Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

The Life of Catherine of Siena for Violin and Piano

Twenty twenty is the 640th year since the death, on April 29, and the 50th since the proclamation as Doctor of the Church, on October 4, of a woman who played a primary role in the Church of her time: St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380).

How can we fail to be filled with wonder at this gigantic figure, virgin “illustris et indelebilis memoriæ,” of illustrious and indelible memory (Pius II, Misericordias Domini, June 29, 1461, Bullar. Roman., V, 1860, p. 165); “inter secundarios Urbis Patronos,” co-patroness of the City of Rome (Pius IX, Quamvis Urbs Roma, April 13, 1866); model of women of Catholic action and also their patroness (Pius X, 1909); together with St. Francis of Assisi the principal patroness of Italy (Pius XII, Licet commissa, June 18, 1939); “a subject and cooperator in the diffusion and defense of the truth and the moral and social restoration of the civil life” (Pius XII, Ammirevole spettacolo, May 5,1940); Doctor of the Church (Paulus VI, Mirabilis in Ecclesia, October 4, 1970); and finally co-patroness of Europe (Giovanni Paolo II, Spes ædificandi, October 1, 1999)?

Anyone who has visited Siena, where the Mantellata was born and lived, knows this well. In the Basilica of San Domenico, also known as the Basilica Cateriniana, can be admired The Ecstasy of Saint Catherine, painted in 1526 by Sodoma, where there “is the scene when the Angel of God carries to the same Saint the Host of the most Holy Communion, and she, raising her head to Heaven, sees Jesus Christ and Mary the Virgin, while two of her sisters, her companions, stand behind her” (G. Vasari, Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors & architects, vol. 7, London, Macmillan 1912, pp. 253–254). Or Saint Catherine and a Follower, the portrait of the saint that her contemporary Andrea Vanni left us, in which “you see a timeless being, her head bandaged in white, in the beautiful cloak of the Pinzochere [Tertiaries of St. Dominic], with a long lily in her hand, and a follower, at her feet, of those who always followed her, brushes with her own lips against her fingers” (G. Ceronetti, La vita apparente, Adelphi, Milano 1982, p. 212).

Catherine’s attention to the poor, lepers, and those sentenced to death; her assistance during the plague of 1374 that ravaged Siena; her way of being “mom” of a “family” of a cenacle of artists, learned, religious, all from Siena and better educated than her; her mediation in 1374 in Avignon, southeastern France, between Florence and Pope Gregory XI to withdraw the excommunication against the rebellious Tuscan city, then successful in convincing the successor of Peter, whom she called “sweet Christ on earth” (Lett. 196), to return definitively to his natural seat in 1377; her spiritual advice to all kinds of people; her remaining steadfast during “a troubled period in the life of the Church and throughout the social context of Italy and Europe” (Benedict XVI, General Audience, November 24, 2010); her passing away in Rome, at the age of thirty-three as her crucified Bridegroom. The musician Marco Enrico Bossi (1861–1925) — whom we treated here — who often went to Siena, must have been charmed by this, and chose this singular woman for his mystic swan song, Santa Caterina da Siena, a little poem for violin and piano, posthumously published in 1927.

In October 1924, Bossi, “shortly before leaving for the journey from which he no longer had to return alive … finished the composition in the draft for violin and piano, but intended to adapt it to an ensemble of few instruments of which the organ was part” (cfr. F. Mompellio, quoted in E. Cominetti, M.E. Bossi. L’organista, lo studioso, il compositore, Gioiosa 1999, pp. 140–141).

The result is about thirty minutes of music, divided into an introduction and six episodes or “psychic syntheses” that, connected, refer to the brightest moments of Catherine’s life: The First Fervors, The Stigmata, The Tribulations, The Mystical Ecstasy, The Death, The Assumption.

A mystical atmosphere derives from the Introduction, which opens with a prolonged ringing of bells over a persistent, open sound. After this preparation, the solo violin, which represents Catherine, enters almost speaking.

Salmodiando con fervore (fervently chanting) is how the composer marks the beginning of The First Fervors. This psychic moment begins with an almost litany movement, which reappears here and there: the piano chants the psalmody, and the violin presents the saint, who invokes the assistance of God against her intimate turmoil. A peal leads us to a mosso con passione (moved with passion), where a phrase from the violin (in 9/4) shows us the girl already overwhelmed by the whirlwind of life.

Then everything calms down and the resumption of a mosso in a major key tells us dolce e teneramente (sweetly and tenderly) that Catherine joyfully welcomes her mission, culminating in Pisa, on April 1, 1375, by the seal of The Stigmata. The wounds of the crucified Christ, as her confessor recounts, “in forma puræ lucis venerunt ad quinque loca corporis mei, manus scilicet, et pedes, et cor” — in the form of pure light, the rays reached the five places of my body, namely my hands, feet and heart” (Raymond of Capua, Legenda maior sanctæ Catharinæ Senensis, §195).

We hear The Tribulations, the penance, made by rhythmic-melodic motifs that are excited, fragmented, and impetuous. Then you can hear vibrant notes of the violin, all played on the G string — the fourth string, the thickest and most sonorous of the four — which gain substance in a fiery and restless theme, then taken up by the piano. The restlessness continues with a quasi presto (like a presto, in 2/4), that develops the theme of the litanies heard in the second episode, until it becomes essential again, as in the psalmody of The First Fervors. The tableau ends with a “prophetic” theme, which heralds the mystical phenomenon of the next episode.

A simple theme, which the violin must play con rapimento (rapturously), presents The Mystical Ecstasy. After reaching its maximum exaltation, the theme of ecstasy gives way to brief recalling of that of The Stigmata and then the “prophetic” one, as if to make us feel the end of her earthly life and look back on that.

Serenely welcomed by Catherine in Rome, The Death arrives, here expressed by the already known “prophetic” theme, then interrupted by the announcement of death until it stops in the last breaths of the Sienese saint.

Finally, the tolling we heard at the beginning of the little poem announces Catherine’s going to God, The Assumption, with the theme of the litanies, here performed in slower movement (in 4/4). Then the sound decreases until it becomes almost incorporeal; you feel enveloped and subjugated by a heavenly atmosphere.

Bossi’s Santa Caterina da Siena can truly bring us closer to his inspiration, learning from her the lesson of sincerely loving Christ and the Church.

1 thought on “The Life of Catherine of Siena for Violin and Piano”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...