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Hasse’s Conversion of St. Augustine

It was on this day, 1590 years ago, that before the age of seventy six, in Hippo, today’s Bona in Algeria, a passionate seeker of truth, the most illustrious of the Fathers of the Western Church went to his eternal reward: St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church (354-430).

African by origin (he was born in 354 in Tagaste in the Proconsular Numidia, today Souk-Ahras in Algeria), but Roman for eloquence, Augustine spent a restless adolescence. He was baptized by St. Ambrose at 32, ordained a priest at 37 and consecrated bishop at 41. Until his death, by means of his immense collection of writings — from the Confessions to the City of God — he faced the heresies of his time: Manicheism, Donatism and Pelagianesim. “The great bishop united in himself the creative energy of Tertullian and the breadth of spirit of Origen with the ecclesiastical sensitivity of Cyprian; the dialectical acumen of Aristotle with the soaring idealism and speculation of Plato; the practical sense of the Latins with the spiritual subtlety of the Greeks. He was the greatest philosopher of the patristic era and, without doubt, the most important and influential theologian of the Church in general.” (B. Altaner, Patrologia, Marietti, Torino 19686, p. 308).

As usual, let us approach the Doctor of Grace by way of music. We will not speak here of his De Musica, a work, more or less complete, which he wrote between 388 and 390 precisely on music, nor on its theoretical aspect, where he confesses: “Num possumus amare nisi pulchra?” (VI, 13, 38): “What can we love if not beauty?”

We will rather refer to his famous Confessions, “a work that is simultaneously autobiography, philosophy, theology, mysticism and poetry, a work in which those who thirst for truth and know their own limitations have always discovered their own selves” (John Paul II, Augustinum Hipponensem, August 28, 1986, § 4). This classic of autobiography, especially the part dedicated to the author’s wonderful conversion, has also found wide favor in dramaturgy: in particular it has inspired dramatic musical composition, without scenes and costumes, for solo voices and orchestra, on a religious (but extra-liturgical) subject, which is called oratorio.

Directly from the Confessions comes La conversione di Sant’Agostino (the conversion of St. Augustine), the last oratorio written by the German Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783), the greatest of many foreign composers who, before Gluck and Mozart, shone in Italian Opera. The oratorio was performed for the first time at four in the afternoon on Holy Saturday March 28 1750, in the chapel of Dresden’s Royal Palace. The libretto, written by the Bavarian princess Maria Antonia Walpurgis (1724-1780), is based on the five-act play Idea perfectæ conversionis sive Augustinus by the Jesuit Franz Neumayr (1687-1765). Judging by the numerous performances after the first one in today’s Germany, Latvia, the Czech Republic and Italy, the oratorio gained some popularity in the 18th century.

The score, divided into two parts for about an hour and three quarters of music, is conceived for five characters (St. Augustine, alto; Simpliciano, a priest, tenor; Monica, Augustine’s mother, soprano; Alipio, Augustine’s friend, alto; Navigio, Augustine’s brother, bass), a mixed chorus and an orchestra (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, strings and continuo).

It all begins with an orchestral Introduction (Allegro non troppo però, ma con molto spirito). “You won’t be afflicted so much anymore, sorrowful and pious mother. […] Let’s hope in God”, Simpliciano says to console Monica, who confides him: “Ah, how light is my hope, Father,” that “the guilty son” can change his life. The voices of Alipio and then Navigio are added, who, together with Simpliciano and Monica, throughout the first part, talk with Augustine about his “serious fight,” his inner conflict between good and evil, and invite him to repent, to dissolve “these infamous chains,” and to deny himself “at least for a short time the guilty poison.” Augustine would like to embark on the path of conversion, but his heart, he says, “will never be able to change. The objects of its love are too sweet.” He is desperate: “Remorse oppresses the breast, / The heart loves its crime; / I am doubtful and afflicted / and I don’t know how to resolve myself. // I groan and pain of my state; / I would like to turn to my God; / But how can I untie myself / from the snares of my heart.” The first part ends with a chorus which, alternating between Monica and Alipio, intercedes for Augustine: “Inspire, o merciful God, / To him more worthy affection; / Make him a winner / Of every earthly object. // Ah, let not be shed in vain / For him the Divine Blood, / May your favor strengthen / that soul that languishes.”

The second part opens with Monica “alone among so many anxieties. I know that the son fights, but I don’t know if he won.” But first Simpliciano and then Alipio reassure her that “grace assists him” and that he “strongly resists the movements of his heart.” On seeing Augustine arrive, “all withdraw to one side” to listen to his soliloquy. During his spiritual battle a voice (soprano) invites him: “Take and read, Augustine.” He finds in his hands “the pages […], which the great Apostle to the Gentiles wrote;” we know from Neumayr’s drama (and from Confessions VIII,12,29) that this is the passage of the Epistle to the Romans where St. Paul exhorts to abandon the works of the flesh and to be clothed with Christ (13,13-14). After the reading, Augustine feels the darkness of doubt clearing and, full of joy, sings: “Now I repent, oh God, how late / I began to love you: / Now I condemn, and you know it, / The delusions of my heart. // Ah, merciful, allow me / One of your tender glances, / which comforts, which feeds, / which validates the new love.”. Simpliciano reaches him and warns him: “Perhaps you’re deceiving yourself, trusting too much in yourself”; but by now he finds him certain of his conversion, which Monica and the others also rejoice about. At the end of the oratorio, first Simpliciano and then the final chorus respectively exhort all the “unhappy souls” and “every shy heart” to follow the example of this great convert.

Featured Image: The Conversion of St. Augustine, by Fra Angelico

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