Some thoughts on St Cecilia
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
This well-known invocation by W H Auden focuses on
St Cecilia as Muse.
However, it is important to distinguish between
the historical saint and the artistic
representations of her.
Fortunately, unlike many recently discredited
saints, such as the English patron St George,
there is no disputing the fact that Cecilia was a
real person and not a legend.
Some reference books are more than a little vague
about dates, saying that she was martyred in Rome
in the second or third century.
Others are more specific and it was long accepted
that she died in the year AD 230.
However, more recent scholarship claims that she
died in Sicily about the year AD 176 under the
Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
This creates problems, as we shall later discover.
The Church of St Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome is
reputedly built on the site of the house in which
The original church was built in the fourth
century, her remains were placed there in the
ninth century and the church was rebuilt in 1599.
So, who was she and what do we know about her
By far the best account of her life in English is
to be found in
The Second Nun's Tale
in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
This is almost entirely drawn from the thirteenth
century Golden Legend.
This is a mediaeval book of ecclesiastical lore,
lives of the saints, commentaries on services,
One of its sources was the Legenda Aurea of
Jacobus a Voragine, or Jacopo de' Varazze
(1230-1298) who was Archbishop of Genoa.
At any rate, for Chaucer this source was extremely
The Second Nun's Tale
is quite long and detailed.
There is a Prologue, four stanzas long and each
containing seven lines, which concludes:
Thou with thy garland wroght of rose and lilie;
Thee mene I, mayde and martir, seint Cecilie!
This is followed by an invocation to the Virgin
Inuocacio ad Mariam.
This is nearly twice the length of the Prologue,
being eight stanzas in length and each one
containing eight lines.
The third section reverts to the seven-line format
and the five stanzas are devoted to an
interpretation of the name of the saint,
Intepretacio nominis Cecilie.
Finally there is
The Second Nun's Tale,
which is four hundred and thirty four lines long.
Chaucer gives five interpretations of the name
each is beautifully expressed and describes
various virtues and qualities of the Saint.
They are: lily of heaven, the way for the blind,
contemplation of heaven and the active life, as if
lacking in blindness, a heaven for people to gaze
The story of Saint Cecilia
The story of Saint Cecilia is a dramatic one.
The young Roman maid was brought up from the
cradle in the faith of Christ and His gospel.
She prayed to keep her virginity.
She was married to a young man, Valerian.
On their wedding night she made her husband swear
to keep the secret that she was about to tell him.
She revealed that she had a guardian angel that
would slay Valerian if he touched her either in
love or lust.
Valerian was naturally somewhat suspicious and
demanded to see the angel.
Cecilia told him that he must first go three miles
along the Appian Way to be baptised by an old man
named Urban (this was
Pope Urban I
who succeeded in AD 222 and was martyred by
beheading on the 25th May, AD 230.
This obviously conflicts with the date AD 176.
However, if we revert to the long accepted date of
AD 230, and the place of her martyrdom as Rome, it
also obviates the necessity of the translation of
her body from Sicily).
After his baptism Valerian returned to Cecilia and
was visited by the angel.
Valerian asked that his brother, Tiburce should
also find grace.
The angel told them that they would both bear the
palm of martyrdom.
Tiburce was taken to meet Urban.
Subsequently they were questioned by the prefect
Almachius, and Maximus the registrar, who ordered
them to be executed having refused to bow to Jove.
The two brothers were beheaded.
When Maximus saw their spirits glide into Heaven
he wept and Almachius had him scourged to death
with whips of lead.
Cecilia was then tried by Almachius and refused to
abjure her Christianity.
She was ordered to be burnt to ashes in a bath of
She sat in the bath for a day and a night without
Finally, a man was sent down to slay her in the
Having delivered three strokes to her neck, her
executioner failed to kill her.
There was an ordinance that only three strokes
All the Christian folk bound up her wounds and she
continued to preach and pray for three days.
She sent for Urban and asked him to build a house
for her perpetual church.
He took her body after dark and buried it and
hallowed the church of St Cecilia.
In the prologue of The Canon's Yeoman's Tale that
follows, we are told that the telling of the life
of St Cecilia had occupied the pilgrims for five
miles of their journey and that by then they had
arrived at the village of Boughton-under-Blean.
Remembering St Cecilia
So much for the story of her life and death.
It might be supposed that the route by which her
memory has been kept alive was through the works
of poets, writers and musicians.
However, this does not initially appear to be the
It seems that the association of Cecilia with
music only dates back to the fifteenth century.
In fact, a long poem published in Florence in 1594
makes no reference to her musicianship.
It was painters who first seemed to link Cecilia
There is a painting by Raphael (1483-1520) showing
her holding a small organ in her hand.
Domenichino (1581-1641) portrayed her three times:
as a composer with a quill in her hand and an
organ in the background, and again as a violinist,
and finally as a bass-violist.
Poussin (1594-1665) showed her playing what
appears to be a two manual harpsichord.
In the eighteenth century Lawrence (1769-1830)
depicted her sitting by, but not playing, an
organ, and Reynolds (1723-1792) portrayed Mrs
Billington as Cecilia the singer.
Her tomb is under the high altar of the church of
St Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome.
When the church was rebuilt in 1599 the sculptor
examined her remains.
His inscription says: "Behold the body of the most
holy virgin, Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying
uncorrupt in her tomb.
I have in this marble expressed for thee the same
saint in the very same posture and body".
She is shown Iying on her right side with her head
facing downwards and with a scarf over her hair.
Both her arms are extended towards her knees and
the fingers of the right hand are also extended.
