Saint Cecilia and the Patriarchy

I recently had a sabbatical year in which I did a fair amount of “church hopping” — visiting a different church every week. One of the things that I noticed was that there was almost no music by women: occasionally I might encounter some Judith Bingham or Judith Weir at a cathedral service, but the frequency of music composed by women, and acknowledged as such, tended to be less than one piece a month. This is a sorry state of affairs, but I honestly believe it’s more the result of disorganisation than malice. People choose the music that’s already in their libraries, they choose the music that fits the lectionary they follow, they choose the music that worked in their context three years or six years ago. This is not because they’re trying to exclude anyone who isn’t a dead white man, but because doing anything else is extra work.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

St Cecilia was given in marriage to a young man, Valerian; but she had taken a vow of virginity. So on her wedding night she told her pagan husband that she was defended by an angel who would guard her purity. The next details are… fuzzy, but Cecilia kept her virginity, Valerian converted to Christianity, and so did his brother Tibertius. Eventually both brothers were martyred; Cecilia continued to make conversions by her preaching, and the authorities wanted her to shut up.

Cecilia was sentenced to death by suffocation in the baths, but reportedly even after a day and a night locked in the bathhouse with the fires being stoked vigorously, she didn’t even sweat. So they tried to behead her instead, but… it wasn’t possible to decapitate her. She kept preaching — and, I like to think, singing — for three days before finally dying from her wounds.

Traditionally she is the patron saint of music because she was “singing to God in her heart” at her wedding, but I think there is something more in the story than that: it shows the mission of God being more important, and more enduring, than worldly fashions or patriarchal duties or just the inertia of complying with the established order of things.

It’s really good to have this site up and running, and what I want to do here is to shift the established order of things a little; to make it easier for people who want to get away from the same, fairly exclusive music choices, to do so; to remove some of the extra work that is a barrier for so many. I also want to encourage and support composers of church music who happen not to be men. Exactly how that plays out (see what I did there?) will depend on the general direction that the site takes.

So far I’ve added some music by Stephanie Martin, Carlotta Ferrari, Hannah Kendall, Jenni Pinnock, Sheena Phillips, Helen Williams, and some of my own pieces. The quantity of really high-quality stuff out there is frankly staggering and I have at times in the last few weeks felt a little overwhelmed with trying to document it all! So, my plan is to add some more each week, and I’ll do a blog post each Tuesday when I do. The thing that has taken the most time so far is hunting down the various bits of internet where different people have scores to purchase or download, and recordings; it will help me a lot if people use the music submission form. I haven’t figured out what I’m doing about organ music yet, or about arrangements of existing music.

Other regular blog posts are going to be on Thursdays, when I make music recommendations for the coming Sunday’s worship, and Saturdays, which will be for other types of content: interviews, discussion of issues faced by women in church music, signal-boosting projects that are of potential interest.

I’m bound to make errors, so do poke around and see if you can catch a typo; many thanks to those of you who’ve already caught one. I don’t want this to be just people who are friends of mine, so please do tell people you know about it: I’m going on about this a bit, but it really is important and it isn’t something I can do. Similarly, there will be music I don’t know about, so tell me about that too.

And sing like nobody is cutting your head off.

Carlo Saraceni - The Martyrdom of St Cecilia. An angel defends a woman dressed in red from a man with a sword; sheet music and musical instruments are scattered on the ground

2 thoughts on “Saint Cecilia and the Patriarchy

  1. Any music by Black and African Music composers, especially the women. Never heard of it.

    Even the many men who are African Church music composers, are scarcely acknowledged.

    1. Moemedi,

      This is important, and it is something I am working on. We do have a piece by Hannah Kendall in this list but I’d definitely like more, so if you know of any more Black women writing church music please let me know.

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