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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

More Saintly Music

by Gary D. Penkala

Many of the saints appreciated the art of liturgical music and fostered the "making of music" in the Church. A partial list of canonzied musicians follows, with information taken from The Avenel Dictionary of the Saints by Donald Attwater (Avenel Books, New York).

Several saints are associated with bells. Saint Agatha, a virgin-martyr of the 3rd century, was tortured in Sicily for professing the Christian faith, and in a vision saw Saint Peter who healed her wounds. She is patroness of bell-founders. Saint Patrick (385-461), the famous bishop of Ireland, loved bells and carried his own small one with him always, in a finely wrought case. It was known as the Bell of Saint Patrick's Will. He was also a hymn writer, the author of I Bind unto Myself This Day. His feast day is March 17.

Saint Dunstan (909-988), the archbishop of Canterbury, was also known as a metal-worker and bell-founder. He was himself a musician, playing the harp, and he loved the music of the human voice. When he sang at the altar, wrote a contemporary, "he seemed to be talking to the Lord face to face." He originated the English coronation rite for the crowning of King Edgar in 973.

There were other saints who were musicians. Saint Cecilia, of course, is famous as the patroness of musicians, at least since the 16th century. Although she is known to be a virgin-martyr and to have lived prior to the 4th century, all other legends concerning her are unfounded. Writings speak of her "singing to God in her heart while instruments were making music." She is often pictured with an organ and her feast day is November 22.

Saint Ildephonse (606-667) was archbishop of Toledo, Spain, and was noted as a writer and musician. Saint Aldhelm (640-709), bishop of Sherborne, England, would often go into public places and sing hymns and Gospel passages, hoping thus to "win men's ears, and then their souls." He also wrote text and music for hymns in English, all of which have perished.

Other of the saints, though not necessarily musicians themselves, were advocates of music and sought to improve its position in the liturgy of the Church. Perhaps the first Christian to promote sacred music was Saint Paul, whose conversion is celebrated on January 25. "Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and inspired songs. Sing praise to the Lord with all your hearts." (Eph 5:19) "Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell in you. In wisdom made perfect, instruct and admonish one another. Sing gratefully to God from your hearts in psalms, hymns and inspired songs." (Col 3:16)

Saint Hilary of Poitiers (315-367), a bishop and theologian, has January 13 as his feast day. He used metrical hymns for teaching Christian doctrine, a practice he learned in the East. Saint Ambrose (340-397), like Saint Hilary, used hymns as a means of divine praise and for teaching. He is one of the four great Latin doctors of the Church, together with Saints Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great. His feast day is December 7.

Saint Nicetus of Remesiana was a 4th century Serbian bishop. He left a number of writings, of which one is an important exposition on the Apostle's Creed, and another, a short treatise on the value of psalm singing. He makes some interesting remarks about the people's singing in church:
Sing wisely, that is, understandingly, thinking of what you are singing. Tunes should be in keeping with the sacredness of religion, not savoring of the theatre. Sing together, do not show off. Neither must we give thought to what people like, for everything in our worship must be done as in God's sight, not to please men.
Saint Nicetus is thought to be the author of the majestic Latin hymn of praise and thanksgiving, Te Deum laudamus.

Saint Gregory the Great (540-604), pope and doctor of the Church, is well known for his extensive work on liturgical reform, especially music. Codifying chants from various sources across Europe, he developed a system of chant and liturgical editions, the former bearing his name, "Gregorian." September 3 is his feast day.

Saint Benet Biscop (628-690) was an English abbot at Wearmouth. He made several trips to Rome and on one of these brought the cantor from Saint Peter's Basilica back to England to teach his monks to sing in the Roman fashion. The bishop of Metz, Saint Chrodegang (715-766), organized his cathedral clergy and introduced Roman chant and liturgical usages into his diocese. He founded a famous school of music at the Abbey of Gorze. [Would that some of today's bishops would follow his example.]

The feast of Saint Philip Neri (1515-1595), an Italian priest, is celebrated on May 26. Called the "Apostle of the City of Rome," he built an oratory there for religious addresses and discussions. There, too, were first held services consisting of an extended musical composition on a biblical or other religious theme, sung by solo voices and a chorus (hence the term oratorio).

Saint Pius X (1835-1914) was a most beloved pope whose feast day is August 21. His motto was to "Restore All Things in Christ" and he diligently set about a renewal of the Church's liturgy, advocating frequent reception of Holy Communion. His reform of liturgical music was decisive in the history leading up to the Second Vatican Council.

Perhaps the position of the saints on church music can best be summarized by the oft-mentioned quote of Saint Augustine: "He who sings well, prays twice!"

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