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The Pope Whisperer: Don Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956) by David Boos

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The Pope Whisperer: Don Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956)

Ever since St. Augustine allegedly said “He who sings prays twice,” the central role of church music in Western Christian liturgy had been indubitably established. But some people insist that the correct quotation should read, “He who sings well prays twice,” which brings us right to the heart of a discussion that has lasted for the past 1600 years: what constitutes ‘good’ singing, and thus ‘good’ church music.

Last year Pope Francis released his Motu Proprio Traditionis custodes, in which he severely restricted the celebration of the Extraordinary Form, the liturgical order of the mass as it was celebrated since at least the Gregorian Reform ended in the 1080s, up until the Second Vatican Council. In doing so, Traditionis custodes has also affected church music, or to put it in the Augustinian spirit: sung prayer. 

A core demand of the Second Vatican Council is the active participation of the faithful. But this concept is not new, in fact it was lifted straight from the Motu Proprio Inter Sollicitudines of Pope Pius X from 1903. Pius X is well known for having attributed great value to sacred music, which for him shared the overall purpose of the liturgy: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.

Pius X wrote Inter Sollicitudines as a response to the secularization of church music in the 19th century. His aim was to restore Catholic church music to its former glory by reinstating traditions and rules that were appropriate for the liturgy. But Pius X did not write Inter Sollicitudines alone. Of his four advisors, one stands out as not only a personal friend of the pope, but also as one of Italy’s most celebrated composers at the turn of the 20th century. While today his name is not widely known, he was the musical mastermind behind the Motu Proprio: Don Lorenzo Perosi, nicknamed “the little priest of Tortona.”

Lorenzo Perosi was born 150 years ago, on December 21st 1872, in the Italian town of Tortona into a family of church musicians. Lorenzo’s father Giuseppe (1842–1908) was organist and choirmaster at Tortona Cathedral and it is there that Lorenzo received his first musical training. Young Renzo Perosi was friendly and humble, though melancholic and sickly, and it is these traits that characterized him throughout his life. Considered a child prodigy, he went on to study at some of the most influential schools and monasteries of his time, including the famous church music school in Regensburg, the epicenter of Cecilianism in its day, and Solesmes Abbey, home of the great revival of Gregorian chant.

Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, the future Pope St. Pius X.

At a young age, he had already formed a personal friendship with Cardinal Sarto (1835-1914), who later became Pope Pius X. It was thanks to Sarto’s fatherly support that Renzo Perosi became the Director of Music at the two most historically significant church music posts in Italy: San Marco in Venice and the Sistine Chapel in Rome—both of which were homes to the greatest Italian sacred composers in history! His stellar rise at a young age peaked when he single handedly reinvented the oratorio of the 19th century at only 24 years of age, earning him international fame and praise by esteemed colleagues such as Massenet, who called him “truly the Sebastian Bach of Italy,” and Mascagni, who named him “a Hurricane of Light and of Music.” Lorenzo Perosi was the kind of person contemporaries were happy to embrace as the embodiment of the reborn Italian church music of their time.

To put the rapid rise of Perosi into context, one must understand the Italy he was born into. Back then, the recently united Italy was still in its infancy and eagerly looking for new figureheads of the arts, especially if their art harkened back to the glory days of the Italian past. Opera played an important role still forming national identity, and so did the Faith. Following the end of the Papal States during the course of the unification process of Italy, reconciliation between the Vatican and the Kingdom of Italy was needed. The attempts of the Catholic Church to trace its roots naturally mirrored similar processes of the secular Risorgimento.

As a result of ‘enlightened’ influences, operatic music had gradually worked its way into liturgies over the course of the 19th century, leading to abysmal church music by the end of the century. While secular opera flourished and drew the attention of the most prolific composers of the time, church music turned into a neglected subculture with rapidly declining standards.

At the same time, a movement called Cecilianism, named after St. Cecilia, the patron of church music, gained ground north of the Alps. Established by Franz Xaver Witt in Regensburg in the mid-19th century, the Cecilian movement was a reaction to the permeation of church music by the Enlightenment. The Cecilians emphasized the roots of Catholic church music. Those roots being, first and foremost, Gregorian chant (named after Pope Gregory the Great, who collected and unified the different traditions of chant in Europe in the early 7th century), and the sacred polyphony of the 15th and 16th centuries, especially the style of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594), whose music became regarded as an ideal of all polyphonic music.

