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:
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:
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.