Pentecost, Pergolesi and the Message of Peace

The cupola of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. © Charles Thibo
The cupola of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. © Charles Thibo

Explaining Pentecost to a nine-year old child is a challenge. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ followers – how do you explain a concept like the Holy Spirit to someone who struggles already with the notion of God, be it a Christian, Greek or Roman god? And how would that “spirit” descend upon somebody? “And there appeared unto them [the Apostles] cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them” –  the Book of the Acts of the Apostles describes Pentecost as a rather disturbing and frightening event. To help get my daughter an idea,  I compared it to a kind of awakening: The Apostles finally understood Jesus’ message and had the courage to spread it through Israel and the neighboring regions. It was the beginning of the building of a Christian community, the beginning of the Christian Church.

Worldly power versus religious bliss

In 24 hours I will be in Rome and admire – once again – the splendor of the St. Peter’s Basilica and the beauty of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. These masterworks are impressive, no doubt. But they do not inspire me religiously. Rather, they remind me of the worldly power that the Vatican wielded once, the wealth it had amassed and the decadence of the clergy at certain times. I feel rather distracted from Jesus’ message by this show of human genius, something that never happens to me with ecclesiastic music. Take the Mass in F, composed by the Italian Giovanni Battista Pergolesi in 1732. Like other religious works I have discussed before, this mass quickly transports me into a state of trance, of religious bliss and deeper insight. It makes me feel good.

Pergolesi was a leading figure in the rise of Italian opera in the 18th century, but sadly he died very early from tuberculosis, at the age of 26. He received his first musical training from the maestro di cappella at Iesi, his place of birth, and was instructed on the violin. Between 1720 and 1725, he attended the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo in Naples. One of Pergolesi’s earlier works, a sacred drama describing the conversion of Duke Guillaume d’Aquitaine, was performed by the conservatory in summer 1731. That year, Pergolesi wrote his first mass and he received his first opera commission.

From Naples to Rome

A year later, Prince Ferdinand Colonna Stigliano, Viceroy of Naples, made him maestro di cappella at his court. As such, he wrote his first commedia musicale. Two earthquakes shook Naples in 1731 and 1732, and the city elected St Emidius as its special patron saint. Pergolesi was tasked to compose a mass to honour the saint, and the Mass in F was probably performed on that occasion. That explains its second name “Messa di S. Emidio”. However, the mass also has the title “Missa Romana”. How does that fit together?

In March 1734, the claimant to the Neapolitan throne, Charles Bourbon, beleaguered the city. The Austrians, ruling Naples since 1707 through a viceroy, were defeated  and Pergolesi’s patron, Prince Stigliano, had to retreat to Rome. On 16 May 1734, Pergolesi was asked to perform a mass in the church S Lorenzo in Lucina: the Mass in F, hence the name “Missa Romana”. While he wrote several operatic works until his death, his poor health forced him to retreat to a monastery where he eventually died.

The Mass in F has recently been recorded by the Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini. I find the Gloria in excelsis Deo particularly uplifting, moving in the same way as the Gloria in Mozart’s Missa Solemnis in C Minor moves me each time I listen to it. Peace upon you. السلام عليكم  שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

4 thoughts on “Pentecost, Pergolesi and the Message of Peace”

  1. “Rather, they remind me of the worldly power that the Vatican wielded once, the wealth it had amassed and the decadence of the clergy at certain times.” I wonder if you’ve heard this: the Vatican car number plates carry the letters “SCV” (Stato Città del Vaticano = State City of the Vatican). What most Romans say it stands for, however, is “Se Cristo Vedesse = If Christ could only see”.

  2. ..sorry, I meant to say (since you obviously were quoting from Acts) that a more modern translation may be clearer. Instead of a “rather disturbing or frightening event” I think it would have been much more a “Wow!” exhilarating type of event, and even other people in the city were amazed. At any rate, I think the Pergolesi matches that mood beautifully. 🙂

  3. Heard this piece now for the first time- what brilliant, colourful, joyous music, enriching the text, lifting my spirit for sure! No wonder Luther said “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”
    As for explaining Pentecost to a 9-year-old, (wonderful that you have this dialogue with her!) I’m curious how she would respond if you read together the historical account of that day, as recorded by an eye-witness, the doctor Luke, in Acts, chapter 2?
    Happy Pentecost to you!

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