As Orthodox Christians, we have a profound sense of the importance of music in worship. Our chief service, the Divine Liturgy, is almost entirely sung, as are the major hours of Orthros and Vespers. Already in the New Testament St. Paul exhorts the Christians of Ephesus to sing their worship of God (Ephesians 18-20):

[B]ut be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On November 22 we commemorate some early martyrs of the Roman Church: Cecilia, her husband Valerian, and his brother Tiburtius. Although the Orthodox Church has designated other saints as patrons of music (as, for example, St. Romanos the Melodist), the western Church has always considered St. Cecilia as the patroness of music. This association came about, ironically, because of random mentions in her biography about how she sang at the time of her martyrdom.

St. Cecilia

In the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in England, musicians and poets got together on November 22 to celebrate in a worthy manner the memory of this Roman martyr and patron of music. I wanted today to commemorate this saint with some beautiful lines from a poem by John Dryden, A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, written in 1687 (and which became the text for Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day in 1736). In this poem, he captures the cosmic power of music.

Dryden’s vision of the power of music begins at the beginning. God’s creative power is expressed in music giving order to the chaos of the universe. The diapason, that is, the scale, the ordered arrangements of notes here used metaphorically for the ordered arrangements of the universe, culminates in humanity.

From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
          This universal frame began.
     When Nature underneath a heap
          Of jarring atoms lay,
     And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
          Arise ye more than dead.
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
     In order to their stations leap,
          And music’s pow’r obey.
From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
          This universal frame began:
          From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
     The diapason closing full in man.

After a number of strophes illustrating the power of music to influence the behavior of man, moving him through various passions from love to jealousy to war, he reaches his final great chorus takes up the cosmic vision of music, but now looks to the return to chaos through music.

As from the pow’r of sacred lays
      The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
      To all the bless’d above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
      The dead shall live, the living die,
      And music shall untune the sky.

Music began the ordering of the universe; it will also reduce that order once again into chaos. Dryden is able to underscore this role of music by bringing into play the sound of the trumpet traditionally associated with the end of the world and the dissolution of the created universe (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:16).

Music is a powerful force, one that is uniquely human, raising humanity from its animal state and equating us with the angels who constantly sing the praises of God before his throne. As we celebrate the memory of St. Cecilia, or of St. Romanos or St. John of Damascus, or St. Kosmas, his brother, or of St. John Koukouzelos, we should thank God for this divine gift which was given to enhance and beautify our prayer and our life.

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