22 November 2009

Saint Cecilia’s Day in the Cathedral

Patrick Comerford (right) with the Dean ofChirst Church Cathedral, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, after the Sung Eucharist in the cathedral on the Feast of Christ the King

Patrick Comerford

We celebrated the Feast of Christ the King in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning. This is the last Sunday in the Christian calendar and the Church year. But 22 November is also the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint musicians and church music.

As canon-in-residence this week, I was back in Christ Church Cathedral this afternoon when her day was marked appropriately at Choral Evensong, which was sung by the cathedral choir, and for the presentation of certificates to musicians who are working on the diocesan music course.

The processional hymn was Sing praise to God who reigns above (Johann Schutz, translated by Frances Cox), our canticles were Cantate Domino to a setting by Claudio Monteverdi and Deus Misereatur to a setting by Mogens Pederson, and before the presentation of certificates a most wonderful anthem by the choir – the first movement of Come, ye Sons of Art, a birthday ode for Queen Mary (1694), with words by Nahum Tate and music by Henry Purcell:

Come, Ye Sons of Art, come away,
Tune all your voices and instruments play
To celebrate this triumphant day.

Sound the trumpet, till around
You make the list’ning shores rebound.
On the sprightly hautboy play;
All the instruments of joy,
That skilful numbers can employ,
To celebrate the glories of this day.

Our closing hymn was Henry Baker’s O praise ye the Lord! to Parry’s tune Laudate Domino.

Patron Saint of musicians

Saint Cecilia’s feast day on 22 November is common to the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican traditions in the Church, and – apart from the Blessed Virgin – she is one of seven women named in the Canon of the Roman Catholic Mass. She has been honoured as the patron saint of musicians and Church music because, according to legend, she sang to God as she was dying a martyr’s death.

It was long supposed that Cecilia was a noble woman from Rome. It was said that she was martyred ca 230, along with her husband Valerian, his brother Tiburtius, and a Roman soldier Maximus, under the Emperor Alexander Severus. However, it is more likely that she died in Sicily under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius between the year 176 and 180.

One legend says that her executioners at first tried to kill her by smothering her with steam. When this failed, they stabbed her three times, but she would not die until she received the sacrament of Holy Communion. Cecilia is said to have the survived another three days. In those last three days, she opened her eyes, gazed at her family and friends who crowded around her cell, closed them, and never opened them again.

Another legend says that she was crucified and beheaded and that at the same time she praised God, singing to him as she suffered her martyr’s death. It is because of this legend that she has become the patron saint of church musicians.

But by far the most gripping account of her life is in ‘The Second Nun’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There we are told Cecilia was ordered to be burnt to ashes in a bath of flame. She sat in the bath for a day and a night without even sweating. Finally an executioner delivered three strokes to her neck. Her wounds were bound up and she continued to preach and pray for three more days. Pope Urban then took her body and buried it at night.

Popular legend even says Saint Cecilia invented the organ. This belief seems to be derived from a misinterpretation of a sentence in her Acts: “Cantantibus organis in corde suo soli Domino decantabat.” While musical instruments were playing she was singing in her heart to God alone. The Latin “organum” also refers to the organ of speech and singing.

In Rome, the Church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere is reputedly built on the site of the house in which she lived. The original church in Trastevere was built in the fourth or fifth century. The church was rebuilt with much splendour by Pope Paschal I around the year 820, when her body was buried there.

The church was rebuilt once again in 1599, and her tomb is under the high altar. The church is near the Ripa Grande Quay, where the Ghetto was once located. It is the title church for a cardinal, and the present cardinal linked to the church is Cardinal Martini.

An academic choice and honour

Saint Cecilia’s memory has been kept alive by poets, writers, painters and musicians. The first recorded music festival in her honour was at Evreux in Normandy in 1570. When the Academy of Music was founded in Rome in 1584, Saint Cecilia was chosen as the patron of Church Music and 22 November was chosen as the date for her Patronal Festival.

Many composers since the late 17th century have honoured her memory, including Purcell, Handel, Blow, Clarke, Boyce, Greene, Wesley, Parry, Howells and Britten.

Earlier this year, I was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Saint Celicia, whose sphere of interest is early music, dating before 1825. The academy takes its name from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, which was in effect the musicians’ union in 17th century Rome and whose members included Corelli, Pasquini and Alessandro Scarlatti were members.

Dryden’s Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day, 1687:

But oh! what art can teach
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their Heav’nly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place;
Sequacious of the lyre.

But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her Organ vocal breath was given
An Angel heard and straight appear’d
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

As from the pow’r of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the bless’d above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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