Musician to Five Popes: Don Lorenzo Perosi

by Dr. Michael Dubiaga, Jr.


Composers of excellent sacred music have seldom enjoyed the musical recognition their works deserve. Don Lorenzo Perosi, whom critics once lauded as belonging to “the front rank of contemporary musicians,” is today scarcely known outside Europe. As an advisor to popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII, Perosi remained an influential director and prolific composer at the Sistine Chapel for more than half a century. The present essay aims to re-introduce this remarkable priest and artist to persons interested in Catholic musical culture.

Lorenzo Perosi was a youthful musical prodigy whose remarkable talents and personal piety brought rapid advancement at an early age. Known and respected throughout Europe, Don Perosi was frequently sought out by musicians traveling to Rome. Of his multi-dimensional activities, his prolific compositions are remembered today by enthusiasts from many countries. His output seems staggering — more than a dozen oratorios for soloists, choir and orchestra, perhaps thirty Masses, hundreds of motets, psalms and hymns, orchestral suites, concertos for violin, piano and clarinet, dozens of string trios, quartets and quintets, and sundry occasional pieces as well. He maintained a multilingual correspondence throughout his life, which has been preserved in the Vatican Library. Few individuals have had as great an influence on the course of Catholic sacred music in the first half of the twentieth century.

Lorenzo Perosi was born into a pious catholic family in Tortona (between Milan and Genoa) on December 21, 1872. His father, maestro di cappella at the city’s cathedral, continued a century-long family tradition of musical service to the church. The family’s conservative outlook permeated the upbringing of the children and it was not by chance that two sons became priests. (A third son, Marziano, twice attempted to join the Jesuits, but was unsuccessful due to poor health).

Young Lorenzo (“Renzo”) imbibed the family’s enthusiasm for sacred music and received his first musical instruction from his father. He soon came to know many of the family’s acquaintances in ecclesiastical and musical circles. After initial studies at the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome, Perosi pursued additional work in composition by correspondence from the Milan Conservatory. He accepted the position of organist and maesto di canto at the famous Benedictine abbey of Montecassino while yet in his teens. Here Perosi examined the monastery’s ancient codices of Gregorian chant under the guidance of Fr. Ambrogio Ameli. He deepened his knowledge of chant later at Regensburg (Ratisbon), with the noted musicologist, Monsignor Franz Haberl.

The later decades of the nineteenth century witnessed significant undertakings in liturgical and sacred music. One such current was the international Caecilian Movement. The earliest Caecilian Society, founded by Francis Xavier Witt and colleagues in Germany in 1868, enkindled similar efforts in Italy, Holland, and in the United States. Its objects included cultivation of plainchant, promotion of polyphonic sacred music, vernacular hymnody, and organ playing. Members sought to diffuse the highest musical standards among Catholic musicians.

A second focus, which continues in universities today, was the scholarly study of Gregorian chant based upon the earliest manuscripts, and an authentic rendition of them in the liturgy. The Benedictine monks of Solemnes, of course, assumed a key place in this vast undertaking, which spread across Europe.

Reform of current musical practices in the church inspired the efforts of many Catholic musicians. Not for the first (nor last) time had the sense of the sacred been challenged by sentimental, theatrical, and incompetent settings of liturgical texts. Numerous decrees, both by the pontiffs and the Congregation of Sacred Rites, had been issued throughout the nineteenth century to curtail such abuses.

At twenty-one Perosi was offered the post of teacher of music at the seminary of Imola. (His father had become maestro at the Tortona cathedral when the same age). In the ensuing years a stream of sacred compositions flowed from his pen. Antiphons, responsories, Magnificats, as well as settings of the Passions according to St. Mathew and St. John marked this extraordinary outpouring.

In May, 1894 he made an acquaintance at Mantova which was to affect the rest of his life. Here began his long friendship with Cardinal Sarto, Patriarch of Venice and their shared work for the restoration of liturgical music. Within two weeks of their meeting Perosi had been officially appointed maestro di cappella at Saint Mark’s. Cardinal Sarto wrote to his father from Mantova seeking permission for “little Lorenzo” to become Venetian music director. The Cardinal promised to be even “more than a father, a devoted friend” to his son. “Meanwhile,” the Cardinal continued, ” I congratulate you most warmly for your fine son who truly honors his family through the notable abilities which have been given him, but much more by the strong virtues which his understanding makes more admirable.” 1

Perosi’s summer travels took him to Solemnes and Paris. In late November he directed St. Mark’s choir at the formal entrance of the Patriarch. Perosi continued to compose prolifically while pursuing his theological studies. He was ordained a priest in September, 1895 by Cardinal Sarto.

