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Celebrating violins and all things violinistic

Tag Archives: violin

Our Patron Saint

The patron saint or patroness of musicians is St. Cecilia, whose feast day is celebrated on the 22nd November each year, but who was she and why did she become the saint for musicians?

Cecilia it is held was a noble lady of Rome whom live in the 2nd or 3rd Century and her feast day has been celebrated since as early as the 4th Century. She was married to Valerian and it is said that she ‘sang in her heart to the Lord’ as musicians played during her wedding ceremony. This seems to be the connection to music that has led to her becoming the patroness of musicians. Further, the story goes that when the time came for her marriage to be consummated she told Valerian that there was a guardian angel watching over her who would care for him if he respected her virginity but if she was violated then he would be punished. When Cecilia was asked to show Valerian this angel watching over her she told her husband that it would appear to him if he were to go and be baptised by Pope Urbanus at the third Milestone on the Appian Way.

The legend of Cecilia’s martyrdom follows that she was made a martyr along with her husband and brother by way of the sword; and that having been struck three times on the neck she lived for a further 3 days and that she requested that the pope turn her home into a church. Thus stands the Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere on the site of what was reputedly her home. The original church was built in the 4th Century and rebuilt in 1599. Cecilia’s remains had been moved to the church in the 9th Century and when the church was rebuilt over 700 years later it was found that her body was incorrupt. She is the first of the saints to be discovered incorrupt.

St Cecilia’s Day is celebrated worldwide by musicians of all types; with festivals, concerts and poetry recitals taking place on her day each November 22nd. The first known music festival in her honour took place in Normandy, France in 1570. There are many pieces of music written specifically in her memory including Gerald Finzi’s “For St. Cecilia”, Henry Purcell’s “Ode to St. Cecilia”, George Fredric Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” and Herbert Howell’s “A Hymn to Saint Cecilia” which features words by Ursula Vaughan Williams the poet and wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here we have Charles Gounod’s “Hymn to Saint Cecilia” arranged for violin and harp:

She also has one of the oldest music institutions in existence named after her, The National Academy of Santa Cecilia, founded in 1585.

St. Cecilia’s influence follows through into contemporary ‘pop’ music, the best known example being Paul Simons’ song “Cecilia” which appears to refer to her in the context of the difficulties encountered in writing songs…”Cecilia you’re breaking my heart, you’re shaking my confidence daily”…and ends “Jubilation, she loves me again, I fall on the floor and I’m laughing”. The next time you have a block with your music, maybe try calling out to St Cecilia!

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The Greatest Performance of All Time?

It could be argued that if you can establish the finest performance of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor for solo violin then you have found the greatest performance of a violinist, if not the greatest performance in music. There have been many amazing recordings of Bach’s Chaconne by some wonderful violinists. In a preceding article ‘Bach’s Chaconne: His Finest Moment or The Greatest Music Ever Written? on the background to this section of Bach’s Partita No.2, I also approached the question often posited as to which is the greatest performance of this pinnacle piece and outlined some of the candidates that we have from the time when quality recordings were available in the last century onwards. Perhaps you have formed your own opinion and now I will make a suggestion as to the possibility of a defining recording and why.

I will precede that by stating that every single one of the soloists mentioned in that article have achieved staggering heights as artists and some degree of greatness. All are rightly very highly acclaimed and each recording is of outstanding merit. At this level I recognize that there are differences and that preferences between them are valid. Upon that we form opinions, likes, dislikes – “Hahn’s is too slow”, “Ehnes’ doesn’t move me like Vengerov’s”, “Gitlis’ is too harsh” or whatever – and arrive at favourites. I would add to that we should celebrate these differences and encourage creative interpretation. Without these we would only need one recording of each piece of music because all others would sound identical to the first and how boring would that be, we would tire of it much sooner. I am sure that if there were little difference between recordings we would complain far louder that X sounds like Z and that they all sound alike than we ever do about we don’t like the way A plays B. For me they are all great and at this level I would not seek to elevate one above the rest as I could only do so on ‘my preferences’. I will though give you my favourite performance (at this moment, and it may change tomorrow!)

Here is why I chose Vengerov’s performance of Bach’s Chaconne (taken from ‘Holocaust: A Musical Memorial Film From Auschwitz’). It is not because his interpretation and rendition is superior to others but because the setting is as much a part of the performance. The piece is perfect for the occasion and Vengerov’s interpretation is as ever as sensitive, contemplative, technically excellent and totally heartfelt, as if he is telling the whole story of the tragedy of humanity that finds its resting place in this monument to the past; as if lives in the present and will inevitably project into the future. Every note reverberates to the suffering of each life lost there, every chord reverberates their pain into our future that it should never be forgotten, its bass melodies and dark plaintive passages sing to the most bass instincts and likely to become depraved in man; whilst its souring hymn like sections sing to the highest possibilities, evoking us to transcend and rise again out of the depths to which we have once fallen. In Bach’s Chaconne played by Vengerov in Auschwitz we have the highest possibility of man brought into the lowest of which we have been possible. Yin and yang are brought together and resolved back into one. There is both a tragedy and a perfection, almost an inevitability that it must be. Listening to this I recall Menhuin’s words “Ever since I could remember I had tried to relate the beauty of great music to the harmony of life. As a small child I even imagined that if I could but play the Chaconne of Bach inspiringly enough in the Sistine Chapel under the eyes of Michelangelo, all that is ignoble and vile would miraculously disappear from the world” and realise that I am witnessing the physical manifestation of “all that is ignoble and vile” in this world finally brought to redemption through its meeting with its polar opposite.

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