How St Cecilia inspired composers from Handel to Paul Simon

An Irishman’s Diary: The bonus of becoming C Sharp

Even in the swinging 1960s, the tragic Roman noblewoman was still inspiring musicians. Paul Simon’s Cecilia is a nod in her direction. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Even in the swinging 1960s, the tragic Roman noblewoman was still inspiring musicians. Paul Simon’s Cecilia is a nod in her direction. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

It must have been because he was born on this date (in 1859) that the great English folk song collector Cecil Sharp was so christened. His parents were both music enthusiasts, after all. And November 22nd is the feast of St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. It would have been a bonus, surely, that the baby thereby became a C Sharp.

Among many modern songs written in that key is Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, which as previously discussed in this column, may have borrowed from a tune composed nearly three centuries beforehand, by the harper Turlough O’Carolan.

Cecil Sharp wouldn’t have known that: he died in 1924. But having studied classical music earlier in life, he found his real vocation in collecting the traditional music of these islands, particularly his native England, which was to have a huge influence on the folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s.

Led Zeppelin were on the extreme electric wing of that movement. More typically, some of the songs Sharp collected, including Little Musgrave and P Stands for Paddy I Suppose, became standards for Planxty.

Like Stairway to Heaven, the story of St Cecilia is composed of different strands. She is generally agreed to have been a real person, a Roman noblewoman martyred along with her husband circa 230 AD. Her biography was then romanticised, however, for the purposes of Christian propaganda.

In the revised version, she was a virgin, forced by her parents to marry. Her musical skills had in the meantime caused an angel to fall in love with her. And when on their wedding night, her husband sought to consummate the marriage, she warned him this would incur punishment from the said angel, who was watching over them.

Not unreasonably, the husband asked if he could see the angel. She said yes, if the husband became baptised first. This he did, whereupon the angel appeared. Sometime after that, to cut a long story short, they were both beheaded by the Romans.

Unreliable muse

So began a popular cult in which Cecilia’s feast day came to be celebrated annually by writers and musicians. John Dryden and Alexander Pope wrote poems in her honour. Handel, Gounod and Henry Purcell were among many composers to serenade her. Benjamin Britten, born on this date in 1913, spent years planning to add his own contribution to the genre before persuading WH Auden to write the words for the work, A Hymn to St Cecilia.

Even in the swinging 1960s, the tragic Roman noblewoman was still inspiring musicians. Paul Simon’s Cecilia is a nod in her direction. On one level, it can be read as a composer’s lament to his unreliable muse: “Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart/You’re shaking my confidence daily . . . I’m begging you please to come home.”

Cello

On another, it seems to be describing activity of which the aforementioned angel would take a dim view, viz: “Making love in the afternoon/With Cecilia/Up in my bedroom/I got up to wash my face/When I come back to bed/Someone’s taken my place.” But maybe that was just an extended metaphor.

For centuries, November 22nd was the day on which the Worshipful Company of Musicians – one of the ancient guilds of London, which regulated the profession there – walked in procession to St Paul’s Cathedral for an annual service. Elsewhere, many less formal concerts are still held on this date.

The occasion will be marked indirectly in our house today, which happens to be the 20th anniversary of another major event, the birth of my son Patrick. He was never in danger of being named Cecil. But he was probably always at high risk of attending music classes, due in part to my own regrets at never doing so.

Sure enough, he spent the best part of a decade learning the cello (abandoned tragically at Grade 7) and then French horn (ongoing, sporadically), while I suffered gradual martyrdom getting him to and from classes in time and supervising his reluctant practice sessions. Once or twice, I may have threatened to make him a martyr too.

Then a while ago, and entirely of his own volition, he started playing guitar, on which the other stuff gave him a start. Now he’s strumming Beatles songs (while his cello gently weeps, in C Sharp minor) and hinting loudly that he’d love an electric one for Christmas. Ours being a small house, without a soundproofed garage, the jury’s still out on that. Any guidance from St Cecilia would be appreciated.

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