Musicians Of Today – Don Lorenzo Perosi

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 awaked, 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.

The abbé Perosi, the precentor of St. Mark’s chapel at Venice and the director of the Sistine chapel, is twenty-six years old. He is short in stature and of youthful appearance, with a head a little too big for his body, and open and regular features lighted up by intelligent black eyes, his only peculiarity being a projecting underlip. He is simple-hearted and modest, and has a friendly warmth of affection. When he is conducting the orchestra his striking silhouette, his slow and awkward gestures in expressive passages, and his naïve movements of passion at dramatic moments, bring to mind one of Fra Angelico’s monks.

For the last eighteen months Don Perosi has been working at a cycle of twelve oratorios descriptive of the life of Christ. In this short time he has finished four : The Passion, The Transfiguration, The Resurrection of Lazarus, The Resurrection of Christ. Now he is at work on the fifth—The Nativity.

These compositions alone place him in the front rank of contemporary musicians. They abound in faults ; but their qualities are so rare, and his soul shines so clearly through them, and such fine sincerity breathes in them, that I have not the courage to dwell on their weaknesses. So I shall content myself with remarking, in passing, that the orchestration is inadequate and awkward, and that the young musician should strive to make it fuller and more delicate ; and though he shows great ease in composition, he is often too impetuous, and should resist this tendency ; and that, lastly, there are sometimes traces of bad taste in the music and reminiscences of the classics—all of which are the sins of youth, which age will certainly cure.

Each of the oratorios is really a descriptive mass, which from beginning to end traces out one dominating thought. Don Perosi said to me : ” The mistake of artists today is that they attach themselves too much to details and neglect the whole. They begin by carving ornaments, and forget that the most important thing is the unity of their work, its plan and general outline. The outline must first of all be beautiful.”

In his own musical architecture one finds well-marked airs, numerous recitatives, Gregorian or Palestrinian choruses, chorales with developments and variations in the old style, and intervening symphonies of some importance.

The whole work is to be preceded by a grand prelude, very carefully worked out, to which Don Perosi attaches particular worth. He wishes, he says, that his building shall have a beautiful door elaborately carved after the fashion of the artists of the Renaissance and Gothic times. And so he means to compose the prelude after the rest of the oratorio is finished, when he is able to think about it in undisturbed peace. He wishes to concentrate a moral atmosphere in it, the very essence of the soul and passions of his sacred drama. He also confided to me that of all he has yet composed there is nothing he likes better than the introductions to The Trans-figuration and The Resurrection of Christ.

The dramatic tendency of these oratorios is very marked, and it is chiefly on that account that they have conquered Italy. In spite of some passages which have strayed a little in the direction of opera, or even melodrama, the music shows great depth of feeling. The figures of the women especially are drawn with delicacy ; and in the second part of Lazarus, Mary’s air, ” Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died,” recalls something of Gluck’s Orfeo in its heart-broken sadness. And again, in the same oratorio, when Jesus gives the order to raise the stone from the tomb, Martha’s speech, ” Domine, jam foetet,” is very expressive of her sadness, fear, and shame, and human horror. I should like to quote one more passage, the most moving of all, which is found in the Resurrection of Christ, when Mary Magdalene is beside the tomb of Christ ; here, in her speech with the angels, in her touching lamentation, and in the words of the Evangelist, ” And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was ‘Jesus, we hear a melody filled with tenderness, and seem to see Christ’s eyes shining as they rest on Mary before she has recognised Him.

It is not, however, Perosi’s dramatic genius that strikes me in his work ; it is rather his peculiar mournfulness, which is indescribable, his gift of pure poetry, and the richness of his flowing melody. However deep the religious feeling in the music may be, the music itself is often stronger still, and breaks in upon the drama that it may express itself freely. Take, for instance, the fine symphonic passage that follows the arrival of Jesus and His friends at Martha and Mary’s house, after the death of their brother (p. 12 et seq. of Lazarus). It is true the orchestra expresses regrets and sighs, the excesses of sorrow mingled with words of consolation and faith, in a sort of languishing funeral march that is feminine and Christian in character. This, according to the composer, is a picture he has painted of the persons in the drama before he makes them speak. But, in spite of himself, the result is a flood of pure music, and his soul sings its own song of joy and sadness. Sometimes his spirit, in its –naive and delicate charm, recalls that of Mozart ; but his musical visions are always dominated and directed by a religious strength like that of Bach. Even the portions where the dramatic feeling is strongest are really little symphonies, such as the music that describes the miracle in The Trans-figuration, and the illness of Lazarus. In the latter great depth of suffering is expressed ; indeed, sadness could not have been carried farther even by Bach, and the same serenity of mind runs through its despair.

