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Who was St Cecilia?

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cecilia St Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr, was killed in Rome in AD 230. The Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere is reputedly built on the site of the house in which she lived. The original church was constructed in the fourth century; her remains were placed there in the ninth century and the church was rebuilt in 1599. Her tomb is under the high altar. The sculptor Stefano Maderno examined her perfectly preserved remains and said, "I have in this marble expressed for thee the same saint in the very same posture and body."

By far the best account of her life in English is to be found in The Second Nun's Tale of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It is a dramatic story. The young Roman maid was brought up from the cradle in the faith of Christ and His Gospel. She prayed for her virginity. On the night of her wedding to Valerian she confessed that she had a guardian angel who would slay Valerian if he touched her either in love or lust. The naturally somewhat suspicious bridegroom demanded to see the angel. Cecilia told him that he must first be baptised by an old man named Urban, later to become Pope Urban 1. Valerian's brother, Tiburce, was also baptised. Valerian was then visited by the angel. Subsequently the brothers were arrested and questioned by the prefect, Almachius. When they refused to bow to Jove they were beheaded.

Cecilia refused to abjure her Christianity and was ordered to be burnt to ashes in a bath of flame. She sat in the bath for a day and a night without even sweating. Finally an executioner delivered three strokes to her neck. Her wounds were bound up and she continued to preach and pray for three more days. Urban took her body and buried it at night.

Did St Cecilia invent the organ?

Contrary to general belief, Cecilia did not invent the organ; there were certainly small hydraulic organs in existence in Egypt some two and a half centuries before the birth of Christ. The mistake seems to have arisen from a misinterpretation of a sentence in her Acts: "Cantantibus organis in corde suo soli Domino decantabat".

While musical instruments were playing she was singing in her heart to God alone. The Latin "organum" also refers to the organ of speech and singing.

Keeping the memory of St Cecilia alive

St Cecilia's memory has been kept alive by poets, writers, painters and musicians. The first record of a music festival in her honour was held at Evreux in Normandy in 1570. When the Academy of Music was founded in Rome in 1584, Cecilia was adopted as the patron of Church Music and the 22nd of November was chosen as the date for her Patronal Festival.

Many British composers such as Purcell, Handel, Blow, Clarke, Boyce, Greene, Wesley, Parry, Howells and Britten, have honoured her memory since the late seventeenth century.

Dryden's Song for St Cecilia's Day, 1687

But oh! what art can teach
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ's praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their Heav'nly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place;
Sequacious of the lyre.

But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her Organ vocal breath was given
An Angel heard and straight appear'd
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

As from the pow'r of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator's praise
To all the bless'd above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.

Click here to read Graham Hawkes's authoriative account of the history of St Cecilia.