Today is the feast of Saint Cecilia. She is best known as the patron saint of musicians, but she is also patron of church music, poets, Albi in France, the Archdiocese of Omaha and Mar del Plata in Argentina (a favorite spot of mine and prime vacation destination for porteños). In addition there are many religious sites dedicated to her. Her patronage of musicians is based on the legend that when she sang on her wedding day it was if her heart were speaking to God. Her feast day is celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches on November 22. She is one of seven women, excluding Virgin Mary, commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.
Cecilia is one of the most famous of the Roman martyrs, even though the familiar stories about her are undoubtedly not founded on verifiable historical material. The main “evidence” of the facts of her life comes from 5th and 6th century collections of tales of the saints which are clearly pious but of dubious credibility as regular readers of this blog will acknowledge. Cecilia perhaps lived in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (texts vary), fully 300 years before the stories about her were written. Furthermore there is no evidence that these texts were based on anything other than popular folklore. Her feast day has been celebrated since around the 4th century.
It has long been supposed that she was a noble Roman woman who, with her husband Valerian, his brother Tiburtius, and a Roman soldier Maximus, suffered martyrdom in about 230, under the Emperor Alexander Severus. However, Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers (d. 600), says that she perished in Sicily under Emperor Marcus Aurelius between 176 and 180. This discrepancy alone should clue you in to the reliability of the material written about her.
According to the popular story, when the time came for her marriage to be consummated, Cecilia told her new husband,Valerian, that she had an angel of the Lord watching over her who would punish him if he dared to violate her virginity but who would love him if he could respect her maidenhood. When Valerian asked to see the angel, Cecilia replied that he would see the angel if he would go to the third milestone on the Via Appia and be baptized there by Pope Urbanus.
The martyrdom of Cecilia is said to have followed that of Valerian and his brother by the prefect Turcius Almachius. The legend about Cecilia’s death says that after being struck three times on the neck with a sword, she lived for three days, and asked the pope to convert her home into a church.
There is no mention of Cecilia in the Depositio Martyrum, but there is a record of an early Roman Christian church founded by a woman of this name. However, the name “Cecilia” was shared by all women of the Roman gens (clan sharing a common ancestor) known as the Caecilii, whose name may be related to the root of ‘caecus,’ blind. Hence, the church could have been founded by any of hundreds of women from the gens. It was a family name, not a given name. Legends and hagiographies, mistaking it for a personal name, suggest fanciful etymologies. Among those cited by Chaucer in “The Second Nun’s Tale” are: lily of heaven; the way for the blind; and contemplation of heaven and the active life.
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, at which time her tomb was opened and her body was reported to be incorrupt (a common claim for saints but this is the earliest).
The first record of a music festival in her honor was held at Évreux in Normandy in 1570. The National Academy of Santa Cecilia is one of the oldest musical institutions in the world. It was founded by the papal bull, Ratione congruit, issued by Sixtus V in 1585, which invoked two saints prominent in Western musical history: Gregory the Great, for whom the Gregorian chant is named, and Saint Cecilia.
Her feast day became a regular date for musical concerts and literary festivals that occasioned well-known poems by John Dryden (“A Song for St Cecilia’s Day”) and Alexander Pope (“Ode on St Cecilia’s Day”), and music by Henry Purcell (Ode to St. Cecilia), several oratorios by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (In honorem Caeciliae, Valeriani et Tiburtij canticum, and several versions of Caecilia virgo et martyr, to libretti probably written by Philippe Goibaut), George Frideric Handel (Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, Alexander’s Feast), Charles Gounod (Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cecile), as well as Benjamin Britten, (who was born on her feast day). Herbert Howells’ “A Hymn to Saint Cecilia” has words by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi’s “For Saint Cecilia,” Op. 30, was set to verses written by Edmund Blunden, Michael Hurd’s 1966 composition “A Hymn to Saint Cecilia” sets John Dryden’s poem, and Frederik Magle’s “Cantata to Saint Cecilia” is based on the history of Cecilia. Most, if not all, of these pieces can be found on YouTube if you are interested. Here’s the Purcell and Handel (only so much time I can spend searching on the web for a daily blog !!).