But what joy there is when these deeds of faith have been performed—when Jesus has cured the possessed man, or when Lazarus has opened his eyes to the light. The heart of the multitude over-flows perhaps in rather childish thanksgiving ; and at first it seemed to me expressed in a commonplace way. But did not the joy of all great artists so express itself ?—the joy of Beethoven, Mozart, and -Bach, who, when once they had thrown their cares aside, knew how to amuse themselves like the rest of the populace. And the simple phrase at the beginning soon assumes fuller proportions, the harmonies gain in richness, a glowing ardour fills the music, and a chorale blends with the dances in triumphant majesty.

All these works are radiant with a happy ease of expression. The Passion was finished in September, 1897, The Transfiguration in February, 1898, Lazarus in June, 1898, and The Resurrection of Christ in November, 1898. Such an output of work takes us back to eighteenth-century musicians.

But this is not the only resemblance between the young musician and his predecessors. Much of their soul has passed into his. His style is made up of all styles, and ranges from the Gregorian chant to the most modern modulations. All available materials are used in this work. This is an Italian characteristic. Gabriel d’Annunzio threw into his melting-pot the Renaissance, the Italian painters, music, the writers of the North, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Maeterlinck, and our French writers, and out of it he drew his wonderful poems. So Don Perosi, in his compositions, welds together the Gregorian chant, the musical style of the contrapuntists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Palestrina, Roland, Gabrieli, Carissimi, Schutz, Bach, Handel, Gounod, Wagner—I was going to say César Franck, but Don Perosi told me that he hardly knew this composer at all, though his style bears some resemblance to Franck’s.

Time does not exist for Don Perosi. When he courteously wished to praise French musicians, the first name he chose—as if it were that of a contemporary—was that of Josquin, and then that of Roland de Lassus, who seems to him so great and profound a musician that he admires him most of all. And Don Perosi’s universality of style is a trait that is Catholic as well as Italian. He expresses his mind quite clearly on the subject. ” Great artists formerly,” he says, ” were more eclectic than ourselves, and less fettered by their nationalities. Josquin’s school has peopled all Europe. Roland has lived in Flanders, in Italy, and in Germany. With them the same style ex-pressed the same thought everywhere. We must do as they did. We must try to recreate a universal art in which the resources of all countries and all times are blended.”

As a matter of fact, I do not think this is quite correct. I rather doubt if Josquin and Roland were eclectic at all ; for they did not really combine the styles of different countries, but thrust upon other countries the style that the Franco-Flemish school had just created, a style which they themselves were enriching daily. But Don Perosi’s idea deserves our appreciation, and one must praise his endeavour to create a universal style. It would be a good thing for music if eclecticism, thus under-stood, could bring back some of the equilibrium that has been lost since Wagner’s death ; it would be a benefit to the human spirit, which might then find in the unity of art a powerful means of bringing about the unity of mind. Our aim should be to efface the differences of race in art, so that it may become a tongue common to all peoples, where the most opposite ideas may be reconciled. We should all join in working to build the cathedral of European art. And the place of the director of the Sistine chapel among the first builders is very plain.

Don Perosi sat down to the piano and played me the Te Deum of The Nativity, which he had written the day before. He played very sweetly, with youthful gaiety, and sang the choral parts in an undertone. Every now and then he would look at me, not for praise, but to see if we were sharing the same thoughts. He would look me well in the face with his quiet eyes, then turn back to his score, and then look at me again. And I felt a comforting calm radiating from him and his music, from its happy harmony and the full and rhythmic serenity of its spirit. And how pleasant it was after the tempests and convulsions of art in these later days. Can we not tear ourselves away from that romantic suffering in music which was begun by Beethoven ? After a century of battles, of revolutions, and of political and social strife, whose pain has found its reflection in art, let us begin to build a new city of art, where men may gather together in brotherly love for the same ideal. However utopian that hope may sound now, let us think of it as a symptom of new directions of thought, and let us hope that Don Perosi may be one of those who will bring into music that divine peace, that peace which Beethoven craved for in despair at the end of his Missa Solemnis, that joy that he sang about but never knew.