Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians St. Cecelia byWalter Rowlands
One of the most ancient legends handed down to us by the early Church is that of St. Cecilia, the patroness of music and musicians. She is known to have been honoured by Christians as far back as the third century, in which she is supposed to have lived.
Doubtless much of fancy has been added, in all the ensuing years, to the facts of Cecilia's life and death. Let us, however, take the legend as it stands. It says that St. Cecilia was a noble Roman lady, who lived in the reign of the Emperor Alexander Severus. Her parents, who secretly professed Christianity, brought her up in their own faith, and from her earliest childhood she was remarkable for her enthusiastic piety: she carried night and day a copy of the Gospel concealed within the folds of her robe; and she made a secret but solemn vow to preserve her chastity, devoting herself to heavenly things, and shunning the pleasures and vanities of the world. As she excelled in music, she turned her good gift to the glory of God, and composed hymns, which she sang herself with such ravishing sweetness, that even the angels descended from heaven to listen to her, or to join their voices with hers. She played on all instruments, but none sufficed to breathe forth that flood of harmony with which her whole soul was filled; therefore she invented the organ, consecrating it to the service of God. When she was about sixteen, her parents married her to a young Roman, virtuous, rich, and of noble birth, named Valerian. He was, however, still in the darkness of the old religion. Cecilia, in obedience to her parents, accepted the husband they had ordained for her; but beneath her bridal robes she put on a coarse garment of penance, and, as she walked to the temple, renewed her vow of chastity, praying to God that she might have strength to keep it. And it so fell out; for, by her fervent eloquence, she not only persuaded her husband, Valerian, to respect her vow, but converted him to the true faith. She told him that she had a guardian angel who watched over her night and day, and would suffer no earthly lover to approach her. And when Valerian desired to see this angel, she sent him to seek the aged St. Urban, who, being persecuted by the heathen, had sought refuge in catacombs. After listening to the instructions of that holy man, the conversion of Valerian was perfected, and he was baptised. Returning then to his wife, he heard, as he entered, the most entrancing music; and, on reaching her chamber, beheld an angel, who was standing near her, and who held in his hand two crowns of roses gathered in Paradise, immortal in their freshness and perfume, but invisible to the eyes of unbelievers. With these he encircled the brows of Cecilia and Valerian, as they knelt before him; and he said to Valerian, "Because thou hast followed the chaste counsel of thy wife, and hast believed her words, ask what thou wilt, it shall be granted to thee." And Valerian replied, "I have a brother named Tiburtius, whom I love as my own soul; grant that his eyes, also, may be opened to the truth." And the angel replied, with a celestial smile, "Thy request, O Valerian, is pleasing to God, and ye shall both ascend to his presence, bearing the palm of martyrdom." And the angel, having spoken these words, vanished. Soon afterward Tiburtius entered the chamber, and perceiving the fragrance of the celestial roses, but not seeing them, and knowing that it was not the season for flowers, he was astonished. Then Cecilia, turning to him, explained to him the doctrines of the Gospel, and set before him all that Christ had done for us, - contrasting his divine mission, and all he had done and suffered for men, with the gross worship of idols made of wood and stone; and she spoke with such a convincing fervour, such heaven-inspired eloquence, that Tiburtius yielded at once, and hastened to Urban to be baptised and strengthened in the faith. And all three went about doing good, giving alms, and encouraging those who were put to death for Christ's sake, whose bodies were buried honourably.
Now there was in those days a wicked prefect of Rome, named Almachius, who governed in the emperor's absence; and he sent for Cecilia and her husband and brother, and commanded them to desist from the practice of Christian charity. And they said, "How can we desist from that which is our duty, for fear of anything that man can do unto us?" The two brothers were then thrown into a dungeon, and committed to the charge of a centurion named Maximus, whom they converted, and all three, refusing to join in the sacrifice to Jupiter, were put to death. And Cecilia, having washed their bodies with her tears, and wrapped them in her robes, buried them together in the cemetery of Calixtus. Then the wicked Almachius, covetous of the wealth which Cecilia had inherited, sent for her, and commanded her to sacrifice to the gods, threatening her with horrible tortures in case of refusal. She only smiled in scorn, and those who stood by wept to see one so young and so beautiful persisting in what they termed obstinacy and rashness, and entreated her to yield; but she refused, and by her eloquent appeal so touched their hearts that forty persons declared themselves Christians, and ready to die with her. Then Almachius, struck with terror and rage, exclaimed, "What art thou, woman?" and she answered, "I am a Roman of noble race." He said, "I ask of thy religion;" and she said, "Thou blind one, thou art already answered!" Almachius, more and more enraged, commanded that they should carry her back to her own house, and fill her bath with boiling water, and cast her into it; but it had no more effect on her body than if she had bathed in a fresh spring. Then Almachius sent an executioner to put her to death with the sword; but his hand trembled, so that, after having given her three wounds in the neck and breast, he went his way, leaving her bleeding and half dead. She lived, however, for the space of three days, which she spent in prayers and exhortation to the converts, distributing to the poor all she possessed; and she called to her St. Urban, and desired that her house, in which she then lay dying, should be converted into a place of worship for the Christians. Thus, full of faith and charity, and singing with her sweet voice praises and hymns to the last moment, she died at the end of three days. The Christians embalmed her body, and she was buried by Urban in the same cemetery with her husband.
