A celebration of St Cecilia’s Day

We select five fine pieces inspired by the patron saint of musicians

A celebration of St Cecilia’s Day
St Cecilia

On 22 November we celebrate the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians (as depicted above by Raphael Anton Mengs in 1760-1).

Believed to have been a noble lady of Rome, during her wedding ceremony to a young man named Valerian Cecilia is said to have sung to God and told her husband she had taken a vow of virginity and had an angel protecting her – which, on that of all days, was probably the last thing he wanted to hear.

When Valerian asked to see the angel,  Cecilia told him in order to do so he would have to travel to the third milestone on the Via Appia and be baptised by Pope Urbanus.

Cecilia spent her life preaching, but was ultimately arrested and was struck three times with a sword by an executioner. He, though, was unable to decapitate her and she lived on for three days. She is often represented in art with organ pipes in her hand, and a number of musical compositions have been dedicated to her. Here, we present a round-up of five of our favourites.


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. The scoring reflects this, with a full orchestra and wide variety of vocal soloists at Purcell’s disposal. In 2002, seven composers were asked to collaborate on a set of variations based on Purcell’s theme, resulting in a new composition that was performed at the Last Night of the Proms of that year.


• A guide to Henry Purcell
• A guide to George Frideric Handel


Handel A Song for St Cecilia’s Day

Handel’s cantata was composed in 1739, set to a poem by England’s first Poet Laureate, John Dryden. The text is centred around the theme of harmonia mundi, the theory that music was a central force in the Earth’s creation.


Haydn St Cecilia Mass

Haydn’s relatively rarely performed work is confusingly also known as ‘Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae’. Written by a young Haydn in 1766, the piece features intricate fugues interspersed with elegant melodic lines. It was written for vocal soloists, a four-part choir and a small orchestra. It is believed that the original manuscript was lost in 1768 in a fire in Haydn’s home town of Eisenstadt, and the poor chap had to rewrite the piece from memory.


• Review of the Rodolfus Choir's Howells disc


Howells A Hymn to St Cecilia

This choral work by Howells was written in 1960 and is set to a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, the English poet and author, and, of course, wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is set for four-part choir and organ, and gathers momentum and increases in intensity as the piece moves from joyful celebrations of St Cecilia to a more contemplative conclusion.


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!). Its first radio performance took place in 1942, but the journey to creating the work was no mean feat. 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?


• Review of Britten's recording of Handel's Saint Cecilia Ode

• V&A blog on Saint Cecilia in art

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