The Literary Summa of Christian Civilization and its Music

It is the seventh century since, at the age of 56, on the night of the 13th of September 1321, the brightest star of Italian literature died in his exile at Ravenna: Dante Alighieri.

The father of the Italian language was born in Florence into a minor noble family and had grown up around the white Guelphs, a Florentine political faction. Exiled as a result of political unrest, Dante wrote his “Commedia, which deservedly earned the title of Divina” (Benedict XV, In preclara summorum, April 30, 1921). Its three parts make it the literary summa of Christian civilization, as well as one of the masterpieces of universal literature. “The Divine Comedy is a poem of peace: the Inferno a dirge for peace forever lost, the Purgatorio a wistful hymn of hope for peace, and the Paradiso a triumphant anthem of peace fully and eternally possessed” (Paul VI, Altissimi cantus, December 7, 1965).

Many composers have set Dante’s verses to music or have been inspired by reading the poem. Here are some examples in chronological order: Il conte Ugolino (Inferno 33,1-84) and Pia de’ Tolomei by Gaetano Donizetti (1828 and 1837, respectively), Lamento del conte Ugolino by Francesco Morlacchi (1832), La Francesca (Inferno 5.127-138) by Gioachino Rossini (1848), Après une lecture du Dante and the Dante-Symphony by Franz Liszt (1849 and 1857, respectively), the Sinfonia Dante in re minore by Giovanni Pacini (1864), Francesca da Rimini by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1876), the Inferno Symphonic Fantasy by Max Reger (1901), Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai (1914), Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini (1918).

Among all the compositions drawn from The Divine Comedy, let’s fix our attention on the Laudi alla Vergine Maria for female chorus that Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote between 1887 and 1893, choosing the text of the final canto of Paradiso. And we do this for two reasons: the first is musical and the second theological.

First of all, let us render a modest but passionate service to this almost unknown Verdi piece, which is just as important as the other famous works of the Maestro. After undertaking Shakespeare’s theater in the opera Otello, Verdi’s true encounter with Dante takes place with this composition. The women’s voices a cappella interpret with bare austerity the sublime prayer to Mary that our Poet puts on the lips of St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

Virgin mother, daughter of your Son,
more humble and sublime than any creature,
fixed goal decreed from all eternity,

you are the one who gave to human nature
so much nobility that its Creator
did not disdain His being made its creature.

That love whose warmth allowed this flower to bloom
within the everlasting peace — was love
rekindled in your womb; for us above,

you are the noonday torch of charity,
and there below, on earth, among the mortals,
you are a living spring of hope. Lady,

you are so high, you can so intercede,
that he who would have grace but does not seek
your aid, may long  to fly but has no wings.

Your loving-kindness does not only answer
the one who asks, but it is often ready
to answer freely long before the asking.

In you compassion is, in you is piety,
in you is generosity, in you
is every goodness found in any creature
(Paradiso 33.1-21, trans. Mandelbaum)

The music expresses well the validity that Verdi attributed to classical polyphony and to the ancient Italian vocal tradition, according to the exhortation he addressed on several occasions and written in a letter dated January 5, 1871, to Francesco Florimo, librarian in the conservatory of Naples: “Let’s return to the past: that will be a progress” (in Giuseppe Verdi. Lettere, a cura di E. Rescigno, Turin 2012, p. 604).

Secondly, these Dante verses, so well intoned by the great Italian musician, present the truth of Mary’s intercession. A great mariologist, Father Gabriele M. Roschini (1900-1977), of the Order of the Servants of Mary, who studied the singular mission of Mary as Mother, Mediatrix and universal Queen, wrote about it:

Cardinal Ruffini recounted that, having one day asked the Holy Father Pius XI of venerated memory, if he could hope for a future dogmatic definition of Mary’s mediation, he heard the answer: “What’s the use? This is a truth already defined, not only implicitly but also explicitly.” And he added: “When Dante Alighieri sang to the Virgin… did he not form the very lips of the Christian people, a faithful echo of the Church’s teaching?”

Let me add that not only the famous tercet of Dante, but the whole Divine Comedy, which, as Carducci confessed, can be called “the voice of twelve Christian centuries,” is a solemn proclamation of the Mary’s universal intercession. It can be said that the whole divine poem hinges on this pivot: no one can go to God except through Christ; and no one can go to Christ except through Mary. And in fact the mystical journey of Dante (symbol of mankind) towards eternal salvation is always with Mary and through Mary. It begins by passing from evil to good, thanks to the “gentle Woman” (fist part, Inferno); she goes on, guiding him, through her messengers, from good to better (second part, Purgatorio); with Mary and through Mary it is fulfilled, passing from better to the best, that is, to the beatific vision. Here is the nucleus of the Divine Comedy. From its admirable parts it clearly appears how the grace of conversion, purification and vision of God, that is, any grace, reaches the mankind through Mary’s hands (Gabriele M. Roschini, Conferenze Mariane trasmesse dalla Radio Vaticana, Istituto Padano di Arti Grafiche, Rovigo 1952, Ed. 2, pp. 35-37).

 

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