St Cecilia was born in Rome in the 2nd Century, and was martyred for her faith in the early 3rd. Her life was one devoted to both the conversion of the Romans, and her vow of virginity. Early Christians began venerating her in the 4th Century, and at this time, a Church dedicated to her was built where her home once stood.
Her association with music can be traced back to 5th Century hagiographies, which draw upon an inspiring detail from the story of her wedding day.
Against her will, Cecilia was forced to marry a man named Valerian. During the wedding, as the musicians played she sang in her heart a song of love to God, renewing her vow of celibacy and praying for the strength to uphold it.
And so it was that after they were married, Cecilia told her husband of her promise and of the angel whom God had sent to guard her. Valerian wanted to see the angel, but first had to be baptised.
This he did, returning to see the angel at his wife’s side. From this day, Valerian, his brother Turcius and Cecilia worked together to spread the gospel.
Her song was her strength
In Cecilia’s time of heartache, she retreated into herself and found that music could provide that means of escape – that space in which she could open herself to God’s grace. Music presents us with an alternative dimension – a reality of time and space, not physical but still, tangible and immersive.
A retreat to this inner dwelling is commonplace amongst those for whom the present reality is unbearable; 16th Century Jesuits chanting as they marched to their execution, enslaved African-Americans singing spirituals as they worked, or compositions during war, such as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written whilst held prisoner in a Nazi camp. He held a strong Catholic faith, and this work is an expression of the sublime beauty of love in the face of evil.
Music can offer a means of transportation. Its structures can provide a framework – a site – for prayer. And this is one of the reasons why it is so central to catholic liturgy.
In 1585, Pope Sixtus V founded the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, which included musical theorists, patrons and practitioners, including composers like Palestrina. This marked a central point of convergence in the method and style of liturgical composition, centred around Rome.
Influenced by the decrees of the Council of Trent and a myriad of other factors, composers developed a harmonic sound-world, and an approach to setting liturgical texts, which formed a Roman Style still holds hegemony across the world today as, along with plainchant, the music most perfectly suited to Catholic worship.
These principles were made manifest in the Academy, which, under the patronage of St Cecilia and St Gregory, still provides a leading voice in the development of liturgical music, ensuring always that its beauty continues to catechise and edify the faithful.
Music has power over us.
St Augustine explains that music allows us to glimpse the transcendental. Like so many aspects of our faith, it is so real and so present, yet cannot be seen or grasped.
It is indefinable.
Pre-Christian civilisations also had this sense. Orpheus summons the powers of celestial harmony with his lyre and voice, whilst countless Greek and Roman artists made supplications to their Muse. St Cecilia represents the Christianisation of this concept, with many composers having written music in homage to, and inspired by St Cecilia. These include Purcell, Handel, Charpentier – and more recently Finzi, Howells, and Benjamin Britten.
But she is more than just a personification of musical creativity. In 1599, when her remains were exhumed to be moved to the new St Cecilia’s Church, her body was found incorrupt. May the beauty of our music remain just as pure, and through the enduring intercession of St Cecilia, may music continue to draw man towards God.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
– WH Auden, Hymn to St Cecilia
Art and Prayer, Perspectives on the Christian Life – by Mary Charles-Murray SND