Saturday, May 21, 2016

Scarlatti and Ottoboni's Saint in the Making

The liner notes--which came as a CD-rom disc included in the jewel box--of San Filippo Neri recorded by soloists and the Alessandro Stradella Consort, describe the genesis of the oratorio form in the prayer meetings at the Oratory:

The death of St. Philip Neri in 1595 occurred during a period of stylistic change in music, when polyphony was giving way to accompanied monody. In the wake of this transformation a musical genre developed which was destined to become the sacred equivalent of opera. It is generally accepted that it originated in the so-called ‘exercises’ or prayer meetings promoted by St. Philip Neri in ‘oratories’, connected to various churches in which the faithful gathered with the purpose of transforming their leisure hours into an edifying pastime. This new genre was encouraged by the popularity of two collections of Laudi spirituali composed and published in Rome by Giovanni Animuccia. These and other simple and devotional pieces imbued with the spirit of the Counter-Reformation were sung at the beginning and the end of the spiritual exercises. It seems that the poet Francesco Balducci of Palermo, who was closely associated with the Roman oratories of Santa Maria della Vallicella and San Marcello, must be credited with having unified, some decades after the death of St. Philip, the texts of the two Laude that framed the sermon. This confirmed the new quasioperatic form, which soon adopted the name ‘oratorio’ from the sites where the devotional meetings were held.

Although the title of this oratorio reflects the canonization of St. Philip Neri on March 12, 1622 by Pope Gregory XV along with St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Isidore the Farmer, Pietro Cardinal Ottobini's libretto depicts Philip wrestling with sanctity in dialogue with the three theological virtues Faith, Hope, and Charity:

While other authors claimed to have produced ‘a summary of the said St Philìp’s life’ (Padua, 1729), Cardinal Ottoboni hardly bothered with biographical facts. His libretto is divided into the established two parts, each consisting of a series of dialogues between St. Philip and the three Theological Virtues. They evoke his youth in Florence and two later important episodes in the saint’s life and death. His initial doubts and hesitations are overcome by the fervour of the reassuring exhortations of the three Virtues: from Rome, where he had settled, Philip wished to follow the example of St Francis Saverio in carrying the Word of Christ to ‘the Indian shores’; but Faith and Charity conclude Part I of the oratorio by revealing ‘God’s high command’: the aspiring missionary must stay in Rome, and the sweat of his brow must bathe the ground reddened with the blood of the martyrs.

My husband and I have listened to this oratorio twice, but I have not strictly followed along with the libretto/sung text yet, which of course I had to print out from the CD-rom. As the Gramophone review I posted before notes, the saint's final aria, as he dies with fading breath, is touching and beautiful, even in the English translation and certainly in the performance:

Recitative: Come, oh come, my God
Take my spirit, guide it in peace.
I leave you, dear companions of my travails.
Live in peace; my own heart I leave to you
in loving remembrance.
May the ardour never end
that descended from my breast to yours,
and with ardent prayers
never cease to pray to the sovereign shepherd,
elected to guide his flock,
that the divine hand
will bring a happy future.

Aria: My Jesus, I hear your voice,
calling me, bidding me to come.
As fainting and tired
I feel my life ebbing,
in your breast that was wounded on the cross,
receive my soul.

After that last gasp of beauty, the martial conclusion as Charity hopes for peace in the midst of the War of the Spanish Succession as Pope Clement XI negotiates peace is almost jarring:

With war the angry earth will resound
from far and wide.
Clement seated on his throne
in his white garment
shall show the way to peace.

That proved to be wishful thinking, however, as the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Pope Clement XI demonstrates:

In his efforts to establish peace among the powers of Europe and to uphold the rights of the Church, he met with scant success; for the eighteenth century was eminently the age of selfishness and infidelity. One of his first public acts was to protest against the assumption (1701) by the Elector of Brandenburg of the title of King of Prussia. The pope's action, though often derided and misinterpreted, was natural enough, not only because the bestowal of royal titles had always been regarded as the privilege of the Holy See, but also because Prussia belonged by ancient right to the ecclesiastico-military institute known as the Teutonic Order. In the troubles excited by the rivalry of France and the Empire for the Spanish succession, Pope Clement resolved to maintain a neutral attitude; but this was found to be impossible. When, therefore, the Bourbon was crowned in Madrid as Philip V, amid the universal acclamations of the Spaniards, the pope acquiesced and acknowledged the validity of his title. This embittered the morose Emperor Leopold, and the relations between Austria and the Holy See became so strained that the pope did not conceal his satisfaction when the French and Bavarian troops began that march on Vienna which ended so disastrously on the field of Blenheim. Marlborough's victory, followed by Prince Eugene's successful campaign in Piedmont, placed Italy at the mercy of the Austrians. Leopold died in 1705 and was succeeded by his oldest son Joseph, a worthy precursor of Joseph II. A contest immediately began on the question known as Jus primarum precum, involving the right of the crown to appoint to vacant benefices. The victorious Austrians, now masters of Northern Italy, invaded the Papal States, took possession of Piacenza and Parma, annexed Comacchio and besieged Ferrara. Clement at first offered a spirited resistance, but,abandoned by all, could not hope for success, and when a strong detachment of Protestant troops under the command of the Prince of Hesse-Cassel reached Bologna, fearing a repetition of the fearful scenes of 1527, he finally gave way (15 Jan., 1709), acknowledged the Archduke Charles as King of Spain "without detriment to the rights of another", and promised him the investiture of Naples. Though the Bourbon monarchs had done nothing to aid the pope in his unequal struggle, both Louis and Philip became very indignant and retaliated by every means in their power. . . . In the negotiations preceding the Peace of Utrecht (1713) the rights of the pope were studiously neglected; his nuncio was not accorded a hearing; his dominions were parcelled out to suit the convenience of either party.

Pope Clement XI, however, was a reforming pope and lived simply and without corruption. He was elected pontiff just couple of months after his ordination in November of 1700:

The enthusiasm with which his elevation was greeted throughout the world is the best evidence of his worth. Even Protestants received the intelligence with joy and the city of Nuremberg struck a medal in his honour. The sincere Catholic reformers greeted his accession as the death-knell of nepotism; for, though he had many relatives, it was known that he had instigated and written the severe condemnation of that abuse issued by his predecessor. As pontiff, he did not belie his principles. He bestowed the offices of his court upon the most worthy subjects and ordered his brother to keep at a distance and refrain from adopting any new title or interfering in matters of state. In the government of the States of the Church, Clement was a capable administrator. He provided diligently for the needs of his subjects, was extremely charitable to the poor, bettered the condition of the prisons, and secured food for the populace in time of scarcity. He won the good will of artists by prohibiting the exportation of ancient masterpieces, and of scientists by commissioning Bianchini to lay down on the pavement of Sta Maria degli Angioli the meridian of Rome, known as the Clementina.

His capacity for work was prodigious. He slept but little and ate so sparingly that a few pence per day sufficed for his table. Every day he confessed and celebrated Mass. He entered minutely into the details of every measure which came before him, and with his own hand prepared the numerous allocutions, Briefs, and constitutions afterwards collected and published. He also found time to preach his beautiful homilies and was frequently to be seen in the confessional. Though his powerful frame more than once sank under the weight of his labours and cares, he continued to keep rigorously the fasts of the Church, and generally allowed himself but the shortest possible respite from his labours.

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