Susan and I arrived early for Mass. both being professional church musicians, we knew to anticipate the morning liturgy by getting to a seat in time to hear the prelude, and also to watch the altar staff do their thing in making ready for all. The nave was already filling with incense so the rather high and lofty clerestory windows had a haze about them like a veil that offered us a little distance from the world outside.
I don’t remember if we had breakfast, though there was surely a gorgeous espresso pulled by a proper barista. And I don’t remember what Robin Walker played at the voluntary, though whatever the music it had to be playable on a 500 year old single manual instrument in 5th comma meantone. But I was really moved by being able to join this particular faith community for worship on this day. The height and depth and breadth of this church, bathed in a gentle morning light, filled with the radiance of an instrument that through every note and chord and blossom of articulated speech serves to be a continually present memory.
The Badia in Florence has stood on that ground for a 1000 years or so. A long arc of humanity has faithfully entered its doors to worship and to find themselves embraced by an architecture that in contrast to its volume feels very intimate. There are beautiful paintings, and much assurance is offered in in the bulwark of ancient stone walls and floors that have long secured a quiet space in which to meditate and pray and commune with the Creator. The liturgy, of course, was transporting for me. While my Italian was pretty hopeless, I still knew what they were doing, and I deeply appreciated how much of the mass was sung and the way in which the organist was at times appointed to offer music which could say what otherwise could not be said.
A few days later, we would return to the Badia for a concert where I would attend the world premiere of a new work I had composed for Robin to play on this instrument. Musica Badia is essentially an organ fantasy on the ‘Ave Maria’ chant. The ancient melody serves as a departure point for the piece, rather than a bedrock upon which upon which ideas are stacked. The opening section, somewhat of a bicinium, actually comes from an earlier work, an opera in fact. Una Danza de Amor was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera for part of their Lifesongs projects in 2010. The storyline comes from the life of Jenny Garcia, a prominent Albuquerque resident, who through a series of interviews worked with myself and Andrea Walters to collaborate on a new piece that would offer a sense of her life as she remembered it. She met her husband Victor on the dance floor and so the work is very much about dancing. After a brief recitative, I needed a prelude of sorts to be played as the stage was set and so I worked out a duet on the Ave Maria to commemorate Jenny and Victors devotion to one another, the intermingling of their families through this marriage, and their devotion to Blessed Mother Mary who interceded for them in all things. In a way, the annunciation gospel according to St. Luke, from which the Ave Maria text originates, represents a dance as well: a mystic encounter between the archangel Gabriel and Mary who would bear a blessed Son.
Musica Badia reintroduces this previously existing music in a new shape, no longer a duet for violin and cello, but for organ solo. The music more fully explores the melody while building a gentle architecture of rising motives and shimmering arpeggios. A particular feature of the work is that it is roundly in C major. The temperament of the Badia organ allows for a use of the tonal character of pure intervals as a compositional device, at least that occurred to me as such. The music is rather tame on an equally tempered instrument, but in fifth comma meantone, any departures from the more natural keys tends to turn the room a different psychedelic color! As it turned out, the piece works really well on this instrument. Considering the premiere was on a program of repertoire where I was the only living composer (actually, I was separated in time from the most recent one by nearly 350 years!), I think the music held its own. As usual, Robin’s effortless and assured technique allowed the piece to simply be in that beautiful space, on those elegant and rarified sounds, and in the midst of music that had long ago heard its first performances.
So, my few days in 2013 at the Badia in Florence, which also included a chance to play the organ and to see the city from the tower stairwell (a splendid view rarely documented by tourists), really had a profound impact on me and I find it still unforgettable. To be able to pray in an ancient space, to hear the brothers and sisters chant through their Sunday mass, to listen to hear a renaissance era organ splendidly played… well, it filled this jaded old church musician up to the brim. It reminded me about why I do this work in the first place, and the experience blesses me to this day.
Before I go, I really need to mention Robin’s recent (and rather stunning) recording of the 1558 Zefferini organ at the Badia. His CD is called the Time Capsule and it features period repertoire brilliantly played. You can hear all of the gorgeous tonal color in the temperament, the delicate and surreal voicing of a rare Italian instrument, and get a sense of the radiant acoustic in which the organ stands. This is required listening for early music fans!