Named for the patron saint of music, the St. Cecilia Society of Charleston was formed in 1766 as a private subscription concert organization. Its musical patronage ended in 1820, but the society continued to flourish into the twenty-first century as one of South Carolina’s oldest and most exclusive social institutions.
The society’s importance as a musical institution is considerable. Modeled on concert organizations in contemporary Britain, it was the earliest musical society in America. For fifty-four years it maintained an annual series of private concerts and balls, which generally commenced in mid-autumn and continued fortnightly through early spring. While the society’s existence is not unknown to music historians, few details of its concert activity have heretofore been available. A recent reconstruction of the society’s musical era reveals it to be the most significant example of concert patronage in the United States before the advent of the New York Philharmonic in 1842.
Music at the society’s concerts was performed by gentlemen amateurs and hired professionals. Lady amateurs and professionals appeared occasionally as instrumental or vocal soloists. The repertory included orchestral, chamber, and vocal works by European masters and was modeled largely on British musical fashions. The society seems to have made no effort to encourage local composers. Similarly, it never owned or built its own performance space. In its first century the society employed ten different venues in Charleston, ranging from tavern long rooms to the South Carolina Statehouse. Since the early 1880s its events have been held at Hibernian Hall.
The termination of the St. Cecilia Society’s concert series was motivated by several factors. By 1815 musical fashions in Charleston were changing and enthusiasm for the society’s concerts was in decline. In 1817 the Charleston Theatre company initiated a touring
circuit that disrupted the society’s practice of sharing musicians with the local theater. In addition, the Panic of 1819 unraveled the local economy and induced the society to curtail its activities. After the meager 1819–1820 season, the society abandoned its concert series and in subsequent years presented a greatly reduced number of dancing assemblies.
The society’s early records were lost in 1865. Memories of its musical heritage soon faded, and observers have since focused on the society’s social activities and its annual debutante ball. By the end of the nineteenth century the St. Cecilia Society was recognized as an important link to Charleston’s former “golden age” of prosperity. To many, it was also a symbol of the city’s rigid social insularity and its resistance to new socioeconomic realities. Despite this friction, in the early twenty-first century inclusion in the society’s activities was still widely believed to confer upon participants the ultimate insider status in Charleston. Its membership has always been limited to gentlemen of the city’s elite, long-established families, though ladies of the members’ families and invited guests have been admitted since 1767. Desiring to remain above controversy, the St. Cecilia Society has for the past century sought to eschew public notice while it discreetly carries on a social tradition unbroken for nearly two and a half centuries.
Butler, Nicholas Michael. “Votaries of Apollo: The St. Cecilia Society and the Patronage of Concert Music in Charleston, South Carolina, 1766–1820.” Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 2004.
Doyle, Don H. New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860–1910. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
“Rules of the St. Cecilia Society.” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 1 (July 1900): 223–27.