One of the clearest elements of Oratorianism is its outstanding aesthetic tradition. From the very beginnings of St. Philip’s Congregation, the Oratory has fostered the leading artists and composers of every day. Rubens, Caravaggio, Pietro da Cortona, and others competed to fill the Chiesa Nuova with glorious baroque paintings and frescos. The exercises of the Oratory were accompanied from its earliest iterations by the airs of Animuccia and Palestrina.
In the 17th and 18th century, the Oratory reached its high noon. In his 1965 book, The Idea of the Oratory, Fr. Raleigh Addington of the London Oratory traces the history of St. Philip’s family. He shows how it spread rapidly through Italy and Spain, as well as other parts of the Catholic world as far afield as Mexico and Ceylon. Even relatively small towns had Oratories. While few of these houses have survived the French Revolution, Italian Unification, and two World Wars, we can nevertheless catch a glimpse of that world. Let us examine the way that various 18th century composers promoted the cult of St. Philip Neri in an increasingly Enlightened world.
Alessandro Scarlatti’s San Filippo Neri (1705)
The aforementioned accompaniment written by Animuccia and Palestrina eventually turned into a new musical genre: the oratorio, named for the Oratory. The very first oratorio proper was staged at the Roman Oratory in 1600. Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo, by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, opens with a stirring exhortation by a baritone representing the voice of Time. His message – “Il tempo, il tempo fugge” – could have come from St. Philip himself. Good Philip went about Rome encouraging those he met “to begin to do good.” This sense of immediacy, even urgency, was inherited by some of his sons, most notably Father Faber of London.
But Cavalieri’s work would hardly be the last Oratorian oratorio. Take, if you will, the Sicilian Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1705 oratorio, San Filippo Neri. It narrates Philip’s life by examining several episodes of his story through a dialogue conducted between the eponymous saint and women representing the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. It is a strange piece, an allegory that blurs the lines between interior and exterior action.
And what a tonal difference a century makes! While Cavalieri’s work still shares something of the dramatic chiaroscuro that marked the Counter-Reformation era, Scarlatti’s oratorio soars into the confidence and optimism of the Age of Enlightenment. Each movements brims with airy light. Scarlatti, who would have known the Oratorians, or Girolamini, of Naples, manages to capture something of St. Philip’s own bounding spirit in the score.
The work represents a significant collaboration between Scarlatti and Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. Ottoboni, a Venetian who spent much of his career in Rome, is a formidable figure in the history of early modern Catholicism, Italy, and art. He was renowned for his exquisite taste, and he amassed a vast collection of the finest paintings he could lay his hands on. He fostered the careers of several composers, including Antonio Vivaldi, whom resembles Scarlatti resembles in certain formal respects. Ottoboni may not have been a very holy man (Baron de Montesquieu allegedly asserted that he sired “between 60 and 70 children. Portraits of his mistresses as saints, like Margarita Pio Zeno of Savoy (1670-1725), decorated his bedroom”). Nevertheless, he was pious enough to write a theologically sound libretto for Scarlatti’s oratorio.
Ottoboni seems to have had a devotion to St. Philip. At the very least, he was able to compose thoroughly hagiographical lyrics. In movements 10 and 11, Charity sings:
Come then to temple of the Almightythat bears both my and Jerome’s name;and united by your zeal,let a crowd of faithful followersdistribute all aroundthe torches of your flame,so that, repentant and disdaining Avernus,these beloved souls, once led astray,in this bright lightmay wing their way to heaven.You shall be a star,
surpassing all others
while you live here on earth among the shadows;
but when that blessed day arrives,
your flame that now is hidden among the shadows
will be a sun, as once it was a star.
You shall be, etc
Thus we hear of the Oratory’s foundation at San Girolamo della Carità. Here we can see some borrowing from liturgical forms of music. The repetition of “You shall be a star, etc.” in movement 11, repeated throughout the piece on every odd movement, resembles the doubled use of Psalm antiphons in the Divine Office. Whether this came from Scarlatti, Ottoboni, or some other formal precedent, I cannot say.
Ottoboni’s libretto is also colored by some imaginative idiosyncracies. For instance, he has St. Philip announce with some lamentation,
Oh how the memoryof my dearest fatherland,awakens the force of love in my breast!Ah, who will give my heart wingsto see once more my beloved native soil?But what have I said, oh God?Ah, my weakness has taken me far from yourpresence, and on a mortal objectI am tempted to fix my gaze.Yet I am not slow in returning to my formercentre, for wherever I am I always find in you my
St. Philip follows up this resolution with a brief meditation:
The dove that fliesfar from her nestis consoledwhen she returns
to her nest.The dove, etc.
It is perhaps appropriate that, in a period of turbulence and contraction for the Oratory, a piece about St. Philip’s death should be composed. Indeed, Pasquale Anfossi premiered his oratorio 201 years after the saint’s passage into glory, one year before his own death, and in the very same year as Napeoleon’s invasion of Italy. That intrusion would have far-reaching effects for the Church at large (see Ulrich Lehner’s Conclusion in The Catholic Enlightenment, 2016).
The piece (or at least, what I can occasionally find of what seems to be the only recording available) is pleasant enough. Anfossi, though largely forgotten today, was quite popular in his own era. He was particularly well known as the composer of many operas. I confess that I don’t find his work all that striking next to that of some of his contemporaries – e.g. Mozart. But he gave us some nice arias all the same.
In 1705, the allegory centers on the person of St. Philip and those virtues he enacted and embodied. In 1796, all of the parts represent abstractions. The libretto may well be about St. Philip, but he does not appear. If “Genio” is supposed to represent him, then Anfossi and Femi are introducing a classically pagan concept—the personal genius or daemon—to stand in for Philip instead of the saint himself.
The tendency towards abstraction is not entirely foreign to allegory. After all, even the Rappresentatione of 1600 centers on a dialogue between Body and Soul. But the Rappresentatione wasn’t about a saint. Anfossi’s oratorio ostensibly is. To my knowledge, it’s rather unusual in early modern hagiography to divorce the piece from its ostensible subject.
Yet it is entirely typical of Enlightenment discourse. Throughout the Enlightenment, we see a discursive move away from personhood and all the messy particularity it entails, even as we see new emphasis on a universalizable individualism. By the time Anfossi wrote and premiered La Morte di San Filippo Neri, Edmund Burke had already famously railed against the Jacobins as ideologues of unworkable abstractions that they foisted on real people.
I don’t know enough about Anfossi’s other work to know what kinds of values he sought to express. But I would wager on the basis of this peculiar, overly-allegorized oratorio, that he may well be a Catholic Enlightener. Wikipedia, bastion of Definite Truth, relates that he “worked mainly in London, Venice and Rome.” Surely he would have interacted with Enlightened Catholics in some of those environments. The Catholics of London in particular would have been decidedly given over to the liberal spirit of the age. He premiered his first piece there in 1782, the very same year that the anti-Papal Catholic Committee convened for the first time to fight for Emancipation. Might he have known its leaders? And what kinds of contacts did he maintain with non-Catholic Enlighteners in London? For now, we cannot know.
If Anfossi was truly something of a Catholic Enlightener, then we must find a cruel irony in the fact that one of his last oratorios should premier in Papal Rome just before it—and so many Italian Oratories—came crashing down under Napoleon’s enlightenment by force.