 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 theÂ 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.