Cecilia (c. 154–c. 207)
Cecilia (c. 154–c. 207)
Christian martyr, patron saint of music, and legendary inventor of the pipe organ. Born in Rome;conflicting dates of birth are around 154 or 177 or 207 ce; conflicting dates of death are around 177 or 200 or 230 ce; any of the three sets of dates yields a lifespan of 23 years; member of a noble Roman family; martyred for her faith.
Cecilia's status as the patron saint of music is somewhat ironic as, from the 5th century, obstacles were placed in women's path in the performing and composing of music. The church, for example, preferred male sopranos to female, and each year thousands of young boys in Europe, particularly in Italy, were castrated so that they would retain their soprano voices. These male sopranos not only performed church liturgy but also appeared on stage where they became wildly popular as opera stars. Much of the vocal music written by Handel, Haydn, and Mozart was written for male sopranos. Only in the 18th century were women allowed to perform, and finally by the middle of the 19th century castration of young male singers stopped. Women were also prohibited from playing certain instruments. In Sweden, for example, they were not allowed to play the pipe organ until the 19th century. These restrictions and prohibitions continued in orchestras where female players were not allowed (the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra continued to be an all-male institution throughout the 20th century). In the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and America, all-women orchestras were created until major symphony orchestras were finally integrated. Once women insisted that all auditions be held behind curtains so the judges could not determine their sex, their talent placed them in symphonies of first rank. Throughout the centuries of discrimination, St. Cecilia remained the patron saint of music.
Where the facts of St. Cecilia's life are unknown, only legend exists. The accepted legend is that she was a member of a noble Roman family. It is said Cecilia converted her home into a church where some 400 converts were baptized. Compelled to violate her vows of celibacy, Cecilia was forced to marry the pagan Valerianus, a Roman noble. Eventually, she converted both him and his brother Tiburtius to Christianity. When Valerianus and Tiburtius refused to make a sacrifice to Jupiter, they were executed. Like her husband, Cecilia was given the choice of a sacrifice to the gods or death. She chose death, but two attempts to execute her, by suffocation and beheading, miraculously failed before the penalty was carried out. Her body is said to have been buried in the 4th-century church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere. A cypress coffin was opened in that church in 1599 and found to contain the
bones of a young woman, which were identified as Cecilia's. She was canonized in the 16th century. Many paintings show her playing the organ, the viola, the pedal harp, the clavichord, the virginal spinet, and the viol. She lent respectability to music, which was originally condemned by the church as being frivolous and degrading. Composers from the time of Henry Purcell in the 17th century composed works in her honor, and many academies and schools of music bore her name although she was never identified as having been a composer. Her feast day is November 22.
It is a mystery why the church continued to identify St. Cecilia as the patron saint of music while at the same time going to great lengths to keep women from contributing to this important field of human endeavor. In retrospect, however, her elevation seems only just, as women continued to create music and foster the field's growth despite discrimination.
John Haag , Athens, Georgia