Within three years Don Perosi was called to direct the Sistine Chapel by Pope Leo XIII. Permission was granted, however, for the young priest to reside in Venice when not needed at the Vatican. In the meantime, the artistic qualities of his works led to their successful and frequent performance throughout Europe. Honors came his way from Paris to Vienna and Perosi was welcomed by the greatest artistic personalities of the age. From this wide circle of acquaintances came many long-lasting friendships.

The esteem in which Lorenzo Perosi was held is well-expressed in an 1899 essay by the French author and music critic, Romain Rolland.

The abbe Perosi…is simple-hearted and modest, and has a friendly warmth of affection. When he is conducting the orchestra his striking silhouette, his slow and awkward gestures in expressive passages, and his naive movements of passion at dramatic moments bring to mind one of Fra Angelico’s monks.

…these compositions [oratorios] alone place him in the front rank of contemporary musicians. One finds well-marked airs, numerous recitatives, Gregorian or Palestrinian choruses, chorales with developments and variations in the old style, and intervening symphonies of some importance.2

In 1902, Perosi resigned from St. Mark’s and took up permanent residence in Rome. At his urging, Leo XIII ended the practice of castrato singers in the Papal Choir. Following the Pope’s death, he directed his Great Funeral Mass and, just days later, led the music at the coronation of his friend and former Patriarch, now Pope Pius X. Among the works sung on this occasion were Palestrina’s Missa sine nomine and Perosi’s own Oremus pro Pontifice.

The intensity of Perosi’s work following the accession of Pius X seems almost unimaginable. With colleagues Fr. Angelo De Santi and Carlo Respighi, Perosi shaped both substance and form of Inter sollicitudines, Pius X’s famous moto proprio on the reform of church music. He established a Schola puerorum, enabling poor boys to study music. He continued trips all over Europe to direct his works and to advance musical reforms. Meetings with the monks of Solemnes at their place of exile on the Isle of Wight and with Dom Pothier in Rome tackled the numerous difficulties in the preparation of the Vatican Edition of Gregorian chant. Protracted scholarly controversies regarding the ‘authentic’ interpretation and notation of plainchant raged on. Perosi enjoyed close personal relationships with the advocates from both Regensburg and Solemnes, but in matters of interpretation favored Solemnes.

Real life, of course, brings much suffering, and for Don Perosi, the cross took the form of nervous exhaustion and recurrent mental illness. One of the earliest signs of these afflictions appeared in 1906. The death of his father (1908) only deepened his depression. Following his mother’s death some years later, Perosi’s condition worsened so dramatically that his brother Carlo was nominated legal guardian. Further, he was prohibited from celebrating Mass. Eventually his condition improved and he resumed a more normal musical and priestly life.

Subsequent decades saw Don Perosi continue his musical labors as director and creator of a extraordinary corpus of work. Despite the rule regarding mandatory retirement, Pius XI and Pius XII retained him as ‘maestro perpetuo,’ the title he had originally received from Leo XIII. Even more honors from Church and State came his way and he continued to conduct on special occasions into his eighties. His health deteriorated in late 1955 and surrounded by sisters, brother and friends, he died in Rome in October, 1956.

It is tempting to consider Lorenzo Perosi merely as another extraordinarily talented musician and composer, whose natural gifts enabled him to pursue a remarkable career within the Church. But such an evaluation overlooks the predominance of his priesthood. A close friend, Fr. Davide Albertario, wrote describing his “intense yearning to make art a loving and irresistible struggle (guerriera) in the defense of the cause of Christ, to make Him known, loved and served in truth and virtue.” 3 Biographer Guido Pannian observed that “the real musician in Perosi is the priest.” 4 Perosi conveyed his own views (1944) as follows: “Sacred music is the song of the soul at prayer…and [this] song takes on changes proper to a conversation with the Supreme Being, from whom all gifts come (a quo Dona cuncta procedunt).” 5

So let us turn to the pieces themselves, which comprise both sacred and instrumental music. One genre conspicuously absent is opera. Despite his friendships with Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni, the leading Italian opera composers of the time, Perosi never entertained writing for the stage.

