The Feast Day of St. Cecilia

St. Cecilia window, church of St. Mary The Virgin in Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire.

St. Cecilia window, church of St. Mary the Virgin, Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire.

The 22nd of November is the traditional feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, musicians, orchestras, and bands. For many centuries, this day has been celebrated with concerts, poetry, and songs both sacred and secular. In Charleston, this traditional began in 1737, when German-born musician Charles Theodore Pachelbel offered a feast-day anthem at the small theater in Queen Street (ex-Dock-Street). A generation later, a group of local gentlemen formed our St. Cecilia Society, the first subscription concert organization in British America, and celebrated the saint’s feast day as their anniversary. Such celebrations continued locally well into the twentieth century, but most modern Charlestonians have never heard of this musical tradition. In preparation for the coming anniversary, therefore, I offer the following primer on the saint and her votaries in Charleston.

According to hagiographic legend, Cecilia was a young Roman lady who was martyred around the year 500 C.E. for her monotheistic Christian beliefs. Early reports of her veneration as a saint mention nothing about her association with music, but by the time of the Italian Renaissance she was routinely depicted with an organ, lute, violin, or some other musical instrument. The facts surrounding her transformation into the patron saint of music have been largely obscured by the sands of time, but the story itself has remained consistent over the centuries: Cecilia was a beautiful, chaste young lady whose religious devotion and musical skills drew angels down from heaven to admire her performances. This story provided inspiration to hundreds of visual artists over the years, and a simple Internet search for images of St. Cecilia provides ample examples of such works.

So why would a group of Protestant men in colonial South Carolina form a concert organization and name it for this ancient Roman Catholic martyr? As I wrote in my 2007 book about this topic, Votaries of Apollo, I believe that eighteenth-century Britons regarded St. Cecilia as the epitome of idealized womanhood in the age of “sensibility.” As a young, attractive, talented, and virtuous lady, Cecilia embodied the qualities of idealized spouse; by naming their society in her honor, the founders of the Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society sought to demonstrate that their secular events would  be conducted with sufficient decorum to make any lady feel welcome. The same could not be said for the usual species of gentlemen’s music-making at home or in taverns and coffee houses, in which men would customarily drink themselves silly and sing bawdy songs. No, the St. Cecilia concerts were something entirely different: formal concerts after the latest European fashion. That is, concerts where the success of the event was determined solely by the number of ladies present rather than by the quality of the performances.

Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society presented an annual concert series, including performances on the saint’s feast day, from 1766 to 1820. The society greatly curtailed its activities after 1820, but musical celebrations of its anniversary on 22 November continued well into the twentieth century. Other traditions have come and gone over the years in Charleston, but the musical celebration of St. Cecilia’s feast day remains one of the oldest and most significant in our city’s history. I encourage everyone to carve out a musical moment on Saturday the 22nd and perhaps raise a glass to the musicians of Charleston past. If you seek a bit of inspiration, please join me for a program titled:

“The Feast Day of St. Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music”

Saturday, November 22nd at Noon.

Mt. Pleasant Region Library, 1133 Mathis Ferry Road, 29464

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.