LICINIO REFICE (1883-1954) – Sacred Music’s two ways

– Aurelio Porfiri

To understand certain developments that have occurred in the field of sacred music, one must go backwards. In other words, the present can only be understood by immersing yourself in the past and trying to untangle threads that allow you to glimpse possible, plausible, perhaps non-exclusive paths. We can certainly say with the writer Vittorio Arrigoni: “In the end, even if the story has bad students, in some way it teaches.” Certainly we do not have the rankerian claim of being able to reconstruct “what really was,” but the possibility of seeing from above, from afar, paths that in our being immersed in actuality (and not in the present) we do not see, is already an important outcome.

Returning to sacred music, we can today speak of an important composer who has been vulgarly set aside in the tumult of the destructive fury of the last decades, and I refer to Licinio Refice (1883-1954), whom it seems to me almost nobody remembers that this year marks the 65th anniversary of his death. A death in the end also adventurous, a little in line with his character, which took place in far away Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, where he had gone for the representation of one of his works.

What remains of this priest, musician, opera player? Born in Patrica, near Frosinone, he studied in Rome and was active as a teacher at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and as a chapel master at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Author of numerous compositions of sacred music, he had the inspiration for opera music, not a simple choice for a priest. But even his operatic works spoke of his religious vocation, among all the best known, Cecilia, dedicated to the Roman martyr so dear to the memory of all musicians.

The reform of sacred music already promoted in the nineteenth century and carried out by the Cecilian movement, had as its pillars the return to “authentic” Gregorian chant (through the work of the Solesmes monks) and the rediscovery of Renaissance polyphony. The fundamental impulse to the reform came from St Pius X with his Motu Proprio Between the solicitudes of November 22, 1903. It proposed itself “almost as a legal code” for sacred music:  “Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church. And it is vain to hope that the blessing of heaven will descend abundantly upon us, when our homage to the Most High, instead of ascending in the odor of sweetness, puts into the hand of the Lord the scourges wherewith of old the Divine Redeemer drove the unworthy profaners from the Temple. Hence, in order that no one for the future may be able to plead in excuse that he did not clearly understand his duty and that all vagueness may be eliminated from the interpretation of matters which have already been commanded, We have deemed it expedient to point out briefly the principles regulating sacred music in the functions of public worship, and to gather together in a general survey the principal prescriptions of the Church against the more common abuses in this subject. We do therefore publish, motu proprio and with certain knowledge, Our present Instruction to which, as to a juridical code of sacred music (quasi a codice giuridico della musica sacra), We will with the fullness of Our Apostolic Authority that the force of law be given, and We do by Our present handwriting impose its scrupulous observance on all.”

In this document the principles for a purification of music from profane uses were presented, that is, from the influence of opera music which was very strong in the last centuries. There were various musicians who worked hard to implement these directives. In Italy three come to mind. First and foremost Lorenzo Perosi, the best known and also internationally known, called to the direction of the Sistine Chapel and great counselor of Saint Pius X, his protector (important adviser to Cardinal Sarto / Pius X was also the Jesuit Angelo de Santi, founder of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music). The other musician who certainly must be remembered is Raffaele Casimiri (1880-1943), not so much as a composer because he is not at the level of the others we are talking about (although he certainly had a good technique), but as an excellent musicologist and writer, able to perform important works in the field of Renaissance music studies. And then our Licinio Refice, of which today very little remains in concert programs (and of course, after what we have said,  almost nothing in liturgical ones) but which really deserves a rediscovery.

Among the liturgical compositions we can remember the Missa in honorem Sancti Eduardi Regis, an intense composition in which we find the characteristics of our composer, like this attention to a more modern type of harmony but tempered by the use of modal scales typical of ecclesiastical music and by their almost exclusively diatonic nature. We also remember the Missa Choralis, a work in which the author, many decades before the Council (the Mass was composed in 1916), also tries to involve the assembly in the parts of the Ordinarium Missae together with the Schola Cantorum. In fact, the complete title read: “Missa choralis tribus vocibus aequalibus concinenda, organo comitante et alternante cantu populari.” We will comment on his Oratories and his Operas, works certainly worthy of attention.

We can try a general discourse on our composer, starting from the premises we have previously made referring to the Cecilian movement and to Saint Pius X. Composers certainly envisaged two ways, that of paying attention to the supreme models of ecclesiastical music (Gregorian chant and polyphony) and that of inserting their artistic life inserted in a vital flow of harmonious and aesthetic languages. Now, composers of sacred music must be careful not to get caught up in the use of languages that can obscure their mission, because they are too influenced by profane use. I am certainly not here to speak of the profanation of the liturgy with the pop music we are witnessing today, but also to the use of more noble and higher musical languages but which also contrast with the chaste nature of liturgical singing. According to the opinion of some, Licinio Refice, that was certainly a very good technically trained composer, perhaps the most prepared in this sense, but in his language perhaps there was the influence of a certain late-romantic German kind of symphonism that forces liturgical singing into manifestations of a certain kind of emotionalism not always appropriate to sacred music. Chromatism, if used as a reinforcement of the tendencies already inherent in tonal music (which was then the basic language used by our composer) becomes a means of agitation, spiritually exhausting. Having said that, we cannot deny the great skill and musical ability of our composer, perhaps more evident in the small pieces than in the pieces in which the army of bombastic dynamics sometimes hides the musical substance. I think of his Berceuse (which can be played on the piano and the organ and of which I believe there is an orchestral version), a composition in which the influences of early twentieth-century French music are strong but maintain a certain chastity and purity.

I would like to point out that I consider it a duty for a composer of sacred music to be able to use what is good in the musical languages of his time, with the attention that through these languages the profane element cannot supplant the sacred destination (as indeed the Council of Trent warned). Let us remember that the Church in the past has been at the vanguard of artistic creation and has never been afraid to innovate, but always entering the vital flow of a tradition, aiming at an evolution, not a revolution. Although some compositions of our Licinio Refice are probably very marked by the time in which they were written, there is a lot in his catalog that deserves to be rediscovered and valued in the liturgy, as it should.