Essay | Blessings Without Number

Churches, Florence, ITALY, Music, Student Essays

by Wyatt Smith, M.M. ’15, organ

“Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,

Ita desiderat anima mea te, Deus.”

These words from Psalm 42 were the theme that I held close to my heart throughout the recent study tour of Italy with the ISM. In visiting many of the historic churches, cathedrals and basilicas, I felt that I was in a place that was indeed like no other: a place that was frozen in time, from late antiquity to the Baroque.

When we sang Palestrina’s setting of the text from Psalm 42, I felt that we sang as one voice, despite any religious or denominational barriers. Many times when we sang this Palestrina anthem, we were in crowded churches in which the populous fell silent at the sound of this glorious music.

Personally, the most poignant performance of the Palestrina was in the Florence baptistery, where we were allowed in the building before it was open to the public. We sang at the end of our tour, given by the venerable Msgr. Timothy Verdon. It was in that moment of singing, in a room filled with biblical mosaics, that I felt many of us connected beyond our earthly friendships into that of one spiritual voice, along with the atmosphere of the baptistery and its meaning; this being a room that served as the birthplace of faith for many generations: A modern journey to an ancient font of the water of life.

Following the many adventures of the study tour, which included visiting historic churches, museums, and even a winery in Tuscany, the organists had the opportunity to spend four days visiting and playing different historical organs of northern Italy. This tour took us to the beautiful cities of Cortona, Mantova, and Bologna.

Alongside our fearless leader Martin Jean, Francesco Cera, who is a well known Italian organist and teacher, accompanied us on our tour. Cera demonstrated many of the various organs and provided small coaching sessions on Italian organ music to help us better understand these organs and their music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Italian organs represent a unique corner of the organ world, a corner that is often trumped by the French and German traditions of organ building. However, these organs offer some of the sweetest, most beautiful, and clearest sounds in the world, in my opinion. The sound of Italian organs contains a certain vocal quality: their sound is gentle, never forced; they sing, but never shout.

Rome: Santa Maria in Valicella. Photo by Wyatt Smith

Rome: Santa Maria in Valicella. Photo by Wyatt Smith

In the beautiful old-world city of Cortona, we visited four organs representing four consecutive centuries. The first organ we played was built in the nineteenth century. During this era in Italian history, it was common to play pieces from different popular operas to accompany a liturgy. As a result, the later Italian organs are much more diverse in tonal palette to accommodate these pieces. The first Cortona organ we saw has stops representing all four families of organ pipes: principals, flutes, reeds, and even a string stop! The three remaining organs in Cortona were similar in character to each other, in comparison to the nineteenth-century instrument. These instruments of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were much smaller in size, but their beauty was in no way diminished.

To close out our time in Cortona, several of us gave a performance at the Church of San Domenico, which houses an organ that was built in 1547. It was a fabulous experience to perform on one of these beautiful organs from the Italian Renaissance.

Cortona: San Domenico. Photo by Martin Jean

Cortona: San Domenico. Photo by Martin Jean

During our time in the city of Mantova, we visited two organs, one of which was built by one of the most important of the Italian builders: Graziadio Antegnati. The Antegnati organ at the Basilica of Santa Barbara was built in 1565. Once again, I must note the astounding vocal quality of the Italian organs from the Renaissance and Baroque eras: it is absolutely sublime. The second stop in Mantova was a visit to the Basilica di Sant’Andrea. The organ at the Basilica, dating from 1850 and similar to the nineteenth-century organ in Cortona, is best suited to the playing of pieces from popular operas. However, this organ is almost unique among Italian organs for the sole reason that it contains two manuals (keyboards) and a large pedal board, whereas the large majority of organs in Italy have only a single manual and a small pedal board. Uniquely, it also contains four unison foundation stops, or principale, compared to other organs that only contain one principale stop.

The final destination of the organ tour was the charming city of Bologna. We were able to visit three beautiful Renaissance organs, two of which were situated across from each other in the chancel of the Basilica of San Petronio. Of the two organs in San Petronio, the organ built in 1471 was a personal favorite, both among the organs we visited in Bologna and of the organ tour as a whole. The sound of the principale was enough to melt one’s heart and soul (mine included): the sound was so very smooth and lyrical. The overall sound of the 1471 organ was rather mellow, especially when compared with the organ located directly across the chancel, which was built in the sixteenth century and has a comparatively brighter quality. We had the opportunity to hear these organs in dialogue with each other, when Francesco Cera and Liuwe Tamminga played music of Gabrieli and others from the keydesks of these two beautiful organs.

Bologna: San Petronio

Bologna: San Petronio

The next morning, we spent a couple of hours at the Basilica of San Martino with its sixteenth-century organ, which is housed in one of the most rickety galleries I recall entering over the course of the tour. The final musical adventure of the organ tour was a visit to the Luigi Tagliavini’s personal collection of musical instruments, housed in the former Church of San Colombano. At this museum, we saw many different keyboard instruments representing various eras of music history, as well as several mechanical instruments. Cera and Tamminga demonstrated many of the collection’s holdings, which included harpsichords, pianos, clavichords, and a portativ organ in the gallery.

There is simply too much to write about this study trip to Italy. To put it simply: I feel this trip fell perfectly at the intersection of academia and religion and music. From Peter Hawkins’s reading of Oscar Wilde’s “Ravenna” at the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe to the closing concert performed by Schola Cantorum in Venice, consisting of music by Palestrina, Vivaldi, and Bruckner, I was reminded of the vast and varied resources of the Institute: hearing from both students and teachers alike, all of whom shared their expertise throughout this study tour of Italy. What a wonderful blessing to be part of this family!

Soli Deo Gloria.