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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Ode to Saint Cecilia

Ode to Saint Cecilia

This month the Augustine Institute Radio Theatre released the audio drama Ode to Saint Cecilia, its third audio drama following Brother Francis: The Barefoot Saint of Assisi and The Trials of Saint Patrick. All three productions were written and directed by Paul McCusker. 

 

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

We know very little about the young woman named Cecilia. Scholars have long debated whether or not she lived in the 2nd or 3rd century. The historical record has raised questions about her Roman persecutor Tercius Almachius. She is mentioned in very early Christian prayers, but is not found in the writings of the earliest Church Fathers. Most of what we think we know about her emerged in the 5th century when stories of her life and death captured the imaginations of believers.

What is commonly understood about Cecilia was fascinating to me and worthy of re-telling as an audio drama. The daughter of a wealthy plebian, Cecilia was a lover of music and the arts, an incomparable singer, and a skillful player of the “Hydraulus” (a Greek invention that would evolve into the instrument we know as the Organ). Little wonder she would later become the Patron Saint of Music.

Hayley Atwell, Saint Cecilia actress.

Cecilia secretly became a Christian and vowed her virginity to Christ. Her parents, not knowing or understanding the vow, betrothed her to a Roman senator called Valerian. On her wedding day, Cecilia revealed to Valerian about her vow to Christ. He suggested that she must break it, whereupon she told him that she had a guardian angel who would strike him dead if he tried to force himself upon her. The Roman mindset allowed for such a possibility. He demanded that the guardian angel show himself. Cecilia told him that, to see the guardian angel, he must become a Christian first.

Maybe it was enough of a dare for Valerian. He and his brother Tiburtius went off to learn how to became Christians. The story goes that Bishop Urban—perhaps Pope Urban—brought them into the Faith.

It was a case of bad timing. Persecution of the Christians began anew under a mysterious prefect named Tercius Almachius. Valerian and Tiburtius were arrested. They were given the choice to worship the Roman gods or die. They chose to be martyred for their faith. Cecilia saw them die—crying out to them to stand strong.

The story goes that Cecilia buried them, after which she was arrested by Almachius. She was given the same choice: bow to the Roman gods or die. She chose death. Rather than behead her, Almachius sentenced her to be boiled alive in her bath chamber. She survived. A soldier was then sent to behead her, but his three blows with an axe failed. She survived for three days, blessing many who came to see her, and praying that one day her house would become a church.

This by itself was a good story. But there was more to come. Pope Urban fulfilled Cecilia’s dying wish and dedicated her house as a church. Then stories circulated quickly about this remarkable girl. Her beautiful voice and love of music made her a sort of muse among the Christians, inspiring music and the arts. In time, she was declared Patron Saint of Music.

Now let’s jump six or seven hundred years to the ninth century. Pope Paschal I has determined to rescue from the catacombs the relics of many of the church martyrs. The catacombs, by that time, were a wreck, having been carelessly exploited by pilgrims and vandalized by invaders over the previous centuries. Within a year the Pope collected over 2000 relics. But Cecilia was not one of them. That bothered him. He was building a basilica in her name and was desperate to have her relics placed there. After searching for four years he became convinced that her body had been destroyed or carried away by grave robbers. He was ready to give up.

According to his own accounts, Pope Paschal was deep in prayer one evening and Cecilia herself appeared to him in a vision. Are you so ready to give up? she asked him. You have been so close we could have conversed. She then directed him to where she could be found. Having discovered her burial place, he was then astonished to see that she was completely untouched by decay. She was the first “Incorruptible.” Pope Paschal moved her body under the altar in what became a basilica in her honor.

Cecilia’s reputation as a Christian version of a muse continued throughout the ensuing years. In 1570, the first music festival in honor of St. Cecilia was held in Evreaux, Normandy on her feast day November 22nd. It included a contest and became a showcase for the greatest composers and performers in France. Other European nations followed this practice. In time the St. Cecilia Day festival became a major event in England, allowing poets like John Dryden and Alexander Pope, and composers of the caliber of Henry Purcell, George F. Handel, and Benjamin Britten to introduce new works. Various festivals bearing her name continue to this day.