As the saint had wished, her house was consecrated as a church, and the chamber in which she had suffered martyrdom was regarded as a place especially sacred. In after years, the edifice fell into ruins, but was rebuilt by Pope Paschal I. in the ninth century. While this pious work was in progress, it is told that Paschal had a dream, in which St. Cecilia appeared to him and disclosed the spot where she had been buried. On a search being made, her body was found in the cemetery of St. Calixtus, together with the remains of Valerian, Tiburtius, and Maximus, and all were deposited in the same edifice, which has since been twice rebuilt and is now known as the church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere. At the end of the sixteenth century, the sarcophagus which held the remains of the saint was solemnly opened in the presence of several dignitaries of the Church, among whom was Cardinal Baronius, who left an account of the appearance of the body. "She was lying," says Baronius, "within a coffin of cypress-wood, enclosed in a marble sarcophagus; not in the manner of one dead and buried, that is, on her back, but on her right side, as one asleep, and in a very modest attitude; covered with a simple stuff of taffety, having her head bound with cloth, and at her feet the remains of the cloth of gold and silk which Pope Paschal had found in her tomb." The reigning Pope, Clement VIII., ordered that the relics should be kept inviolate, and the coffin was enclosed in a silver shrine and replaced under the high altar, with great solemnity. A talented sculptor, Stefano Maderno, was commissioned to execute a marble statue of the saint lying dead, and this celebrated work, which fully corresponds with the description of Baronius, is now beneath the high altar of the church, where ninety-six silver lamps burn constantly to the memory of Cecilia. The accompanying inscription reads, "Behold the image of the most holy virgin Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying incorruptible in her tomb. I have in this marble expressed for thee the same saint in the very same posture of body."
It seems hardly possible now to say when St. Cecilia came to be considered as music's patron saint, - probably it was not until centuries after her death. We know that in 1502 a musical society was instituted in Belgium, at Louvain, which was placed under the patronage of St. Cecilia. We know, also, that the custom of praising music by giving special musical performances on St. Cecilia's Day (November 22) is an old one. The earliest known celebration of this nature took place at Evreux, in Normandy, in 1571, when some of the best composers of the day, including Orlando Lasso, competed for the prizes which were offered. It is recorded that the first of these festivals to be held in England was in 1683. For these occasions odes were written by Dryden, Shadwell, Congreve, and other poets, and the music was supplied by such composers as Purcell and Blow. At the Church of St. Eustache, in Paris, on St. Cecilia's Day, masses by Adolphe Adam, Gounod, and Ambroise Thomas have been given their first performance. In Germany, Spohr and Moritz Hauptmann have composed works in honour of the day, and Haydn's great "Cecilia" mass must not be forgotten.
Mrs. Jameson says that, before the beginning of the fifteenth century, St. Cecilia was seldom represented in art with musical attributes, but carried the martyr's palm. Later, she appears in painting, either accompanied by various instruments of music, or playing on them. Domenichino, who was in Rome when the sarcophagus of St. Cecilia was opened, and painted numerous pictures of the saint, shows her in one of them as performing on the bass viol. This picture is in the Louvre, where also is Mignard's canvas, representing her accompanying her voice with a harp.
Many painters have depicted St. Cecilia playing upon the organ, often a small, portable instrument, such as she bears in the celebrated picture by Raphael, which we reproduce. For over six hundred years, from the time of Cimabue to our own day, artists of all countries have vied with each other in representations of St. Cecilia, but none have risen to the height of Raphael's treatment of the theme.
St Cecilia with Sts Paul, John Evangelists, Augustine and Mary Magdalene
He shows us Cecilia, standing with enraptured face lifted to heaven, where the parted clouds display six angels prolonging the melody which the saint has ceased to draw forth from the organ she holds. On her right, the majestic figure of St. Paul appears as if in deep thought, leaning on his sword, and between him and St. Cecilia we see the beautiful young face of the beloved disciple, John the Evangelist. Upon the other side, the foremost figure is that of Mary Magdalen, carrying the jar of ointment in her hand, and behind her stands St. Augustine with a bishop's staff, looking toward John. At the feet of St. Cecilia are scattered various instruments of music, a viol, cymbals, the triangle, flute, and others. They are broken, and some of the pipes of the regal held by St. Cecilia are falling from their place, - all seeming to indicate the inferiority of earthly music to the celestial harmonies. Of the five saints depicted, only Cecilia looks upward, and it has been suggested that Raphael meant that she, alone, hears and understands the heavenly strains.
She is clothed in a garment of cloth of gold, St. Paul in crimson and green, and the Magdalen in violet.
