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Pietro Mascagni: Opera Composer, Friends with the Pope

Seventy-five years ago, at 7:15 A.M., on August 2, 1945, the composer and conductor from Livorno, considered by many to be the founder of that opera style marked by a strong realism that was verismo in music, died in Rome after a long illness: Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945).

In 1940, the fiftieth anniversary of his most famous work, Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), he remembered the days leading up to the first performance in this way: “my astonishment reached its climax when I heard the complex interpretation of my music performed in such a marvelous way with all its particulars” (M. Morini, Pietro Mascagni, Vol. 2, Sonzogno, 1964, p. 169). Based on Giovanni Verga’s short story of the same name, the opera at the beginning of 1890 was proclaimed winner at publisher Sonzogno’s second edition of the competition for one-act operas and was first performed at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on May 17. It was hugely successful, receiving praise everywhere. Afterward, other operas came out, among which number Lamico Fritz (1891); Iris (1898); and his last, Nerone (1935). His great acclaim came during his years as an opera conductor in Europe and the United States.

Comforted with the last sacraments by the pastor of San Lorenzo in Lucina, he died in the heart of Rome, we say, in a suite situated on the noble floor of the Grand Hotel Plaza, his residence since 1927. Since December 28, 1948, the plaque behind the composer’s bronze bust on the building of the Via del Corso bears testimony to it: “Pietro Mascagni from this house, where he lived and worked for a long time, on August 2, 1945, passed to immortality.”

Venerable Pius XII, through Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, then substitute of the Secretariat of State, had already sent the following telegram: “His holiness is paternally present at the deep sorrow of this family and the world of art, to which the heart and genius of the illustrious Maestro revealed treasures of goodness and beauty” (D. Stivender, Mascagni: An Autobiography Compiled, Edited and Translated from Original Sources, Pro/Am Music Resources, 1988, p. 326).

Shortly before his death, Mascagni had asked for and obtained a papal audience. After his last public appearance — at Rome Opera House where he conducted his Amico Fritz — in 1943, at eighty years of age and in a wheelchair, this visit to the Holy Father and two previous ones had been his rare outings from his apartment that bad health and shaky legs had allowed him. Pius XII received him with great affection in the Library of the Vatican Apostolic Palace. He talked to him about art, music, and various other subjects. A few weeks later, the musician told some friends: “Every Sunday the pope has Mass said for me here in this room of the Plaza, because He knows that I can no longer go down the stairs. However, I confess that when I could get down them I did not always go to Mass. The pope has helped me in every way; during the worst period, when it was not easy to find a bit of bread and meat, he sent me food. A great pope, truly a holy man…” (D. Stivender, ibidem, p. 263).

The relationship of veneration between the great musician and the Pastor Angelicus (angelic shepherd) began on October 31, 1891, in the foyer of the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, between one act and another of the first performance of L’amico Fritz, when the 15-year-old Roman, already a good violinist, had struck the 28-year-old from Livorno, already a well known composer, “because of good stuff and solid music education.” A second meeting between the two took place later in a side-box still of the Costanzi, from which the then-seminarian Eugenio Pacelli and his family attended a new production of Cavalleria rusticana (cfr. E. Nassi, Pio XII, Camunia, Milano 1992, p. 25).

Among many episodes, the private audience granted by Pius XII to the musician and his wife, anxious for the health of their granddaughter, stands out in the spring of 1942. In an article, appeared in L’Avvenire d’Italia on June 2 of that year, Mascagni tells us the scene:

It is easy to imagine with what purity of faith I presented myself at the Vatican. I knew already that His Holiness was possessed of a divine goodness, crowned with a great mind and a great heart. But I would never have imagined to be received with such delicacy and such deference, which I have no reason to merit. It almost seemed as if His Holiness wished to descend to the level of my stature in order to speak freely with me. And in fact he spoke with great simplicity to me of my art, remembering particularly the birth of Cavalleria rusticana when His Holiness was a boy, almost a child; and yet he said that he had never forgotten those days. He spoke to me about art with authentic competence. He also recalled the period in which I lived in Pesaro, directing the Liceo Musicale. He courteously asked my wife for news of our family, after which I described the sad case of our beloved granddaughter to the Shepherd of Humanity. … The Pope, who was seated, all of a sudden rose, turned to me with raised arms, placed His hands on my shoulders, brought His face near mine and kissed me on the cheeks. I was moved and wept the sweetest tears of my life. The Pope imparted the apostolic blessing on my wife and me, accompanying His gesture with the gift of a rosary for my wife and a beautiful silver medal, with His likeness, for me. Then He gave me another rosary, asking me to send it to our adored granddaughter along with His blessing.

The gifts reach the little girl who immediately begins to improve, so much so that Mascagni concludes his story:

“I, who have absolute faith in the Divinity, think that that faith should create hope; and for this reason I hope. And hope is based on the blessing of the Holy Father to the sick child and on the gift of the blessed rosary. The Holy Father did the miracle.” (D. Stivender, ibidem, p. 258)

In the folders for the process of beatification of the Venerable Pius XII is also this testimony of Mascagni, together with many of the faithful looking for “a minute alone” with the pope to intercede in favor of a difficult life situation or a sick relative (E. Nassi, ibidem, p. 294).

In addition to the child’s full recovery, the Pastor Angelicus had also obtained the return of great artist to sacramental life, as some letters of the tired maestro attest. He, who dedicates his swan song to the Defensor Civitatis (defender of the city): the ancient hymn, which celebrates the spiritual glory of Rome, O Roma felix, for voice and organ, written in 1943 “for the 25th anniversary of His Holiness Pius XII’s Episcopal Consecration.”

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