Among his major liturgical works are numerous Masses for two to six voices. Some are a cappella, others have organ, even orchestral accompaniment. Settings of the Mass Propers for Easter, Pentecost, the Ascension, and the Feast of St. Paul feature a six-voice polyphonic choir. One is amazed at the vast number (over 300) of his hymns, psalms, motets, and songs.

It was his large dramatic sacred works, particularly his oratorios, which had first attracted the attention of critics. Rolland wrote that “For the last eighteen months Don Perosi has been working at a cycle of twelve oratorios descriptive of the life of Christ.” Four of these had been completed within that short period; others were to follow over subsequent years.

From the late 1920s he turned increasingly to orchestral and chamber works. These included seven orchestral suites, each dedicated to an Italian city, as well as concertos for violin, piano, and clarinet. What comes as a surprise is such a fertile output of chamber music, including perhaps eighteen string quartets, five quintets, and miscellaneous pieces for violin, viola, and cello.

Description of his musical style poses a challenge, for his music transcends the typical characteristics of a particular period. In this sense his work is eclectic, blending chant motives, Renaissance polyphony, and even the rich harmonies of Wagner. Writing of The Resurrection of Lazarus, Rolland emphasized “his peculiar mournfulness, which is indescribable, his gift of pure poetry, and the richness of his flowing melody.”

The Mass, “Benedicamus Domino,” demonstrates many qualities found in Don Perosi’s sacred works. These include clear, intelligible declamation of the text and frequent alternation or dialogue between a section and the full choir. Portions of the text are delineated by lyric organ interludes. His melodies are remarkably supple and smooth, moving stepwise to create well-shaped phrases. The use of contrasting voices, now brilliant, now dark, shades the emotional import of the text being sung. Sweet, pure harmonies and brilliant organ registrations contribute to the effect of sacredness in the Mass.

Listening to Perosi’s works, one is never offended by an awkward pasticcio of disparate sections. The effect is rather of natural smoothness, a perfectly-shaped lyricism, and sensitive, emotional contrasts of the text. The pace is unhurried, permitting meditation and recollection in the mind of the worshiper. Although his settings can be emotionally intense, Perosi avoids sheer display, false, flashy effects and impressions through the musical “tricks of the trade.”

Much has been written to convey the intentions and practical implications of the musical reforms of 1903. One might acquire a more direct grasp of these intentions by an intelligent, sensitive hearing of Perosi’s compositions. Herein lies the sense of sacrality, reflection, adoration, prayer. His music conveys a sense of order, unhurried serenity, and a sensitive emotional balance.

Approximately eighty recordings of Don Perosi’s music have been made over the last one hundred years. In the earliest one I have found, (Victor 71023) dating 1900-1909, he directs the Sistine Chapel choir in music of Palestrina and his own Filiae Jerusalem. He made additional recordings from the 1930s to the 1950s. In fact, every decade has seen the appearance of new releases, such as those of the Musical Heritage Society. Happily, the number of Perosi recordings has enjoyed a great increase in the last twenty years. Most notable are the numerous CDs from Bongiovani, which are readily available from online dealers.

Don Perosi’s reputation has steadily grown over the years. New biographical and critical studies, principally in Italian, have accompanied this growth. Unfortunately, almost nothing has been written in English, nor have scholarly appraisals been translated.

The annual Perosiana festivals, held in his native Tortona from September through October, feature lectures, discussions, and performances of his works. Choirs and ensembles come to participate from across Europe under the coordination of artistic director, Arturo Sacchetti. Renowned as an organist and conductor (he has made over 150 recordings), Professor Sacchetti is also Artistic Director at the Vatican. Interviewed last year, he noted that “We have undertaken a marvelous, fascinating journey, certainly destined to mark a decisive turn in the re-definition of the figure of Perosi…he remains an illustrious, yet unknown figure.” 6 Rolland’s estimation still remains true: “We should all join in working to build the cathedral of European art. And the place of the director of the Sistine Chapel among the first builders is very plain.” 7 It seems fitting that fifty years after his passing, Don Lorenzo Perosi’s life and most remarkable music should be re-discovered and appreciated by yet another generation.***

A musicologist and violinist, Dr. Michael Dubiaga has taught at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi and at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. He currently lives in Winona, Minnesota.

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