St Cecilia’s Day, November 22nd.
Earlier this year (July 2016), I found myself standing in front of the stained glass window pictured above in the Cathedral of St Edmundsbury (Bury St Edmunds). Appropriately, an organ practice was taking place at the same time, and the impact of the sight of the window and the sound of the organ lifted my spirits after the political upheaval of the summer in Britain and reminded me of more important and pleasurable aspects of my life. Although I don’t really pay much attention to saints, I make an exception for St Cecilia as the patron saint of music, my first love. The poet laureate, John Dryden, wrote these words about her:
But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder high’r
When to her Organ, vocal breath was given,
An Angel heard, and straight appear’d
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.
Saint Cecilia by Guido Reni, 1606
Saint Cecilia was martyred for her Christian faith in A.D. 176, under the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, when both she and her husband were put to death. She was high-born Roman of a Christian family, and a great Church was built over the house in Rome which is said to contain her body, the Church of St Cecilia Trastevere. The present church was built in 1599, when Stefano Maderno claimed to have seen the body of the saint and carved her the sculpture of her lying on her side, uncorrupt, as he saw her.
There are legends about her attracting an angel to earth by her singing and of her singing at her martyrdom. The thirteenth century Golden Legend tells of how she sang as she took three days to die:
And while the organs maden melodie
To God alone in hearte thus sang she.
This is the source for Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale. From this rather flimsy evidence Dryden attributed to her the invention of the organ, by which she added length to solemn sounds.
In the middle ages, guilds of musicians adopted her as their patron saint and painters produced works showing her playing the lute or the organ, or another instrument. At the time of the Reformation in Britain she went out of fashion, for many puritans were suspicious of music, which they thought was a dangerous cup of poison. Despite this, St Cecilia’s Day was celebrated in 1683, when the programme included a church service and an entertainment which included an ode, or poem of praise. In that year the Musicians’ Company was formed to keep the Day in a worthy manner, and each year after that the Company met at St Bride’s Church in London. Later, they transferred the ceremony to St Paul’s Cathedral, where in 1907 a stained glass window was presented in honour of the saint.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries several provincial cities held similar festivals, including Wells, Oxford, Salisbury, Winchester and Devizes. Dublin and Edinburgh also staged celebrations in more recent times. These festivals inspired Odes by Purcell, to words Nicholas Brady, and by Jeremiah Clarke, to words by Dryden. In 1942, Benjamin Britten, whose birthday was 22nd November, also composed an Ode to St Cecilia. In 1946, after a public lunch at which the Lord Mayor spoke and the Poet Laureate recited a poem, there was a service at St Sepulchre’s Church and a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, attended by the Queen. Two orchestras took part and works by Purcell and more recent English composers, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton were performed, including Purcell’s Ode of 1692.
Saint Cecilia with an Angel, Gentileschi
- Hail, Bright Cecilia! (exeterbachsociety.wordpress.com)
- Prayer to St Cecilia (prayers4reparation.wordpress.com)
- Rome Pilgrimage (toloveandtruth.net)
- Happy St Cecilia’s Day (blueeyedennis-siempre.blogspot.com)