Matteo Ricci's Hymns

When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1562-1610) returned to Beijing in January 1601 he hoped that his gifts might bring him closer to an imperial audience. The presents included beautifully ornate clocks, a statue of the Madonna, crucifixes and an instrument that resembled a small harpsichord or clavichord. Some forty years later the instrument in question was discovered in a Ming Court Repository and the Jesuit Joannes Adam von Bell was ordered by the Emperor Chongzhen to repair the instrument and build another one identical to the original.

Accompanying Ricci was the young Spanish priest Diego Pantoja who taught four of the emperor’s eunuchs how to play the instrument. Ricci penned eight hymns, predictably imbued with religious and didactic themes.

An English translation of the second song in the cycle appears in Jonathan Spence's The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Penguin Books, 1984:198-199):

A shepherd boy fell sad one day,
Having the hillside on which he stood;
He thought a distant hill he saw
More beautiful by far,
And that going there would wipe away his sorrows.

So he set off to that distant hill,
But as he drew near to it
It looked less good than it had from afar.

O shepherd boy, shepherd boy,
How can you expect to transform yourself
By changing your dwelling place?

If you move away can you leave yourself behind?
Sorrow and joy sprout in the heart.

If the heart is peaceful, you’ll be happy everywhere,
If the heart is in turmoil, every place brings sorrow.
A grain of dust in your eye
Brings discomfort speedily;
How can you then ignore this sharp awl
That pierces your heart?

If you yearn for things outside your heart
You will never obtain what you are seeking.
Why not put your own heart in order
And find peace on your own hillside?

Old and new writers alike give this advice;
There’s no advantage to roaming outside,
Keep the heart inside, for
That brings the profit.

Spence writes: ‘Ricci of course would never hear the words he had written sung by the court musicians to Pantoja’s music, but he had devised a number of plays on words within the songs themselves that must have given him quiet satisfaction when he imagined the eunuchs—or perhaps the concubines taught by them—chanting his words within the walls of the Forbidden City.’ (p.199)

Eli Marshall's Unde Pendet Aeternitas, a work for solo tenor and orchestra takes it inspiration from the writings of Ricci and the eight hymn in the cycle.

As the young American composer wrote in the programme notes to the work:

This piece juxtaposes the personal words of his letters in Italian (and one moralistic lyric written for a court audience in Chinese) with words freely appropriated from the Roman Catholic Mass. Though I am not a Catholic, it is not my intent that the liturgical text highlights a profound respect for tradition. My decision to omit a large part of the Credo, and to ignore the usual chorus, stems from a desire to avoid creating a liturgical piece and instead to imagine words in Ricci’s own mind (words which certainly he spoke many times and in many places). Ricci himself comes to my defense: ‘thanks to the existence of written culture, even those living ten thousand generations hence will be able to enter into my mind as if we were contemporaries.’

Next year will be the 400th anniversary of Ricci's death. There are quite a few major events planned to mark the occasion.


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