These phenomenal singers keep raising the bar on sacred music.
The UK chamber choir, Voces8, is back with yet another outstanding work of sacred music. They released Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia” back in 2020, just in time for St. Cecilia’s feast day. The work is marked by exceptional vocal work, especially from their counter-tenor.
Britten composed the “Hymn to St. Cecilia” in 1942, but it was a project he’d had in his mind for a long time. English composers have long held the tradition of writing hymns to St. Cecilia, as she is the patron saint of music. For Britten, however, the devotion was even closer to his heart, as he was born on St. Cecilia’s feast day in 1913.
The text was written by 20th-century poet W.H. Auden. Auden, who worked with Britten on several larger works, reportedly wrote the text at the request of Britten. The composition of the tune began in the United States in 1941, but the tune was almost lost when Britten decided to return to England, in 1942.
When trying to board the MS Axel Johnson for maritime transport back home, Britten had his music confiscated. With the outbreak of WWII, customs officials worried that the sheet music could have contained coded information. Britten was, thankfully, able to rewrite the entire score on his voyage back to England, saving this wonderful piece of sacred music from obscurity.
Voces8’s treatment of Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia” is one of the most wonderful performances we’ve ever covered. The tightness of their chords makes this 11-minute masterpiece a shiver-fest. The low rumbling of the bass notes at the end almost sounds like a church organ, and we would be remiss if we did not mention the incredible high notes their tenor hits in the third movement.