Howells, A Hymn for St. Cecilia

Not surprisingly, there are many musical works in honor of the patron saint of music. In 1960, English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was commissioned to compose A Hymn for St. Cecilia by the Worshipful Company of Musicians. In 1959-60, Howells was Master of this body, which is one of the Livery Companies of the city of London with a history dating back to the middle of the fourteenth century. At one time, this musicians’ guild had complete control over all musical performances in London. They now serve a ceremonial and philanthropic role.

The text chosen for Howells’s piece is by poet and writer Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007), the second wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Given the fact that some of the greatest English poets wrote works in honor of St. Cecilia (including John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and W. H. Auden them), it must have taken courage to add one’s name to the roll.

Conductor and composer Paul Spicer has written of this work: “The wonderful dancing-on-tiptoe nature of this piece takes its cue from the syncopated first vocal entry and each phrase finds increasingly high notes as the verse goes on. It is a classic ‘cumulative’ tune which carries the singer along on a tide of increasing emotional energy and leaves an impression of being a piece much bigger than its component parts.”

The work was first sung at Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on St. Cecilia’s Day (November 22) in 1961. The descant heard in the third verse was added at the request of the Cathedral organist. It is a brilliant evocation of “heaven’s long delight,” the confident hope in the poem’s final line.


Here is a performance of Howells’s A Hymn for St. Cecilia
sung by Saint Clement’s Choir, Philadelphia,
conducted by Peter Richard Conte


    A Hymn for Saint Cecilia
by Ursula Vaughan Williams

Sing for the morning’s joy, Cecilia, sing,
in words of youth and praises of the Spring,
walk the bright colonnades by fountains’ spray,
and sing as sunlight fills the waking day;
till angels, voyaging in upper air,
pause on a wing and gather the clear sound
into celestial joy, wound and unwound,
a silver chain, or golden as your hair.

Sing for your loves of heaven and of earth,
in words of music, and each word a truth;
marriage of heart and longings that aspire,
a bond of roses, and a ring of fire.
Your summertime grows short and fades away,
terror must gather to a martyr’s death;
but never tremble, the last indrawn breath
remembers music as an echo may.

Through the cold aftermath of centuries,
Cecilia’s music dances in the skies;
lend us a fragment of the immortal air,
that with your choiring angels we may share,
a word to light us thro’ time-fettered night,
water of life, or rose of paradise,
so from the earth another song shall rise
to meet your own in heaven’s long delight.