St. Cecilia

I grew up knowing that November 22nd was a special day. It is my mother's birthday, my aunt's birthday, and the day that the world takes time out to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. When I began my musical studies, I began to realize the importance of this date for a different reason, the Feast Day of the Patroness of church music, fine arts and poetry, St. Cecilia. Her image graces so many churches in windows, statues, and organ cases; angelically playing a small portative organ and inspiring the countless poems, sonnets, and hymns that have been written in her honor. But who was she? Where did she come from and what did she do?

Her story is just like many of the other stories of saints and martyrs in the fifth and sixth centuries, a story. Cecilia was born into a noble Roman family and dedicated her life to God at a very young age and took a vow of chastity. A marriage to another young noble had already been arranged. Cecilia prayed to God during the playing of musical instruments at her wedding that her virginity would be protected. She told her husband that an angel was protecting her. When he wanted to meet the angel, she sent him to Pope Urban who baptized him. Her prayers were answered and her husband and his brother both converted to Christianity. Since Christianity was still illegal in Rome during this time, all three were martyred. Before her death, she gave away all her assets to benefit the poor and arrange for her home to become a church.

It was not until the end of the 15th century and the blossoming of the Renaissance that her name began to be associated with music, literature and art. When the Academy of Music was founded in Rome in 1584, she was the patroness of that institute. Cecilian societies began to flourish in Europe and elsewhere. By the 1800s, the movement was galvanized even further by the canon and choirmaster of the cathedral at Regenstein (then Ratisbon) Karl Proske (1794-1861) with the formation of a St. Cecilia Society that had branches in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Ireland, and Italy. This society's chief concern was to rekindle interest in the past, namely the glories of the Renaissance era, a capella choral singing. Two 19th century composers who contributed to Proske's Cecilian Society were Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) and Anton Bruckner (1848-1896).

St. Cecilia inspired both Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) to write an Ode to St. Cecilia. Benjamin Britten, who left so much to the world of church music, was born on November 22, 1913.

Derek E. Nickels, DMA