March 16th, 1756, Pozzuoli
Dear Mr. Rousseau,
I received your letter a month ago, and ever since I broke its seal, I have read it in one go, dozens and dozens of times. I’m answering so late for a simple reason – I have been unable to write anything because of the emotions aroused by the memory of friar Giovanni Draghi and his last days on earth, a memory you awoke in me so suddenly. Today it has been exactly twenty years since our brother passed away and following the afternoon mass, after mourning his death for the twentieth time, I decided to reply to your letter, no matter how hard it might be. What matters to me now is not my torment in putting his story to paper, but acknowledging his genius – a man of a rare spiritual beauty, as you so aptly described him. No matter how sad, the story of the last three months of his life and of his last composition, Stabat mater, must be known by the world.
I am seventy-six now and grateful to God for it, but I’m trying hard every day not to question why He has given me such a long life and so little time to brother Draghi. Though I’m nearing the end of my life, I feel I’ve made little difference to my fellow humans, as I have dedicated my days to God ever since I was very young and entered Saint Francis’ Monastery in Pozzuoli. This afternoon, as I was tidying up my room in preparation for my departure from this world, I started looking through my papers to decide what to discard and what to keep. All of a sudden I came upon a notebook with notes dating from 1735 to 1738. I will copy out everything I found about brother Giovanni Battista Draghi, known to you as Pergolesi. To my very brief notes I will also add the thoughts I have now, when I can look back with the detachment given by the long time that has elapsed.
December 10th, 1735
Today Father Superior asked me to read something for him – a letter from a composer who, having lived his life in worldly debauchery, is now dying and wants to repent with us, in the monastery. He has composed music, and worst of all, music for the theatre. Father Superior has asked me to look after him while his life is ebbing away and tend to his soul, so it can go up to God smoothly. It is frightening. This man seems to be a temptation the Devil has sent us. But Father Superior has made up his mind; he will receive him, and with open arms, because he has composed a lot of music for the church lately, even though he is a mere twenty-five-year-old. I will not sleep tonight. I will pray to God and ask for His support in this difficult endeavor.
Yes, dear Mr. Rousseau, those were my thoughts precisely, even though I had been raised to forgive others and, as you might know, the Franciscans have always been closer to the human spirit and more tolerant than other Catholics (pardon me the vanity of this statement). I also remember, very clearly, that in the days that followed my talk with Father Superior, I was so troubled that I didn’t dare write anything in my notebook. I also remember, as if it were yesterday, the incredibly cold day when Pergolesi arrived at our monastery. I was so agitated that, again, I couldn’t write a single word, but I remember that afternoon as if I were looking at a picture. It hadn’t snowed in a while – we have very little snow in our area. It was cold, and brother Draghi had come in a cart. He was so weak he could hardly sit up. Thin and ghastly pale, when I helped him get down he started to cough and spit blood on the withering grass outside the monastery’s entrance. It took us ages to reach my small cell, which I was going to share with him, and he didn’t utter a single word on the way. The poor man walked with a limp, too, so when he lay down on the bed, he was short of breath and fell asleep right away. I heard his voice only the next morning, after he woke up and managed to drink a cup of tea and eat a little of what I had prepared for him.
December 24th, 1735
We had a visitor today – a messenger from the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo, who asked to speak to our feeble guest, but also to Father Superior, who asked me to attend the meeting as well. Apparently, one year before joining us, Brother Draghi had promised this proud brotherhood a Stabat mater. As soon as they had found out he was dying, they came to ask him to finish what he had promised, for which he had been paid ten ducats. I am revolted. Brother Draghi is a little better, it is true, but all signs show as clearly as possible that the path he has taken will end nowhere else than in death. It seems that the friars at San Luigi di Palazzo don’t like Scarlatti’s Stabat mater any more. He composed it for them twenty years ago, and they think it has grown out of fashion. The end of the world is near if a Franciscan friar, even from Napoli, can think in terms of “fashion”. We have been wearing the same kind of frock for over five hundred years, as taught by our patron, Saint Francis of Assisi, who wore it too, giving up all pride in vain clothing. The rough sack cloth makes us feel closer to God. I wonder what has gone wrong. Saint Francis’ will being disgraced by a brother who speaks of fashion and money? And where? In God’s house! A Franciscan, who preaches modesty and has the cult of poverty… In the past fifty five years I have read the Apocalypse innumerable times, but I have never imagined that the decline of the world, which it predicts, is so close at hand! In any case, Giovanni Draghi accepted the request and Father Superior seemed happy. Tomorrow is Christmas. To me, it seems like the last Christmas of the human race.
