Who was St Cecilia? Meet the patron saint of music and musicians, who is still celebrated today

17 November 2020, 10:28 | Updated: 22 November 2021, 09:14

St Cecilia Playing The Organ painted by Jacques Stella, Musée du Louvre, Paris.
St Cecilia Playing The Organ painted by Jacques Stella, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

In the 3rd century, Roman noblewoman Cecilia was martyred for her beliefs. Today, we still celebrate her as the patron saint of music...

St Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians.

Legend has it that the 3rd-century Roman noblewoman Cecilia vowed her virginity to an angel of God, and when she was married against her will, her husband promised to uphold her wish only if he saw the angel himself.

All he had to do, she said, was be baptised and he would be able to see. He did so, and he was met by the vision of Cecilia talking to the angel. His brother followed suit, and after beholding the visions, both brothers were martyred.

Cecilia would pass through further tribulations before she herself was martyred – she distributed her belongings to the poor and this elicited rage enough from the powers-that-be to see her burned at the stake. Her purity protected her, though, and she wasn’t harmed.

So, they beheaded her instead.

From this violent end, Cecilia became St Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians. Her final resting place is Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, a 5th-century church in Rome.

Read more: The story of Maria Theresia von Paradis, the blind pianist, singer and composer who inspired Mozart >

When is St Cecilia day celebrated?

St Cecilia Day is on 22 November, and musical celebrations marking the patron saint of music are held around that date every year.

The first report of a music festival held in her honour was in Normandy in 1570. Many composers, including Purcell, and Britten who himself was fittingly born on St Cecilia Day, have written works in St Cecilia’s honour.

Help Musicians’ annual Festival of St Cecilia

Musicians’ charity Help Musicians hosts an annual celebration of St Cecilia, which usually takes part at Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Cathedral, and features their great choirs and other wonderful musicians and guests.

For 2020, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the celebration went ahead – but online. And the charity partnered with Cathedral Music Trust, which supports cathedrals and choral music in the UK and beyond, to showcase wonderful and poignant performances and messages in a time that’s tested the classical music world.

The celebration features performances by Westminster Cathedral Choir, Gloucester Cathedral Choir and British soprano Natalya Romaniw, as well as appearances from composer and conductor John Rutter, Help Musicians ambassador Isata Kanneh-Mason, and president of Cathedral Music Trust, Harry Christophers.

The celebratory concert was streamed on Help Musicians’ website, here, at 11am GMT on Wednesday 18 November, and is now available to stream online on demand. Viewers and music lovers are encouraged to donate to the charity at this incredibly difficult time for musicians.

“We hope that in a time of further lockdown and restrictions, that music lovers right across the UK will join us to reflect on the role that music has in our lives, and the value musicians bring to us all.

“2020 is turning out to be one of the most difficult years that musicians have had to face, with tens of thousands seeking support. This event will also therefore raise much needed funds for Help Musicians and The Cathedral Music Trust.”

Help Musicians and Cathedral Music Trust’s Festival of St Cecilia 2020 streams from 11am on Wednesday 18 November. Visit www.helpmusicians.org.uk/FOSC20 to find out more, watch and donate.