A Song for St. Cecelia's Day

A Song for St. Cecelia's Day The poem set to music: "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day" and "Hail! Bright Cecilia"

Unsurprisingly, “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” inspired several musical pieces. Baroque composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) set the poem to music in 1739: “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” is a cantata that features Dryden’s poem as its lyrics. The piece consists of twelve different movements, including an overture, a recitative to Stanza 1, a chorus, six arias corresponding to Stanzas 2 to 7, a march, another recitative to the second half of Stanza 7, and the Grand Chorus. It is fascinating to examine the ways in which Dryden’s verse is modified to be more compatible with the constraints of music. For instance, certain phrases or lines are repeated (e.g., “Arise! Arise! / Arise yet more than dead!”; “And music's power obey! / And music's power obey!”) or amplified (e.g., “Charge! Charge! Charge! Charge! / 'Tis too late, 'tis too late to retreat! / Charge 'tis too late, too late to retreat!”).

Another musical piece that this poem inspired is “Hail! Bright Cecilia,” composed by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) in 1692. This piece is set to another poem by Nicholas Brady (1659-1726)—“Ode to St. Cecilia”—that was written in 1692, after Dryden’s poem. Brady’s poem features visible influences from “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687”, in both structure and subject matter: The poem consists of thirteen stanzas, discusses music, emotion, creation, atomic theory, and the planets, and celebrates St. Cecilia as the patroness of music. Purcell’s musical rendition, as well as that of Handel, is performed to this day to commemorate St. Cecilia’s feast day on 22 November.