James Davy’s response to the recent Italian earthquakes
The morning of Wednesday 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day, saw two large earthquakes hit the Umbria region of Central Italy. The first, with a magnitude of 6.2, deep under the town of Norcia, occurred in the early hours of the morning. A second tremor, less powerful but nearer the surface, came a few hours later. In the following days dozens of aftershocks hit the surrounding area – one figure suggested 95 in 36 hours – with some reaching as far as Rome.
The traditional construction methods of many towns in the area offered no resistance; and in much recent construction structural safety requirements had been quietly ignored. There was a sizeable loss of life – over 290 at the time of writing. Many people had been in the town of Amatrice for a festival, and personal stories of loss emerged in the media: a couple found dead in a last embrace; two grandmothers killed while on holiday with their granddaughters – each victim had a story, and each sudden loss will be keenly felt for many years.
Staying in the village of Scheggino, 30km away, I felt the tremors, as did the other members of the choir with whom I was touring the region, although we were fortunate not to be directly affected. There was a good deal of chatter amongst the locals concerning the portents of strong winds and a sense of foreboding that had created a general unease, and the unsettling questions that arise following such an event: would there be other shocks nearer by, and how would the villagers and their lives be affected? Tents were erected on open ground for people who wanted somewhere to sleep (other than their own homes or their cars).
Apart from trying to absorb the horror and human cost, our next question was whether our next service – which was due to be held in the basilica at Cascia, close to Norcia, and affected by the quakes – would go ahead; and if the church was declared unsafe, whether we could still go and sing in the open air as a small act of solidary with the people there. As it turned out, the Mayor of Cascia prohibited public gatherings, and both visit and service were called off.
How, then, could we respond? The chaos was unfolding a relatively short distance away, and none of us felt able to react in any adequate fashion. One GP in the tour party wanted to offer her services to the Red Cross, but spoke too little Italian to be of any real use. Thinking over all these things, my instinctive response was to compose a piece of music that would give voice to our collective sadness for the people of Italy in the wake of this natural disaster, and offer perhaps a small moment of comfort to those who heard it.
To write and rehearse the piece before the national day of mourning on Saturday 27 September it would need to be effective, simple and quickly-learnable; and I wanted it to speak directly to its audience and of its context. In the end, I settled on the text of Pie Jesu, adding an Italian translation of a line from the Requiem mass: ‘and let light perpetual shine upon them’ – ‘e lasciare che perpetua risplenda ad essi la luce’. In order to give a bit of musical context, I set this line as a solo for the choir’s director, Colin Baldy, himself a fine baritone. Unaccompanied, and in a simple verse structure, the piece was performed in the church of San Nicolò in Scheggino on Saturday 27 August, and again at the end of Mass in Trevi Cathedral the following morning. On both occasions it was received with some emotion by churchgoers who were genuinely touched by this gesture from their English visitors.
James Davy is Organist & Master of the Choristers at Chelmsford Cathedral. Anyone interested receiving a score of his Perugia Pie Jesu should email firstname.lastname@example.org