Sunday, May 07, 2017

Remembering Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci: Guest Article by Aurelio Porfiri

We are extremely grateful to Maestro Aurelio Porfiri for sharing with NLM this beautiful tribute to Domenico Cardinal Bartolucci, one of the leading lights of sacred music in the 20th century, on the centenary of his birth.

The year 2017 has been the occasion of many anniversaries in the Catholic world: the centenary of the apparitions at Fatima, the 90th birthday of Benedict XVI, the 10th anniversary of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the 10th of Benedict XVI’s letter to Chinese Catholics, among others.

Today I would like to recall the one-hundredth year since the birth of the maestro and cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, significant to me not only because he was my teacher, but because I think he was an absolute genius, the greatest composer in the field of sacred music in the 20th century. Sooner or later, I believe this fact will be realized by specialists in musicology. I am writing a book about him using some unpublished material I have been fortunate to discover in various archives.

His Eminence Domenico Card. Bartolucci conducts the singing of the Creed during a Solemn Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form celebrated in St Peter’s Basilica by H.E. Walter Card. Brandmüller on May 15, 2011. Photo courtesy of Orbis Catholicus Secundus.
Domenico Bartolucci was born in Borgo San Lorenzo, a tiny village near Florence, on May 7th, 1917. His mother was a farmer and his father was a workman, but also sang in church, though not as a professional. At that time, every village, no matter how small, had an extraordinary musical activity, with choirs, bands, lyrical companies, and of course, the musical activities connected with liturgy in the Catholic Church.

From the days of his youth, Domenico demonstrated a double vocation to music and to priesthood. As a baby he was immersed in the musical world of the Catholic Church, as he recalled in one place:

“When I was a boy I remember that the people used to sing in church. They sang at Vespers (all from memory: the antiphons, psalms and hymns); they sang at devotional functions (Way of the Cross, Marian devotions, etc.); they sang in processions (the Magnificat, Te Deum, Lauda Sion, and other hymns); they sang even at Solemn Mass sometimes. (When I was a boy, each Sunday at my little church there was a Solemn Mass, and on normal Sundays the people sang by themselves.) I used to sing too, either behind the altar with my father, who was the parish cantor, or with the people in the pews whenever there weren’t cantors behind the altar. The people sang: they sang in a loud voice, a song that centuries and centuries had handed down to them, a lusty song, severe and strong, that the children had learned from their elders, not at school desks or examination rooms but by constant habit, in the continuous practice of the Church. How can I recall without a still-living emotion the participation of all of people at the Liturgy of the Dead, and especially in the Obsequies? Everyone, I mean everyone, belted out the Libera me Domine and then the In Paradisum and then the De Profundis...! Everyone! And the music, that gorgeous music, attained an unmatchable power; the last, deep, hearty farewell to the dead as he left the church where countless times he had sung full-throatedly the praises of God! The people sang!”

After elementary school, in which he was permitted to skip several years because of the superior preparation he received at home, he entered the seminary of Florence, where he also dedicated himself to music, singing in the seminary’s boys’ choir. There he began his studies with the maestro of the seminary choir, Francesco Bagnoli. Studying the pianoforte in the seminary was not a simple matter: the young student even resorted to making a keyboard out of cardboard on which he could practice. At twelve years old, he composed a Mass and an Ave Verum for two voices. At sixteen he composed another Mass in a more mature style, and with very original musical themes. This Mass, originally for four mixed voices, would be reworked a few years later, expanded to five mixed voices and enriched by an orchestra. It became one of the most imposing of Domenico Bartolucci’s compositions, the Missa Assumptionis. At seventeen he produced one of his most beautiful and dramatic motets, the Super Flumina Babylonis for six mixed voices. He went on to be named organist and then director of the choir of the Duomo at Florence. Many professors of the Florence conservatory of music went to Mass on Sunday at eleven o’clock to hear the young musician improvise on the organ.

Before finishing his twentieth year, he began composing his most significant symphonic choral works: the Symphony Rustica and the oratorio La Tempesta sul Lago. In 1939, at the age of 22, he received his diploma in composition and orchestral direction with Vito Frazzi at the Florence conservatory. This diploma, too, demonstrated the uncommon gifts of the young maestro. In only two sessions, between July and October, he completed all the principal and complementary subjects to merit the diploma. The normal plan of study foresaw the completion of these subjects in a course of ten years. That same year, he was ordained a priest.

At the end of 1942, he was sent to Rome to perfect his craft and master the tradition of sacred music. There he became Vice-Maestro of the chapel of the Basilica of St John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, but the Second World War would necessitate his return to his native village. In this difficult period were born other important works in the genre of choral symphony, such as the oratorio La Passione (1942) and the concerto for pianoforte and orchestra. Right after the war, he returned to Rome and obtained a diploma in specialized composition and choral direction at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the guidance of Ildebrando Pizzetti. He also obtained the diploma in sacred composition at Rome’s Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music. In 1947 he became parish priest in a tiny village near Florence, but continued to dedicate himself to composition. The composition of the sacred poem Baptisma, for soloists, female choir and orchestra, dates to this period. In the same year he was recalled to Rome and appointed maestro of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and professor of composition, polyphonic direction and polyphonic music at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, a position he kept until 1997. In 1952 he was named Vice Maestro of the Sistine Pontifical Chapel, in order to assist the principal director, Lorenzo Perosi, who had already been ill for some time.

