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The courage it takes to sing the ‘Dies Irae’

Siligo is situated on the crest of a hill in Meilogu [Mejlogu]. Only one main road passes through Siligo, the s’istradone, stretched out in the sun like a gleaming grass snake. It is a main street that until a short time ago was bordered by single-storeyed houses, with three exceptions: Francesco Cossiga’s family house, built on two floors from the outset, the house of Gavino Ledda, author of Padre Padrone and, lastly, the house in which Maria Carta was born.

“I always sang for this street... I sang then in an ecstatic voice”, Maria remembers of herself as a child. She was eight years old when she began to make her voice heard in the church of Siligo. An existential passage was relived for ever as a primary scene: it happened at the funeral of one of her companions who died when he was 10 that she began to sing a terrible Dies Irae with all the force that filled her soul. She was so profoundly disturbed by it, upset in the depths of her heart, that her mother forbade her to sing it again.After being livedas a taboo, the prohibition was violated and the trauma re-experienced when she decided precisely to give the title Dies Irae toher 1975 album, dedicated to Gregorian chant in Latin, including pieces such as Adoro te devote, the Eucharistic hymn attributed to St Thomas Aquinas but especially, in Logudorese [spoken in Logudoro, Sardinia], such as Ave mama ’e deu, that is, the Ave Maris Stella, thought to be by Paolo Diacono who lived in the eighth century.

«Die tràgicu su die / morit su mundu in fiama / comente est profetizadu» (“Tragic day, that day / the world dying in flames / as was prophesied”): it may be useful here to recall that the language of Logudoro which is still spoken in Meilogu, a historical region of Sardinia, is not a dialect but a true and proper Romance language.... It is the closest to Latin of all the variants of Sardinian, and perhaps for this reason particularly suited to finding subtle and sublime correspondences with the musical culture in which Gregorian chant has established itself over the course of the centuries. As Severino Gazzelloni wrote on that occasion, “Maria Carta is the only person in whose art the Gregorian modality can blend with the cunning of a modern orchestration”.

In Maria Carta, the copious biography that Emanuele Garau devoted to her in 1999 for the publishing house Edizioni Della Torre, word after word of a public confession is quoted, revealing a personal philosophy of life, expressed during a concert in Bologna in 1988 on the occasion of the ninth centenary of the university which in that very year had given her a lectureship in Cultural Anthropology: “Unfortunately I did not have the possibility of spending my youth bending over books, but rather in back-breaking work, and being here today is very important to me, for I realize that what counts in life is not the fortune one has in one’s youth but rather what one succeeds in doing on one’s own”.

Mural dedicated to Maria Carta in the square in Siligo

Maria, urged on by her voice, chose a difficult path.... Already as a girl she had made herself known as a popular singer. Her beauty, more Sardinian than which it would be hard to find and which bore her the fruit of the title of Miss Sardinia in 1957, did not at first seem to favour destiny’s design. Sardinian music has in fact always been a male affair.

In 1958 Maria Carta crossed the sea and landed in continental Italy. It was her first and most important victory. She had to overcome the nightmare of not being understood, in other words to understand that the Sardinian language is not suited for communicating outside the island. All the rest was already written in her character. She studied, as she never had before, following the teaching of Diego Carpitella, Director of the Centre for Studies of Popular Music. In 1971, after she had recorded two albums in collaboration with the great Sardinian musicologist, Gavino Gabriel, the Italian Radio and Television (RAI) broadcast a sophisticated documentary in the famous voice of Riccardo Cucciolla, entitled quite simply Incontro con Maria Carta [meeting with Maria Carta]. Her participation in Canzonissima in 1974, where she made her extraordinary presence felt, accompanied the issuing of her album Delirio, in which she could boast of an introduction by Giuseppe Dessì, a famous Sardinian writer who a few years ago won the Strega Prize with Paese d’ombre: “Her lovely face, her pride and at the same time the grace of her bearing, rather than a symbol are a personification of that intangible, untamed Sardinia which I have always loved. When her warm and powerful voice rose and filled the space, infinite horizons were unfolded, delving deep into history. After meeting Maria Carta, I declare once again that the only great men of our Sardinia are our women”.

Maria well knew the stuff that Sardinian women are made of: those were the very years in which she refused Taviani’s offer to play the part of the mother in the film version of Padre Padrone because she failed to find in the script the character of a “real Sardinian mother”. This interpretation was not to be lost when she decided to lend her face to Signora Antolini, mother of Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part ii. In the theatre she made her debut in Medea by Franco Enriquez. In the cinema her archaic face is to be seen in many films, including Zeffirelli’s Jesus and Rosi’s Illustrious Corpses.

Thus she arrived at the crucial passage when the difficulties of her life, tormented as she was by deaths and separations, struck her in the very core her body. She lost both love and her voice at the same time. Hopeless cancer came to complete the work. However, she managed to find herself arriving back at her starting point, when at the age of eight she had been torn apart after singing the Dies Irae. In her last album of 1993, made a year before she died, Gregorian plainsong returns once more and, first and foremost, the Dies Irae itself.

Alpha and Omega.

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