In 1599, Cardinal Paolo Sfondrati renovated St. Cecilia’s basilica. Her body was brought out from under the altar. She was still untouched by the decay of death. Papal investigators conducted an extensive and thorough study of her body. Sfondrati also commissioned sculptor Stefano Maderno to make a life-sized marble statue of what he saw. I very nearly wept when I saw that statue.

Photo of Stefano Maderno’s The Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia. Saint Cecilia has inspired many artists through the centuries, both in the musical and the visual arts.

St. Cecilia has that affect on people. Painters as diverse as John William Waterhouse, Peter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Poussin, Simon Vouet, Carlo Dolci, John Strudwick, and Antonio Allegri, to name only a few, put their skills to capturing Cecilia on canvas. Beauty, music and purity are the common denominator in each effort.

 

THE DRAMA

Producing an audio drama about the life and death of St. Cecilia would have been compelling enough, all things considered, but the stories that unfolded after her death were too irresistible. There was the mystery of where she’d been buried and her appearance to Pope Paschal. There was also the miracle of her incorruption. Then there was the breathtaking statue by Stefano Maderno. And, within a hundred years, the 17th century English poet John Dryden created his definitive poem “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” from which came works of music by many composers including G.F. Handel. I had to dramatize all of that, but telling the story of Cecilia’s life—and what followed—in a simple chronology of events seemed too easy.  The audio drama needed more artistry, something different. But—how?

The answer came from two diverse sources: author Charles Dickens and entertainer Steve Allen. Dickens provided the idea of people stepping outside of time to view events (Scrooge and the various ghosts in A Christmas Carol). Steve Allen nudged me toward the idea of different people from different times meeting up (Allen’s 1970s TV series Meeting of Minds). To the latter idea, I also remembered professor of philosophy Dr. Peter Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell, which brought together three men who had died on the same day (C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy). I began to toy with an idea of What if?

What if John Dryden, George Handel, and Stefano Maderno met in a mysterious place, all at a time when they needed to be inspired for the work they had to create—a work about St. Cecilia?

That premise became the context in which Cecilia’s story could be told dramatically. As her life unfolds, our artists can respond and consider the nature of artistry, the creative impulse, inspiration, and desire. The character of Valerian could provide the Roman view. We, the audience, could also see how Christianity grasped the crude pagan ideas of the gods and the arts—and fulfilled them.

Tim Uffindell, Tom Alexander, Peter Moreton, Barnaby Jago, and Stuart Pendred in the recording studio during the production of Ode to Saint Cecilia.

Yet I needed more than just an audio story with a lot of talking heads. To explore the fullness of St. Cecilia as a creative muse, of sorts, meant the story had to include allusions to her influence on all of the arts. Dryden was there for the poetry of the 17th century. Handel was there for the music of the 18th century. Maderno was there to represent the sculptor’s point of view from the 16th century. But what about now? How could I show Cecilia’s influence now?

For that, I created a fictitious student/composer named Benjamin Fisk. He is thrown into what he thinks is a costume drama—and comes up against his own limitations of thinking about art. Fisk would represent me, maybe most of us in this century. But I am no musician nor composer. To bring fulfillment beyond the drama itself, I turned to composer Jared DePasquale, who excels in “composing the story words can’t tell.” He took on the unenviable task of creating not only the music throughout the drama, but composing a musical climax that would bring together all of the themes involving St. Cecilia, John Dryden, Handel, and Benjamin Fisk. He dared to go beyond anything I could have imagined.

By its end, the drama became my own Ode to Saint Cecilia. I marveled at the way the actors, the sound design, and the music came together to create something more than I was capable of creating. I realized that, in the same way she had inspired others over the past eighteen centuries, St. Cecilia had inspired us as we crafted a story about being inspired.

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