Harmonia Early Music

Saints and Martyrs: Louis, Michel, and Cecilia

A look at the lives of Christian saints with celebrations from 17th-century France and England... plus a recent release of choral works by Jean Mouton.

statue of deceased woman

Photo: Sebastien Bertrand

The Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, by Stefano Maderno (Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome).

The lives of Christian saints have been celebrated in music since the middle ages. With over 10,000 saints in the Catholic Church alone, and many more in other denominations, the saint is a particularly cherished individual known for his or her exceptional deeds.

They lived as model Christians and on many occasions gave up their lives instead of betraying their beliefs. These saints are also known as martyrs. A closer look at how saints are celebrated in music can tell us quite a bit about their importance.

Saint Louis

Of the many French saints, there is one that stands out above others—Saint Louis, also known as Louis IX, King of France. He is a figure that has been celebrated since the time of the Crusades. Yet during the 17th and 18th Centuries, he was especially important because of the name he shared with four kings from the House of Bourbon. Many masses were composed in honor of Saint Louis, and in turn, King Louis.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Dixit Dominus, H. 197 and Motet for Saint Louis, H. 323
Les Pages & Les Chantres of the Versailles Center for Baroque Music/Olivier Schneebeli — Vespers for Saint Louis (Alpha, 2004)
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Saint Michel

Like Saint Louis, Saint Michel is another important French saint, but he is a biblical figure out the books of Daniel and Joshua. He is also referred to as the Archangel Michael who inspired Louis XI to found the first chivalric order in France.

It is not unusual that Saint Michel be associated with a military order. In the bible, he led God’s army and was known as the protector of Israel.

Saint Michel is commonly depicted treading on Satan or snake. He is recognized as the patron saint of police officers, mariners, and the sick, among others.

Anonymous: Kyrie and Offertory sur les grands jeux
Freddy Eichelberger, organ, Michel Godard, serpent, and Ludus Modalis — Une Messe pour La Saint-Michel (& tous les saints anges) (Alpha, 2004)
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Saint Cecilia

As mentioned before, many saints have been celebrated in music. But only one is recognized as the patron saint of musicians and church music. Saint Cecilia was officially recognized as a saint, in part, because she died singing to God. The events leading up to her death are pretty gruesome, however.

Her martyrdom included being boiled alive and three decapitation attempts from which she survived to sing for three days.

One of music history’s great periods which celebrated Saint Cecilia was Restoration England, where Henry Purcell and other composers wrote odes in her honor—the most famous being Hail! Bright Cecilia!

Another English Restoration composer to write odes for St. Cecilia was John Blow, Henry Purcell’s teacher. One of his settings, This glorious day is come, uses imagery both peaceful and martial to evoke the many sides of St. Cecilia’s temperament. Like Purcell’s settings, John Blow is very successful in creating a celebratory atmosphere full of pomp and vivid grace.

John Blow: "This glorious day is come," mvts I, II, VI, and VII
The Parley of Instruments/Peter Holman — Odes to St. Cecilia (Hyperion, 1995)
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New release

Our recent release of the week features the American vocal ensemble The Suspicious Cheese Lords. Their program focuses on the sacred works Jean Mouton, including his Missa “Alma Redemptoris mater,” and other select motets such as “Alleluia, noli flere, Maria.”

Jean Mouton: Missa "Alma Redemptoris mater," Kyrie
Suspicious Cheese Lords — Vivat Rex!: Sacred Choral Music of Jean Mouton (SCL, 2007)
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Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Dixit Dominus, H. 197 and Motet for Saint Louis, H. 323
Les Pages & Les Chantres of the Versailles Center for Baroque Music/Olivier Schneebeli — Vespers for Saint Louis (Alpha, 2004)
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Anonymous: Kyrie and Offertory sur les grands jeux
Freddy Eichelberger, organ, Michel Godard, serpent, and Ludus Modalis — Une Messe pour La Saint-Michel (& tous les saints anges) (Alpha, 2004)
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Henry Purcell: Duet "In vain the am’rous flute" and Solo "The fife and all the harmony of war"
Taverner Consort, Choir, and Players/Andrew Parrott — Ode on St. Cecilia, 1692 (Hail! Bright Cecilia) (EMI, 1993)
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John Blow: "This glorious day is come," mvts I, II, VI, and VII
The Parley of Instruments/Peter Holman — Odes to St. Cecilia (Hyperion, 1995)
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Jean Mouton: Alleluia, noli flere, Maria
Suspicious Cheese Lords — Vivat Rex!: Sacred Choral Music of Jean Mouton (SCL, 2007)
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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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