Don Lorenzo Perosi

perosiYou might not know the music of Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956) (more detailed article in Italian) who was an extremely gifted composer in the great Italian operatic tradition. However, he never composed operas. Giacomo Puccini is quoted as saying that “C’è più musica nella testa di Perosi che in quella mia e di Mascagni messe insieme” – There’s more music in Perosi’s head than in mine and Mascagni’s put together. I see great similarities in style between Perosi and Puccini in their use of chromaticism and the idiom of late nineteenth-century Romanticism.

His output ranges from the monumental oratorio Mosè that runs for more than two hours to little pieces of church music that are well within the capabilities of ordinary church choirs. La Risurrezione di Cristo is a great favourite of mine, and I remember listening to it many times when I was a seminarian in Rome in 1985-86. Youtube is quite generous for pieces by Perosi. Today is Good Friday, and I recommend listening to his Passion of St Mark.

The Wikipedia article observes that Perosi was succeeded as director of the Sistine Choir by Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci. I have seen Bartolucci direct his choir at masses celebrated by John Paul II in the 1980’s, and have wrinkled my nose many times on hearing them, used as I am to English choral music. The Italians are great musicians and singers, but their choirs are rather “ropey” to say the least! It is interesting to learn that Bartolucci blames Perosi for the deterioration of Church music.

Perosi was part of a scheme by Pius X at the beginning of the twentieth century to restore Gregorian chant and polyphonic music in the liturgy. He took a great interest in Gregorian chant and collaborated in the movement around the Abbey of Solesmes. The study of Gregorian chant continues, and the work of the nineteenth-century Benedictine monks did not have the last word. To this day, there is quite a difference between Solesmes and Fontgombault continuing to use the old Solesmes method. I used this method myself when I was briefly in charge of music at the seminary of Gricigliano after giving myself a crash course in Gregorian chant.

Musicians often have a hard time with the clergy. Perosi seems to have glided through the system and was in the right place at the right time, in charge of music in Venice and protected by Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto who became Pope Pius X in 1903. We know that Pius X was someone we cannot conveniently diabolise. On one hand he was anathematising Romantic souls like Tyrrell and Von Hügel as Modernists, but on the other hand, he was a man of great pastoral sensitivity and love of beauty.

English church musicians need to be aware of the various movements in continental Europe, especially in Italy, France and Germany.

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One Response to Don Lorenzo Perosi

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you! I have just been wanting to learn more about Perosi, having a couple CD-reissues of his compositions (e.g., Mass settings) conducted by Andre Rieu, Senior.

    Do you happen to know the fascinating recordings of Alessandro Moreschi (the Gregorian Incipit of the Lamentatio for the first of the Tenebrae lessons being perhaps the most striking), the last prominent castrato?

    One of the things I had read about Perosi, was his opposition to the music and singers characteristic of the Sistine Chapel when he was appointed there – which saddens me: happily the listener can enjoy both on their own terms for their distinct, characteristic virtues!

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