Lorenzo Perosi inherited his Cecilianism from his father. Renzo’s love and knowledge of Gregorian chant led him to teach the monks at Montecasino before moving on to study in Regensburg, where he was even offered a teaching position. But Perosi wanted to spread the word of Cecilianism in his beloved Italy.

Cecilianism wasn’t trying to copy the styles of the past, but transpose them into the musical language of the time. Thus, Perosi’s work was not an exact recreation of styles from eras gone by, but that of executing a fusion of the musical language of his time with the styles of the past. And in Italy, that language was the opera.

Perosi was considered to be part of the Verismo school of post-Romantic young composers that included among others Puccini, Mascagni, and Leoncavallo. But while most of the Veristi continued in the operatic tradition, Perosi developed a form of Sacred Verismo. His music tried to blend the late Romanticism of the post-Wagnerian school with elements of the Baroque, the Renaissance, and—of course—Gregorian chant. The melodies he wrote, even if based on modal Gregorian melodies, often sounded like belcanto of the late 19th century (which tremendously helped his popularity!), and his polyphonic writing was defined more by the harmonic rules of his time, than by those of Renaissance counterpoint. Yet there was never a doubt that Perosi had created a sacred counterpart to the opera of the 19th century, just as the inventors of the oratorio in the 17th century had done so before in their time. The seamless stylistic transition from the secular to the sacred—and vice versa—has always been part of Western music culture.

It was at the height of his fame as a composer that Perosi became Director of Music at the Sistine Chapel, back then still under Pope Leo XIII. Politically, though, Rome was a much more complicated place than Venice and, on top of that, Perosi wasn’t the only Director of music. He had to share the position with Domenico Mustafá, 43-years Perosi’s senior, who was not only not a Cecilianist but also a castrato (due to, he claimed, being attacked by a pig). 

The tradition of castrati in the Sistine Chapel choir dated back to the 16th century and lasted up until the arrival of Perosi in Rome. Since the singing of females in church wasn’t allowed, all parts had to be sung by men. At first this was performed by male sopranos from Spain who were highly regarded for their technique, but soon met fierce competition in the form of Italian castrati. While castration was illegal, most castrati entering choirs claimed to have had accidents. In reality, castrati very often originated from poor families, hoping to strike it rich with their voices. Unfortunately, the Vatican’s stance on these matters had been for centuries not to exclude castrati based on “a deed already done,” which in turn fueled the practice. As a Cecilianist, however, Perosi was strictly opposed to the practice of castration from which many conflicts arose, as the castrati were often employed in operatic repertoire which allowed their voices to shine. One member of the choir was Alessandro Moreschi, considered to have been the last castrato, and the only one ever recorded. Ultimately, Perosi was successful in persuading Pope Leo XIII to ban castrato singing in church in 1902. Soon after, Leo XIII died and was succeeded by Cardinal Sarto who became Pope Pius X.

Only three months later, Pius X released his Motu Proprio Inter Sollicitudines. Perosi was the musical ally Pope Pius X needed to rekindle the dignity of sacred music, especially in Italy. When, finally, the two friends were united in Rome, the time had come to bring their reform plans to fruition with their Motu Proprio, in which they succinctly addressed all aspects they deemed necessary to ensure the dignity of sacred music. Below are a few examples:

In its highest degree, the qualities of sanctity, goodness of form, and universality are found in Gregorian chant. It is the song that is proper for the Roman Church and the supreme model for sacred music. In its movement, inspiration, and mood, the more closely a church composition approaches the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes. The more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple. Special efforts are also to be made to restore the use of Gregorian chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in celebrations of the liturgy, as was the case in ancient times.

The same qualities are present in classic polyphony, especially of the Roman School.

The theatrical style that was popular during the 19th century, especially in Italy, is less suitable for accompanying the liturgy. This style is diametrically opposed to Gregorian chant and classic polyphony.