December 25th, 1735 – Holy Day of Christmas
Brother Giovanni came to the morning mass on this holy day when Christ was born. It was very cold in the church, which was not good for him, but he seemed invigorated by the desire to celebrate this great event. He entered the church with me, shivering and staggering on his wobbly legs. When we started to sing, he stifled his cough and joined us. He is young and you can feel his youth, even though it is fading, when he talks or sings. He has a warm tenor voice, of perfect musicality and, without the least visible effort, his voice seemed to fill the chorus with everything missing before. I stood next to him, supporting him, and we sang together. It sounded so exquisite I burst out into tears. If this is meant to be the last Christmas of the world, then brother Draghi made it the most glorious.
That afternoon, he asked me to bring him several copies of Stabat mater because he wanted to start working on it. He told me he was not sure if he would be able to finish it; therefore he wanted to play with and jot down all kinds of themes, so he could have at least a sketch, if not the complete, finished work. I brought down five copies and gave them to him, as he was resting in his bed. He took them confidently but grew increasingly pale as he looked over the verses we all know so well.
“Well,” he said, “let me read the lyrics again and see what music they will sing for me when I utter them…” Almost in a whisper, he recited “Stabat mater dolorosa”. A great emotion seized him, he started crying and, just as he was trying to check his outburst, the second line, “Juxta crucem lacrimosa,” overwhelmed him. He turned his back to me and stayed like that for a long time; I could only see his thin shoulders shaking. I left the room. I’m going to be on watch tonight. I’ll stop now because I will spend the night praying for brother Giovanni Draghi’s peace.
Yes, Mr. Rousseau, I quickly gave up my preconceived notions when I met Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. It was enough for me to talk with him a little, to listen to him sing, to see him at work on his masterpiece. You asked me to describe the last days of his life and, as well as I can, how he composed his wonderful Stabat mater. Well, dear Sir, I’m a simple monk, and my musical knowledge is limited. It would be hard for me to use musical terms when talking about his work. But your letter was so moving that I’ll do my best to please you. It contains a sentence that deeply resonated with me: “The first verse of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater is the most perfect and touching duet that has ever been born from a musician’s quill”. I think that is true, so I have decided to open my heart because I heard that verse recited before the birth of a single musical note. But, you see, only now have I realized that that verse was whispered and then recited in the darkest pain and that was exactly how Giovanni composed his music – he ennobled his pain through art, the ungraceful pain of impending death, which terrifies us and mutilates our face, but which turns a frightened expression into one of sheer (though tragic) beauty, as the spirit illuminates it through the sound of music.
I read and tried to understand your manifesto – Lettre sur la musique française – which brought you so much glory in France. If I weren’t a monk, I would feel proud of being Italian. I have never listened to Rameau’s music, but I believe that, after anyone listens to Pergolesi’s Stabat mater in church, no other composition in this world could mean much to him. That is why I understand when you say that “the French do not have music and will never have it”. Yet, in my years spent in church I have learned that you can never make definitive statements about the art people create. Therefore, I hope you’re wrong about the future of music in France. I don’t know what to say; I wish my words could help you in your fight against old-fashioned minds, in the so-called Querelle des Bouffons. I want to believe that, maybe this very year, somewhere in the world, someone was born who will compose music even more ravishing than brother Giovanni’s or, if not better than his, at least more of it, because Pergolesi’s genius shone dazzlingly, but only for a moment, like a shooting star, and that is much too little for the redemption of the human race.
