Every year, the Musicians Benevolent Fund co-ordinates the Festival of Saint Cecilia, or Celebration of Music Service in support of Help Musicians UK which we believe it is now to be called. The Festival is held in the City on the Wednesday nearest to St Cecilia’s Day, the 22nd November.
The Festival Service is held in the morning and rotates annually between St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, with the combined choirs of the three Cathedrals. This Service is the only time in the year when the three choirs come together. A new anthem is specially commissioned each year. Masters and Clerks of all the Livery Companies are robed and formally process.
The Service is followed by a Luncheon at a historic location close to the Cathedral and a speech is given by a leading figure in the arts. Previous speakers have included Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Tony Hall (Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House) and Sir Nicholas Kenyon (Managing Director of the Barbican Centre and former Director of the BBC Proms).
According to legend, Saint Cecilia was a Roman woman of noble birth who was martyred for her Christian faith around the year 230 AD. Having resolved to live a chaste existence a crisis occurred when, without her consent, Cecilia’s father betrothed her to Valerian. The wedding day arrived and whilst musical instruments were playing, Cecilia is said to have “sung in her heart to God alone saying: Make my heart and my body pure that I be not confounded.” On their wedding night Cecilia told her new husband of her devotion to chastity, adding that an angel watched over her constantly to protect her purity.
Cecilia’s evangelical zeal converted her husband, and together, they preached the gospel until they were captured and executed for their faith. Cecilia, having been arrested after her husband’s death, refused to renounce her religion and was condemned to death by three blows to the neck. Cecilia remained alive for three days, during which time she gave all her possessions to the poor.
In 1683 the Musical Society was formed to counteract the Puritan view that music, whether sacred or secular, was dangerous fare – an opinion that had survived the Commonwealth. In order to keep St Cecilia’s Day, on 22 November each year, the Society attended a service in London, usually at St Bride’s, to enjoy a sermon preached in defence of cathedral music and an Anthem newly written for the Festival. Eventually the congregation moved to a City company’s hall where, before banqueting, they were entertained by a performance of an Ode. The composer at the first Festival was Purcell.
In 1942 Benjamin Britten, whose birthday was on St Cecilia’s Day, revived the practice of composing an Ode in honour of St Cecilia. Sir Henry Wood wished to recreate the Festival but died before its revival in 1946. Since then, the Musicians Benevolent Fund has organised the Festival to give thanks for and celebrate music and musicians.