TREASURES OF SACRED MUSIC – Ecce Panis Angelorum (Lorenzo Perosi)

Aurelio Porfiri

When we hear talk about sacred music, we are often reproached that we cannot expect today’s churches, mostly empty of faithful, to have the means to put on a sacred music program the way we believe it should be done. We demand too much, there is no money, we must be satisfied! In reality the problem is not as it is posed. It is true that for certain pieces of sacred music some choral forces of a certain type are required and that they can have a certain cost. There are also simpler pieces, which obviously also require the technical expertise of those who perform them (which should be normal and should not even be said!), but which can also be performed by a few people. An example I would like to make of this is the piece composed by Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956), entitled Ecce Panis Angelorum.

Lorenzo Perosi, an Italian priest, was an absolutely key figure in the period of reform of sacred music sealed and encouraged by the Motu Proprio of St. Pius X in 1903. They fought against a drift of music increasingly influenced by the forms of operatic music that reigned undisputedly in Italy, especially in the 19th century. Opera at the time was hugely popular, in a way that today we struggle to understand. The language of opera influenced not only sacred vocal music but also organ music. It was also not uncommon that actual pieces from operas were used in the liturgy, just changing the words with liturgical texts…

Hence, this reform was somehow urgent and had to refer to repertoires that were considered more suited to the liturgical celebration such as Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. Perosi was part of this reform movement. He was one of the most important composers in this movement because he was endowed with enormous musical gifts, even if his sensitivity led him more to a late romantic tonalism (which it is sprinkled here and there with movements from ecclesiastical singing) than to modal sources. However we are talking about a musician of great depth. Some of his oratories and his Masses are truly exceptional and in some cases still in the memory of singers, conductors and organists. Some commentators find him, at times, a little “superficial” and this may be true in certain occasions. Someone who has also known Lorenzo Perosi defined him, with critical respect, a “genius amateur.” He was somehow a controversial figure and also a tragic figure, in a certain sense, because since his youth he suffered from a very debilitating mental disease that prevented him from conducting the Sistine Chapel Choir, of whom he was the master. So he could conduct only on certain occasions and had to rely a lot on his assistants.

As I said earlier, not all liturgical songs have to be written for a group of performers that includes many vocal parts or many instruments. In reality the piece we are talking about is for only two voices and an organ, and these two voices can also be soloists. The text is taken from the sequence for Corpus Domini Lauda Sion. The reason is quite easy to understand, because this sequence is a marvelous text but quite long and dense, so not so easy to put in music and not easy for average choirs.

The piece was published in 1900 in the Milanese magazine Melodie Sacre, published by Bertarelli. It was written for soprano, baritone and organ and dedicated to canon Ascanio Andreoni (1866-1945), an expert in Ambrosian singing and member of the commission for sacred music of the archdiocese of Milan.

The piece is contained in 40 bars that we could divide into three parts: part A (“Ecce panis …” 8 bars), part B (“In figuris …” 9 bars) and part C (“Bone Pastor .. . ” 23 bars). The piece begins in the key of D minor, with a fluid, legato melody of the sopranos, a melody that makes extensive use of the conjunct mode to have a surge towards the end, at the moment of a momentary transition to the relative F major. Part A communicates a feeling of adoration while the Thomistic words are pronounced: “Behold the bread of the angels, made bread for pilgrims …”

In part B, the situation moves a little, also due to the entry of the male voice. The words “In figuris praesignatur cum Isaac immolatur” (In the figures it is foretold, with Isaac is immolated) are stated, at least for the beginning, with a rhythm that the Greeks called Ionic (two long and two short) that some sources associate with the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god opposed to Apollo, protector of order and balance. We can understand this passage, also to create a contrast between the two parts and maintain the musical interest in those who were listening. The modulations that we observe throughout the piece are, we could say, “quiet,” that is, they move in close and somehow connected tones. This is also because the mood of the piece must not disturb or distract from listening to the very high words in honor of the Eucharist and create a sense of adoration.

The third part is the most extensive. In a certain sense the author returns to the trend of the initial part, but with a greater interest added by the use of the imitation between the upper voice and the lower voice. Part C begins with a profound sense of adoring abandonment, in the words “Bone Pastor, panis vere, Iesu nostri miserere” (Good Shepherd, true bread, or Jesus have mercy on us). These words, initially, are pronounced by the two voices in homorhythm (with the same rhythm), and then leave room, as I have already said, for a successful imitation between the two parts until the conclusion of the piece after a sudden surge just before the end, in the initial key of D minor. A word should also be said about organ accompaniment, which in this case is very well crafted. There is a difference between harmonizing melodies and accompanying them, also giving value to the organ’s ability to have a sort of dialogue with the melody. Here, in this case we are surely faced with the second way, in which the author is able to give a personality also to the organ accompaniment that dialogues in all respects with the two voices in singing.

At the beginning of the piece he tells us to perform this piece “con sentimento, with feeling, sentiment”. It seems an innocent indication, but it’s okay to reflect, because many of the disfigurements of what sacred music must really be are played out on the misunderstandings about the word “sentiment”. Probably in the previous century some authors interpreted this term in the way also contested by Antonio Rosmini in his famous book entitled History of impiety in which he argued with the philosopher Benjamin Constant precisely on “religious sentiment,” reduced to sentimentality and emotionality without reason. Sentiment, especially if religious, is not sentimentality, it is not an empty search for an emotional upheaval. Religious sentiment is a more intense search for the reasons for the hope that is in us. Here, in this way this piece must also be interpreted, not with empty sentimentality but with intense devotion and respect for the very high words that are sung at that moment. This is certainly one of the problems that we have to face today, when “feelings” are only understood in their low meaning, not as a superior faculty of our religious attitude. There is a great difference between sentiment and sentimentalism, the second one being a corruption of the first one. In the piece of Lorenzo Perosi we can feel there is sentiment, feeling, but always in the framework of rightful adoration to God. I think this is the reason why this piece is so enchanting and is still a favorite for many choirs.

As I have said at the very beginning, it is not necessary to have choirs of 50 people or huge pipe organs for a good musical program for the liturgy. At times, can serve the liturgy and make people pray. We should not think that there is no space for more complex performances, but we need just to appreciate beauty in complex and also in simple things.