Sancta Caecilia I by Kendra O'Donnell, oil on paper, 2013.

 Our chorus, growing out of its infancy in the Harvard Musical Association, became independent in 1876. Originally called The Cecilia, then The Cecilia Society, under Donald Teeters it became The Boston Cecilia. We all know that Cecilia is the patron saint of music. Who was she? Why are we named after her?

     The earliest known account of Saint Cecilia is found in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a list of martyrs traditionally attributed to Saint Jerome, dating from the late 6th century. In the early medieval period news traveled more slowly than today, and evidence was harder to verify. Both history and legend grew by accretion as generations handed down stories. Then as now, people filled the gaps with projections from their experience and imagination: maps with serpents and sea dragons in terra and aqua incognita and such. Sometimes misinformation became part of the canon.

    In the modern era, Cecilia’s story has been said to have “no historical value,” “difficult to ascertain the factual nature of,” and even to be “a pious romance.” Lest we obscure her further, we should step back for a longer perspective on our own culture as well as hers. Narrative may be a better word for her story, as the record of her life and death is very old and unclear. What matters is what she means to us at any given time.

     For us music lovers, the crux of Cecilia’s story is the antiphon of the Vespers on her Feast Day, November 22nd. The passage, describing her nuptials, goes thus: Cantantibus organis, Caecilia virgo in corde suo soli Domino cantebat dicens: “Fiat cor meum et corpus meus immaculatum ut non confonedar.” (“As instruments sang out, the virgin Caecilia sang in her heart to God alone, saying: ‘May my heart and my body be spotless, lest I be thrown into discord.’”)  The second Latin word in this passage, organis, means musical instruments, but it has been misconstrued to mean organ, that is, pipe organ. This is the reason that Cecilia is so often depicted with her hands on the organ manual or keyboard.

     Cecilia was born to a senatorial family in Rome, in the second or third century AD, a Christian from her birth in this period of political and religious turmoil. She was betrothed to Valerianus, also of a patrician family, but a pagan. After their marriage ceremony, when the bridal couple withdrew to the wedding chamber, Cecilia told her husband that she was promised to an angel who jealously guarded her virginity. Understandably, Valerianus asked to see the angel. Cecilia told him to go to the third milestone on the Via Appia, where he would meet the bishop, Pope Urbanus I. He did as she directed and found the pope who baptized him, then her groom returned to Cecilia. An angel is said to have appeared to the couple and crowned them with roses and lilies.

     Valerianus and his brother Tiburtius, who also converted to Christianity, gave generously and performed good works, but were martyred by the Roman prefects. Cecilia had the brothers buried in a tomb, but shortly thereafter she too was imprisoned.  For professing her faith, she was condemned to death by suffocation in her bath. After this attempt on her life failed, the prefect ordered her to be decapitated. Once, twice, thrice, goes the story, the sword of the executioner failed to cut off her head. He fled, leaving her bathed in her own blood. Three days later, after providing generously for the poor and arranging for her house to become a place of worship, she succumbed.

     Pope Urbanus had Cecilia entombed in the Catacomb of Callistus, close to the ancient crypt of the popes where he himself was soon buried. That would indicate her date of death to be late second century to early third; 230 is often given as the year of her martyrdom. Urbanus had a church built over her house and dedicated to her, in what is now the Trastevere quarter of Rome; the church was rebuilt by Pope Paschal in 822. Her relics, as well as those of Valerianus and Tibertius, were reburied there. Later archeological excavations have uncovered Roman buildings, and a side chapel of the church purportedly shows the bath in which Cecilia was nearly martyred.

     Over the centuries, Cecilia’s cult grew, only strengthening her myth. Artists, sculptors, poets, and musicians celebrated her in their works. Raphael, Domenichino, Gentileschi, Reni, Tiepolo, Guercino, and Poussin are among many artists who painted her from their imaginations, especially during the Renaissance, often with musical instruments and keyboard. The sculptor Moderno witnessed the opening of her tomb in 1599; he made a marble sculpture of her with the three sword marks and blood, which he swore was the way in which he saw her body uncorrupted.

    Cecilia became the patroness of the Academy of Music which was founded in Rome in 1584, and numerous musical groups during the Renaissance paid tribute to her in their names. Composers were inspired to write for her, including Lasso, Palestrina, Scarlatti, Handel, Haydn, Purcell, Gounod, Charpentier, Liszt (three times), Parry, Howells, Finzi, and Britten. This should keep The Boston Cecilia supplied for some time with music in honor of our patron saint.

     Boston Cecilia Overseer Kendra O’Donnell has painted three of her own imagined portraits of Saint Cecilia, two of them for concert programs in the 2013-2014 season. You can see the roses and lilies which were the angel’s gift to Cecilia. You will also find her Roman house in flames, as her executioners tried to suffocate her in her bath. The music in two of the images is from Purcell’s Ode to Saint Cecilia. In the third, the necklace of notes is from the Osanna in Bach’s Mass in B Minor, our March 21st, 2014 concert at Jordan Hall. 

Sancta Caecilia II by Kendra O'Donnell, oil on paper, 2013.

Sancta Caecilia III by Kendra O'Donnell, oil on paper, 2013.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, an online resource, provided information for this post. Thanks also to Brian Burke, Celia Lewis, and Patrick O’Donnell.