Patron of Music • Composers • Singers • Musicians
• Poets • Organ Builders
Around 200 AD, a Roman maiden of patrician birth, Cecilia (or Cecelia or Cecily or Cecile) was given in marriage against her will to a handsome youth named Valerian.
Cecilia could play any instrument, sing any song and was able to hear the music of the angels. As one story goes, on her wedding day “while the pipes were playing,” Cecilia was praying – “singing in her heart” – for her virginity to be preserved. (A misinterpretation of these words was taken to mean that she sang to the accompaniment of an organ, thus making Cecilia the patron saint of music.)
The story continues with Cecilia telling her new husband that if he attempted to consummate the marriage, her guardian angel would make sure he was punished. When Valerian asked to see the angel, Cecilia replied that he would see the angel if he would go to the third milestone on the Via Appia (the Appian Way) and be baptized by Pope Urbanus. Valerian was so impressed that he convinced his brother Tiburtius to convert as well. The brothers were eventually martyred, as was Cecilia (in her own bath), but not before they converted hundreds of others.
Cecilia continued to stand up for her beliefs to the end, saying to the Prefect when she was on trial for her life: “The power of mortals is no more than a bladder full of wind. A needle’s point can deflate its blownup pride.”
Her story was quite popular during the Middle Ages and was featured in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as the subject of “The Second Nun’s Tale.” As with many of the early saints, most of Cecilia’s story appears to be a fabrication. It began circulating around Rome in about 500 AD. Scholars believe that Valerian and Tiburtius were authentic martyrs, but they had no connection with Cecilia. The story of the virginal marriage appears to have been taken directly from Victor of Vita’s History of the Vandal Persecution, which was a true account, but of someone else.
The “real” Cecilia probably was a patrician lady of the Cecilii family. As a childless heiress, she endowed the Church with property bearing her name in Trastevere, Italy. Included was a cemetery where her tomb (now empty) adjoins the papal crypt and tenement houses that are now churches (one named after her).
A favorite spot at St. Cecilia’s church is her infamous bath where she was reputedly martyred. (Another legend about Cecilia’s death says that after being struck three times on the neck with a sword, she lived for three days, and asked the pope to convert her home into a church.)
Regardless of the facts of her existence, honoring St. Cecilia is honoring music itself for its transforming, uplifting, spiritual power. Saint Cecilia’s Day has long been celebrated with concerts, and numerous composers have written odes to her. Many choirs and musical societies are named after her, and it is customary to hold concerts on her feast day.