The patron saint or patroness of musicians is St. Cecilia, whose feast day is celebrated on the 22nd November each year, but who was she and why did she become the saint for musicians?
Cecilia it is held was a noble lady of Rome whom live in the 2nd or 3rd Century and her feast day has been celebrated since as early as the 4th Century. She was married to Valerian and it is said that she ‘sang in her heart to the Lord’ as musicians played during her wedding ceremony. This seems to be the connection to music that has led to her becoming the patroness of musicians. Further, the story goes that when the time came for her marriage to be consummated she told Valerian that there was a guardian angel watching over her who would care for him if he respected her virginity but if she was violated then he would be punished. When Cecilia was asked to show Valerian this angel watching over her she told her husband that it would appear to him if he were to go and be baptised by Pope Urbanus at the third Milestone on the Appian Way.
The legend of Cecilia’s martyrdom follows that she was made a martyr along with her husband and brother by way of the sword; and that having been struck three times on the neck she lived for a further 3 days and that she requested that the pope turn her home into a church. Thus stands the Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere on the site of what was reputedly her home. The original church was built in the 4th Century and rebuilt in 1599. Cecilia’s remains had been moved to the church in the 9th Century and when the church was rebuilt over 700 years later it was found that her body was incorrupt. She is the first of the saints to be discovered incorrupt.
St Cecilia’s Day is celebrated worldwide by musicians of all types; with festivals, concerts and poetry recitals taking place on her day each November 22nd. The first known music festival in her honour took place in Normandy, France in 1570. There are many pieces of music written specifically in her memory including Gerald Finzi’s “For St. Cecilia”, Henry Purcell’s “Ode to St. Cecilia”, George Fredric Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” and Herbert Howell’s “A Hymn to Saint Cecilia” which features words by Ursula Vaughan Williams the poet and wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here we have Charles Gounod’s “Hymn to Saint Cecilia” arranged for violin and harp:
She also has one of the oldest music institutions in existence named after her, The National Academy of Santa Cecilia, founded in 1585.
St. Cecilia’s influence follows through into contemporary ‘pop’ music, the best known example being Paul Simons’ song “Cecilia” which appears to refer to her in the context of the difficulties encountered in writing songs…”Cecilia you’re breaking my heart, you’re shaking my confidence daily”…and ends “Jubilation, she loves me again, I fall on the floor and I’m laughing”. The next time you have a block with your music, maybe try calling out to St Cecilia!