Purcell’s “Hail! Bright Cecilia” (Z.328), also known as “Ode to St. Cecilia,” is a setting of a text by Nicholas Brady composed in 1692. It was first performed at the annual St Cecilia’s Day concert sponsored by the Musical Society of London. Purcell had already written Cecilian pieces in previous years, but this Ode remains the best known. The first performance was a great success, and received an encore.
Brady’s poem is full of references to musical instruments, and Purcell’s work requires a wide variety of vocal soloists and obbligato instruments. Brady extols the birth and personality of musical instruments and voices, and Purcell treats these personalities as if they were dramatic characters. The airs employ a variety of dance forms. For example, “Hark, each Tree” is a sarabande on a ground. It is a duet on a ground-bass between, vocally, soprano and bass, and instrumentally, between recorders and violins (“box and fir” are the woods used in the making of these instruments). “With That Sublime Celestial Lay” and “Wond’rous Machine” are in praise of the organ. “Thou tun’st this World” is set as a minuet. “In vain the am’rous Flute” is set to a passacaglia bass. In spite of Brady’s conception of the speaking forest (English organs of the period typically had wooden pipes), Purcell scored the warlike music for two brass trumpets and copper kettle drums instead of fife and (field) drum.
The Handel piece (HWV 76) is a cantata that is a setting of the poem by Dryden. The main theme of the text is the Pythagorean theory of harmonia mundi, that music was a central force in the Earth’s creation. The premiere was on 22 November 1739 at the Theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Much of the instrumentation and use of percussion are exemplars of 18th century style, in great part initiated by Handel.
Among other things, Cecilia has become a symbol of the conviction that good music is an integral part of liturgy. She is frequently depicted playing a viola, a small organ, or other musical instrument.
Other images focus on her martyrdom and subsequent crowning, with Valerian, in heaven.
The Sisters of Saint Cecilia are a group of consecrated religious sisters. They are the ones who shear the lambs’ wool used to make the pallia of new metropolitan archbishops. The lambs are raised by the Cistercian Trappist Fathers of the Tre Fontane (Three Fountains) Abbey in Rome. The lambs are blessed by the Pope every January 21, the Feast of the martyr Saint Agnes. The pallia are given by the Pope to the new metropolitan archbishops on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29.
St Cecilia’s Abbey, on the Isle of Wight, was founded in 1882. The nuns live a traditional monastic life of prayer, work and study in accordance with the ancient Rule of St Benedict.
Food is not generally associated with St Cecilia given that her feast is celebrated primarily with music. I was able to dig up a couple of related recipes, however. There is a little known dessert sauce called St Cecilia Sauce which seems to me rather uninteresting. It is basically egg yolks beaten with powdered sugar, and then folded into whipped cream to which has been added some flavoring such as vanilla or sherry. Yawn.
There is also a drink known as St Cecilia Society Punch created for the exclusive St Cecilia Society of Charleston, SC, founded in the 18th century as an exclusive club of rich patrons of music. The society still exists, but no longer supports music. As longtime readers know, I very rarely include recipes for drinks. I don’t really think of them as recipes as such. But this one clears the bar, barely.
St Cecilia Society Punch
2 lemons, thinly sliced
¾ cup brandy
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 bags green tea
¾ cup dark rum
½ small pineapple, peeled, cored, sliced ½ in thick, and cut into small wedges
1 750 ml bottle dry sparkling wine, chilled
6 cups sparkling water, chilled
Put the lemon slices in a large bowl and pour the brandy over them. Let macerate at room temperature overnight.
In a small saucepan, make a simple syrup by combining the sugar with ¾ cup water and bringing to a boil over high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat, add the tea bags, and steep for 2 to 3 minutes. Discard the tea bags and let the syrup cool.
Combine the macerated lemons, brandy, syrup, rum, and pineapple in a large punch bowl. Chill in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 hours, preferably longer.
Just before serving add a block of ice to the bowl. Add the sparkling wine and sparkling water, and gently stir.
Serves 1 (sorry, old joke)