Showing posts with label 1872. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1872. Show all posts

21 December 2016

Lorenzo Perosi - priest and composer

Puccini contemporary chose sacred music over opera

Lorenzo Perosi forsook opera in  favour of religious music
Lorenzo Perosi forsook opera in
 favour of religious music
Don Lorenzo Perosi, a brilliant composer of sacred music who was musical director of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican for almost half a century, was born on this day in 1872 in the city of Tortona in Piedmont.

A devoutly religious man who was ordained as a priest at the age of 22, Perosi was a contemporary of Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni, both of whom he counted as close friends, but was the only member of the so-called Giovane Scuola of late 19th century and early 20th century composers who did not write opera.

Instead, he concentrated entirely on church music and was particularly noted for his large-scale oratorios, for which he enjoyed international fame.

Unlike Puccini and Mascagni, or others from the Giovane Scuola such as Ruggero LeoncavalloUmberto Giordano and Francesco Cilea, Perosi's work has not endured enough for him to be well known today.

Yet at his peak, which music scholars consider to be the period between his appointment as Maestro of the Choir of St Mark's in Venice in 1894 and a serious mental breakdown suffered in 1907, he was hugely admired by his fellows in the Giovane Scuola and beyond.

Perosi with Arturo Toscanini before the  premiere of his work Mosè in Milan
Perosi with Arturo Toscanini before the
premiere of his work Mosè in Milan 
Arturo Toscanini conducted his work Mosè on the occasion of its premiere at La Scala in Milan in November 1901, his French admirers included Claude Debussy and Jules Massenet and many of the great opera singers on his day were keen to perform in his works, including Enrico Caruso, Mario Sammarco, Carlo Tagliabue and Beniamino Gigli.

Puccini is quoted as saying that "there is more music in Perosi's head than mine and Mascagni's put together".

Perosi is credited with reviving the oratorio as a musical genre. His grand productions for chorus, soloists, and orchestra based on Latin texts were noted for their bringing together of Renaissance harmony, Gregorian chant, and the flamboyant melodies and orchestrations characteristic of the Giovane Scuola. 

Perosi was one of 12 children born into a pious Catholic family in Tortona, only half of whom survived infancy.  His own birth was said to have been difficult and music historians believe it was probably the cause of the mental health problems he suffered in adulthood.

His father, Giuseppe, was choir director at the cathedral in Tortona and his talent for music was shared with his brothers Carlo, who also became a priest, and Marziano, who would later be musical director at the Duomo of Milan.

Listen to the choir of the church of the Beata Vergine in Mandria, near Padua

Lorenzo enrolled at Milan Conservatory, where he began his association with Puccini and Mascagni, after which he took his first professional post as organist at the Abbey of Montecassino.  He spent a year studying in Germany under Franz Xaver Haberl, where he learnt Renaissance polyphony, but declined a permanent teaching position in Germany in favour of a position nearer home as director of sacred music at the Duomo in Imola.

The bust of Lorenzo Perosi in the  gardens at the Pincio in Rome
The bust of Lorenzo Perosi in the
gardens at the Pincio in Rome
From Imola he went to Solesmes Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery in France to study under the Gregorianists Dom André Mocquereau and Dom Joseph Pothier.

The appointment at St Mark's in Venice came in 1894 and brought Perosi under the influence of Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, the Patriarch of Venice who would go on to be elected as Pope Pius X.  It was Sarto who ordained Perosi to the priesthood but just as importantly encouraged his music and was influential in his appointment in Rome.

Perosi's mental health problems began to manifest themselves in 1906, when doctors felt he was suffering from nervous exhaustion as a consequence of the hours he spent writing music in addition to his duties as a priest.

They became so severe following the deaths of both his parents within the space of a few years that at one stage his brother, Carlo, was nominated legal guardian as some doctors deemed him incurable. In time, however, his condition improved and he returned to a normal life.

He added to an already enormous body of work and the popes Pius XI and Pius XII waived the rules regarding mandatory retirement and retained him as 'maestro perpetuo' into his 80s. By the time his health deteriorated irreversibly he had served under five popes.  He died in Rome in October 1956.

The Duomo of Tortona, where Lorenzo Perosi is  buried along with his brother, Carlo
The Duomo of Tortona, where Lorenzo Perosi is
buried along with his brother, Carlo
Travel tip:

Tortona is an elegant small city of around 27,000 inhabitants in the eastern part of Piedmont, roughly halfway between Milan and the Ligurian coast at Genoa.  It sits on the right bank of the Scrivia river between the plain of Marengo and the foothills of the Ligurian Apennines.  Lorenzo Perosi, along with his brother, Carlo, is buried at the Duomo, where his father was the choir director.  The Duomo has a 19th century neoclassical facade but the building itself dates back to the 16th century.

Travel tip:

The Sistine Chapel choir is one of the oldest religious choirs in the world, consisting today of 20 adult professional singers and 30 unpaid boy choristers.   Its reputation today owes much to Lorenzo Perosi, who raised its artistic level to a level as high as any it had known during his time as Maestro di Cappella and supported Pope Pius X in outlawing the use of boys whose voices were preserved by the barbaric practice of castration. Pius declared that only "whole men" should be allowed to be choristers or priests, and the last of the castrati were in time eased out of the choir.  A bust of Perosi can be found in the gardens on Pincian Hill - the Pincio - in Rome.