She looks as though she is peacefully asleep.
The first record of a musical festival in her
honour is of one held at Evreux in Normandy in
There was a competition in composition and one of
the prize-winners was Orlandus Lassus.
When the Academy of Music was founded in Rome in
1584, Cecilia was adopted as the patroness of
It is probably about this time that the 22nd of
November was chosen as the date of her Patronal
The first record of a celebration of St Cecilia's
Day in Britain is in London in 1683.
These celebrations took the form of a church
service for which an Ode was especially composed.
Surprisingly the literary works dedicated to St
Cecilia are few in number and all relatively
Dryden's Song for St Cecilia's Day, 1687 is only
seven stanzas, or sixty-three lines long.
He extols the power of music and harmony and
refers to a variety of instruments: trumpet,
Jubal's "chorded shell", flute, lute, violins and
Cecilia is only mentioned once in the penultimate
After speaking of Orpheus he says:
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.
Dryden was also the author of Alexander's Feast,
Or, The Power Of Music.
This is a slightly longer poem.
There is the usual mixture of historical and
mythological characters: Philip and Thais,
Olympia, Bacchus, Darius, Lydia, Timotheus and
Helen of Troy.
Ten lines from the end comes the one and only
reference to Cecilia:
At last divine Cecilia came,
Inventress of the vocalframe.
Pope's Ode on St Cecilia's Day 1708 is eight
stanzas, or one hundred and thirty-four lines
He details the qualities of music to arouse
emotions such as joy, exaltation, balm, sleep and
the power of martial music in history and
mythology to call to arms.
Ten lines from the end Cecilia is mentioned and
the poem concludes:
Of Orpheus now no more let Poets tell,
To bright Cecilia greater power is given;
His numbers raised a shade from hell,
Hers lift the soul to heaven.
Of course, there are other references to Cecilia
but we have to come to the twentieth century
before we find the next significant work.
This is Auden's Anthem for St Cecilia's Day.
It was dedicated to Benjamin Britten and set to
music as Hymn to St Cecilia op. 27 (1942).
In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean's margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.
We can only admire Auden's skilful use of the
medial rhyme but it is a pity that his poetic
licence introduced a black swan.
This bird is not indigenous to Europe and would
not have been known in Roman times.
Perhaps we would all feel happier with Orlando
Gibbons who, in his First Set of Madrigals and
Motets of Five Parts 1612, set the words:
The silver swan, who, living, had no note,
When death approached unlocked her silver throat.
Incidentally, the silver swan is the centrepiece
of the Arms of The Worshipful Company of
Musical tributes to St Cecilia
Many musicians made settings for the celebrations
of St Cecilia's Day.
Purcell composed for 1683 and 1692 and wrote a Te
Deum and Jubilate in D in 1694.
Blow wrote settings in 1684, 1691 and 1695 and
composed a Te Deum and Jubilate in 1695.
Jeremiah Clarke set Alexander's Feast in 1697 and
Handel did likewise in 1736.
Pope's Ode was set by Greene in 1708 as his
Boyce wrote The Charms of Harmony Displayed in
1738 and See famed Apollo and the Nine in 1739;
both are odes to St. Cecilia.
Samuel Wesley, Hubert Parry and Herbert Howells
also made notable contributions.
Apart from London, celebrations took place at
Winchester, Gloucester, Devizes, Oxford and
Early in the eighteenth century services were held
in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin and in Edinburgh
There the concert hall is named after the Saint.
Brewer, in his Dictionary of Phrase & Fable says:
"She is the patron Saint of the blind, being
References to this occur elsewhere: in fact two of
Chaucer's five interpretations of her name include
An archaeological exploration of the site of the
area near her burial place revealed that there was
a shrine to Bona Dea Restituta, a Roman goddess
The Latin for blindness is caecitas, which could
obviously be corrupted into the name Cecilia.
At every turn in writing this article I have been
confronted with a mass of contradictory
Myth and history have been so interwoven over the
centuries that it is difficult to sift truth from
There is scope for someone, but not me, to write
an article on the Cecilian Movement.
This had its roots in the end of the eighteenth
century but it was mainly a nineteenth century
movement for the reform of Catholic Church music.
Let me end with two thoughts.
Brewer says, "She is also patroness of musicians
and inventor of the organ".
He justifies this by reference to Dryden:
"Inventress of the vocal frame".
Many writers repeat this information and there are
many organists who believe this to be true.
Of course we do not imagine some vast building
frame towering to the ceiling to support the
32-foot pipes of a huge Father Willis four manual
instrument, but perhaps we envisage her seated at
some small portable instrument.
There were certainly small hydraulic organs in
existence in Egypt some two and a half centuries
before the birth of Christ.
The mistake appears to have arisen from a
misinterpretation of a sentence in her Acts:
"Cantantibus organis in corde suo soli domino
While musical instruments were playing she was
singing in her heart to God alone.
The etymology of "organon" (Greek), and "organum"
(Latin) also refers to the human voice, that is to
say the organ of speech or singing.
It is interesting to note that many poets were
wary of the word "organ" and seem to have used it
deliberately with some ambiguity.
On a more positive note, The Worshipful Company of
Musicians celebrates St Cecilia's Day annually
with a service that rotates between St Paul's
Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Westminster
In addition to this, the City of London holds an
annual St Ceciliatide Festival.
We also have an excellent body of Fellows in the
name of the Academy of St Cecilia, which now holds
one of its annual meetings on the last Saturday in
November in the Church of St Margaret, Lothbury.
Let us continue to celebrate her in music and
Graham Hawkes, former Archivist, ASC