I have seen a lot of death around me in the sixty-four years I have been serving God in my monastery. Therefore, I’m not going to tell you about musical notes, but about brother Giovanni’s road to death, while he was composing. Because, beyond sounds and lyrics, his music is telling us his life. And that is the secret of his genius.
January 3rd, 1736
Tomorrow, my guest turns twenty-six. I will pray to God to shine on the days He gave him. And if I deserve it, and I hope I do, I will ask God to give me the suffering destined to my young friend. Today I played the organ for the morning mass. For the first time, I tried to add my most beautiful thoughts to the musical notes I had to produce.
First of all, Giovanni Battista Draghi, known to the world as Pergolesi, did not compose the music of Stabat mater in the order of the verses, as everyone knows them. In fact, he did not compose anything until the end of 1735, after the reading I mentioned in my notebook. The following days he behaved as if he had never thought of composing anything. Every day he woke up early, said his prayers and acted as normally as possible. After Christmas, the weather changed and, for two or three weeks, it was unusually warm for that time of year, as if spring had come earlier. Giovanni was feeling better, mainly because he ate better after the long period of fasting. He had more color in his cheeks, too. One day, he asked me to bring the spinet from the church into our cell. In the evening, after working on tuning the instrument for the entire day, he seemed to become the lively person he had been before entering the monastery. He asked me, “Padre Anselmo, have you ever listened to my music?”
“Only to a Kyrie, in Napoli, two years ago, when Father Superior took me with him on a trip to the brotherhood you were working for. I liked it very much.”
In fact, I was lying because I couldn’t remember a single note from that Kyrie.
He went on, “I have composed all kinds of music, but it’s funny that I was successful exactly where I least expected to be.”
As he told me, a few years before, he had composed an opera, Il Prigionier superbo – he had wanted to conquer the musical world of Napoli with it. It was a grandiose tale about the Goths who had invaded Italy in olden times, a subject of the kind required by the big theaters. As the opera was exceedingly long and serious, he thought of filling the interval – when the public was taking a breath of fresh air or stretching their legs as costumes and scenery were being changed – with an intermezzo, a miniature musical theater piece, with just two characters who would make people laugh with their arias and duets. The Intermezzo was named La serva padrona. In the end, that musical piece enjoyed greater success than the grand opera for which everybody had bought a ticket. And now I know very well, from what you have written to me, dear Mr. Rousseau, that the entire Europe is enjoying that frivolous little opera. Yet, beyond the vanity of worldly things, I think it’s very good that that piece is still sung because, unlike its subject, its music is in exquisite taste. Well, by the time brother Giovanni had told me the story of the servant turned mistress, often playing the music on the spinet, it had got very late. Still, he wanted to stay up a little longer because he felt better and wanted to continue his work. Before I fell asleep, he said in a serious voice:
“Padre, I don’t think you are aware of how well I’m feeling. When I went out this morning, the sun caressed my face and smiled to me. You know, I can see these things. You will see, too, that in spring I will leave the monastery in good health. Today I have found out that I will not die. You don’t believe me, do you? You will see… I have learned this today, January the 4th. I have just turned twenty-six.”
Unfortunately, what I saw was different. He got thinner and thinner every passing day. His eyes sunk more and more into his face, and his chestnut hair, so thick and lovely, seemed to be thinning out because of the disease that destroyed him. It was not the first time I had seen a consumptive person in his last months of life. Yet strangely, despite brother Giovanni’s feebleness, there were moments when his eyes were animated by energy. Or that signalled, precisely, that his end was near. I went to bed tormented, trying to hide the sadness that overcame me.
When I got up the next morning, Pergolesi was sitting at the table. He had not slept at all. He looked at me feverishly:
“I must show you what I have composed. You will be my best critic and my first spectator. Listen to this.”