More reading:

How Giovanni Gabrieli helped popularity of Venetian Baroque

What made Puccini one of the greatest of opera composers

The genius of Venice's musical priest, Antonio Vivaldi

Also on this day:

1401: Birth of the great Renaissance artist Massacio

(Picture credits: bust by Lalupa; Tortona Duomo by Vincenzo da Tortona; both via Wikimedia Commons)


10 March 2016

Giuseppe Mazzini - hero of the Risorgimento

Revolutionary was ideological inspiration for Italian unification

Photographic portrait of Giuseppe Mazzini
A photographic portrait of
Giuseppe Mazzini
Giuseppe Mazzini, the journalist and revolutionary who was one of the driving forces behind the Risorgimento, the political and social movement aimed at unifying Italy in the 19th century, died on this day in 1872 in Pisa.

Mazzini is considered to be one of the heroes of the Risorgimento, whose memory is preserved in the names of streets and squares all over Italy.

Where Giuseppe Garibaldi was the conquering soldier, Vittorio Emanuele the unifying king and Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour the statesman who would become Italy's first prime minister, Mazzini is perhaps best described as the movement's ideological inspiration.

Born in 1807, the son of a university professor in Genoa, Mazzini spent large parts of his life in exile and some of it in prison.  His mission was to free Italy of oppressive foreign powers, to which end he organised numerous uprisings that were invariably crushed. At the time of his death he considered himself to have failed, because the unified Italy was not the democratic republic he had envisaged, but a monarchy.

Yet an estimated 100,000 people turned out for his funeral in Genoa and he is seen now to have played a vital role in the Risorgimento. His aims were seen by many as noble and just and his commitment to founding and supporting revolutionary groups meant the possibility of violent insurrection would never go away until Italy became one country.

Mazzini as a young man, a drawing dated at around 1830
Mazzini as a young man, a drawing
dated at around 1830
Intellectually precocious, Mazzini entered university at the age of only 14 and graduated with a law degree before he was 21.

Soon after graduating, he joined a secret political movement known as the Carbonari, the goal of which was Italian independence through revolution.  This led to his arrest in Genoa - then part of the French-controlled Ligurian Republic - and imprisonment. He was released after six months on the condition that he lived in a small hamlet, effectively under house arrest.

Mazzini chose instead to live in exile, first in Switzerland, then in Marseille, where he met Giuditta Bellerio Sidoli, a beautiful widow originally from Modena, with whom he had a son.  He continued his political activity, forming another secret society called La Giovine Italia (Young Italy), which at its peak had 60,000 members, among them Garibaldi.

Two attempted uprisings in areas of Savoy and Piedmont were put down, with many participants killed.  Mazzini was tried in his absence by the authorities in Genoa and sentenced to death but he was undeterred in his ambitions.  Moving back to Switzerland, he dreamed not only of a democratic republic uniting Italy but of a unified Europe and encouraged the development of groups similar to Young Italy in Poland and Germany.

Arrested again, he was exiled from Switzerland, returning to Paris to be imprisoned again, securing his release only after promising to move to England, where he lived from January 1837, at several addresses in London.  He continued to plot, his links with revolutionaries in other parts of Europe bringing him to the attention of the British government, who took to intercepting his mail and are thought to have foiled a planned uprising in Bologna by tipping off the occupying Austrians.

Mazzini lived at a number of London addresses, including one in Gower Street.
A plaque commemorates a property in Gower Street, one of
a number of addresses in London where Mazzini lived

He returned to Italy to be part of a short-lived Italian government in Rome in 1849 but was forced to retreat to London after the exiled Pope enlisted the support of the French to overthrow the fledgling republic.

Ultimately, the unification process was completed with Mazzini more spectator than participant, the lead role taken by the Savoyan King of Sardinia, Victor Emanuel II, with the support of Garibaldi's Mille expedition.

The new Kingdom of Italy was created in 1861 under the Savoy monarchy. But Mazzini, although he previously encouraged Victor Emanuel to employ his military resources in the cause of unification, remained fervently republican and refused a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in the new government.

He continued to be politically active and in 1870 tried to start a rebellion in Sicily, following which he was arrested and imprisoned.  He was freed after an amnesty was declared.

After more time spent in London, he was in Pisa in Tuscany when he suffered a bout of pleurisy from which he did not recover. The house in which he died in Pisa is now known as Domus Mazziniana and is home to a museum commemorating his life.

Mazzini's house in Genoa is now a museum
The house in Genoa in which Mazzini was
born is now a museum.

Travel tip:

The house in Genoa in which Giuseppe Mazzini was born forms part of the Istituto Mazziniano. Together with the archives and historical library, it contains documents and relics related to Mazzini and the Risorgimento, such as signatures, weapons, uniforms and flags.  The museum itinerary covers over 120 years of history, including Mazzini's Young Italy movement and Garibaldi's Expedition of the Thousand. For more information, visit the museum's own website.

The Mazzini mausoleum at the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa
The Mazzini mausoleum at the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa
Travel tip:

Mazzini's final house in Pisa, the Domus Mazziniana, was badly damaged during the bombardment of the city in 1943, with all of the original furniture destroyed.  The structure survived, however, and is now open to the public, who can look at a vast library of writings and studies by Giuseppe Mazzini as well as various relics and remains from the Risorgimento. Although he died in Pisa, Mazzini's body was interred in his home town of Genoa. For more information on the museum in Pisa, visit

More reading:

The novel that became a symbol of the Risorgimento

How a Verdi chorus became the Risorgimento's anthem

Garibaldi's Expedition of the Thousand

Also on this day:

1749: The birth of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's librettist

1900: The birth of architectural sculptor Corrado Parnucci, most famous for his work in the US state of Michigan

Selected books: 

A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini's Writings on Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations

Risorgimento: The History of Italy from Napoleon to Nation State, by Lucy Riall

(Picture credits: Plaque by Edwardx; Mazzini house in Genoa and Mausoleum by Twice25; via Wikimedia Commons)