Ochi mei lassi

Ochi mei lassi

Pur non posso liberarmi,
Ché ad ognor mi sei davanti.
Tu dormi, e il dolor mio
Risveglia i sassi
E fa per gran pietà la luna obscura.
E tu dormi, tu, ma non questi occhi lassi
Perché ogni cosa da la mente fuge.
Occhi mei lassi, al pianger nati, frenati el pianto
Poi ché suo fui e più non ponno
Per erbe e per incanti a sé ritrarlo.

Still I cannot free myself,
For at every hour you are before me.
You sleep, and my sorrow
Awakens the stones.
And the moon becomes dark out of pity.
And you sleep, but not these weary eyes.
Because from my mind everything escapes.
Oh my weary eyes, born to weep, restrain the tears
For I was hers, but I cannot
For herbs and enchantments bring back time.

The text above belongs to one of the pieces currently being studied by Musicanova choir, “Ochi mei lassi”. The choice to work on this piece is not accidental, this year in fact will be the twentieth anniversary of the Musicanova Association and this music is inextricably linked to the history of the choir. Below, in the first section, follows a very personal exegesis of the text that has no aspiration to truth, but hopes to have caught one of the many, perhaps unexpected, interpretations of the intention of the author; in the second section, you will find some information on the history of the song and the choir. You can listen to this and many other pieces in the secular-themed concert next March 2nd, at the Sala Riario of Ostia Antica. It will be the first appointment of a series of concerts for the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Association. Don’t miss it and come and celebrate with us!

Personal exegesis:

Orpheus sings and weeps, and with him all nature weeps – his ability to move even stones with compassion is well known. He is one of those characters from the ancient myths who, since his birth, is destined to a painful fate. As it will be for Tristan, the premonition of this condemnation of loneliness and deprivation is perhaps already in the name of the cantor, which can be traced back to the same Greek root of ὀρϕανός (orphanos): the young husband of Eurydice was in fact widowed shortly after the wedding. He then descended into the Underworld and sang marvellously for his sovereigns, obtaining the right to bring his beloved back with him to the surface, provided, however, that he never looked back along the way. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, never describes Eurydice, deliberately silencing her painful figure of a ghost. To imagine it, we recall Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus: “As a fruit with sweetness and darkness, so she was filled with her vast death, which was so new that she comprehended nothing […] She was already loosened like long hair, forsaken like fallen rain, shared like hundredfold supply. She was already root.” During the ascent, however, Eurydice’s steps were too silent and Orpheus instinctively turned to look for her and as soon as he had laid eyes on her Hades swallowed her up. Ah! those weary eyes, crazy with love, unwary and forgetful of the pact of Persephone! In the classical theogonies, Hypnos and Thanatos are twin brothers, Sleep and Death, both requiring their subjects to keep their eyes closed. So Eurydice slipped back into the arms of an eternal sleep.

The text of Ochi mei lassi can be defined as a pastiche, made up of excerpts from pre-existing poetic compositions. The first and last verses belong to Petrarch, whose rhymes are scattered among others and altered in the meaning. To give an idea of the collage that was made we reproduce below one of the original stanzas of the song by Petrarch Quel’antiquo mio dolce impio signore, in which the consequences on the poet of the tyranny of Love are discussed:

Poi che suo fui non ebbi hora tranquilla,
né spero aver, et le mie notti il sonno
sbandiro, et piú non ponno
per herbe o per incanti a sé ritrarlo.

Then, for I was hers I did not have a quiet hour,
Nor do I hope to, and sleep from my nights,
Was banished and I cannot
for herbs and enchantments bring it back.                                                   

                                                                              Canzoniere (Rerum vulgarium fragmenta)

