Hail! Bright Cecilia!

So goes Henry Purcell’s Ode to Saint Cecilia, whose feast day is celebrated today (22nd November). Purcell’s ode is perhaps one of the best known compositions written in honour of this patron saint of music. It is a poem by Nicholas Brady which was set to music by Purcell in 1692. Brady’s poem was derived from A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, written by John Dryden in 1687. Dryden studied here at Trinity between 1650 and 1654.

Dryden wrote a second work dedicated to St. Cecilia in 1697 entitled Alexander’s Feast, or, The Power of Musick. This poem describes how Alexander the Great’s musician, Timotheus, was able to command the emotions of others through his music. This ode was originally set to music by Jeramiah Clarke but the score has not survived. It was later set to music in 1736 by George Frederick Handel. A copy of the lyrics for this version can be found in the library’s collection (classmark X.30.16[1]) and is pictured below.

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Alexander’s Feast, or, the Power of Musick. X.30.16

Like most martyrs, Cecilia’s death was gruesome. She is said to have lived for three days after being hacked in the neck three times with a sword. The scene is pictured in one of our Books of Hours. She was named patron saint of music because she sang to God during her wedding to a Roman nobleman after being forced to marry by her parents, despite her vow of chastity. St. Cecilia has been credited with invention of various musical instruments, most notably the organ.

The martyrdom of St. Cecilia. B.11.32, f.216r

Continuing on the musical theme, the College has many manuscripts containing music. Our best known – the Trinity Carol Roll – is currently on loan to an exhibition in Paris, but as examples we also have medieval fragments, a Hymnal and a seventeenth-century volume containing College Graces found in the Chapel.

Fragment B.11.34, recto

Further listening: The library has two recordings of Purcell’s Ode LL 930 PUR 115/CD and LL 930 PUR 116/CD, and a recording of Handel’s Ode can be found at LL 930 HAN 119/CD.