How We Spent Our Easter 2016

For us there’s no better way to celebrate the start of Easter day than to attend morning Mass at the Convento dell’Angelo just above Ponte a Moriano. This year it was a bit more difficult than usual to get up in time since the clocks were put forwards to what the brits call ‘summer time’ but the Italians call ‘l’ora legale’.

Reaching this beautiful building is like reaching nirvana. The great neo-classical Luccan architect Nottolini’s masterpiece, the ex-convent’s whiteness beckons to paradisiacal heights and the music we hear in it is equally heavenly – ranging from Bach to Mozart to Rossini and Puccini.

For the convent now houses the Academy of Montegral, the brainwave of Maestro Gustav Kuhn, born in Styria but brought up in Salzburg, former musical director of Rome opera, who founded it in 1992 with the aim of developing a holistic musicianship on a human scale. In 2000 it moved to the convent, reinforcing the idea of a spiritual and cultural musical community. The results show – I doubt if music making can really get much better than this in Lucca province.

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(Maestro Gustav Kuhn)

Kuhn’s finishing academy for young singers always brings a surcharged start to our Easter festivities and we were so glad to be there again yesterday morning to celebrate and rejoice. The Mass was celebrated by a Passionist father who formerly lived in the monastery (it’s the order which attracted Lucca’s own Saint Gemma so much.)

The extraordinarily beautiful chapel was packed as usual and the Easter eggs on the comunion balustrade received their traditional blessing:

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This was the programme exquisitely combining Easter liturgy and great music. After all,  Saint Augustine is reputed to have said that to sing (in tune, I hope!)  is to pray twice over.

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The celebrations started with a lively organ piece:

Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle (jokingly so-called, because it is conversely rather expansive) formed part of the sung liturgy but there were ample contributions from Puccini in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei and Franck in the ubiquitous Panis Angelicus.  A rather severe but effective setting of the Credo, by “an angel of Montegral” (must be Kuhn himself!) also impressed me. For me, however, the instantly touching pieces were the Alleluia from Mozart’s “Exultate Jubilate” just before the reading from the Gospel.

All the other singers of the Academy were equally brilliant and were excellent when together as a choir:

The one item which should have melted me in sentimentalism but instead always has a great effect on me is that song ‘The Holy City’ by S. Adams sung by the big voiced (and equally big) George Humphrey. May he continue to appear at the Angelo!

Incidentally, ‘The Holy City’ is a religious ballad dating from, with music by Michael Maybrick writing under the alias Stephen Adams, and with lyrics by Frederic Weatherly (1841-1913). It’s mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses and was also used by Duke Ellington. Jeanette MacDonald the great thirties actress also sang it in her 1936 film ‘San Francisco.

The lyrics are so beautiful that I have to quote them here:

The Holy City

Last night I lay a-sleeping
There came a dream so fair,
I stood in old Jerusalem
Beside the temple there.
I heard the children singing,
And ever as they sang
Methought the voice of angels
From heaven in answer rang,
Methought the voice of angels
From heaven in answer rang.

Jerusalem! Jerusalem!
Lift up your gates and sing,
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna to your King!

And then methought my dream was changed,
The streets no longer rang.
Hushed were the glad Hosannas
The little children sang.
The sun grew dark with mystery,
The morn was cold and chill,
As the shadow of a cross arose
Upon a lonely hill,
As the shadow of a cross arose
Upon a lonely hill.

Jerusalem! Jerusalem!
Hark! How the angels sing,
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna to your King!

And once again the scene was changed,
New earth there seemed to be.
I saw the Holy City
Beside the tideless sea.
The light of God was on its streets,
The gates were open wide,
And all who would might enter,
And no one was denied.
No need of moon or stars by night,
Or sun to shine by day;
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away,
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away.

Jerusalem! Jerusalem!
Sing for the night is o’er!
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna forevermore!

Here’s an excerpt from the ballad:

 

What a wonderful moment it was to exit from the packed church into the sunny, fresh and breezy exterior and from its scenic platform almost touch the wonderful Luccan plain spread around us like a giant backcloth and the truly celestial city of Lucca and its walls in the centre!

