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Music From the Soul

Ruminations on St. Cecilia

St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, as depicted in a 17th century painting by Jacques Blanchard.

In Rome, during November, I wandered the narrow cobbled streets of Trastevere, a neighborhood much older than its fabled medieval stone buildings in earth tones, many now with rooftops of terracotta. On a warm gray Sunday I found myself passing through the courtyard to the Basilica of St. Cecilia.

Cecilia is the patron saint of music. Composers as diverse as Handel and Henry Purcell commemorated her with orchestral works. John Dryden’s “Ode to St. Cecilia” from 1637 is a famous poem, though more about the exaltations of music than the mysterious sainted muse.

Cecilia was a woman of early Christian nobility who, according to legend, felt celestial music in her heart when she married Valerian, a pagan. Valerian converted. The house became a center for evangelists. In the second century A.D., Cecilia, Valerian and her brother died as martyrs, she reportedly sang to God as Roman soldiers hacked away.

The serene beauty of the church, built over ruins of the home, has a sublime force of character. It has gone through many permutations as a sacred space. A large church was built there in the 10th century. During a restoration in 1599, Cecilia’s remains were exhumed and said to be in remarkable physical condition. A sculptor of that time cast a statue that today, encased in glass at the base of the altar, lies curled in white, a life-like replica of Cecilia, semi-pristine, 14 centuries after her death. Affixed above the statue, two golden angels hold a crown of martyrdom. Ten candelabras in leaves of bronze line the altar.

A hundred upright chairs filled the center of the church, as befit a monastic community. Benedictine nuns wearing full black habits stood on the altar, holding music sheets as the organist played. Their singing of Gregorian chants drew the clutch of visitors (not more than 20 of us) into one of those moments when time stops, the world waits and angelic voices imbue people with meditations of the moment, beyond the self.

Gregorian Chant is named for the pope from 590-604, Saint Gregory the Great, who oversaw the gathering and codifying of liturgical music. Gregorian Chant is the “sung Bible … A vocal, monophonic music composed in Latin using sacred texts from the Ancient and New Testaments,” according to solesmes.com, the website of a French abbey. “The goal of the Gregorian melodies is to favor spiritual growth, reveal the gifts of God and the full coherence of the Christian message. ”

The organ is comparatively small and stands to the left of the sitting area; it has ivory and ebony keyboards, a pneumatic transmission system and wind chest piston. Above the pipes a pair of cherubim with gilded wings hold the edges of a scroll, laced with laurels of gold.

The overwhelming power of detail, so much of it in opulent architectural details, radiates in Renaissance churches. This basilica, not so fraught with art, is less overpowering. As the nuns sang into the early afternoon, the basilica with its ancient origins manifested a human scale, smaller and more intimate than gigantic churches like St. Peter’s or St. Paul Outside the Walls – works of monumental art in every sense.

As the singing settled over the church, the small crowd of visitors sat still, carried along by undulating refrains of alleluias. Looking down on the altar, the mosaic in the apse from the 9th century, features a semicircle of saints surrounding Christ with Cecilia and Valerian on the right. As nuns in black veils intoned the melodies, the gowned figure of Jesus stands slightly taller than the three saints on either side, all in distinctive gowns, flanked by palm trees. A row of lambs lines the base beneath them. The curvilinear space creates a sense of closeness, as if the saintly figures on either side of the Messiah were leaning toward us in a gesture of shared humanity.

In another panel, angels from the 11th century with enlarged frilled wings seemed half-bird, half-human. Renaissance painters spread the legend of Cecilia as the inspiration of musicians. Then the poets came along, notably Dryden who rallied to her meaning, as the shards of her real life receded and a spiritual legend emerged, what she came to represent.

 W. H. Auden, writing in the shadows of World War II, captured the longing for an intercessor in “Hymn to St. Cecillia,” which ends thusly:

 “I shall never be Different. Love me.

 Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
 To all musicians, appear to inspire:

 Translated daughter, come home to startle
 Company of mortals with immortal fire.”

Later that day, back in my rented quarters, I logged onto WWOZ’s website and with the seven-hour time difference caught the Sunday morning gospel show. As the river of church song rolled out of the tiny audio system on my laptop, I sat in the advancing Roman afternoon struck by the mystery of musical inspiration. It carries in the persona of St. Cecilia, rarified by the cloistered nuns in Trastevere, extending Gregorian chants so little heard nowadays in American parishes, back again to the thumping melodies and sky-shouting choruses of Southern black folk. Traditional gospel from the 1950s – songs like “Old Time Religion” – were recorded before gospel got amped up and mass choirs supplanted the down-home small choir stylizations. Two traditions, centuries and oceans apart, each became fixated on sacred melody as a means to salvation.

Into my day came the dearly departed Marva Wright, singing “Jesus on the Main Line.” A blues diva later in her life, Wright, who grew up singing gospel, echoed Auden’s “appear in visions … appear to inspire.” But like myriad of African-American spirit carriers, her appeal was not to an intermediary like Cecilia. Wright sang of the Savior’s direct power:

“If you’re sick
and you can’t get well
Call him up
Call him up
Call him up
And tell him what you want.”

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