He had composed the music for two verses of Stabat mater. The first was Quae moerebat et dolebat. I had never listened to such a thing. It was almost blasphemously serene while lit by the most sincere faith. If anyone has ever seen a halo shining, then the sounds from the spinet and brother Giovanni’s voice were drawing it on the sky, better than any painter’s brush. The second verse he sang to me was from the end, Inflammatus et accensus, for which he had composed a duet. It was so beautiful that I hugged him. He sang it again and he wouldn’t let go of me until we had sung it together. My voice was lower, so I did the alto part, following his delicate voice, which was guiding me in the heavenly song. He started, in perfect harmony and as luminously as the verse before. When my turn came to sing Fac me Crucem… I felt I was taking off from earth, I was flying. Then he joined me, with perfect matching in rhythm and harmony. At the end of the duet, though, all I could say was that I was very busy, that it was getting late, and that I had to go, all of it because I found it very hard to hide my emotions. He was so absorbed in what he had just composed that he only replied he wouldn’t stay up much longer either because he needed some rest. I ran out and hid behind a column, where I cried my heart out, biting my hands. Even though I knew how his decline would advance – I gave him no more than two weeks to live – brother Giovanni Battista’s music made me think he was right: no, he will not die. When you’re twenty six, you can die only in an accident or on the battlefield. When you’re twenty six, you are, even if for just one day, immortal. When I got over my crying and returned to my usual routine, I passed by the door of my cell. Pergolesi hadn’t gone to bed yet and, from inside, I could hear his voice accompanied by the spinet, singing a third verse, Sancta Mater, istud agas , with music as uplifting as in the first two. I stopped to listen; it was so poignant I was rooted to the spot. When the last sounds faded in the air, I caught sight of Father Superior, who had approached quietly to listen, as stunned as myself, to the most wondrous music ever composed. He smiled to me sadly and motioned to me to walk on in silence. On that day, we only chopped firewood in the evening. Father Superior had ordered that as little noise as possible be made while brother Giovanni was resting. We spread straw all over the yard to hush the sounds of walking and pushing carts.
January 25th, 1736
Brother Giovanni has been lying exhausted in his bed for over two weeks. Poor him, composing the music for three separate verses of Stabat mater almost killed him. I don’t know what to do. I asked Father Superior today if it wouldn’t be better to write to the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi and ask them to give up their order. I was ready to work the entire year to return the ten ducats they had paid Pergolesi. Father Superior, however, thinks that it’s exactly this order that keeps our dear guest alive. He may be right. But I feel sorry for my friend. I wish I could take his place, after fifty-six years of doing nothing that could equal at least a tiny part of his life.
I stopped writing there because, when I returned to my cell, I found Giovanni Battista feeling better. He had got up from bed and was writing feverishly. But something had changed. He turned and looked at me with glazed eyes:
“Why me? It isn’t fair! Why is it me that has to die? I’m sure I got sick on the way back from Rome to Napoli. I’ve got no business with Europe’s kings and emperors! Let Napoli belong to the Austrians or the Spaniards, what do I care? Traveling between the two empires killed me! The rain, exhaustion, the dark and damp inns… I’m a musician, not a soldier. You know, padre, I haven’t had an easy life, and it isn’t frivolousness that is killing me…”
“Calm down, brother Giovanni, calm down. You’d better rest a little. Look, I’ve brought you some hot soup. It’ll help you feel better.”
“Please put it on the table. I’ll eat later. Look!” He showed me several sheets of paper. He had composed again, this time a duet and an aria for alto, Fac ut ardeam cor meum and Fac, ut portem Christi mortem. They were completely different from what he had composed a few days before. If the duet was aggressive, full of force, it was also an uplifting fugue for two voices. You could feel the sounds going up and up, towards Heaven. He sang his music and I shivered at God’s greatness, which seemed even more impressive through Pergolesi’s genius. As for the aria for lower voice, the spinet sounded dry and tough, and when I tried to imagine what a group of violins might sound like – as the music was meant for them – I could see the points of swords and spears piercing our Savior’s flesh. The crying in Fac me plagis vulnerari, where the human voice continued the tragic image, made me look at the palms of my hands: were the wounds of the Crucified Son transmitted to me through the music? I felt exhausted, recognizing in those tunes the state brother Giovanni Battista was in. It was a feeling of fury, like what you feel when confronted by injustice, though, on the other hand, what bigger injustice can exist besides Crucifixion? I told the young composer I had never lived, in my entire life, a more profound experience than listening to his work. He looked into my eyes and said,
“They paid me ten ducats, but my composition isn’t worth ten bajocchi! ”
“You’re wrong, Giovanni! Your composition is worth more than all the riches in the world because it is so true.”
