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The history behind the patroness of musicians: Music and St Cecilia’s Day

The story of how St Cecilia became the patroness of music, and came to be celebrated in England on her feast day, 22 November, is not straightforward.

According to the Passio Sanctae Caeciliae, a fictional account from the late fifth century, Cecilia was a Roman noble woman, who, having committed herself to life as a virgin in service of Christ, was betrothed by her father to an aristocrat named Valerian. In the bridal chamber Cecilia warned Valerian of a ‘waighty matter … I have an Angel of God in my company, who is jealous of me, and guardeth my body very diligently. If he see thee so hardy, as to come near, or touch me, with carnal or lascivious love, he will chastise thee rigorously’ [Villegas, The Lives of Saints, trans. Kinsman (1628)]. Upon hearing these words Valerian ‘was somewhat troubled’. Nevertheless, convinced by her faith, he converted, and in recognition Cecilia’s guardian angel granted the wish that his brother Tiburtius also be converted. After the brothers were matyred for their Christian works Cecilia was discovered and brought before the Roman prefect Almachius, who sentenced her to death in an empty bath under which a fire was lit. Though it burned for a whole day and night, Cecilia ‘received not any hurt thereby, but it seemed to her a place rather of pleasure and refreshing, than otherwise’. Thwarted, Almachius ordered Cecilia’s beheading, but three strokes of the executioner’s axe left her head ‘even as it was hanging by the skinne’. She survived three days and made provision for her house to be given to the Church. A miracle, no doubt, but not a musical one!

West Gallery of St Bride’s Church and the Renatus Harris organ case, c. 1694, from Round London: An Album of Pictures from Photographs of the Chief Places of Interest in and Round London (London, 1896)

Cecilia’s only link to music is her silent prayer. Chaucer included this scene in The Second Nun’s Tale, where he succumbed to the common mistranslation of the Latin ‘organis’ as ‘organ’: ‘And whil the organs maden melodie / To God alone in herte thus sang she’. The image of Cecilia praying inwardly, while music played, proved to be a fertile subject for artists, who from the 1450s began to portray her with instruments, a tradition that played a crucial part in her transformation into a musical saint.

It is hardly surprising to learn that the Protestant English were long resistant to Cecilia’s charms. Apart from two Catholics working on the continent, Peter Philips and Richard Dering, no English composers before the second half of the seventeenth century are known to have set texts in which Cecilia appears. This circumstance changed suddenly in 1683 when Henry Purcell set a secular ode to St Cecilia by the poet Christopher Fishburn for performance on November 22, and subsequently dedicated his printed full score to ‘the Gentlemen of the Musical Society’. Purcell and Fishburn repurposed the court ode, a form of royal panegyric, by replacing the monarch with Cecilia (and music) as the object of praise. Their collaboration was apparently successful, and apart from a two-year disruption caused by the Glorious Revolution, a new Cecilian was ode composed in every year until 1700. The greatest composers and poets of the age wrote for these events held from 1684 in Stationer’s Hall, where a grand dinner was also served. Two of Dryden’s finest poems, A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, 1687 and Alexander’s Feast, were penned for these occasions; Purcell’s grandest ode, ‘Hail, bright Cecilia’, was composed for the 1692 feast.

Exterior of Stationers’ Hall from William Maitland, The History of London from its Foundation to the Present Time, ii (London, 1756)

Peter Motteux described the events in The Gentleman’s Journal where he was clear to point out that they were not held ‘through a principle of Superstition [i.e. they were in no way Catholic], but to propagate the advancement of that divine Science [music].’ The feasts were entirely secular in nature, but in 1693 a church service at St Bride’s was added beforehand at which elaborate settings of Te Deum and Jubilate for voices, strings and trumpets were performed, and sermons justifying instrumentally accompanied sacred music were preached. Mention of the saint at these services was kept to a minimum, and several of the sermons, the majority of which were printed at the behest of the Musical Society, did not even mention St Cecilia’s Day on the title page.

Interior of Stationers’ Hall, the Ladies’ Charity School Jubilee Dinner, The Illustrated London News, week ending 19 June 1852, p. 473. Note the gallery, which may have accommodated musicians in Cecilian performances in the seventeenth century.

Though the celebrations at Stationers’ Hall ended after 1700, in the face of increasing competition from London’s busy musical and theatrical offerings, Cecilian celebrations spread widely through the British provinces, and settings of Cecilian odes enjoyed a notable revival when Handel set both of John Dryden’s odes, Alexander’s Feast (1736) and Song for St Cecilia’s Day, 1687 (1739).


This guest post was written by Bryan White, Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Leeds. His book Music for St Cecilia’s Day: From Purcell to Handel will be published by Boydell Press in February 2019.

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