Cecilia’s Songs

A dialogue with Maestro Paolo Isotta

Aurelio Porfiri

I could never deny the reality about myself: I am a musician. Yes, it is true, I may be considered also a writer, because of my publications (books and articles) on several topics, but first and foremost I am a musician. So today, the day I am writing these few lines, is not an ordinary day for me, because the calendar marks the feast of Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians. It’s true that, being a Sunday, from a liturgical point of view we are celebrating Christ the King, but still in every musician’s heart, Cecilia’s songs resound today with strength and deepness.

Those that have followed the articles I have written about liturgical music would expect to read complaints and lamentations on the present status of liturgical music in the Catholic Church. And because I do not want to disappoint them, and most of all, I do not want to disappoint the truth, I should indeed complain about the miserable liturgical music we have to hear in our churches, not just in Asia, but especially here in Europe, the Europe that once was the cradle of the great treasure of liturgical music that the Second Vatican Council has asked us to preserve, not to destroy without mercy.

There are good people fighting for the right cause but they are mostly isolated, often opposed by clergy that was not rightly trained to appreciate the importance of a good standard of liturgical music for our liturgies. With few exceptions, we may rightly say that liturgical music is in deep crisis. You can go to many cathedrals around the world, not just in our own city, and witness that most of the time the music is not so much different from the one you can hear in a piano bar or similar. When I talk with liturgists, most of the time they have little to say about music because they were not trained for it.

In my days in Macau, with my modest work I had tried to instill a deeper sense of what liturgical music should be, without renouncing the fight for a good liturgical reform; I am not completely sure I was successful, but I know that I need to stick with Jesus and his teachings:  “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Mt 13, 3-9). As I have said, I have always tried to fight for the good interpretation of the Sacrosanctum Concilium and the liturgical reforms, fighting against the misled direction in Christian worship that has killed all the sense of beauty, dignity and reverence.

We should never forget that music is not just “music,” but is a way of knowledge and this knowledge can be also perverted in ways that mislead and betray the human heart: “Itaque sine Musica nulla disciplina potest esse perfecta, nihil enim sine illa. Nam et ipse mundus quadam harmonia sonorum fertur esse conpositus, et coelum ipsud sub harmoniae modulatione revolvi…. And without music there can be no perfect knowledge, for there is nothing without it. For even the universe itself is said to have been put together with a certain harmony of sounds, and the very heavens revolve under the guidance of harmony” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae Bk 3, ch 17, sect 1; p 137).

Now, I wanted to talk about this with someone who could help me shed some light on this very issue. In the past months I have been reading books from one of the most influential Italian musicologists, someone who was music critic for the most important Italian newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, for 35 years, until his recent retirement. Maestro Paolo Isotta is a fecund writer and his last two books were bestsellers: La virtù dell’elefante (The elephant’s virtue) and Altri canti di Marte (Other songs of Mars). In these books, certainly not politically correct and sometimes irreverent, Paolo Isotta has tried to present his music knowledge and insights on memory lane, remembering friends and enemies, great and mediocre musicians, books, foods, churches, atmospheres and many other things for the delight of the omnivorous readers. To me was particularly dear his attempt to rediscover little known musicians, composers that in the official musicology are mostly forgotten. Maestro Isotta is a very straightforward person, and this makes him deeply likeable for me. I may not agree with everything he has said, but I can feel that his opinions and judgments come from the deep desire to be honest to himself and to the readers, and not to please this or that person in power. In today’s world, also in this musical world, he is a rara avis…. Through a common friend I was able to reach Maestro Isotta and he was so kind to answer my questions that focused on Saint Cecilia, liturgical music and more…

What are your feelings about the feast of Saint Cecilia?

The feast of St. Cecilia is very dear to me as it must be to every musician. The Mass and Vespers dedicated to the Saint by Alessandro Scarlatti are one of the most shocking works of sacred music. Also of very high level is the Missa Sanctae Ceciliae composed by Haydn.

What you think of the level of liturgical music in today’s liturgies?

It is really mediocre, both in musical level and liturgical significance.

What you think of the dismissal of Latin and Gregorian chant in today’s liturgies?

It is one of the reasons, not of minor importance, of the abandonment of the liturgical celebrations from the faithful.

You have dealt in your recent books with composers as Franco Alfano or Gino Marinuzzi (for example) that have received little consideration from mainstream music critics but that are by you supremely exalted. What do you think of composers like Lorenzo Perosi, Licinio Refice or Domenico Bartolucci who have dedicated their lives to liturgical music but that appear also very little in recent years’ concerts programs?

We can refer to my latest book, Other Songs of Mars, published by Marsilio and released less than a month ago. Lorenzo Perosi is a composer – uneven but often great; Licinio Refice is always great; as for Bartolucci, I know him only as an excellent teacher.

Is there a musical and liturgical work that is particularly dear to your heart?

The Graduale Romanum.

Much has been said in last decades in the field of liturgical musicology about the terminological distinctions between sacred music, liturgical music, music for worship and so on. According to you, these distinctions are necessary?

The distinction may be useful for practical purposes. For everything else, judgment is issued in each case. For example, the Missa Solemnis by Beethoven at first sight may seem unfit for liturgical use for its size but indeed there is perfect compatibility. The Great Solemn Mass of Bach, what the ignorant call Mass in B Minor, by its very nature is not liturgical springing from a desire for power so immense as to deny the very meaning of the celebration.

How to favor the rebirth of good liturgical music?

Gregorian Chant should be more known; maybe the regulation of liturgy should be entrusted to the Benedictines.

If we don’t have music, what we would miss?

A bridge to God, consolation from the world’s evils, the interpretation of reality through the elevation that music produces in our spirit.

What are your feelings for Chinese world?

I have a deep respect for its great culture.

You are deeply devoted to the Neapolitan saint par excellence, saint Januarius. How come?

He is one of the greatest testimonies of the martyrdom of Jesus and of the Eucharistic sacrifice which is renewed from time to time with the blood that was shed for us.

With these words of Paolo Isotta, I think is important to end these few lines about the young martyr Cecilia, liturgical music and its present difficulties. Saints are always among us, we hope that the beauty of God that they show with their actions will become, as in the past, beautiful music, beautiful art to honor God and edify the faithful. Until that moment, for every musician there is only to hope and to fight the good fight, not expecting anything in this world but rejection and opposition, and yearning for the final reward, to sing Lord’s praises in the company of the angels.

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