Composers > Inspiration > Princess Edith of England
by Maureen Buja | October 13th, 2016

standard Princess Edith of England

Edith of Wilton

Edith of Wilton

Ah, you thought you knew all the Princesses of England from Diana on out. Princess Edith comes from a considerably earlier time, being daughter of Edward the Peaceful (943-975) and Wulfthryth, nun at Wilton Abbey, who had been abducted by the King. Edith (or Eadgyth, Editha, or Ediva) was born in 961 and died when she was 24 at Wilton Abbey, the nunnery where she’d been raised.

She appears in music in the wonderfully titled Santa Editta, Vergine e Monaca, Regina d’Inghilterra (Saint Edith, Virgin and Nun, Queen of England), an oratorio by Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682). The work was composed in Rome in the 1670s to a libretto by Lelio Orsini (c. 1623-1696). Orsini, Prince of Vicovaro, also wrote librettos for at least 15 other oratorios that were set to music by composers in Rome.

Alessandro Stradella

Alessandro Stradella

So what are we to make of Stradella’s title, Edith…Queen of England? According to her biographer, one Goscelin of Canterbury, Edith was offered the crown following the death of her father and then her half-brother four years later. She declined, remaining in Wilton Abbey, but keeping and wearing the sumptuous garments that marked her royal status.

Why would have Stradella chosen such an obscure saint to set as an oratorio subject? When you look at the larger picture of a young religious woman who is asked to set aside her vocation and you look at 17th century Italian politics, there is a parallel. Maria Beatrice d’Este, who was the sister of Francesco II, Duke of Mantua, was determined on a life in the convent. Louis XIV, on the other hand, wanted to put a Catholic couple on the English throne and wanted her to marry James Stuart, the Prince of York. It took the intervention of Pope Clement X to get the princess to abandon her vocation and accept James for the good of the Catholic faith. She married James, he took the English throne as James II in 1685, only to lose it in 1688 to William and Mary.

Mary of Modena by Simon Pietersz Vereist (1680)

Mary of Modena by Simon Pietersz Vereist (1680)

The oratorio is not about the life of Saint Edith but follows in the model of many oratorios: dialogues between herself and ‘concepts’: Humility, Sense, Beauty, Grandeur, and Nobility. All of them, except Humility, try to persuade her to accept the throne. The oratorio is, in essence, a long series of arias by Edith as she argues her position. She answers the concepts’ arguments with confidence, often in a light and exuberant tone. Here she argues against Humility in the aria Speranze gradite (Fair aspirations)

Stradella: Santa Editta, vergine e monaca, regina d’Inghilterra: Part I: Aria: Speranze gradite (Verónica Cangemi, St. Editta; Ensemble Mare Nostrum; Andrea De Carlo, cond.)
Beauty, in a dramatic recitative and aria, tells Edith that she shouldn’t scorn the gift of beauty given to her by nature because it would be an asset to her in power.

Stradella: Santa Editta, vergine e monaca, regina d’Inghilterra: Part I: Recitative: Di chi brama il tuo ben – Aria: Chi pianti e sospiri (Fernando Guimãraes, Bellezza; Ensemble Mare Nostrum; Andrea De Carlo, cond.)
Edith argues back with Bellezze, rapine dell’ore fugaci (Beauty, depredation of fleeting hours):

Stradella: Santa Editta, vergine e monaca, regina d’Inghilterra: Part I: Aria: Bellezze, rapine (Verónica Cangemi, St. Editta; Ensemble Mare Nostrum; Andrea De Carlo, cond.)
At the end of Part I, Humility and Grandeur debate and argue about who can bring back peace: Humility says that Grandeur’s pomp and honours are mendacious while Grandeur complains about Humility’s wretched attire. They close by asking “What makes the soul happy?” and they each answer “Grandezza” and “Umilità”, but we notice that Humility has the last word.

Stradella: Santa Editta, vergine e monaca, regina d’Inghilterra: Part I: Duet: Chi può le nostr’alme (Claudio Di Carlo, Umiltà; Gabiella Martellacci, Grandezza; Ensemble Mare Nostrum; Andrea De Carlo, cond.)
In her last aria, Edith closes with “…when kindly Heaven calls, may we hasten to the encounter” in a lovely aria. She’s no longer the frivolous character we heard at the beginning, but after having to make her argument, has more gravity in her response.

Stradella: Santa Editta, vergine e monaca, regina d’Inghilterra: Part II: L’orme stampi veloci il pi (Verónica Cangemi, St. Editta; Ensemble Mare Nostrum; Andrea De Carlo, cond.)
Grandeur returns to tell of Edith’s return to the nunnery and predicts her later rise to heaven and Nobility, Grandeur, and Beauty close with a trio and the a final word from Humility.

Stradella: Santa Editta, vergine e monaca, regina d’Inghilterra: Part II: Terzetto: A notte breve (Francesco Aspromonte, Nobilità; Gabiella Martellacci, Grandezza; Fernando Guimãraes, Bellezza; Ensemble Mare Nostrum; Andrea De Carlo, cond.)
Stradella: Santa Editta, vergine e monaca, regina d’Inghilterra: Part II: Recitative: Di profeta real s’odan gli accenti (Claudio Di Carlo, Umiltà; Ensemble Mare Nostrum; Andrea De Carlo, cond.)

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