From the Archives #2: Angelo Branduardi and Saint Francis of Assisi

I said to the brothers: why ask a thing of me, who am a great sinner? They replied: you see, for big things God always chooses the worst people! Thus they convinced me.

The centerpiece of the 2008 Festival of Art & Faith was a concert in the cathedral of Orvieto by the acclaimed Italian cross-over musician, Angelo Branduardi. Branduardi began his career in the 1970's as an Italian pop/folk singer, but turned his classical training in the direction of medieval and Renaissance music. His most recent project has been arranging texts from the primary sources about Saint Francis as a song cycle, now expanded into a mixed-media dance and theatrical performance. This work further develops his ongoing multi-disc project--Futuro antico--in which Branduardi arranges and performs medieval and Renaissance music in a spirit that renders it timely for our own age. Studio director John Skillen, co-founder of the annual Festival d'arte e fede with Alessandro Lardani, prepared this essay after Branduardi's concert.

In his notes to the first disc of the Futuro antico project, Angelo Branduardi writes:

All photo credits to Matthew Doll

All photo credits to Matthew Doll

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the crisis of Western music. … The extraordinary progress of tonal music and its technical refinement has carried it to a sort of dead end: we are brought inside a structure so musically organized that it permits no movement forward. … This recording was made in a spirit of joy and love by amateurs, seeking a musical expression less sophisticated and more immediate, emotional, accessible. We are starting again from a distant and anti-modern past where one used to sing for birth and death, for joy and sorrow and for all the small and great facts of life, in a world equally turned towards the sacred and profane, flesh and spirit, in a profound unity.  We have, so to speak, killed the music conservatories in order to return again to the distant mystery of music as "the essence of heaven and of earth," and from this essence we have sucked life like a spider from its prey. We have returned as primitives and as children in the hope that this step backward may be the first of a hundred steps forward. Our past will thus be our future: Futuro Antico.

Recently, Branduardi has written on his website:

Music as we know it in the West has become like the noise of the traffic: we are aware that it exists only when it stops.  Yet thousands of years ago when music was born, it was closely linked with spirituality. The first musicians were shamans, people chosen for their capacity to communicate "with the above." To a degree, this is still the case, even though various cultures have developed very different musical traditions. Even now, for example, no one in tribal Africa would go to hear a Requiem Mass if there wasn't a real funeral for a dead person.  For many non-European cultures, music still remains closely tied to the deep issues of daily life, for which it provides profound expression.  It is not used just for distraction while driving, or as a diverting pleasure, and never as just "art." … Of this I have no doubt: that the sacred music of the pre-modern past--before the change to the modern art-for-art's-sake view of music--is the most beautiful music that has ever existed in the West; and that European sacred music has touched the highest summits and stretched the capacity of human being. What a shame that today only [a few composers such as] Arvo Pärt have succeeded again in saying extraordinary things through sacred music ... I don't want to be pessimistic; just realistic. I am not denying that even so-called light music, which has now become like a repetitive noise, may have in itself an enormous power. If only it didn't limit itself to seeking the widest possible radio play-time it could provide a living expression of our real life, and transcend the merely daily.  … In our time, however, it seems that the musician "shamans", with their capacity to communicate with the transcendent, no longer succeed in elevating the soul.

These ideas set the context for Branduardi's most recent project, the Laude of San Francesco, first as the album L'Infinitamente Piccolo (the Infinitely Small), now expanded into a mixed-media show integrating dance, actors, scenography, music.

As Branduardi has explained in interviews,

The idea for this album wasn't mine. Six years ago two Franciscan brothers came to me, asking me to write an album based on the primary texts of the Franciscan movement. Initially I didn't accept. The Church has expressed for 500 years the most sublime music ever written, and today all is reduced to a "Beat Mass." Frankly, I don't like this appeal to the merely popular, and didn't want to contribute to it. Fortunately, now there's Ratzinger, who loves Bach. 

I said to the brothers: why ask a thing of me, who am a great sinner?  They replied: you see, for big things God always chooses the worst people! Thus they convinced me.

The fact that this is such an ancient and minimal presentation makes it seem to be nearly avant-garde.  It is a bit the same paradox as in Futuro Antico: the famous step backwards before making two steps forward.

Or as Arnaldo Casali has commented in an interview with Branduardi in the newspaper L'Avvenire: "What a strange encounter: here we have the most medieval contemporary singer of Italian songs and the most modern saint of the medieval period."