How do you get to the mountain of the Holy Grail? Just park your vehicle in the car park behind the theatre at Ponte a Moriano and wait for the shuttle bus, It’s the only practical way of reaching Kuhn’s Academy of Montegral since it’s accessed by tortuous narrow lanes which, turning ever higher, wend their way above the Luccan plain.

We were so lucky to be here at this time and at this place! It’s Easter-time with the most celestial music and heaven itself all wrapped into one gorgeously sweet bouquet!

How does one spend Easter in Italy anyway?

An old saying goes like this:

“Natale con I tuoi. Pasqua con chi vuoi” which means “Spend Christmas with the family and Easter with whom you like.”

In our case I decided on our own saying “Pasqua come vuoi” – “Easter as you like it”

There were three main parts to our Easter day.

Part one. Morning Mass at the Convento dell’Angelo

Part two. Our lunch, excellently prepared by my wife, consisted of antipasto followed by the best lasagne al forno Sandra has ever prepared for us:

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A main course included lamb chops which Sandra had brought from Tesco’s in the UK.

Lamb is otherwise difficult to find in Italy at any other time since there is a very strong seasonal element to what Italians eat at any particular time and lamb is clearly associated with Easter-time. There is also, for many of us,  a considerable ethical question about eating lamb. It’s because we’ve literally heard that sad phrase ’lambs to the slaughter’. Trucks loaded with little baby lambs bleating from their stark separation from their mums head across to the local abattoirs at this season. It’s heart-breaking.

Relating to what John the Baptist says in St John’s Gospel when he sees Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”. it could be could say that, as Jesus sacrificed himself for the redemption of mankind, so every little lamb that we eat is a little Jesus sacrificed for the sake of our selfish gluttony.

Our Easter lunch ended with desert which came in two  forms. First, tiramisu (literally pick-me-up). No marks for guessing how delicious our one was.

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There wasn’t enough room for the traditional Colombina – a dove-shaped cake decorated with nuts and candied fruit so we had it later for supper after a constitutional walk,.

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We should also mention Lucca’s very own Eastertide cake, pasimata which we ate last year:.

(A good recipe for it is at

.http://germoplasma.arsia.toscana.it/pn_prodtrad/modules/MESI_Menu/Articolo.php?ID=138)

Of course there were also the ubiquitous chocolate Easter eggs and bunnies which, in Italy, are wrapped to make them twice as high and which inside always contain a “sorpresa”. In our case it was a paintbrush bag!

The third part of our Easter concluded with a walk up the mysterious Scesta valley which continues right up to the Apennine slopes. There are many mysteries attached to this beautiful but eerie valley. But that would require a post to itself!

***

PS For students of architecture and history here’s something nmoe about the Convento dell’Angelo.

The church and the convent, were the gift of the Duke Charles of Bourbon to the Passionist Fathers, and were built by Lorenzo Nottolini between 1827 and 1830. The architect here produced what I believe to be his greatest example of a fusion of ancient classical architecture with later renaissance models together with a complete understanding of the location where his masterpiece would be sited.

The convent’s location, with its pure white classical forms and bas reliefs exalting neo-classicism and rising from the forest slopes of the Brancoleria, is a foretaste of a romanticist sensibility and points forwards to that same kind of pictorial fusion one gets in the paintings of Turner and other great mid-nineteenth century painters.

Il convento dell’Angelo is indeed a blending of the purest neo-classicism forms with the most ardent romantic setting and is one of the finest examples of architecture experienced as “frozen” music one can possibly find in the Lucchesia, (or anywhere else in the world…)

We were, thus, truly privileged to have this music unfrozen for us in the wonderful setting, and with the highly talented singers, of the Holy Grail.

***

I’m writing this on Easter Monday which is is commonly known as ”Pasquetta” (“Little Easter”) in Italy. In the church calendar it is “il Lunedì dell’Angelo” and commemorates the visit of Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Salome to the sepulchre where Christ has been buried and which they found now empty. An angel then appeared to them saying “Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here.”

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(Peter Von Cornelius: the three Marys at the empty tomb)

It’s no longer sunny as it was yesterday. A thick mist covers our village emphasising the mystery of Christ’s resurrection itself.

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