St. Cecilia : Music, Angels, & Celebration

According to legend St. Cecilia was the young daughter of a Patrician family in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. Though Cecilia was Christian her father arranged for her to marry a pagan named Valerian. At her wedding she sat alone repeating psalms and praying. That night Cecilia told Valerian that she had a lover and that he was a very jealous angel. Believing that Cecilia was lying and that her lover was just a man he demanded to see the angel. She told him the only way he could see the angel was to be baptized. Valerian was then baptized by a bishop named Urban. When he returned, Valerian saw an angel with fiery wing sitting besides Cecilia. Later Valerian convinced his brother Tiburtius to be baptized and he saw the angel too. Valerian and Tiburtius then started working for the Christian community in Rome where they specialized in burying the bodies of those who were executed. Valerian and Tiburtius were themselves executed for refusing to make sacrifices to Jove (Jupiter) as this was a sign of loyalty to Rome. Maximus, the official order to execute them was himself killed for converting to Christianity after receiving visions. After Cecilia buried their bodies she was martyred. First she was sentenced to be suffocated by fire in her own bathroom but she survived. It was then decided that she was to be executed by beheading. She was struck in the neck three times but survived but the executioner was forced to stop because it was against the law to strike more than three times. Cecilia survived for three more days. Dying, Cecilia gave all her wealth to the poor and her house to a bishop to be converted into a church. She was then buried in the crypt of the Caecilli in the catacombs of St. Callistus then move to St. Cecilia in Trastevere.

Because of her desire to maintain her virginity and martyrdom love of god Cecilia is considered to be the model of Christian women.Saint Cecilia is regarded as the patron saint of music, due to the legend that she sang to God as she was being suffocated and dying of her neck wounds. There is no evidence that Cecilia actually sang or played an instrument. However, the fact that she prayed to god at her wedding may have been mistaken for singing. It was during the Italian renaissance, that painters depicted her as a musician, most often playing organ. In other instances playing the lute or holding a violin. The first known music festival celebrating her feast day was in Eureauxy Normandy in 1570, The festival included performances and composition competitions. Annual festivals took place in Vienna, Paris and Rome throug the 18th and 19th century.

The first Cecilia’s feast day in London was in 1683.The music included an ode to St. Cecilia and taking as its theme the power of music to move the human soul, the organizers of the festivities were able to obtain the services of the leading composers and poets of the day. Purcell contributed odes in 1683 and 1692 and John Dryden, as Poet Laureate, provided a song for the festival of 1687, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day“. In 1703 Dryden’s ode Alexander’s Feast which he wrote in 1697 was set to music by Jeremiah Clarke and titled “Alexander’s Feast“; or “The Power of Musique” for the 1703 festival. Later Newburgh Hamilton, a fan of George Handel’s music drew Handel’s attention to the Dryden odes. Handel responded with settings of both texts, completing Alexander’s Feast in 1736 and Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day in 1739. Both enjoyed considerable popularity and several revivals.

The St. Cecilia celebrations in London lasted until 1905. It was replaced by annual concerts in aid of the Musicians Benevolent Fund which lasted for a week instead of a single day.


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