It seems anachronistic, but perhaps not too much so considering the times in which we live, to speak of a ‘procession against the plague’… When the plague reappeared in Europe in 1348 after an absence of almost six hundred years, few could have imagined that the outbreak would continue to haunt the continent for the next four centuries. A number of factors made the disease truly horrific: it recurred in unpredictable cycles; it produced grotesque symptoms, such as boils and necrosis of the extremities; it had a very high mortality rate; it spread easily and killed quickly (Boccaccio writes that plague victims ‘having breakfasted in the morning with their relatives, acquaintances and friends, dined that same evening with their ancestors in the next world!’). Moreover, unlike other diseases such as leprosy, the plague did not mark individuals, but rather besieged entire populations. This last attribute of the plague had important moral implications. If the disease, as was thought, was ultimately a divine punishment for sin, then it followed that the plague challenged not only the virtue of an individual, but the collective morality of a community. Corrective action, therefore, had to be carried out communally.
Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan during the city’s epidemic of 1576-78, used the ritual of the procession against the plague as a response to the problem of collective sin; music was a central component of the procession because it interacted with other elements of the ritual to facilitate corporate worship while strengthening the civic bonds of the processional community. However, large congregations of people in processions exacerbated the very real threat of contagion and contravened the medical and civic rules of isolation. Borromeo addressed this struggle between piety and public safety by moving the procession from the public streets to private homes when the parishes were quarantined. In Borromeo’s programme of ‘ad hoc devotion’, most of the ritual elements were eliminated, leaving music as the primary instrument through which the people of Milan were able to maintain their corporate devotional activities and to erase the boundaries between public and domestic worship.
The liturgical-musical elements of the procession against the plague worked in tandem with the other ritual elements to propitiate the deity and unify the community. On the basis of the priestly books of the time, the ritual core of emergency processions, such as those for rain or for the cessation of the plague, followed the form of the Major Litany. In general, the psalms (usually one of the penitential psalms, 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129 and 142) and antiphons were performed at the point of processional departure. During the actual ambulation, the litanies, usually the Litany of the Saints, were sung together with other Psalms and repeated if necessary. At the conclusion of the rite, prayers at the final gathering point renewed the previous petitions, and a Missa contra pestem was to be celebrated. Special booklets containing the prayers of processions were sometimes published, which can now help us to define the liturgical programme of a particular procession. For the Milan rite, Borromeo published the Antiphonae, psalmi, preces, et orationes ad usum supplicationum tempore pestis, a palm-sized booklet (21 sheets, 13 cm by 7.5 cm) that could easily be carried in processions. The book opens with a selection of seven antiphons and the seven penitential psalms, to be performed ‘pro arbitratu’. This is followed by three more psalms (94, 87 and 90) and two biblical readings (Jonah 2 and Isaiah 38), again to be performed as the participants see fit. The Litany of the Saints comes next, followed by a reprint of Psalm 50 and then a series of five short prayers, the first of which is simply a rubric instructing supplicants to perform a prayer to the saint in whose church they are (de Sancto, in cuius Ecclesia supplicationes fiunt). The rest are prayers of mercy and protection.
I leave it to you to make your own personal reflections, of whatever kind, on what has been written….
Born in Bologna, Italy, Andrea Angelini began his piano studies as a child, at the Rimini Lettimi School. He later earned a Doctorate of Music at Ferrara’s Frescobaldi Conservatory. After earning a Master in Choral Conducting he studied music therapy with Professor Cremaschi of Milan University. His interests led him to the choral field, and he earned a Bachelor studying at the International Art Academy in Rome with Fulvio Angius. He also studied organ at Pesaro’s Conservatory of Music. Finally he got his doctorate in Choral Music at the Cesena Conservatoire of Music. He is the Artistic Director and Conductor of the professional group Musica Ficta Vocal Ensemble that frequently performs in important Festivals in Italy and abroad. For many years, Andrea Angelini has conducted concerts with the choir Carla Amori, in Italy and abroad. He has also conducted the Lithuanian Jauna Muzika Choir, the Belarusian State Chamber Choir, the Latvian Ave Sol and the Tudor Consort from New Zealand. Mr. Angelini is the Artistic Director of the Choral Festival Voci nei Chiostri held annually in Rimini each summer. He has been member of the Jury at many International Choir’s Competitions in Italy, Europe and Asia. He frequently leads choral workshops in Italy and abroad. Recently his Master-class about the “Venetian Renaissance choral music” has been presented to the students of the prestigious Liszt Music Academy of Budapest and in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) for the Young Choral Academy. He has led similar workshops in Romania, Belarus and China too. He is the artistic director and one of the tutors at the Rimini International Choral Workshop, where he teaches with Peter Phillips of the Tallis Scholars. Mr. Angelini is also the artistic director of the Rimini International Choral Competition, the Queen of the Adriatic Sea Choral Festival and Competition, the Claudio Monteverdi International Choral Competition and the Liviu Borlan Choral Festival and Competition. He is the Managing Editor of the International Choral Bulletin (ICB), the membership magazine of the IFCM (International Federation for Choral Music). He has written numerous transcriptions and arrangements for choirs and chamber ensembles. His transcription of Faure’s Requiem is published by Gelber Hund Verlag of Berlin. For the American CanticaNOVA Publication, he has prepared transcriptions of important Renaissance Motets. He has published his composition with Eurarte and Ferrimontana.