Magnificent San Michele Mass

It was usual in the nineteenth century for graduating music students in Lucca to present a setting of the Mass for their final exams. That’s how we have, for example, Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Messa a quattro’, whose jaunty ‘Gloria’ theme was used as signature tune to accompany Sainted Pope John Paul II’s journey to the UK in the 1980’s.

Unfortunately, because of the Caecilian church music reform at the start of the twentieth century, it was deemed profane to have this kind of symphonic semi-operatic Mass performed in Catholic churches and a return to a kind of Gregorian chant simplicity was initiated instead. Puccini was replaced by Perosi, at least in religious establishments.

Another very promising student from Lucca was Alfredo Catalani whose poignant life I have described in my post at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/catalanis-calamitous-life/

I’d never heard any of Catalani’s music live so when our choirmaster Andrea Salvoni told us he’d be singing in a performance of  Catalani’s Mass for the ‘Concerto per San Michele’ in San Michele in Foro church, Lucca, last Saturday I made a bee-line for the event.

Participants were the Polifonica Lucchese choir and the Boccherini chamber orchestra conducted by that remarkable conductor and choir master, Egisto Matteucci, who founded the Associazione Musicale Lucchese all those years ago.

San Michele church is immediately familiar to anyone who has been to Lucca by its almost wedding cake-like façade which is much higher than the rest of the church – the project to raise the nave to the same level was never accomplished. This was just as well because the building’s acoustics would have been even more reverberant than they are now.

Before the Mass (which was originally performed in 1872) we were treated to four instrumental pieces by Catalani. Here is the programme:

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The first three were highly lyrical and a friend remarked that they sounded very Elgarian. They did indeed: only five years separate the two composers although it was the Elgar of ‘Chanson de Matin’ rather than the symphonic Elgar that came to mind.

Then the concert’s centrepiece: Catalani’s Mass. It’s difficult to believe that this composer’s first masterpiece was composed when he was eighteen, so confident are its compositional and structural forms. An intense melodiousness permeates the whole work with a particularly melting ’Benedictus’. For me the most noteworthy part was the Gloria’s final double fugue, stunning and extremely well performed by Egisto’s band.

Clearly, Catalani had been influenced by his Italian contemporaries, especially Verdi (though it must be remembered that Verdi’s one religious masterpiece, the Requiem, didn’t appear on the scene until 1874.) However, the influence I noted most was Beethoven and the German school of composers. In fact, Catalani was very much taken by Wagner, especially his ‘Lohengrin.’ If Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is dubbed ‘Wagner as told to children’ then Catalani’s operas may well be ‘Wagner as told to Italians’.

Despite his uncertain health Matteucci exploited his force to the full, resulting in a glorious performance with great excitement and emotional impact. The soloists, particularly soprano Mirella di Vita, performed beautifully.

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My good opinion of Catalani and his unfairly neglected music has been enormously increased since last Saturday!

If you missed the concert all hope is not lost. The performance was videoed at

A more listenable and less reverberant recording can be heard at:

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3 thoughts on “Magnificent San Michele Mass

  1. Very much enjoying all your blogs. We are coming to stay a couple of nights in Ponte a Serraglio on September 23, and thinking of moving to the area. Looking at your blogs and those of Debra it seems the area is quite a cultural hub. I’m an author and Shakespeare scholar and Colin is an artist. Our son, who’s training to be a conductor, is amazed at how much music-making there is over there.
    Anyway, thank you again for the informative and stimulating posts. And perhaps we’ll meet you some time.
    Pauline and Colin.

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