Maestro Bartolucci with the Schola Puerorum, processing through the cloister of St John in the Lateran early 1960s. (Photo from the website of the Fondazione Domenico Bartolucci)
On the latter’s death in 1956, Pope Pius XII named him Perpetual Maestro Director of the Sistine Chapel, a post he retained until 1997. Domenico Bartolucci dedicated himself to restructuring the Pontifical Chapel, recruiting fresh talent and reorganizing the Schola Puerorum, the boys’ choir of the illustrious institution. This would be a long and laborious work, since he found the Sistine Chapel then in a state of extreme difficulty. Bartolucci obtained for the Chapel, from Pope John XXIII, an economic situation more adequate to sustaining the ancient vocal institution. He brought in treble voices for the high parts, entirely eliminating the falsettos, to the great displeasure of the latter. In the ’60s, the Sistine Chapel passed through a particularly successful period. But the same years would also see the changes introduced in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, changes that were often arbitrary and effectively against the norms of the Council, changes that did not respect a healthy principle of gradualism. It threw out the traditional repertoire to give place for “beat” music, conforming itself to the popular styles that came in vogue. The Maestro would always resist these developments with conviction, always maintaining the guiding role that the great classical repertoires deserved.

In 1965, Bartolucci was named a member of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, where he found himself in the company of the most important international figures in music. Besides regular liturgical services in the Sistine Chapel, the maestro held numerous concerts in Italy and elsewhere. The Sistine Chapel would also conduct two successful coast-to-coast tours of the United States in the ’70s.

After his retirement in 1997, the maestro continued a fervid activity as director and composer. In 2010 Benedict XVI, his great admirer, created him Cardinal Deacon of the Most Holy Name of Jesus and Maria in Via Lata. Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci died on November 11th, 2013.

Cardinal Bartolucci arriving to celebrate Mass at the Fraternity of St Peter’s Roman parish, Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2010.
His catalogue of compositions is truly outstanding: more than forty books of collections of his compositions, motets, masses, oratorios, organ music, various symphonic choral works and instrumental pieces for the pianoforte, violin and pianoforte and for other instrumental ensembles.

Sacred music at the Chapel was certainly his most outstanding accomplishment, due to his decades of activity as director in the most prestigious Roman cappelle musicali. In his first book of motets, which comprises his Marian antiphons, we find already in evidence all the elements that characterize him as a composer and form the foundation of his poetic work: modal language, masterful handling of the choir, almost constant use of Gregorian themes, the lyricism of every polyphonic part, rejection of extreme dissonance, careful adherence to texts as they are found in the rite, the exaltation of the text in its most profound spiritual meaning, and the abhorrence of forced sentimental effects, which led to truer and more spiritual significance in his music. It would be difficult to comment here on the great many musical gems that fill his books, the fruit of the daily exercise of disciplined knowledge gain over the course of through decades, and which placed itself on the shoulders of the giants who proceeded him.

There are a few important characteristics of his production and activity:

1) A Roman Musician of the Church

Without hesitation we must say that he was a profoundly Christian musician, and one profoundly involved in the liturgical life of the Roman Catholic Church: “Venerable Maestro, you have always labored to strengthen sacred music and make it a vehicle of evangelization. Through the innumerable concerts it performed in Italy and abroad with the universal language of art, the Pontifical Chapel has, under your guidance, cooperated with the mission of the Popes, which is to spread the Christian message to the world” (Benedict XVI, 2006).

2) The Sacred Text

In order to fully understand his music, and for that matter all of Gregorian chant and polyphony, one has to realize the absolute importance that the text has in such music. It is not only something that is set to music, but becomes in a certain sense the very form of the composition. In modern music there are various musical elements that determine the criteria for the use of texts. In the liturgical music we are speaking about, the text is the master of the composition, deciding its points of expansion and rest, establishing the priorities. The text, together with the liturgical context, gives the form, accents, and meter of the composition.

3) Modality

The harmonic language Bartolucci chose ran entirely contrary to the artistic tendencies of the period. He chose to express himself in modal language, which is the language that uses the traditional ecclesiastical scales on which Gregorian chant, and thus renaissance polyphony, is based.

4) Lyricism Bartolucci’s harmonic language does not seek extreme dissonance. Above all it seeks intensity of spiritual emotion through the power of song. This is partly due to the nature of Italian lyricism, which tends to emphasize the expression of the singer as the protagonist, rather than his subordination to the needs of the mass chorus as is more typical in the splendid tradition of the English musical world.

5) Attention to Tradition

The Maestro had a deep reverence for tradition, that complex of usages and practices handed down from the past. But what is Tradition (with a big “T”)? More or less everyone claims the word, but I think few could define it if asked. Tradition is “to hand down”, to transmit. It is a bridge between yesterday and today, a gift the past makes to the future. Tradition is a victory over nothingness, the opposite of the annihilation of things and person in the flow of centuries. His concept of tradition is also tied to his concept of musical training, which is nothing other than that of the great Roman school. Music is learned through experience, by doing. Experience, what we call “practice”, is the most basic element of musical formation. Just as the painters labored in the workshop of a master and learned his secrets by working with him side by side, so musicians learned the secrets of the maestros’ arts in the choir loft, not with purely theoretical notions, but acquiring the art in the very act of doing.

It is precisely this fecundity of Tradition that gives more radiant life to the future.

The long and fertile artistic life of our author deserves to be more deeply studied and appreciated in the light of the historical and cultural context he lived through. Choirs can greatly benefit from singing his pieces, with have such masterful choral writing; every composer can learn fascinating secrets of polyphonic composition; every director has, in Bartolucci’s music, a certain and efficacious means to encourage in their faithful an intense meditation on the spiritual life.

- Aurelio Porfiri is an Italian composer, conductor, writer and educator whose music is published in Italy, France, Germany, the USA and China. He has published 23 books, including “I would like to meet a saint: A Spiritual Diary.” Together with Prof. Peter Kwasniewski he promoted the Declaration on Sacred Music on March 5, 2017. He is the chief editor of ALTARE DEI, a magazine on liturgy, sacred music and Catholic culture.

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