Mr. Rousseau, I listened to my friend’s words with great pain, but they didn’t surprise me too much. I have seen so many people dying… Be it sickness or the death penalty, the reactions are not very different. Because, irrespective of wealth or religion, we are all equal in front of death. Helpless, pathetic, and, most of all, alone. If my good friend had got over the phase where he ignored his sickness and his end, now he was in the throes of a very natural revolt. After all, he was so young!
February 2nd, 1736
Father Superior told me to prepare the organ for mass tomorrow – clean it, tune the tubes, blow the bellows properly. The instrument, though not very old, needs good regular care.
Today, brother Giovanni Draghi confessed his sins to me, in the church. It was something I had not expected, because he usually confesses to Father Superior. God, it’s so hard for him!
Maybe that was when I felt the greatest sadness, when I saw my young friend’s suffering. And because I knew he still had a while to endure it, I felt even more pain. That is the reason why I could not give more details – I did not want to increase the desolation of that day. But when I wrote down the first words I knew that what mattered the most was the date – I will never forget what happened that day. Now, however, as I’ve got on in years, I’m afraid that, if I don’t share those moments with you, they’ll be lost forever, going into the grave with me.
I started to clean the organ early in the morning. Once I’d cleaned a tube, I liked to make it work in order to enjoy its sound. I was completely absorbed in my work, so I didn’t hear brother Giovanni Draghi enter the church and approach me. He wasn’t looking at me.
“Padre Anselmo, I’d like to confess my sins.”
“Of course, my son. Please come into the confessional.”
I won’t give you the details of that confession because, no matter how important they might be, the secret of that dialogue was promised to God. Afterwards, I took a short walk with Pergolesi, who seemed troubled. I can tell you what we discussed.
“Padre, you’ve lived all your life here, near Divinity; I hope you can help me. I’ve been thinking about it these days and I believe I would do anything to live one more year. I feel I still have so many things to do. I’ll start work on Stabat mater again if God listens to my prayers, and I’ll compose the most splendid music I’m capable of. Needless to say, after returning to the world for this one year, I’ll give back to the Franciscans in Napoli the money they paid me for this piece.”
“Dear Giovanni,” I replied, “it would be easy for me to scold you. Do you think you can negotiate with God? And could the subject of this negotiation be your own life, which the Creator gave you? I haven’t told you before, but I’ll say it now, though with the greatest doubts. Trust me, if I had the conceit to think that I could negotiate with God, I would change my place with yours immediately. And I’m sure I’m not the only friar here who thinks like this. But His will is the only one, and we cannot know what it is. I pray to Him every day and ask Him to listen to your prayers and give you the health you so much deserve. I do believe He will look at your pure soul. His plan about you can only be an important and beautiful one, no matter what we, ignorant sinners, think here, on earth.”
“Thank you, padre Anselmo. I know you’re right. I just wanted to make sure that I hadn’t lost my mind.” Then he continued, a little more serenely, ”If you have tuned the organ, can you tell me what you’re going to play tomorrow? I feel I can use it and would be very happy if you let me replace you. What do you think?”
Of course I let him replace me, how else? In the outside world, he was a famous organ player. It was our privilege, almost a vanity, to listen to him perform. I gave him the score, in case he wanted to study it before the service.
The next day, he came into the church and got to my balcony. When he received the signal, he started to play. We all turned our heads towards him. He did not use the score I had given him the day before. He was improvising, and we were ecstatic witnesses to his genius. The music he played had never been heard before, and it was exquisite not only because of the importance of our faith, but also because of the joy of some harmonies that had not been composed before. His inventiveness lay in the power to imagine some extraordinary melodies instantly, around which he embroidered all kinds of variations, both simple and graceful. When the service ended and he got down from the balcony, we all looked at him in awe and with the most sincere compassion. And I, who had been staying with him every single day, was the saddest of all. I knew why he had wanted to play; I knew what it meant. The music he had presented to God, while having us all as witnesses, was the very offer he was making in his crazed negotiation. I recognized the excruciating reading of the first lines in Stabat mater on the day he looked at the order from the Napoli friars. The subdued sadness of the first line, followed by the heartrending cry in the second, the duet of voices transposed for the organ, a marvel, God’s marvel. It was exactly what you wrote to me, and I’m copying it again here because I cannot have enough of reading and re-reading your letter: “the most perfect, the most touching duet that has ever been born from a musician’s quill”.
