Who was St Cecilia?

Our quick quide to the Patron Saint of Music

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Today (22 November) is the Saints Day of Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music. Here is our brief guide to the melodious martyr…

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While Cecilia is one of the most renowned Roman martyrs, what we know about her is apparently based on legend. Cecilia was born into a noble family in Rome in the second century AD and was married against her will to an aristocrat named Valerian. On their wedding night, she told Valerian that she had taken a vow of virginity and she was protected by an angel. Valerian asked for proof of the angel’s existence and Cecilia told him to travel to the third milestone on the Appian Way to be baptised into the Christian faith.

However, after burying Christian martyrs – which was illegal at the time – both Valerian and his brother Tiburtius, who was also a converted Christian, were tried and executed. Cecilia herself was also arrested, tried and executed: legend has it that after she was struck three times on the neck by the executioner’s sword, she lived on for three more days – with her last breath, she requested Pope Urban to convert the site of her execution into a church.

It is said that Cecilia is the patron saint of music because she heard heavenly music in her heart during the wedding ceremony. However, it was over a thousand years before we see a more explicit musical connection, with paintings dating from the 16th century onwards portraying her with a viol or an organ.

Appropriately enough, St. Cecilia’s Day also marks the birthday of several notable musicians. These include:

Jacob Obrecht, Dutch composer (1458)

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, German composer (1710)

Cecil Sharp, English folk music and dance collector (1859)

Mario Labroca, Italian composer (1896)

Joaquin Rodrigo, Spanish composer and virtuoso pianist (1901)

Benjamin Britten, English composer (1913)

Peter Hurford, English organist (1930)

Nicolai Kapustin, Russian composer (1937)

Kent Nagano, US conductor (1951)

Stephen Hough, English pianist and composer (1961)

Sumi Jo, South Korean soprano (1962)

Edward Gardner, English conductor (1974)

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For our guide to five recommended works based on St Cecilia, click here.