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A modernism-hating pope made a brief star of Perosi

Pope Pius X on his deathbed in August of 1914
Pope Pius X on his deathbed in August of 1914.

A century ago this week — Aug. 20, 1914 — as World War I erupted across Europe, Pope Pius X passed away in the Vatican. It was impeccable timing: a foe of modernity expiring just as the modern world’s appallingly Pyrrhic coming-out party began. A postman’s son, Giuseppe Sarto became cardinal and Patriarch of Venice before being elected pontiff in 1903. As Pius X, he became known for his simplicity, his disdain for ceremony, and his concern for children and the poor. He was also fiercely, stubbornly conservative. He scrapped tentative liberal overtures begun under Leo XIII, his predecessor. He condemned contemporary currents in theology — and theologians who espoused them. He drew a hard line in relations with secular governments. (“[I]t is God that they want to tear out of the mind and heart of man,” he explained.) He instituted an “Oath against Modernism,” required of priests and bishops, that remained in place until the 1960s.

His anti-modernism extended to Catholic church music; Pius X turned back that clock, throwing pontifical shade at the very idea of modern music in church (“since modern music has risen principally in the service of the profane,” he decreed), prescribing a corrective of Gregorian chant and Renaissance-style polyphony. Pius X’s main musical adviser was Don Lorenzo Perosi, priest, director of the Sistine Chapel choir (hired on the recommendation of then-Cardinal Sarto), and composer of reams of music colored by Renaissance models, techniques, and sobriety. (Perosi lived until 1956, long enough to see his onetime boss canonized.)

Still, the time was such that, from certain angles, the church and its leaders could be regarded as more modern than the modernists. Perosi was, for a while, a celebrity, his oratorios hailed, his inclusion in the “Giovane Scuola” (alongside Puccini, Mascagni, and Leoncavallo) unquestioned; French critic and novelist Romain Rolland devoted an entire chapter of his 1899 book “Musicians of Today” to Perosi, celebrating him for abandoning “a century of battles, of revolutions, and of political and social strife, whose pain has found its reflection in art” in favor of “a new city of art, where men may gather together in brotherly love.”

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In a similar vein, the ever up-to-date Guillaume Apollinaire, in his 1913 poem “Zone,” pronounced Pius X “the most modern European.” A provocation, certainly, but also candid. As the long 19th century seemed to collapse under its own decadent weight, some avant-gardists must have regarded Pius X with envy: confidently overwriting the recent past with absolute, unimpeachable authority.

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