Memento Mori

By Mauricio Roman

With music we can express what we often have no words to say; early music has a particular and effective way at penetrating deep into human emotions, which is especially relevant at the difficult moments we live through. As we are now in Lententide, which in essence is a memento mori, I thought this would be a good topic for exploration.

For this topic, I found it best to start with lyrics that speak for themselves, and therefore we jump straight to the music: Passacaglia della Vita. This early 17th century madrigal is anonymous, but is sometimes attributed to Stefano Landi (1587-1639).

Listen to “Passacaglia della Vita”

Italian dialectEnglish
Oh come t’inganni

se pensi che gl’anni

non hann’ da finire,

bisogna morire.


È un sogno la vita

che par sì gradita,

è breve gioire,

bisogna morire.


Non val medicina,

non giova la China,

non si può guarire,

bisogna morire.


Non vaglion sberate,

minarie, bravate

che caglia l’ardire,

bisogna morire.


Dottrina che giova,

parola non trova

che plachi l’ardire,

bisogna morire.


Non si trova modo

di scoglier ‘sto nodo,

non val il fuggire,

bisogna morire.


Commun’è statuto,

non vale l’astuto

‘sto colpo schermire,

bisogna morire.


La morte crudele

a tutti è infedele,

ogn’uno svergogna,

morire bisogna.


È pur ò pazzia

o gran frenesia,

par dirsi menzogna,

morire bisogna.


Si more cantando,

si more sonando

la Cetra, o Sampogna,

morire bisogna.


Si muore danzando,

bevendo, mangiando;

con quella carogna

morire bisogna.


I Giovani, i putti

e gl’Huomini tutti

s’hann’a incenerire,

bisogna morire.


I sani, gl’infermi,

i bravi, gl’inermi

tutt’hann’a finire,

bisogna morire.


E quando che meno

ti pensi, nel seno

ti vien a finire,

bisogna morire.


Se tu non vi pensi

hai persi li sensi,

sei morto e puoi dire:

bisogna morire.

O how you deceive yourself

if you think your time

won’t come to an end,

we have to die.


Life is a dream

that seems so pleasing

but is briefly enjoyed,

we have to die.


Of no avail is medicine,

of no use is quinine,

we cannot be cured,

we have to die.


It’s no use ranting

and railing, the bravado

that stiffens courage,

we must die.


No guiding doctrine

finds the words

to allay our fears,

we have to die.


There’s no means

to untie this knot,

there’s no escape,

we must die.


It’s our common fate,

no cunning ploys

can fend it off,

we must die.


Cruel death

betrays us all,

shames each of us,

die we must.


It’s just lunatic

and frenetic

to tell lies about it,

die we must.


We die when singing,

we die when playing

the zither, the bagpipe,

die we must.


We die when dancing,

drinking and eating;

trapped in our bodies,

die we must.


Youngsters and toddlers

and all of humanity

are burnt to ashes,

we have to die.


The healthy, the sick,

the brave, the helpless,

all come to an end,

we have to die.


And when you are least

expecting it, you will

come to your end,

we have to die.


If it’s not on your mind,

you’ve lost your senses,

and are dead, so you can say:

we have to die.

According to Paul Archer, who translated this madrigal, early music “has the feeling of ‘pure music’, stripped back to its bones without the lushness of later sonorities…Similarly the lyrics that inspired this music had to have an immediate impact on listeners, with texts that seek to immediately transport the audience into a state of heightened emotion while evoking the rapture and vicissitudes of life and love.”

The music above was performed by L’Arpeggiata with tenor Marco Beasley. Having begun his career singing traditional Napolitan songs, Beasley is a master of the Recitar Cantando style — the Renaissance art of singing while acting.

Watch the performance at Versailles

In Beasley’s performance, I find that the video itself reinforces the message —  the way the musicians enter and leave the scene underscores the fragility and ephemerality of life. The contrast between fragility and permanence is starker when set against the background of stone architecture and sculptures.

Another performance of this song was the encore to the annual concert organized by the Venetian Center for Baroque Music in 2014 at the Palazzo da Mosto — a 13th century palace, the oldest in the Grand Canal, currently being renovated to become a luxury hotel.

Drawing of first floor windows of Ca’ da Mosto by Carlo Naya (1870)

The da Mosto family has lived in Venice for over 900 years. Francesco da Mosto, architect and documentary producer, lives with his family on an uninhabited island in Venice’s lagoon. With the support of his father Ranieri, the family patriarch who laments the death of the Republic of Venice and the mounting woes for its dwindling residents, the concert took place in a unique setting with chiaroscuro lighting and classical decorations.

Watch the performance in Venice (starts at 1:01:01)

The way the last candle goes out at the end of the presentation reinforced the theme of the Passacaglia della Vita.

This song and the choreography in both performances above are a memento mori  — a medieval and Renaissance concept reminding us, by way of different art forms, of the inevitability of death. It “reminds us from behind”, as shown by John of Kastav in his famous fresco.

This idea of being “reminded from behind” comes from Tertullian. In his Apologetics, he writes: “even in his triumph, as [the emperor] rides in that most exalted chariot, he is reminded that he is a man. It is whispered to him from behind: Look behind thee; remember thou art a man. That he is in such a blaze of glory that the reminder of his mortal state is necessary for him—makes it more delightful to him.”

The above performances of the Passacaglia della vita are a graceful — even delightful — way of reminding us of our own mortality. According to Marco Beasley, “the texts are a simple memento mori, presented with grace, a danse macabre entirely without darkness, inviting us to reflect deeply upon our existence. For in our daily dance of life, at a certain point we must yield to the lure of a pause of reflection, when we stop to ask ourselves if that which we are is that which we would have wished to be. It is in this moment, when we stop to think, that a new vital impulse often arises.”

Just as Lent follows carnival, this song reminds us that “life is a dance to which we are all invited, with neither masks nor costumes” (Beasley), which is why the Venice exposed through the above concert is wholly diverse from the familiar imagery of its carnival, which we depicted in an earlier article.

It does appear paradoxical that the song is called “della vita”, meaning “of life”, when the core theme is a reminder of our own mortality. According to Christian doctrine, death, while inevitable, is not necessarily the end state. The memento mori was then presented, and is still presented today, to motivate us to meditate on the last things in life, as Caravaggio depicted in his St. Jerome in Meditation.

St. Jerome in Meditation (1605) by Caravaggio (Museum of Montserrat)

The purpose of this meditation was to make good use of the available time in order to lead a virtuous life and attain, given God’s grace, the blessed state, depicted by many artists during the Renaissance, as shown in the left panel of The Last Judgment by Hans Memling.

The Last Judgment (c 1466-73) by Hans Memling (National Museum, Gdańsk)

The theme of the above painting reminds us of Michelangelo as well as Dante; we will be reviewing both — in their connection to music — in future articles.

“Passacaglia della Vita” videos:

Listen to “Passacaglia della Vita”
Watch the performance at Versailles
Watch the performance in Venice