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Beauty and the Unbeliever’s Heart

350 years ago, on October 20, 1672, the solemn feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with the approval of many Bishops in France, was observed for the first time.[1]

The liturgical worship began with the priest born in Normandy, St. John Eudes (†1680), who was responsible for the first liturgical office celebrated in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is the proper texts for the celebration of the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. He,

impelled by the great love, with which he was filled, for the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, was the first who, not without divine inspiration, thought of giving Them liturgical worship. Of which sweetest devotion he must be considered the father […], the doctor […], the apostle.[2]

This anniversary gives us occasion to reflect on a piece of modern sacred music. It is the Missa “O Pulchritudo” in honorem Sacratissimi Cordis Iesu for mixed choir, soloists and orchestra, written in 1979 by Gian Carlo Menotti (†2007), Italian composer naturalized U.S. citizen, known for having founded in 1958 in Spoleto, central Italy, the annual Festival of Two Worlds.

For some time he had wanted to compose a mass; the meeting with the Bel Canto Chorus of Milwaukee, southeastern Wisconsin, and the generous help of the International Institute of the Sacred Heart in Rome offered him the idea around which to develop the score: divine beauty, which, according to St. Augustine (†430), speaks to the heart of a man, a “restless heart” until it rests in the Heart of Christ.

Hence the title of the Mass: O Pulchritudo. It is a famous text by the greatest Father of the Latin Church, which here becomes a motet for the offertory, significantly dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus:

O pulchritudo, tam antiqua et tam nova, sero te amavi! […] Mecum eras, et tecum non eram. Ea me tenebant longe a te, quæ si in Te non essent, non essent. Vocasti et clamasti et rapisti sorditatem meam, coruscasti, splenduisti et fugasti cæcitatem meam. […] [O pulchritudo,] tetigisti me, et exarsi in pacem tuam. [O Beauty, ever ancient ever new, late have I loved you. You were with me, and I was not with you. Those things held me long from you. But if they had not been in you, they would not have been. You called and you cried out and you shattered my deafness. You shone and you shimmered and you cast out my blindness. You touched me, and I blazed for your peace] (Augustine, Confessions, X, 27).

Menotti’s Missa is divided into five parts, four of the Ordinarium Missæ (the invariable parts of the Mass) plus the aforementioned motet: Kyrie, Gloria, Motet O Pulchritudo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. And the Creed?

The musical language of Gian Carlo Menotti, far from the avant-garde, moderately eclectic and in this Missa echoing Puccini and, even more so Poulenc, is capable of adequately expressing the deep meaning of the text. Particularly intense moments occur in the Kyrie, in the Gloria; others highly suggestive are in the Agnus Dei, especially in the message of hope and peace that is grasped in the final invocation.

Menotti, although initiated into Christianity, seems to have disagreed with the Catholic faith. “In the Latin mass,” he said, “I find setting the Credo difficult, not only because I don’t quite believe in all of the words but also because I think it’s a boring thing to put to music.”[3] Perhaps he was never directed and encouraged in the “sweetest devotion” to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to which this composition is dedicated. Yet “the emotional intensity of his expression during the dress rehearsal of the Missa belied his words,” writes the tenor John Vorrasi in the liner notes for the compact disc recorded in 2006. And he continues:

I recall watching him closely as he sat in the darkened church listening intently. At the climactic moment of the Sanctus (a drum stroke on the phrase ‘heaven and earth are full of your glory’) he fell forward to his knees, his head bowed down. I was truly moved at the sight: a man whose genius had created a work of profound beauty, humbled by a sense of Beauty itself.

May listening of this Missa ignite in us more and more the devotion to that worship, which began three and a half centuries ago by the work and impulse of St. John Eudes.


Photo by Carolina Nichitin on Unsplash

[1] Pius XII, Haurietis aquas, May 15 1956.

[2] Pius X, Decree of beatification of John Eudes, April 11, 1909, in Acta Apostolicæ Sedis, 1909, p. 480, our translation.

[3] G. Brooks, An Interview with Gian Carlo Menotti, in Choral Journal, Lawton, Oklahoma, March 1997, p. 12.

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