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Some thoughts on St Cecilia

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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 she lived. 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 life? 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, homilies etc. 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 contemporaneous.

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 Mary, 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 Cecilie; 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 at.

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 flame. She sat in the bath for a day and a night without even sweating. Finally, a man was sent down to slay her in the bath. Having delivered three strokes to her neck, her executioner failed to kill her. There was an ordinance that only three strokes were allowed. 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 case. 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 with music. 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 Stefano Maderno 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 1570. 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 Church Music. It is probably about this time that the 22nd of November was chosen as the date of her Patronal festival. 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.

Literary works

Surprisingly the literary works dedicated to St Cecilia are few in number and all relatively short. 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 "sacred organ". Cecilia is only mentioned once in the penultimate stanza. 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 long. 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 Musicians.

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 doctoral thesis. 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 Salisbury. Early in the eighteenth century services were held in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin and in Edinburgh from 1696. 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 herself blind...". References to this occur elsewhere: in fact two of Chaucer's five interpretations of her name include this fact. 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 healed blindness. 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 information. Myth and history have been so interwoven over the centuries that it is difficult to sift truth from fiction. 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 decantabat". 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 Cathedral. 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 fellowship.

Graham Hawkes, former Archivist, ASC