Hymn to St. Cecilia

W.H. Auden

A picture of W.H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden
W.H. Auden was born in England in 1907. He attended Oxford University and served for a short period as a schoolmaster before starting to write for a living. During the thirties, he was deeply involved with social and political issues, and this was reflected in his poetry. Auden's witty and satirical writing was well in tune with the times. He formed a friendship with Benjamin Britten during the time that they were working for the General Post Office Film Unit. Auden's first collaboration with Britten, the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers (1936) was an ironic social commentary.

Auden received the King's medal for poetry in 1937. During the forties, the religious foundations of his thinking started to become more apparent. He wrote a group of three poems in honor of St. Cecilia's Day that Britten used in his Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942). Britten later set several other poems by Auden to music. Auden emigrated to the United States in 1939, and spent the rest of his life there. He was made a professor at Oxford in 1956, but he kept his home in the United States.

The usefulness of Britten's partnership with Auden eventually came to an end, however. Auden would often be far ahead of Britten when they were working on the text of a piece. This was especially true of the opera Paul Bunyan. However, Auden finally got too far ahead of Britten. Britten, Auden, and Pears discussed ideas for a Christmas oratorio on the east coast of the US. Britten and Pears went on a tour to the west coast. They returned to New York to find that Auden had already completed the libretto. Britten, however, found it unsuitable for the piece. At this point he realized that he would have to part ways with Auden. In the future, Britten learned to work more closely with his librettists.

The Music

Hymn to St. Cecilia was written on Britten's voyage home from America to England, in 1942. New York Customs had lost the first section, so he had to rewrite it from memory. The piece was first performed St. Cecilia's Day in 1942 (Britten's twenty-ninth birthday).

The text consists of three poems by Auden. One difference between this piece and the War Requiem is that Britten did not use obvious musical references, such as the violin mentioned in the poem, in the music. In the War Requiem, however, musical references such as bells are frequently exploited. The piece is written for five soloists: two sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass.

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