The Pope Sings

4

October 1, 2016 by AK

Alexei K. Tolstoy wrote A Mutiny in Vatican in 1864:

The Castrati have rebelled.
They walk into the Pope’s chambers:
“Why aren’t we married?
What’s our fault?”

The Pope suggests “patching” his singers with cotton tissue, to which they object that the missing “thing” is rather hard than soft. He promises them a place in Paradise, complete with a bride and two poods of dough per month. The castrati protest that “the thing to live by” with the bride cannot be molded from dough.

They have gone hoarse singing cantatas and suggest that the Pope, “you Pius the bloody Ninth,” try their trade instead:

How about, for the marvel of it,
You sing to us the Casta Diva
And not hoarsely but reedily,
Particularly thinly!

The Bishop of Rome is taken aback by the idea. The castrati propose gelding the Pontifex to refine his singing voice. That proves to be their undoing: the Pope calls for [Xavier] de Mérode, the chief of the papal infantry, thinking:

It would be unfashionable
If I should strut around in the neutral gender.

The castrati are soon restored to “squeaking” their cantatas “ad finem seculorum.”

The poem consists of 29 quatrains, each made up of three trochaic tetrameters and one trochaic trimeter with the AAAA-BBBB-CCCC rhyme scheme.

With Tolstoy’s poem in my memory since childhood, I was delighted to come across this scene in Stephen Walsh’s review of the Liszt biography by Oliver Hilmes:

It’s amusing to read about Pius IX visiting the newly created abbé in his monastery and, when Liszt struck up Bellini’s ‘Casta diva’ on the piano, joining in and singing the aria from memory.

According to Alan Walker’s Franz Liszt: The final years, 1861-1886, it happened in July 1863, preceding Tolstoy’s poem by seven or eight months:

Liszt sat down at his “pianino” and delivered the first of his Franciscan Legends, St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. Then followed a performance of the aria “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma. The pope was so moved by this melody that he sprang to his feet, went to the keyboard, and in his fine baritone sang the aria from memory, with Liszt accompanying.

Perfect.


4 comments »

  1. JCass says:

    That Tolstoy poem sounds like the kind of thing Heine would write in his later, satirical verse.

    • AK says:

      I’m not familiar with Heine’s late poems (with the exception of Disputation from Romanzero), but AKT was, no doubt. He translated König Richard from Romanzero as well as five other poems, from Buch der Lieder and Neue Gedichte. As a Kozma Prutkov contributor, he also parodied Heine, or, perhaps, his Russian translations and imitations. As an aristocrat (a childhood friend of the future Alexander II), AKT did not care much for bourgeois pieties so his language could be salty at times, in an amusing way. “Come on, Misha, why lament? Your own ass is without a tail,” he wrote to a censor who tried to suppress Darwin’s work.

      • JCass says:

        Heine could be pretty scabrous. His targets were mostly German kings rather than the Pope. There’s a poem he wrote about Ludwig I praying to the Virgin Mary and she replies it was lucky she didn’t see his ugly face while she was pregnant or she might have given birth to a “Wechselbalg” (changeling) rather than a God.

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