I knew very well that brother Giovanni’s negotiation with Heaven was not the expression of his vanity or madness. It was yet another step on his road to death, which was approaching.
He spent the next days composing for Stabat mater. In reality, he just transcribed the improvisations for the organ that he had memorized, as he had a brilliant mind. After a week of feverish writing, the day before he became seriously ill, he put on the table several dozens of numbered sheets of paper. It was Stabat mater dolorosa, followed by Cujus animam gementem, then Vidit suum, dulcem natum, and the last of them, an air of troubling beauty, Eia mater, fons amoris. I gathered them all. There were three more verses left, and I was afraid that the time had passed much too quickly, that the end was much too near.
Brother Giovanni spent the rest of February in a state of profound depression. He didn’t want to write anything, and nothing seemed to be able to get him out his melancholy. On some days, he asked me for quills and paper, which he threw away the very next moment, with a sigh:
“I’m so sad, why should I torment myself with this? I’m going to die anyway, so what’s the use?”
Then he sketched some tunes and asked me to play a few notes on the spinet. Practically, from February 15th, when he finished Eia mater fons amoris, until March 10th (which means for twenty five days), he only composed the music for two verses: O quam tristis et afflicta and Quis est homo, qui non flerit. But what music! I played it for him on the spinet and also sang occasionally, until he had arranged the very last detail, always unhappy with the result, even though for me even the first version had seemed perfect, as if God had dictated the notes to him. The deep depression he suffered from constantly because his cough (drier and with more blood than ever) wouldn’t let him sleep, made him erase and rewrite scores after scores. In the end, one could hardly understand what he had written on the staves. As you well know, the music he had composed for those two verses was as sad as his state of mind. But art was transforming desolation into epiphany, hopelessness into an urge for faith, and despair into hope. When he had made the very last correction, he asked me to play all the verses again, and he listened, once more, to his creation. His face, frighteningly thin but bathed in an inner light, brightened up. He smiled, as if he’d already seen me from the other world, and beckoned me to come closer, so he could whisper in my ear:
“Stop crying, padre. Everything will be fine. There’s no point in hiding – I’ve seen you. I cannot fight any longer. I’m ready to go.”
I knew that was the end. He had less than one week to live. And one verse, by chance or not, was the very last of the canonic version of Stabat mater.
During the last six days, his coma kept him more unconscious than awake. In a moment of lucidity, he asked me to put on the blanket, in front of him, a sheet of paper and the quill. On the 16th of March, early in the morning, a strong convulsion woke me up. I hadn’t slept for over four days and I had given in to exhaustion. In fact, as much as we blame ourselves for falling asleep exactly at such a moment, most often death wants to be alone with her victim and sends sleep over those watching the dying persons. I got up just in time to light a candle as Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was dying. After closing his eyes, I crossed his hands on his chest. The sheets of paper fell to the floor, and when I picked them up I saw that the score of the last verse still had wet ink on it. Quando corpus morietur, fac, ut animæ donetur paradisi gloria. Twenty years later, I still don’t know anyone else who could have composed such perfect music. I don’t know whether it was brother Giovanni, suddenly awakened from his sleep near death, just to write the last notes, or whether it was God Himself who wrote them while the two of us slept such different sleeps, though so close to each other. All I saw was the result. A final sheet contained, again, the notes for Fac ut ardeam cor meum, with only one word under them – Amen. The match between that single word and the music he had composed before was purely divine. At the end of all that was his handwriting, just three words, which have been with me ever since, at times haunting me, at other times consoling me, three words I utter every time I have difficulty finishing something I started easily, such as this overlong letter:
Finis Laus Deo.