13 July: St. Ezra (Esdras), Old Testament Prophet and some spectacular baroque musical weirdness

Today is the feast of St. Ezra or Esdras.

In the 5th c. BC, the Persian Artaxerxes allowed a scribe named Ezra to return to Jerusalem to restore the Temple worship and the law of Moses.  At Jerusalem he finds that the people have fallen into pagan practices.  Some years later, Nehemiah will go to Jerusalem.

Some of you may not know that Holy Church considers many Old Testament figures to be saints.  You can find them commemorated in the pages of the Martyrologium Romanum.  Today, we have…

2. Commemoratio santi Esdrae, sacerdotis et scribae, qui, tempore Artaxerxis regis Persarum, Babylone in Iudaeam rediens populum dispersum congregavit et omni studio enisus est, ut legem Domini investigaret, impleret et doceret in Israel.

You can give us your own perfect but still smooth and elegant version in English.

Here is a pic from A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre published by Ignatius Press.  It shows the variant divisions of books, across the different versions.  As you can see, it’s complicated.

I warmly recommend this book, especially to my fellow priests.


Speaking of Artaxerxes…

I can’t help but mention one of the more enlightening but weirdest baroque operas I have ever seen, Artaserse by Leonardo Vinci after a libretto by Metastasio.  It premiered in Rome in 1730 in a theater on the Via Margutta (which I wrote about during my last trip to Rome… the street, not the theater).  In those days, women were forbidden on the stage, and so male sopranos and castrati, also en travesti, sang the roles.

Now for the weird.

There was a production of Artaserse in 2012 with an all male cast, of countertenors.  It was an odd thing to watch, since the artistic approach seemed to blend in support aspects of Japanese Noh theater.  This is reflected in makeup and the fact that you see the stagehands in black, as if they are “invisible” and you are taken out of the stage and into the wings, which becomes part of the stage as a result. The use of Noh is, I think, treacherous and agenda driven.  US HERE – UK HERE

It is hard to imagine that a male, human voice can do some of these things.

You have to imagine an over-the-top baroque theater in Rome in the early 18th century, full of people with wigs and snuff boxes, perhaps wearing cloaks and masks.  The opera premiered during carnovale on 4 Feb 1730. The old Benedict XIII, Orsini, once a Dominican friar, would die on 21 February. He had dedicated the Spanish Steps built by the French as a gift to the city (and their own glory). He was a terrible ruler, as Pope, and allowed a corrupt cardinal to run amok, later excommunicated by Clement XII.  Benedict’s cause has been opened and closed and opened several times, including in 2017!  He is instantly recognizable, by the way.

Try to get your mind around the fact that, in 1730, these singers, especially the famous castrati, were fanatically acclaimed, more than great rock stars of our day. People went nuts for them. Composers wrote operas around their voices, to showcase them.

Here’s Franco Fagioli… yes, you read that right… with “Vo solcando un mar crud”.

Artaxerxes… Ezra… Artaserse… Fagioli.  That’s how we got here.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. anthtan says:

    Why were all the old testament saints removed from the liturgical calendar?

  2. anthtan: Well… they weren’t, not exactly. Remember that the Martyrologium Romanum is a liturgical book. The rubrics allow that, on days when some other feast doesn’t have greater weight, saints from the Martyrology, no longer in the calendar of the Missale Romanum, can be observed.

    Quite of few of these saints that are not now on the calendar for Mass, never were on the calendar for Mass, except perhaps in certain places were that saint was especially venerated.

  3. rollingrj says:

    “It is hard to imagine that a male, human voice can do some of these things.”

    Much of a countertenor’s ability has to do with physiology. Their vocal cords are thicker, and like a cello’s string, will produce those higher pitches when shortened. For those guys to reach notes an octave and/or more above middle C is quite amazing.

    That is part of the appeal of groups like The King’s Singers, Chanticleer, Cantus, and The Queen’s Six. Besides their wide and varied repertoire, the sound these all-male ensembles create is astonishing, precisely because the countertenors in the group extend the chords into that range.

    Search for Chanticleer and Cantus singing Biebl’s “Ave Maria” in a bar on YouTube.

  4. Andreas says:

    Many thanks for the Vinci clip, Father Z. During his relatively brief (and somewhat scandal-filled) life, Leonardo Vinci (ca.1690-1730), a prolific composer of chamber cantatas and oratorios, also wrote a wealth of glorious music as one of the founders of ‘Opera Seria’; Artaserse was said to be one of his most popular. It is my opinion that the very unfortunate desire to ‘modernize’ the staging of historic operas (especially those by Mozart) has tended to distract (and thus, detract) from otherwise splendid performances. Still, if you listen to the DVDs, CDs or the full online performances (for Artaserse see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCTiqj2lrTs) of ‘modernized’ operas without watching the on-stage antics, you may find the overall experiences to be most enjoyable.

    As an aside, the practice of employing castrati for the performance of opera and sacred music lasted well into the 20th century. Indeed, the ‘last castrato’ was Alessandro Moreschi who died in 1922. Recordings were made of Moreschi’s performances, a number of which can be heard at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6U8VZ6riNk.

  5. TonyO says:

    This never occurred to me before now, so I have not worried about it, and I have never seen anyone debate it, but I have to ask this: don’t we view maiming of a person, by gravely damaging (or cutting away) perfectly healthy body parts, to be intrinsically evil?

    If so, I would suppose that castration of a healthy boy in order to make him able to sing as a castroto would be equally so – intrinsically evil.

    Now: we raise serious issue with knowingly and intentionally benefiting from intrinsically evil acts, such as getting vaccines that are made from aborted fetus materials. (There are Vatican documents that go on at length about how cautious one ought to be about this). Similarly, though not in quite as principled a way, people make huge waves about our using Nazi medical research (the parts in which they tortured people), as being “cooperation with evil”. Should we equally consider whether knowingly and intentionally taking pleasure in the singing of castrati constitutes an improper cooperation with evil?

  6. Tom Ormon II says:

    I think it’s wonderful that, in a seamless hermeneutic of continuity, our modern pop culture (in the form of 80s new wave videos & cult classic movies) has found creative & innovative ways to incorporate these cultural eccentricities.

    {P.S. Like many here, I’d prefer such creativity be left out of the liturgy, but the “Powers-that-be” seem to be tacitly on board with such novelties. Oh well}

  7. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Of course it was intrinsically evil to castrate boys for any reason except medical emergency. The practice of allowing such a thing to happen, and then “generously taking care of such unfortunate boys” by giving them places in choirs or theater, was evil.

    Natural countertenors are a natural wonder or oddity. castrate

    The interesting bit is that we know that many castrati have sung, and many counterfeits do sing, their high notes in a manly or angelic, asexual tone, while others imitate sopranos. This is fair enough, since many noted soprano used to imitate castrati to learn how to sing, but it seems silly not to embrace the masculinity of a range and tone that no soprano can match.

    Re: the Noh pretense, it is obvious that you are supposed to notice that they are all women, and it is ridiculous. If you want to make women in the cast outnumber the men, just sit them in chairs in the stage and let them watch, instead of this junk.

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