The absence of sleep tortures Orpheus as he is tormented by the image of his beloved, in an obsessive re-enactment of the last moment in which he saw her. There is no medicine or magical remedy useful to alleviate the sufferings of insomnia and tears. The delirium, the hasty escape of the mind from itself, is translated on the music sheet in a continuous echo in which the different voices chase each other in syncopated rhythms. The composer’s percussionist training influences the choice of musical rhetorical figures aimed at conveying the sense of agitation: decomposed rhythms, duplets, triplets, quadruplets, anticipations, delays, syncopation, backbeats. The same aspect of musical writing conveys a sense of anguish to the singer. This compositional style is part of the Renaissance genre musica reservata in which a systematic use of “madrigalism” stands out, which means that there is a use of particular and recognizable musical figures to highlight specific words of the text. A classic example is the use of two semibreve in correspondence of the word “eyes”, which appear to the performer as two empty orbits staring from the stave. The final chords are softer, the agitation calms down and the voices merge into a pacifying unison. The crazy race of the heart seems to stop, the arrhythmia fades. The liberating thought of reaching the beloved in her perennial sleep is making its way, perhaps by resorting to one last medicine – or poison, that dual ϕάρμακον (fàrmacon) of the Greeks.

This interpretation of the meaning of the text is not intended to replace the most immediate and probably most fitting one: the drama of unrequited love. However, we can try to make them converge. The absence of death relegates Orpheus to the kingdom of the living – the kingdom of Love; Eurydice had reciprocated his love in life, but now she belongs to the afterlife where, drinking from the waters of the Lete, she washed away the memories and feelings previously felt. Orpheus is therefore the lover, the present participle, the active subject animated by a loving passion; while Eurydice, the beloved, past participle, belongs to the dimension of the inanimate, is an object wrapped in numbness and is now insensitive to the sufferings of the suitor. Perhaps she once reciprocated the love, but now she rejects it. Many words have been inspired by the torments of great “one-way” love and many will continue to flow, fed by sources of inexhaustible crying. In this case Ochi mei lassi could remind us that, while the lover is consumed by unrequited passion, the beloved one sleeps peacefully.

Behind the music:

1998 was an important year in the history of the choirs directed by Maestro Fabrizio Barchi. At the time, the Parish of San Filippo Neri in Eurosia in Garbatella hosted two of his choirs: the Corale San Filippo and the Coro Giovanile San Filippo. At about that time, the conductor began to deal with the difficult decision to leave the direction of the Corale to devote himself more and more to the Coro Giovanile. In November, the young choristers would have participated in the 14th National Polyphonic Competition of Guido d’Arezzo, and for the occasion they needed a special preparation and a “competition piece”. The choir had recently had a unique experience: ten days of music, traveling between Denmark and Sweden. Among the many satisfactions that the young singers brought home from that adventure was the encounter with Maestro Gary Graden and the opportunity to perform in the church of St Jacob and at the Musikgymnasium Conservatory in Stockholm. For the group it was undoubtedly a precious experience of growth and sharing, but above all it was a confrontation with the European choral panorama. In particular, the director’s attention was struck by the proliferation of collaborations between choirs and composers. So he decided to contact his friend composer Pietro Rosati, explained the situation to him and conceived the idea of tailored piece for the Coro Giovanile San Filippo, in view of the next adventure in Arezzo. Thus was born the modern madrigal Ochi mei lassi, up to the task, even though the complexity of execution was immediately clear to all. The “competition pieces” often represent a challenge for the performers, they are in fact an opportunity to win and overcome their limits before challenging the other choirs on stage.  They underwent an intense preparation, singing the piece in several concerts and getting closer to the goal of mastering the performance. In November, however, the Coro Giovanile San Filippo did not return a winner from Arezzo, but Ochi mei lassi was a journey of training from which, regardless of the final result, you always return enriched by it. The collaboration with Maestro Rosati continued with the realization of two other songs, Ubi fulget and Vivificas, included in the CD Haec Dies (2014), a collection of original works born from the collaboration with several contemporary composers.

In 1999, a nucleus of the Coro Giovanile San Filippo, under the guidance of Maestro Barchi, gave life to Musicanova choir, bringing along the history and emotions linked to this music. In performing it today, each singer feels close to those who preceded them, in fact, if over the years many things have changed, “the crazy and desperate study” remains unchanged and so does the beauty of the challenge represented by this song.

Alessandra Grillo

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