Bellarmine the Musician

Editor’s note: please see Mediatrix Press for The Bellarmine Translation Project.

Today four centuries have passed since the death, at almost 79 years of age, of St. Robert Bellarmine. A memorial tablet on his birthplace praises him as “the glory of the Church, of Italy, of his native place, for the sanctity of life and the vast doctrine that made him an unconquered athlete in dogmatic, moral and biblical controversies.”

Born on October 4, 1542 in the province of Siena, in “Montepulciano of the good wine” (A. Bresciani, Ubaldo and Irene, Vol. 2, Rome 1855, p. 257), in 1560 he entered the Society of Jesus in Rome. He studied philosophy at the Roman College and theology in Padua and Louvain. He taught in some cities and then becomes spiritual father and rector of the Roman College. In Naples he was provincial of the Jesuits and, after returning to Rome, after various prestigious positions, in 1599 Pope Clement VIII made him cardinal saying: “We elect this man because he has not an equal for learning in the Church of God and because he is nephew of the good Pope Marcellus II” (G. Fuligatti, Vita del cardinale Roberto Bellarmino della Compagnia di Giesù, Rome 1624, pp. 122-123). In 1602 he was archbishop of Capua, Campania region, southern Italy, but after three intense years the Pope wanted him within the organs of the Roman Curia and in the principal Roman congregations. He died in Rome on September 17, 1621, already revered by the most as a saint. Under Pope Pius XI he was beatified in 1923, canonized in 1930 and proclaimed Doctor of the Church in 1931.

Bellarmine is not only the hated “hammer” of the heretics that we all more or less know. And he is not only that beloved defender of the Apostolic See and of the doctrine of the faith that perhaps few people know. In his extraordinary work as theologian of the Catholic Reformation and restorer of the liturgy, Bellarmine also dealt with music for which, with poetry, he always showed an outstanding aptitude. This is seen while he was a student in his native Montepulciano and then at the Jesuit school, in Rome as teacher and rector of the Roman College, then as provincial of Naples, as archbishop of Capua and finally as cardinal.

In his autobiography Robert recounts that in his youth he had easily learned to sing and play various instruments (Le Bachelet, Bellarmin avant son cardinalat, Paris 1911, p. 444). When he was rector of that school, which St. Ignatius of Loyola had opened free of charge for Roman children since February 1551, Bellarmine guided them in music:

The Roman College is a work of music, with as many choirs as there are occupations and duties. In fact, each one, in his particular choir, sings the part assigned him. It results in a perfect concord because all, through the consonant harmony that unites them, are in accord on the division of rules proper to each or common to all. Therefore, let all continue singing in the full choir; let them sing in the observance of common discipline; or let them sing in a reduced choir, where one acts as teacher, the other as pupil, and so on with the other special offices; or even let them sing solo in their individual actions. As for the rector, his role will be to hold up the voices, beat the time, show the measure; the time to begin, to continue, to stop. Thus everything will be done with measure and harmony. But, granted that the rector has been put into an office where he has not previously practiced, some errors may escape him and mar the harmony. Hence, it is allowed each one to admonish him of his mistakes. He will be grateful for the favor received (D. Bartoli, Della vita di Roberto Cardinal Bellarmino, Book II, Chapter I, Rome 1678, p. 136).

A testimony of a Jesuit during the beatification process reported the contemporary witness that, when Bellaramine was provincial in Naples for over two years,

He took much delight in music. During recreation time, he sang in harmony with others of ours with good voices; the same happened in Capodimonte, when we ate on the terrace. He himself did not have a good voice, but he did his part with talent; he composed poems and adapted them to musical texts, and then he had them sung […]. He said that thanks to this entertainment one could avoid gossip and other misbehaviors during leisure time” (A. De Santi, Il Ven. Card. Roberto Bellarmino e la musica, in La Civiltà Cattolica 70, no. 3, 1919, p. 378).

In three years as archbishop of Capua he was not only a lighthouse of doctrine and apostolic ardor, but also the defender and organizer of music in his cathedral. He wanted “sacred services to be celebrated with majesty and devotion,” with the thought “of keeping music good and grave, capable of awakening and lifting men to spiritual things, penetrating the divine praises more easily through the feelings of the soul, when they are tempered with the sweetness of harmony” (D. Bartoli, ibidem, p. 168).

In the monumental Controversiæ — his capital work which, in controversy and refutation of especially Protestant heretics, epitomes Tridentine orthodoxy — there are also rules for the use of song and music in the liturgy: De cærimoniis, quæ fiunt in Missa et in actione consistunt (Tom. III, Lib. VI, Lib. I, Cap. XV); Defenditur cantus qui in officio divino adhiberi solet (Tom. IV, Lib. I, Cap. XVI); Solvuntur obiectiones adversariorum (Tom. IV, Lib. I, Cap. XVII).

On August 28, 1608, the Holy Doctor was a member of the commission of three cardinals set up by Paul V for the revision of the treasury of Gregorian chant. The Roman musicians, chaired by Felice Anerio (1560-1614), had the task, as the rescript of the commission says, of correcting the errors that over time could disfigure the melodies. However, those musicians, so imbued with the rich sixteenth-century polyphony, not chant, did not know how to perform the assignment at all and their unfortunate Medicean Gradual was published in 1614 without the proper understanding of chant. However, because of Cardinal Bellarmine’s musical expertise, he ensured that this Gradual never received official approval.


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