Requiem for an Era

In 1924 an elegantly-dressed, sixty-something man of yet handsome appearance with spruce moustache (to hide his nicotine-stained teeth) and misty, yearning eyes boarded the Pullman car of a train for Brussels. Holding a briefcase in which were manuscript sketches he seemed to be gazing on an imaginary horizon filled with inexpressible sadness. When he spoke his voice was faint, almost indistinct, and he coughed lightly but frequently. He lit up an oval-shaped Sobranie, inhaled and, again, coughed. Smoking had been one of his pleasures, begun early in life when a student at Milan’s conservatoire, together with the bad wine and the sporadic lady of pleasure.

Would he ever see his native hills again? Would he again be able to hunt coots, women and libretti? Would he ever be able to create a satisfactory conclusion to the opera about an ardent Mongolian prince and a cold Chinese princess that was bugging him?

So many of his friends had assured him he would. OK, the text of the final duet was not quite au fait. If the right words could be found then the right music would be written. For him it was always “le parole prima della musica” and then the music came fast. Yes, he would return and do all these things. Had he not been recently made a “senatore” – or “suonatore”, as he joked  – “a vita” ?  The première, fixed for the following April, would come – everything would turn out right on the night. And then he would again be able to row his boat on the little lake, drive his fast cars even faster and enchant his bewitched women. The new cure, the radium was going to work.

But, as we all too unhappily know it never did, or rather it did but the patient did not survive it. (Rather like what happened to a much-missed walking partner of mine.) Those crystals were just too overpowering for his weakened physique. And so, in a hospital clinic in a cold northern country, during an even colder winter, at 11.30 AM on the 29th of November Giacomo Puccini died.

His state funeral in Milan’s bristling cathedral was a day of national mourning. An Italy, still recovering from years of unrest, cried for the one man that truly restored, not only its cultural prestige, but its national self-esteem in a world which had often belittled “the land where the lemon-trees grow and in darkened leaves the gold-oranges glow.”

It was not just the end of a great artist, one who had successfully married a great Italian lyrical tradition to the post-Wagnerian developments of Germany and the impressionistic harmonies of France. It was not only the end of a dynasty of musicians stretching back over two hundred years. It was the end of the golden era of Italian opera. There would, of course, always be composers who would follow. But would there be any to write operas approaching anywhere near his level and inspiration?

Every year, the day Puccini died is commemorated in a solemn Requiem Mass sung in Lucca‘s finest building – its glorious romanesque cathedral, now completing an excellent restoration in which the city’s all-embracing symbol, “Il Sacro Volto”, in Civitali’s awesome tabernacolo, shines even brighter. I was privileged to be part of the congregation in what must be one of the most poignant moments of Lucca’s rich calendar of annual events.

Under the cathedral’s magnificently restored vaults its Saint Cecilia choir contributed to the service by singing Haydn’s Requiem under the direction of that superlative and versatile conductor Luca Bacci. (See also my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/moving-mountain-melodies/)

It was, indeed, Bacci who helped discover this little masterpiece in the archives of the great summer residence of the Esterhàzy family at Fertod, Hungary – a gracious building which we’d visited, indeed slept in, over twenty years ago during our major-minor exploration of a Europe until then denied to us because the iron curtain had yet to be drawn.

Esterhazy 79

The singing was completely worthy of the occasion; Giulia Biagetti’s organ substituted for an orchestra but the noble simplicity of the piece made the alternative accompaniment utterly suitable. The female soloist’s voice was quite divine. Even the sermon preached was absolutely right for the solemnity.

And, to top it all, after the Benediction Puccini’s own “Requiem”, written originally to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Verdi’s death in 1905, was performed. An intensely beautiful work with very modal harmonies and a searing part for the viola (which, in the cathedral’s acoustics, sounded almost like a baroque trumpet) it tears at one’s heart string even more than his “Crisantemi”.

How very special it is to hear a sung Requiem Mass in one of the world’s most wonderful buildings in memory of Lucca’s greatest son!

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