- Music for St Cecilia's Day from Purcell to Handel by Bryan White
As well as making a handsome outer cover for Bryan White's new book (something that recent Boydell volumes are doing particularly well), Godfrey Kneller's fine c.1703 portrait of Elizabeth, Lady Cromwell as St. Cecilia—pictured playing the organ and surrounded by plump putti—neatly draws attention to many of the key observations of White's study. Kneller's painting dates from the very end of the near-continuous eighteen-year period during which St Cecilia's day (22 November) had been marked annually in London society with the performance of an ode to the saint followed by feasting. In latter years a sermon and sacred music at St Bride's church, Fleet Street, had been added prior to the main festivities, which were usually held at Stationer's Hall (a short walk up Ludgate Hill in the direction of St Paul's Cathedral). Lady Betty, as Cromwell was known, paid Kneller £15 for A Cecilia for Mr Congreve' (p. 165), which connects the portrait directly to William Congreve's Hymn to Harmony, set to music by John Eccles in expectation of performance on St Cecilia's Day 1701. Perhaps Kneller was even directly inspired by Congreve's poem to depict Betty with her eyes raised to the heavens, a sign perhaps of musical transportation but no less a device to permit the artist to illuminate his sitter's face with rays of light streaming from the top left of the canvas–as in Congreve's lines Cecilia, more than all the Muses skill'd! / Phœbus himself to her must yield,' so the sun's presence is invoked solely to draw our attention to the main subject. More generally, it is clear that the portrait exploits exactly the cultural resonance that had been established by the celebration of [End Page 724] Cecilia as the patron saint of music: just as the poets, musicians and preachers associated with the Cecilian feast took pains to avoid any taint of idolatry (pp. 23-6), so Kneller's depiction of Lady Cromwell casts her as St Cecilia in order to celebrate her musical accomplishments, rather than make any hagiographic point about her moral or religious virtues.
In the event, Congreve's and Eccles's 1701 Cecilian ode was not performed in 1701 and, after the following year too passed without a celebration, the tradition lapsed. Congreve published his poem in late 1702, and Eccles seems to have performed the ode in March 1703 in a benefit concert for the famous countertenor Richard Elford (p. 56). Despite its association with the demise of the tradition, Kneller's portrait nevertheless encapsulates many of its key elements, not least the personalia of White's study and in particular the web of relations among poets, composers, performers and patrons that sustained the celebrations over almost two decades. From the outset in 1683 they had engaged the capital's leading composers, from Henry Purcell and John Blow to Daniel Purcell, Eccles and Jeremiah Clarke, and including the Italian émigré Giovanni Battista Draghi who, like Godfrey Kneller, had built a successful career in London despite his continental origins. Among the poets involved, Congreve was the last of a line famously including Dryden (twice), as well as John Oldham, Joseph Addison, Thomas D'Urfey, Peter Motteux and both Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady.
Lady Betty's commission was also an act of patronage, of course, and although there is no record of a direct connection with the Cecilian celebrations beyond her association with Congreve (the two were social acquaintances among the Staffordshire and Derbyshire gentry), her wealth and social status together with her links to political and bureaucratic circles—not least her future husband, Edward Southwell—illustrate well the range of London 'Persons of Quality or Gentlemen of Note' who served alongside the musicians as stewards of the feast each year. Other stewards included prominent judges, lawyers and military officers, as well...