Patron saint of music and musicians, the feast day of St Cecilia is 22 November, and she and it have been much celebrated in music. John Dryden wrote an ode to her, later set to music by Handel; other famous odes were composed by Henry Purcell; and Benjamin Britten, born on this day in 1913, wrote a Hymn to Saint Cecilia to a text by W.H. Auden. Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale is a retelling of her story.

She was a married woman of the nobility of the Roman Empire, who went through with her secular wedding on the condition that her husband should be baptised. An account of her life says, "she hearing the organs making melody, she sang in her heart only to God"; and it is this that gives her the much later patronal association with music.

Her date of death is unknown (to be honest, her existence is doubtful). The years 117 and 223 have both been suggested, but the general belief now is that she was martyred about 178, in Sicily, rather than her traditional location of Rome. The legend says after her husband Valerian was baptised by Pope Urban I he saw an angel with her, and the angel offered him a favour: he asked for the conversion of his brother Tiburtius. The two brothers operated a cemetery for Christian martyrs until they themselves were put to death. She buried them at her villa on the Appian Way, for which she was arrested: refusing to sacrifice to the old gods, she was stifled in a hot bath without effect, then partly beheaded, dying from it after three days of preaching.

A church of St Cecilia existed in the Trastevere in Rome from early times, once supposed to be her house. This was rebuilt to accommodate her remains, said to have been discovered in 817.

Her name means "blind" so she is also a patron saint of the blind. When the Roman procurator judging her ordered her to worship his gods, she answered, "I wot never where thou hast loste thy sight, for them that thou sayest be goddes, we see them stones. Put thine hand and by touching thou shalt learn that which thou mayst not see with thine eyes."

This is all, of course, just an accumulation of legends, and her importance now in culture is a late addition. Early lives and representations contrasted her saintliness with the secular music of the wedding. Possibly by a misinterpretation of the Latin, from the fifteenth century she came to be represented as playing the organ rather than merely hearing it, and thus came to be patron of church music.

In 1683 an annual St Cecilia's Day Festival was established by the Musical Society of London. Purcell's ode on a Latin text was composed for this year. Dryden wrote his poems A Song for Saint Cecilia and Alexander's Feast for the 1687 and 1697 festivals: these were later set to music by Handel in 1739 and 1736 respectively (the former as Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day).
Life of St Cecilia:

A Song for Saint Cecilia
by John Dryden

From Harmony, from heavenly Harmony
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
Arise, ye more than dead!
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry
In order to their stations leap,
And Music's power obey.
From Harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet's loud clangour
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries 'Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat!'

The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depths of pains, and height of passion
For the fair disdainful dame.

But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ's praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly 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.

Grand Chorus:

As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator's praise
To all the blest 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.

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