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In this oratorio, the story of a 16th-century bishop who preached social distancing

A portrait of the 16th-century bishop Charles Borromeo.

If, in the future, composers commemorate the coronavirus pandemic in musical form, they can look to a model by their French forbear Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). Among Charpentier’s vast catalog are more than 40 examples of what was then a new thing: oratorios, sacred stories told via soloists and chorus. Almost all of Charpentier’s oratorios presented biblical narratives, but, on one occasion, he turned to more recent history: “Pestis Mediolanensis” (“The Plague of Milan”), a short work dramatizing that city’s 1574-76 bout with bubonic plague and the efforts of Milan’s archbishop, Charles Borromeo.

The Milan plague figures prominently in the hagiography of Borromeo, a main and militant figure in the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. Milanese officials and aristocrats fled the plague, but Borromeo stayed, organizing material and spiritual relief. He knew the importance of social distancing; when he went out to visit the sick, according to his 17th-century biographer Giovanni Pietro Giussano, Borromeo carried a stick demarcating a boundary around his person, “to keep those in the contagion’s snare away from himself and his assistants.” The practices he prescribed for those assistants were detailed and effective enough that the city recorded them for future reference.

But standard church response to plagues was, at the time, large public processions — a recipe for epidemiological disaster. (During the prototype of such parades, led by St. Gregory during the 590 plague in Rome, some 80 Romans collapsed from infection along the way.) Borromeo obliged tradition with a few processions, but, eventually, instituted more prudent devotions: seven times a day, when the cathedral bells rang, the residents of Milan, now homebound, would come to their windows and doors and sing prayers and litanies. The effect was, it seems, not unlike contemporary instances of quarantined residents joining in communal serenades: the voices of some “three hundred thousand souls,” Giussano wrote, “resounding and echoing, calling all heaven to help in that court of misery.”


Did Charpentier try to capture this effect? Like many of his other oratorios, “Pestis Mediolanensis” features a double choir, two groups of singers sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes in competition. In his biblical histories, Charpentier used double choirs to represent opposed groups — in “Mors Saülis et Jonathae” (“The Death of Saul and Jonathan”), for instance, the Philistine and Israelite armies. At first, the choirs in “Pestis” seem similar: a city divided against itself, in which “servants begged for compassion from their masters, and the poor begged from the rich.” But in the final chorus, the choirs’ imitation might be heard as a united congregation, reverberating citywide, a call-and-response praising Borromeo’s holiness and generosity.


Still, Charpentier’s goal was not evocation, but instruction, exhorting listeners to emulate Borromeo’s example of sacrificial charity. But if its finale was written to Giussano’s description of an entire city joined in collective isolation, “Pestis Mediolanensis” might also be preaching another commandment: stay home.

Pestis Mediolanensis” has been recorded by Ensemble Correspondances, conducted by Sébastien Daucé, part of a 2019 collection of Charpentier’s complete “Histoires Sacrées” on the Harmonia Mundi label. It was first recorded by conductor Frederic Waldman and the Musica Æterna Chamber Orchestra and Chorus in 1971, a Decca release that is now out of print.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.