The seventieth birthday of Riccardo Muti
Melding the spaces
of the beautiful and the good
He was a political man and a writer of the sixth century. His dream was to institute a Christian “university” in Rome but he succeeded only in founding a monastery dedicated to study in Squillace, Calabria, Italy, called Vivarium. His name was Cassiodorus and in his Institutiones divinarum et saecularium litterarum he left us with a striking phrase: “If we continue to commit injustices, God will leave us without music.” These words echoed the warning of the Biblical prophet who saw in the silencing of song and musical instruments an epiphany of divine justice: Wehisbatia qol sason – “I will cause the songs of joy to cease,”, the divine oracle of Jeremiah repeated more than once (7:34; 16:9; 25:10; 48:33).
Along the rivers of Babylonia – confess the Jewish exiles – “we hung our harps upon the willow trees,” because “how is it possible to sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? (Psalms, 137:1-4). When imperial Babylon is placed under divine condemnation, “the sound of the harpist and musicians, flautists and trumpeters shall be heard no more in you…the song of the bride shall be sung no more in you.” (Apocalypse 18:22)
We have evoked these long-ago sayings to define the high mission of all those who are committed to creating and spreading music: they are, in a certain sense, the sign that God has not tired of this humanity, so pitiful, unjust and vulgar; in some way, then, with their work, they exorcise or at least hold off, divine judgment.
It is within this solemn framework that I would also like to place the long involvement of Maestro Riccardo Muti, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, July 28th. I am united to him by a long friendship, which extends to his entire family and in particular his wife, Cristina, a woman of refined intelligence and humanity, and animator of another aspect of music and beauty, the Festival of Ravenna. Although in the last few years, given my work in Rome and the beginning of a sort of pilgrimage by the Maestro to different lands, our habitual meetings and phone conversations have become more rare, the ties of our friendship and memories remain strong.
Everything began with a double bond, that which united Muti and the Scala in Milan and that which connected me to the Biblioteca-Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, where I was Prefect for almost twenty years. The theater was steps away from my building and I was already friends with the great directors who had passed through there, like Giulini and Gavazzeni; I knew members of the orchestra and theatre employees. So I could not but meet him, who was the soul, the continual creator of surprises, the “maestro par excellence” of that universal temple of music.
A common sympathy was immediately born and I, in a certain sense, became his disciple who listened and learned from the sidelines. Yes, because I was often invited by him to attend the rehearsals, behind closed doors and I still remember the emotion of that dark and empty theater with only a few technicians and the director, following that extraordinary gift, which is also “didactic,” with which Riccardo shaped the orchestra, renewed the scores, made sounds and voices open up.
Long is the list of encounters, musical performances and even dinners after the event in which he managed – without showing a trace of tiredness after a grueling direction of the orchestra – to recreate situations, scenes, and musical forms, citing by memory pages and pages of librettos, in a surprising and fascinating narrative, often intertwined with autobiography.
There was also a moment in which I was directly involved in one of his performances. At Christmas and at Easter, the Scala offered a particular program for all of its season ticket holders. One Easter, Muti decided to opt for that stupendous and moving musical jewel that is The Last Seven Words of Our Saviour on the Cross by Haydn. To allow all of the season ticket holders to attend in turns, these concerts were held in the grandiose Augustinian church of San Marco in Milan, where Mozart had stopped (and before him, the Augustinian Luther heading to Rome).
Following the original performance, which took place during a Good Friday in Cadice, where every musical phrase is combined with a Gospel text and the comment of the bishop of that Spanish city, Riccardo wanted me – after a thematic exegetical-spiritual introduction to the audience – to stand with the orchestra and pronounce the crucified Christ’s words in that sublime score.
It was a true event, which we repeated in the Milan basilica of Sant’Eustorgio. It strengthened our friendship which by then had not just cultural resonance, but also a human one: I think of the talks which we have given several times, on the current state of liturgical music, the emotional words exchanged following certain concerts (I remember an intense performance of the Solemn Vespers of a Confessor by Mozart, with that Laudate of a beauty beyond this world), and our encounters at his enchanting residence in Ravenna.
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