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Music in Time of Pestilence, Part One

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The following is a guest post from Music Specialist Robert Lipartito: 

Music history holds many examples illustrating humanity’s fears, suffering, hopes, and courage in the face of outbreaks of infectious diseases. Tuberculosis is a major factor in the plots of a number of operas, most famously Verdi’s La Traviata, Puccini’s La Bohème (less famously in Leoncavallo’s version), and Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann. Some other operas containing plot points that center around disease are Giordano’s Mala Vita (tuberculosis); Cui’s Pir vo vremi︠a︡ chumy or A Feast in Time of Plague; Halévy’s Guido et Ginerva, ou La peste de Florence; Penderecki’s Die schwarze Maske (bubonic plague); Britten’s Death in Venice; Berg’s Lulu; Dessau’s Lanzelot; and Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas (cholera).

Musicians’ more immediate responses to deadly pandemics are perhaps of greater interest in the context of the current coronavirus health crisis. The worst and most dreaded of all pandemics in human history was the Black Death, the second worldwide onslaught of the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that raged across Eurasia and North Africa beginning in the mid-14th century. The devastation was so pervasive that some names given the disease, such as “plague” and “pestilence,” continue to be used as generic terms for misery and suffering.

Many people associate the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” and its many variants with the Great Plague. Rosy rings for inflammation of the skin, ashes for cremation, and falling down are often cited as references to the pestilence. This connection did not begin to appear until the middle of the 20th century, however, and most folklorists consider it to be apocryphal. (For more on this, see Stephen Winick’s 2014 post “Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason” on the American Folklife Center’s blog.

Woodcut illustration from the morality play Chorea ab eximio Macabro
Woodcut illustration from the morality play Chorea ab eximio Macabro, Latin translation by Pierre Desray, Paris: Gui Marchand, for Geoffroy de Marnef, 1490. Library of Congress. Rare Books and Special Collections Division. Rosenwald Collection.

During the plague years, the allegorical Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre, in late-Middle Age literature and art depicted the inevitability of mankind’s mortality through imagery of  the Grim Reaper or attendant skeletons, often shown playing viols, harps, bagpipes, drums, hurdy-gurdies, and other instruments, summoning all social ranks to their demise. Paintings, murals, manuscripts, and prints of this type, including Holbein’s famous woodcuts, have served as pictorial sources for the study of historical musical instruments and performance practice of music and dance.

Despite the prevalence of depictions of the Dance of Death in art, very little music of the time known to be directly associated with it has survived. The earliest extant example is the Mattasin oder Toden Tantz found in August Nörmiger’s 1598 organ tabulature Tabulaturbuch auff dem Instrumente.

Much of what does survive is sacred vocal music for use in worship. This most often took the form of oaths of repentance and pleas for deliverance. Christopher Macklin in his article “Plague, Performance and the Elusive History of the Stella Celi Extirpavit” cites the 15th-century Marian hymn of his title as an example of this.[1] The text commonly reads:

Stella celi extirpavit                         Star of Heaven,
que lactavit Dominum                     who nourished the Lord
mortis pestem, quam plantavit        and rooted up the plague of death
primus parens hominum.                which our first parents planted;
Ipsa stella nunc dignetur                 may that star now deign
sydera compescere;                        to hold in check the constellations
quorum bella plebem cedunt          whose strife grants the people
dire mortis ulcere.                           the ulcers of a terrible death.
O gloriosa stella maris,                   O glorious star of the sea,
a peste succurre nobis.                  save us from the plague.
Audi nos: nam Filius tuus               Hear us: for your Son
nihil negans te honorat                   who honours you denies you nothing.
Salva nos, Jesu, pro quibus           Jesus, save us, for whom
virgo mater te orat.                         the Virgin Mother prays to you.[2]

There are a number of musical settings of this text, including those found in three of the major 15th-century manuscript collections of English sacred music: The Old Hall Manuscript (set by John Cooke), the Eton Choirbook (Walter Lambe), and the Ritson Manuscript (William Haute). There is also an anonymous setting in a collection of motets published by Ottaviano Petrucci in 1502 in Venice. More on the history of this hymn may be found Macklin’s article and in this post from the blog A Clerk of Oxford.

Notated Office book of Franciscan Sisters with Processional chant, France, late 15th century or early 16th century
Chant setting of the Roman Catholic responsory from the Office of the Dead in [Notated Office book of Franciscan Sisters with Processional chant, France, late 15th cent. or early 16th cent.], Library of Congress, Music Division, Call no. M2147 XV M2. Hundreds of members of the Franciscan Order succumbed to the Black Death while caring for plague victims.
Another liturgical text associated with plague pandemic of the late Middle Ages, Recordare, Domine, testamentit, serves as the introit of the Missa pro evitanda mortalitate (Mass for the avoidance of death), or less literally, Mass in time of pestilence), believed to have been created at the behest of Pope Clement VI of Avignon in 1348 which begins:

Recordare, Domine, testamenti tui et dic angelo percutienti: Cesset jam manus tua, ut non desoletur terra. Quiescat Domine jam ira tua a populo tuo, et a civitate sancta tua, ut non desoletur terra.

Remember your testament, O Lord, and say to the persecuting angel: stay your hand, that the earth not be made desolate. Let your anger cease from your people, O Lord, and from your holy city, that the earth not be made desolate.

One of the best known later settings of this text is the five-voice motet written in plague-ravaged Florence ca.1527 by Phillipe Verdelot. This piece, subtitled contra pestem (against the plague), is found in the fourth volume of the 13-volume Mottetorum published by Pierre Attaingnant in 1534-1535.

With the advent of the Enlightenment, kinder, gentler expressions of relief, gratitude and praise began to supplant the cries for mercy over the fire-and-brimstone wrath of God of the plague years. This past April, after over six centuries of using the Recordare Domine mass, the Vatican announced the release of the text of a new votive mass “In Time of Pandemic,” emphasizing consolation over penance in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Part Two of this survey will discuss some of the music written in this vein and other musical reactions to disease during the 19th and 20th centuries.

[1] Macklin, Christopher. “Plague, Performance and the Elusive History of the Stella Celi Extirpavit.” Early Music History, vol. 29, 2010, pp. 1-31.

[2] Translation adapted from The Black Death, ed. R. Horrox (Manchester, 1994).

Comments (2)

  1. Fascinating. Would be nice if you provided links to performances of the music.

  2. nice article

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