An Almighty Busy Month

by Derek E. Nickels, DMA, Director of Music

As the last month of the Church Year, November is a very busy month.  Beginning with the All Souls' liturgy on Friday, November 2nd, we will gather to remember all those have come before us.  The choir will be singing Gabriel Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine, a hauntingly beautiful work based upon a short prayer by the 17th century French dramatist Jean Racine (1639-1699): "Word of God, one with the Most-High...Pour on us the fire of thy mighty grace."

At the end of the month, we will celebrate Thanksgiving on November 22nd and Christ the King Sunday on November 25th. I grew up knowing that November 22nd was a special day.  It is my mother's birthday, my aunt's birthday, and the day that the world takes time out to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. 

When I began my musical studies, I began to realize the importance of this date for a different reason, the Feast Day of the Patroness of church music, fine arts and poetry, St. Cecilia.  Her story is just like many of the other stories of saints and martyrs in the fifth and sixth centuries, a story.  Cecilia was born into a noble Roman family and dedicated her life to God at a very young age and took a vow of chastity.  A marriage to another young noble had already been arranged.  Cecilia prayed to God during the playing of musical instruments at her wedding that her virginity would be protected.  She told her husband that an angel was protecting her.  When he wanted to meet the angel, she sent him to Pope Urban who baptized him.  Her prayers were answered and her husband and his brother both converted to Christianity.  Since Christianity was still illegal in Rome during this time, all three were martyred. Before her death, Cecilia gave away all her assets to benefit the poor and arranged for her home to become a church. 

It was not until the end of the 15th century and the blossoming of the Renaissance that her name began to be associated with music, literature and art. When the Academy of Music was founded in Rome in 1584, she was the patroness of that institution.  By the 1800s, the Cecilian movement had been galvanized by the canon and choirmaster of the cathedral at Regenstein, Karl Proske (1794-1861), with the formation of a St. Cecilia Society that had branches in Germany, France, the Netherlands, North America, Poland, Austria, Ireland, and Italy. This society's chief concern was to rekindle interest in the past, namely the glories of the Renaissance era a capella choral singing. Two 19th century composers who contributed to Proske's Cecilian Society were Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) and Anton Bruckner (1848-1896).  St. Cecilia served as the inspiration for both Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) to write an Ode to St. Cecilia.  Benjamin Britten, who left so much to the world of church music, was born on November 22, 1913.

Finally, on Sunday, November 25th, we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday, the Last Sunday of Pentecost and the last Sunday of the Church Year. The choir will be singing Aaron Copland's Sing Ye Praises to Our King, the second of four motets composed in 1924 by the pioneer of American music while he was studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.