The language proper to the Roman Church is Latin.

The only instrument allowed to accompany singing is the organ.

It is strictly forbidden to have [wind] bands play in church.

Perosi’s contribution to the Motu Proprio was his crowning achievement—his handwriting is all over the reform paper. But, although celebrated internationally for advancing Cecilianism, it also backfired on him, as some of his detractors pointed out that the dramatic and operatic qualities of Perosi’s oratorios violated the very rules he helped formulate. On paper the rules seemed clear, but in practice, the differences between dignified and unworthy church music were aligned to both sides of a thin red line. Perosi lived on that line.

It was around the same time that his steady decline began, which included complicated neurological problems—possibly associated with Perosi’s breech birth. In 1908 his father died. The outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and the death of Pius X shortly thereafter, also took their toll. The breaking point in Perosi’s career was the year 1922: after the death of his mother, Perosi was temporarily declared insane, prohibited from celebrating mass, and put under custody of his brother.

It is somewhat ironic that Perosi’s collapse occurred in the year 1922, considered by Ezra Pound to be “year one of of a new era,” a time in which Arnold Schönberg started writing his first dodecaphonic pieces and in which the pre-war order of Europe was finally crumbling with the death of the last Habsburg Emperor Charles I, the end of the Ottoman Empire, the forming of the Soviet Union, and the Fascist takeover in Italy. The Perosi phenomenon, a symbol of the emerging Italian state and a Catholic Church reborn in tradition, had become outdated in a matter of a few years.

Lorenzo Perosi had also increasingly displayed controversial behavior in these years. The Vatican was less than pleased to hear about Perosi’s flirtations with heresy. He openly opposed celibacy and considered converting to Protestantism over the matter. This conflict culminated in Perosi meeting with Mussolini after the Fascist takeover in Italy, asking him to pressure the Pope into abandoning celibacy. Moreover, Perosi became convinced that the Catholic Church was secretly in league with Freemasons. It is fair to say that all this didn’t help his standing in the Church, especially now that his friend and mentor Pius X wasn’t there to watch over him. 

The latter days of his career were marked by an increasing shift from composing to conducting. Articles commemorating his 80th birthday in 1952 celebrated his revival of the oratorio more than half a century ago, but didn’t consider any of his later achievements noteworthy enough to mention. 

When Don Lorenzo Perosi died on October 12th, 1956, he was a relic of a bygone era. With the death of Pius XII two years later the period of Catholic restoration came to a close and the age of modernism in the Catholic Church was about to begin.

The Motu Proprio which Perosi co–created was meant to realign Catholic church music with its roots, but its fruits were sparse. Only 11 years after Inter Sollicitudines was released the Great War set Old Europe aflame. The Italian monarchy had lasted little more than half a century before being replaced by Fascism and a few decades later the Catholic Church (and with it its music) would undergo some of the greatest ruptures in its history during and after the Second Vatican Council. The only part of the Inter Sollicitudines that would survive this great storm was the notion of active participation—the meaning of which dramatically changed in the post-conciliar era.

But it was not all in vain. Without Cecilianism and Perosi, Gregorian chant and polyphony might not have achieved the status within traditional Catholic liturgies that it has today. To fully appreciate Perosi, we must try to look at the hope he sparked in people during his golden age. Nowhere might this expectation be better summed up than in the beginning of Romain Rolland’s article, written in 1899, on the occasion of the Parisian premiere of ‘La Risurrezione di Cristo’:

The winter that held Italian thought in its cold clasp is over, and great trees that seemed to be asleep are putting out new life in the sun. Yesterday it was poetry that awoke, and today it is music—the sweet music of Italy, calm in its passion and sadness, and artless in its knowledge. Are we really witnessing the return of its spring? Is it the incoming of some great tide of melody, which will wash away the gloom and doubt of our life today? As I was reading the oratorios of this young priest of Piedmont, I thought I heard, far away, the song of the children of old Greece: ‘The swallow has come, has come, bringing the gay seasons and glad years.’ I welcome the coming of Don Lorenzo Perosi with great hope.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.


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