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In his famous canzone Italia Mia, Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) exhorts the warring families of Italy to lay down their arms, stop hiring mercenaries, and take up more peaceful pursuits. “If only,” he tells them, “you would show some pity, then virtue would take up arms against rage, and the battle would be short.” He invokes the ancient valor in the Italian heart to urge the families to stop fighting one another. At the end, he addresses himself to the poem itself, asking it to go courteously among the haughty people: “I go my way beseeching: peace, peace, peace.”
This final line, as evocative in Italian as it is in English (I’ vo gridando: pace, pace, pace) drew me to the poem. It seemed to me that all eight of the stanzas (of which I have set six in separate movements), lead to this poignant moment, in which the poet acknowledges that peace does not come about on its own. He suggests, rather, that those who desire peace must seek it actively, beseeching one another. They must also, he says earlier in the poem, put aside hatred and disdain in order to be converted to some more worthy act of hand or intellect.
In my composition of each stanza, I was inspired by the tradition of sixteenth-century Italian madrigal writing, in which short poems (including many by Petrarca) were set to music using through-composed material. I have, like many of the madrigalists, focused on syllabic settings, seeking to make the words, as Monteverdi famously suggested, the “mistress of the music.” I break this pattern at the end of the last stanza, using melismas on the words pace, pace, pace to underscore their importance.
Between the stanzas, musical connections abound. A kind of idée fixe built from minor thirds returns again and again throughout the movements; other sections feature juxtaposed perfect fifths; and two similar sections of text in stanzas three and five have similar chord progressions built on third relationships.
I. My Italy, although talking does not serve to heal the mortal wounds which I see so thick on your fair body, it pleases me at least that my sighs are such as the Tiber hopes for, and the Arno, and the Po, where I now sit heavy with grief. Ruler of heaven, I ask that the pity which led you to earth may turn you to your dearly beloved country: see, Gracious Lord, what cruel war springs from what slight causes. Open, Father, and soften and untie the hearts that fierce and haughty Mars harden and locks up. Make truth be heard there - whatever I may be - through my tongue.
II. You, in whose hands fortune has put control of our fair country, no pity for which seems to constrain you, what are so many foreign swords doing here? Why is the verdant earth covered with the blood of barbarians? A vain error deludes you; you see little and think you see much, for you seek love or faith in venal hearts. He who possesses the most forces is most entangled by his enemies. O deluge gathered from what wild desert to inundate our gentle fields! If this happens to us by our own hands, who will there now be to save us?
III. After so many proofs are you still unaware of the deceit of the Bavarian, who raising a finger trifles with death? But your blood rains more freely, for a different rage lashes you on. For a few hours think of yourselves and you will see how dear he who holds himself cheap holds others. Noble Latin blood, remove from yourself these harmful burdens; do not make an idol of an empty name; for that the fury from up there, a backward people, overcomes us in intelligence, is no natural thing but our own fault.
IV. Is it not this the ground that I first touched? Is not this my nest, where I was so sweetly nurtured? Is not this the homeland in which I trust, the benign, devout mother that covers both my parents? For the love of God, let such thoughts sometimes move you, and look with pity on the tears of the grieving people, that for repose puts its hope in you alone, after God; and provided you just show some sign of pity, vertú will take arms against fury and the battle will be brief, for the ancient valor is not yet dead in Italian hearts.
V. Lords, look how time flies, and how life flees and death is at our shoulders. You are here now; think of your departure, for the soul, naked and alone, must arrive at that uncertain path. In passing through this valley may it please you to put down hatred and disdain, winds contrary to the serene life, and let the time which is spent in causing others pain be converted to some worthy act of hand or mind, to something praiseworthy, to some honorable pursuit. In this way one is glad here below and finds the way open to heaven.
VI. Song, I enjoin you to tell your meaning courteously, for you must go among haughty people, and their wills are already full of the worst old habits ever hostile to the truth. You will try your luck among the magnanimous few to whom the good is pleasing. Say to them: Who will give me assurance? I go crying: Peace, peace, peace.
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