Friday, November 22, 2019

Saint Cecilia, Patron of Musicians

St. Cecilia by Spyridoula Degaiti

Saint Cecilia was an early Christian martyr of the third century born to a wealthy family of Rome. She vowed her virginity to Christ, but her parents arranged for her to be married. Her betrothed was a pagan named Valerian, and she worried over how to convince him to be baptized so she can preserve her virginity. On the day of her wedding, therefore, we are informed of the following from her sixth century Acts:

Cantantibus organis, illa in corde suo soli Domino decantabat dicens: Fiat cor meum et corpus meum immaculatum, ut non confundar.

Chaucer translates this passage (in his "Second Nun’s Tale") as follows:

And while the organs maden melodie
To God alone in hart thus sang she:
“O Lord, my soule and eek my body gye
Unwemmed, lest it confounded be.”

A modern translation of the passage would read:

While the organ played, to God alone within her heart there sounded this prayer: "Lord, keep my soul and body free from all defilement, lest I be dissuaded."

During the Renaissance, it appears the words "cantantibus organis" were misunderstood as Saint Cecilia playing the organ and singing a hymn to the Lord. For this reason, beginning in the fifteenth century, Saint Cecilia was looked upon as a patron saint of musicians.

Van Eyck, 1432

From the fifteenth century on, paintings of St. Cecilia with the organ or singing are frequent. One of the earliest of these representations is by Van Eyck from 1432, followed by Garofalo, Van Leyden, Luini, Paulo Veronese, Salimbeni, Giulio Campi, Guido Reni, Domenichino, Moretto, and Carlo Dolci. Romanelli in the middle of the 17th century represented her with a violin.

In 1516-17 the Italian High Renaissance painter Raphael popularized this image with the St. Cecilia Altarpiece known as The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia. The painting depicts Saint Cecilia holding an organ and listening to a choir of angels in the company of St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist, St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene. The altarpiece was commissioned in 1513 for a chapel dedicated to St. Cecilia at the Augustinian church of San Giovanni in Monte in Bologna. According to Giorgio Vasari the musical instruments strewn about Cecilia's feet as a disdain for secular music were not painted by Raphael, but by his student, Giovanni da Udine.

Raphael, 1516-17

English Romantic poet Percy Shelley described the painting as follows:

The central figure, St. Cecilia, seems rapt in such inspiration as produced her image in the painter's mind; her deep, dark, eloquent eyes lifted up; her chestnut hair flung back from her forehead — she holds an organ in her hands — her countenance, as it were, calmed by the depth of its passion and rapture, and penetrated throughout with the warm and radiant light of life. She is listening to the music of heaven, and, as I imagine, has just ceased to sing, for the four figures that surround her evidently point, by their attitudes, towards her; particularly St. John, who, with a tender yet impassioned gesture, bends his countenance towards her, languid with the depth of emotion. At her feet lie various instruments of music, broken and unstrung. (Letters from Italy)

The rise of the depictions of St. Cecilia as the patron of musicians coincides with the establishment of musical societies and academies of the time. There is record of a musical society established in Louvain in 1502 which bore the name of the Saint. The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome is one of the oldest musical institutions in the world. It was founded by the papal bull, Ratione congruit, issued by Pope Sixtus V in 1585, which invoked two saints prominent in Western musical history: Gregory the Great, after whom Gregorian chant is named, and Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians.

Ludovico Carracci, 1607-10

The earliest recorded musical festival held in honor of St. Cecilia dates back to 1570 in Normandy. A century later the practice migrated to England with the establishment in 1683 of the London St. Cecilia Society which inaugurated annual celebrations, usually on November 22nd, the Saint's officially designated feast day. Odes in praise of music and of the Saint were commissioned and performed on a regular basis, and many of the leading poets and composers of the time – Shadwell, Congreve, Purcell, John Blow, to name a few – participated in these annual tributes.

The Poet Laureate John Dryden (1631-1700) wrote two Odes in honor of St. Cecilia and both were set to music by Handel. The first, Dryden’s “From harmony, from heav’nly harmony” was set by Handel in 1739 under the title The Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. This work is not to be confused with Handel’s setting of Dryden’s other Cecilian poem, “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” which we perform today under its published title, Alexander’s Feast.

Vouet Simon, 1626

Alexander’s Feast describes the famous feast held in celebration of Alexander the Great’s conquest and destruction of Persepolis, one of the capitals of ancient Persia. Always the classicist, Dryden went back to Plutarch for his material, peopling his poem with Alexander and members of his court, and even added the Greek poet Timotheus (c.450-c.360 BC).

One may well ask what this pre-Christian classical narration has to do with St. Cecilia. Not much, as it turns out, unless one allows Dryden sufficient poetical anachronistic license to juxtapose St. Cecilia with personages who antedated her by at least six centuries. Some commentators have speculated that Cecilia is introduced toward the end to show the triumph of Christianity over paganism. However, in the section in which the Saint and Timotheus confront each other, the tenor sings “Let old Timotheus yield the prize,” but this exhortation is followed by the bass who coyly suggests “Or both divide the crown.” Even though the angel has the last word, Dryden the classicist is not about to see his beloved Timotheus confuted and upstaged by Cecilia.

Alexander’s Feast was only one of two oratorios published during the composer's lifetime, and for many years it was second in popularity only to Messiah. Mozart thought highly enough of it to reorchestrate the work, and both Goethe and Herder expressed their admiration for this oratorio.