#MfEMonday – St Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music and Musicians

Yesterday was the feast day of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians.

Legend has it that the devout Cecilia was forced to marry a pagan against her will. On her wedding night she told her husband she had taken a vow of virginity and had an angel protecting her. Her husband asked to see the angel as proof, and Cecilia told him he would be able to see the angel if he was baptised. He did so, and was met by a vision of Cecilia talking to the angel, after which he converted to Christianity.

Cecilia angered the Roman authorities by distributing her possessions to the poor. She was ordered to be burned, but her purity protected her. When the flames did no harm, she was beheaded and thus martyred.

She became the patron of music and musicians because it is said that she ‘sang in her heart to the Lord’ as musicians played at her wedding. Her feast day is the occasion of many concerts and music festivals, and a number of musical compositions are dedicated to her, including:

Purcell Hail! Bright Cecilia

Set to a text by Irish poet Nicholas Brady in 1692, this ode to St Cecilia is full of references to musical instruments.


Handel A Song for St Cecilia’s Day

Handel’s cantata, composed in 1739, was set to a poem by England’s first Poet Laureate, John Dryden. The text is centered around the theme of harmonia mundi, the theory that music was a central force in the Earth’s creation.  Here are Cecilia Bartoli and Sol Gabetta performing What passion cannot music raise and quell:


Haydn St Cecilia Mass

It is believed that the original manuscript of this piece was lost in 1768 in a fire in Haydn’s hometown of Eisenstad.  The poor chap had to rewrite the piece from memory!  Enjoy this clip of the Kyrie Eleison:


Britten Hymn to St Cecilia

It is no surprise that Britten wrote a piece for St Cecilia, having himself been born on her feast day (Happy Birthday, Britten!). Britten set the work to a poem by WH Auden while spending time in the US, but on his return to the UK officials confiscated his manuscripts, as they feared they may have been a type of code. He then had to re-write the manuscript, in a manner not dissimilar to Haydn – is there some sort of St Cecilia curse?


Have a good week!

Your friends at MfE.



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