Some writers claim that the face of the Magdalen is that of Raphael's love, the "Farnarina," whom he frequently used as a model. The baker's daughter was a girl of the Trastevere, and it is a coincidence that her home was near that church dedicated to Cecilia, where the saint's remains have rested for hundreds of years.
As Mrs. Jameson observed, Sir Joshua Reynolds has given us a paraphrase of Raphael's painting of music's patron saint in his fine picture of Mrs. Billington, the famous English singer of his last years, as St. Cecilia. She holds a music book in her hand, but is listening to the carolling of some cherubs hovering above her. The composer Haydn paid the singer a happy compliment suggested by this portrait when he said to Sir Joshua, "What have you done? you have made her listening to the angels, you should have represented the angels listening to her." Mrs. Billington was so delighted with this praise that she gave Haydn a hearty kiss. This splendid portrait of the charming young singer is in the Lenox Library in New York.
Raphael's "St. Cecilia" has, of course, a history. In October of the year 1513, a noble lady of Bologna, named Elena Duglioli dall Olio, imagined that she heard supernatural voices bidding her to dedicate a chapel to St. Cecilia in the Church of S. Giovanni in Monte. Upon telling this to a relative, Antonio Pucci of Florence, he offered to fit up the chapel at his own expense, and induced his uncle, Lorenzo Pucci, then newly created a cardinal, to commission Raphael to paint a picture for the altar. It was finished in 1516.
Tradition relates that Pucci had no ear for music, and was laughed at by his brother cardinals when chanting mass in the Sistine Chapel. He thereupon invoked the aid of St. Cecilia, who rewarded the donor of her picture by remedying his harmonic deficiency.
In 1796, Napoleon's conquering army carried the painting to Paris, where it remained until 1815, when it was returned to Bologna. It was at a later date transferred to the art gallery of that city, where it now hangs. About the middle of the eighteenth century, when the agent of Augustus III., the Elector of Saxony, was negotiating the purchase of Italian paintings for the royal gallery in Dresden, the "St. Cecilia" was offered to him for $18,000, but the price was thought too high, and a copy by Denis Calvaert sufficed. This still hangs in the Zwinger at Dresden, the home of the Sistine Madonna. According to Vasari, the organ and other musical instruments in this picture were painted by one of the master's pupils, Giovanni da Udine. Raphael again designed a St. Cecilia in the now ruined fresco of her martyrdom, which either the master or one of his pupils painted in the chapel of the Pope's hunting castle of La Magliana, near Rome. Fortunately, Marc Antonio's engraving has preserved for us the composition of this work.
Of the many tributes to this "St. Cecilia," we will select the one by Shelley.
"We saw besides one picture of Raphael - St. Cecilia; this is in another and higher style; you forget that it is a picture as you look at it; and yet it is most unlike any of those things which we call reality. It is of the inspired and ideal kind, and seems to have been conceived and executed in a similar state of feeling to that which produced among the ancients those perfect specimens of poetry and sculpture which are the baffling models of succeeding generations. There is a unity and a perfection in it of an incommunicable kind. 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, toward her; particularly St. John, who, with a tender yet impassioned gesture, bends his countenance toward her, languid with the depth of his emotion. At her feet lie various instruments of music, broken and unstrung. Of the colouring I do not speak; it eclipses nature, yet has all her truth and softness."
Dryden's "Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687," set to music by Draghi, an Italian composer, ends with this verse, apposite to our picture:
"Orpheus could lead the savage race,
And trees uprooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher;
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appeared, -
Mistaking earth for heaven!"
Ten years later he wrote his noble ode, "Alexander's Feast," in honour of St. Cecilia's festival, at the close of which he again refers to the saint's wondrous powers:
"Thus long ago,
Ere heaving bellows learn'd to blow,
While organs yet were mute,
Timotheus to his breathing flute
And sounding lyre,
Could swell the soul to rage, or kindle soft desire.
At last divine Cecilia came,
Inventress of the vocal frame;
The sweet enthusiast, from her sacred store,
Enlarged the former narrow bounds,
And added length to solemn sounds,
With Nature's mother-wit, and arts unknown before.
Let old Timotheus yield the prize,
Or both divide the crown;
He raised a mortal to the skies,
She drew an angel down."
Handel, in 1736, produced his oratorio of "Alexander's Feast." Pope's "Ode on St. Cecilia's Day," was written in 1708, and performed at Cambridge, in 1730, with music by Maurice Greene. In this composition the poet uses a similar image to Dryden. He sings:
"Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate's severest rage disarm;
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please;
Our joys below it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
This the divine Cecilia found,
And to her Maker's praise confin'd the sound.
When the full organ joins the tuneful quire,
Th' immortal pow'rs incline their ear;
Borne on the swelling notes our souls aspire,
While solemn airs improve the sacred fire;
And angels lean from Heav'n to hear.
Of Orpheus now no more let poets tell,
To bright Cecilia greater pow'r is given;
His numbers rais'd a shade from Hell,
Hers lift the soul to Heav'n."